Medieval African History answers questions

Medieval African History

Mansa Musa
Mansa Musa of Mali

May 2016 - After the 400s AD, the Bantu expansion slowed down. Most of the good farmland in southern Africa had already been settled. What was left was mainly desert or thick jungle or for some other reason no good for farming or herding cattle. So the Bantu left that land to the Khoikhoi and San people who already lived there. But now it was North Africa's turn to see changes. In 429 AD, the Vandals invaded North Africa, and then after a short Roman reconquest the Arabs conquered North Africa in the late 600s AD.

By this time, Africa was becoming more and more involved with Asia through trade. The Islamic faith quickly spread across the Sahara to West Africa, where the kingdom of Ghana was forming. By 900 AD, Ghana was wealthy and powerful thanks to trading slaves and gold across the Sahara desert with the North Africans for salt and silk from China. Ghana fell to Mali in the 1200s AD, and the great Malian king Mansa Musa built the trading city of Timbuktu, with its great university.

ruined stone building with tower
Mosque in a medieval seaport in East Africa
(Masjid al-Qiblatayn, Somalia, 600s AD)

At the same time, the Bantu settled seaports on the eastern coast of Africa and began trading with the Arabs and the Indians there, like the people of Aksum (which was still Christian). East Africans sold ivory, gold, gum arabic, iron, furs and enslaved people. They bought Indian cotton cloth, glass beads, steel for knives and swords, Central Asian paper, Iranian sugar, carpets, and horses, and Chinese porcelain and silk. Bananas, rice, and sugar came to Africa from India and south-east Asia with these traders. This trade brought a lot of cool stuff to Africa, but Africans stopped making their own cloth and iron, now that they could buy better cotton and steel from traders. By 1000 AD, the people of south-east Africa had developed a culture that mixed Bantu and Arab together. People there spoke a language called Swahili that was mainly Bantu but with a lot of Arabic words. Like the Ghanians, many of these Bantu converted to Islam. By 1300, the people of Aksum had also converted to Islam.

South of Mali, in the Congo River Basin of Central Africa, people formed the Kamilambian culture about 400 AD, based on fishing in the Congo River and its tributaries and selling dried fish. People living a little further south still may have been mining and selling copper. By the 800s AD, the Kamilambian chiefdom grew into the Kisalian state. People began to use iron, and they traded with the East African coast. By the 1300s, the Kisalian state changed to the Kabambian state, which seems to have begun using small cross-shaped pieces of copper as money. By 1400 AD, most African people were farmers or herders, with flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. Only in the very center of the continent, and in the remote desert, people were still hunting and gathering.

ruined stone castle
Kilwa (East Africa, ca. 1320 AD)

Many Africans were rich enough to build stone castles and stone walls, and they were using money and fighting to create bigger empires. Many East Africans were Christians, while most of West Africa and the rest of East Africa spoke Arabic and followed Islam. There were universities in Timbuktu (Mali), and in Cairo (Egypt). Like Europeans in the Early Middle Ages, Africans sold mostly raw materials and bought a lot of manufactured goods, but that would probably have changed soon as it did in Europe.

That shift did not happen in Africa, probably because a serious climate change interfered. The beginning of the worldwide Little Ice Age, about 1300 AD, brought severe drought to most of Africa. Empire after empire collapsed. Mapungubwe, in South Africa, collapsed in the 1200s, and so did the Almohads in North Africa. In the 1300s, Aksum fell to Islamic invaders, the Kanem collapsed in Niger, and the Sao collapsed in Chad. Great Zimbabwe, in what is now Mozambique, was abandoned in the 1400s; according to Mutapa tradition, refugees from Zimbabwe started the Mutapa kingdom. By 1468, Mali in turn fell to the Songhai. Just before 1500, the Sultanate of Kilwa in Tanzania collapsed too. Trade networks were badly disrupted, though the Songhai kept on trading slaves and gold across the Sahara for salt.

During this terrible drought, just before 1500 AD, the first Portuguese explorers reached African seaports, first in West Africa and then in East Africa. These first European arrivals were traders like the Arabs.

Learn by doing: how many of these African trade goods can you find in your house?
More African history (after 1500)

Bibliography and further reading about medieval Africa:

West African History
North African History
Egyptian History
History of Meroe and Kush
East African History
Central African History
South African History
Ancient Africa home

Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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