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Mary and Jesus, from Ethiopia (ca. 1500 AD) (Now in the J. Paul Getty Museum)

African people: Mary and Jesus, from Ethiopia (ca. 1500 AD) (Now in the J. Paul Getty Museum)

Equality and power in early Africa

Ancient African society mostly didn’t have the huge differences between rich and poor people that plagued Europe and Asia. North Africa, being part of the Mediterranean community, was an exception. South of the Sahara even kings and queens were not so much richer than their subjects. But even south of the Sahara there were African kings and queens. Even if they weren’t very rich, they did have power over the other people in their area. Traders often got to be very powerful as well.

Head of a woman. Nok culture, Nigeria, ca. 500 BC-200 AD(National Museum, Lagos)

Head of a woman. Nok culture, Nigeria, ca. 500 BC-200 AD(National Museum, Lagos)

African families and women

Family was very important to African people. Many trades were done through networks of cousins and second cousins and even more distant relatives. In famines, too, people counted on distant relatives living in other regions to help them out. Women often had more power in African families than they did in other parts of the world. You can see this for instance in the Epic of Sundiata. The prince’s mother and his rival’s mother, and a woman adviser, are all important positive characters in the story. In East Africa, a series of queens ruled Meroë all through the first century AD.

Schools in Islamic Africa

All over Islamic Africa – North Africa, West Africa, and East Africa – many boys went to school in the mosques. At school, they learned to recite the Quran. Bantu girls, both Muslim and traditional believers, had specialized training before they could get married. The boys had lots of lessons to teach them how to be warriors and responsible men. People in Africa expected both girls and boys to get a lot of formal training. They had more lessons than peasants in Europe or Asia.

Slavery in Africa

Africans had slaves from the earliest times among themselves. These enslaved people mainly acted as personal servants. That was very hard for the enslaved people. But what was much worse was capturing people and selling them into slavery abroad. Even before the 1400s AD, when Europeans started sailing directly to Africa, the slave trade was already capturing thousands of West Africans every year. Traders sold people away from their families and their homes. Most of the captured people were probably Bantu. Other enslaved people came from Ethiopia, Sudan, Mozambique or Kenya.

Some of these people were forced to walk across the Sahara Desert to be slaves in North Africa. Many of them had to work in the salt mines of the Sahara. Traders shipped other people from the east coast of Africa to India and the Persian Gulf, to work in salt mines there. Other enslaved people worked in India, Egypt, West Asia, Cyprus, or the Canary Islands. They picked cotton and cut sugar cane for sugar. Traders probably sold a total of about ten thousand people a year as slaves to the Islamic Empire, India, and Europe in the years before 1500.

Learn by Doing – Memorizing
More about Ancient Africa
More about slavery

Bibliography and further reading about early African people:

Egyptian People
Islamic People
Indian People
Slavery in the United States
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