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Agadez mosque (Songhai, 1515, in Niger)

Agadez mosque (Songhai, 1515, in Niger)

Africa in 1500 AD

Just before 1500 AD, Africa was suffering from a terrible drought probably caused by the Little Ice Age. All over Africa, empires had collapsed, and smaller kingdoms were trying to put themselves back together again.

Medieval African History
The Little Ice Age
All our Africa articles

North and West Africa in the 1500s

Mudbrick walls of Timbuktu, in Mali, West Africa

The walls of Timbuktu, in Mali, West Africa

In the 1500s, Suleiman and his Ottoman Empire took control of most of North Africa, while Morocco remained independent under the Saadis. The Songhai took over Mali. The Fulani expanded out of West Africa into what’s now Nigeria and Niger, pushing against the Bornu Empire.

Suleiman the Magnificent
What was going on in Nigeria?

Central Africa in the 1500s

In Chad and Sudan, the Darfuri, the Dinka, and the Nuer pastured cattle. In Central Africa, the Kongo Empire was still growing, and further south the Mutapa Empire.

History of Chad
What was going on in Sudan?
And in the Kongo?

European trade with Africa

drawing of a town on the banks of a river

Mbanza Kongo, capital of the Kingdom of Kongo

Charles V‘s Portuguese navy took over ocean-based trade from East Africans, Indians, and Safavids. Charles V’s traders, like Safavid traders before them, built forts and trading posts along Africa’s coasts. European traders sold the same things as before: Indian cotton cloth, sugar, salt, steel, glass beads, and paper. In exchange, the Holy Roman Empire wanted mainly gold and slaves.

Who was Charles V?
The African economy

Spain’s slave trade

drawing from above of a small town on the banks of a river

Mombasa in the 1500s

But Charles V’s son Philip II wanted a lot of slaves to work on sugar plantations and as pearl divers in Brazil and the Caribbean.

History of sugar
What’s this about pearls?
Who was Philip II?
What was going on in the Caribbean?

His traders looked for new things to sell in Africa, and they started selling guns, ammunition, and rum. West Africans sold so many people as slaves – about 70,000 to 80,000 a year – that the population went down.

African-American slavery

African rulers used their new guns to capture more and more people to sell as slaves. Leaders who refused the guns got conquered by their neighbors. Seeing so much profit, Queen Elizabeth of England encouraged her navy to force their way into the slave trade in the late 1500s and stopped Philip II’s ships.

Who was Queen Elizabeth?

British slave trade

drawing of a young black woman

Jinga Mbandi, ruler of Angola

In the 1600s, it was mostly British ships that traded with Africa, but they still sold the same stuff. But slowly the British were beginning to make that stuff themselves. Instead of selling steel from India, the British traders sold European steel knives and swords, and instead of selling Indian or West Asian sugar, the British sold sugar from Brazil and the Caribbean.

History of Brazil
History of steel

Dutch South Africa

In 1652, Dutch people (now independent of the Holy Roman Empire) invaded South Africa, seizing land where they could compete with the British. They set up a colony right down at the tip of Africa. That was convenient to stop at if you were sailing from the Netherlands (where Dutch people lived) to India, Vietnam, China, or Indonesia. The Netherlands got very rich from this trade.

The Mughal Indian economy
Ming Dynasty China
History of Vietnam

North Africa wins independence

Slave fort: white buildings along a beach

Slave fort in Ghana

By the 1700s, the Ottoman Empire wasn’t strong enough to hold North Africa anymore, and Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria joined Morocco as independent countries. The first three supported themselves largely through piracy against British and American ships until about 1820. The Ottomans still held Egypt, and reconquered Libya in 1835. In West Africa, though, the slave trade continued.

West Africa begins to recover

By the 1800s, with the rise of wage labor and increased immigration between countries, most countries decided to abolish slavery, and the African slave trade ended. Around the same time, the Little Ice Age also ended, and Africa’s long drought was over. African countries tried to rebuild. The Fulani swept across West Africa and set up an Islamic empire centered in Nigeria.

History of Nigeria
More about Islam

But Britain and France wanted to keep profiting from African labor and African purchases. Britain conquered South Africa from the Dutch in the early 1800s. The Dutch, pushed out, moved north, where they fought repeated wars with the Zulus. Egypt declared independence from the Ottomans under Mohammed Ali about the same time.


red dirt roads and a small group of thatched huts

A village in Ghana

At the end of the 1800s, in what’s known as the scramble for Africa, Britain, France, and Portugal began to conquer Africa, following up on the British takeover of India and expulsion of the French a little earlier. In 1891, the Portuguese took over the Congo. In 1894, the French conquered Dahomey and annexed it to their colonial holdings. The next year, the British took over the neighboring Ashanti kingdom. The French and the British forced Africans to grow cotton for Europeans to weave into cloth. They made Africans produce chocolate so Europeans and Americans could eat chocolate candy.

Victorian Britain
Chocolate and Africa
History of cotton


a modern city with skyscrapers and highways

Lagos, Nigeria today

But the Europeans didn’t hold their territory very long. By the time World War I ended in 1918, none of the colonizing countries were really strong enough to keep control of their colonies anymore. After World War II, the last of the colonies gradually regained their independence. Since the 1950s, despite repeated wars as the new countries try to establish stable borders, with independence and a better climate, African people have been increasing their wealth, eliminating diseases, and building their education and technology.

More about Africa

Bibliography and further reading about African history and colonization:

More about Africa home