The History of West Africa: From Ancient Tribes to the World’s Youngest Countries

Gain an understanding of the major figures, events, and periods of West African History.

Tichitt Culture (1900 BCE - 300 BCE)

Located in present-day Mauritania, Tichitt Civilization featured some of the earliest instances of urbanization in west Africa, dating back to 1900 BCE. They had perfected the art of growing superfood pearl millet in the 1500s BCE, allowing the pastoral peoples to settle down and begin constructing stone homes, forts, and even monuments. As the Sahara expanded, the lakes alongside their villages dried up, forcing them to move south over time. 

Culturally, the Tichitt engaged in cave art. They are credited with helping start the trans-Saharan trade that fueled later empires, and built ornate stone funerary monuments in addition to dwellings 60 to 100 feet in diameter. Earlier settlements seemed to prioritize being alongside lakes, whereas later settlements were placed on tops of hills for defensive purposes.

Nok Culture (500 BCE - 200 CE)

The mysterious Nok civilization gets its name from the artifacts first discovered near the modern Nigerian town of Nok. These artifacts included unique terracotta sculptures of human heads, figures, and animals depicted with elaborate hairstyles and triangular eyes. Analysis of clay artifacts from an 80,000-square kilometer area suggested that they came from a single source, making it likely a central authority controlled the supply of the material.

Evidence suggests the Nok people were one of the only civilizations to go directly from stone tools to iron ones without first using copper or bronze. The fact that the Nok used both stone and iron tools suggests iron was scarce and valuable. Some historians believed they may even have developed these advanced smelting techniques independently from the rest of the world.

Djenne-Djenno (250 BCE - 1100 CE)

Djenne-Djenno was a massive ancient city located on the Niger River Delta in modern Mali. There is evidence it may have been the center of a larger culture, but since the region lacked written language at this time, it is difficult to ascertain definitively. Its fertile location by the Niger River allowed it to be an agricultural mecca but its proximity to the crossroads of the trans-Saharan trade routes and the massive Niger made it a center for trade and prosperity. 

Culturally, the city’s inhabitants engaged in pagan ancestor worship, completed extensive art in the form of pottery and terracotta sculptures, and used advanced smelting methods to produce iron weapons and tools. Their trade goods were found as far as 750 kilometers away, along with glass beads from India, implying they were part of a vast network of exchange. Their sculptures seem to be of ordinary people, complete with signs of debilitating diseases and scars, making it likely they were placed in household shrines for worship.

Ghana Empire (500 CE - 1200 CE)

Among the richest empires of its day was the empire of Ghana, located in modern-day Mauritania and Mali. It used its strategic location on trans-Saharan trade routes and abundant natural resources to become wealthy and powerful. Iron, copper, gold, ivory, and access to both the Niger and Senegal rivers allowed them to become the center of trade in West Africa. In addition, their adequate rainfall and the routine flooding by the 2 major rivers provided an abundance of fertile land for agriculture. 

The Kings of Ghana insisted they keep possession of solid gold nuggets to help control the market. Traders could possess gold if it had been broken down to powder or dust. The arrival of Islam seemed peaceful at first, as many traders converted because they believed it was good for business. However, evidence suggests the monarchy never converted from its pagan beliefs. The combination of an unusually arid few seasons ruining crop yields, civil conflicts, and finally a massive invasion by the Almoravids of North Africa in 1076 sent the empire into a spiral of decline.

Mali Empire (1240 - 1645)

Mali’s combination of trade and resources made its Islamic Kings some of the richest in history. Mali boasted an army of over 100,000 soldiers and 10,000 cavalries, using them to conquer rivals and force them to pay regular tribute to the crown. They were able to supply the gold that would help launch banking in Renaissance Italy and pass on the goods from trans-Saharan trade routes to the African interior via the Niger river for a massive profit. 

The height of the empire was the reign of Mansa Musa I, who remains the richest person ever to have lived, with a personal fortune of over $400 billion. Europeans became so enraptured with this legend that his likeness was placed on maps holding a gold nugget.

Mali would fall into decline by the 15th century as rival trade routes opened up, maritime trade  began to outpace trans-Saharan caravans, and the mighty Songhai Empire rose to become the last of the ‘Big 3’ West African Empires of this time.

The Songhai (1460 - 1591)

The Songhai Empire would take most of what had been Mali’s, including the capital of Timbuktu, and expand even further to cover an area of over 1.4 million square km at its height, making it the largest and most powerful in the history of West Africa. 

The Songhai Empire was founded by Sunni Ali, who reigned for 28 years and won 32 wars straight. He vacillated between being lenient and ruthless, allowing defeated soldiers to choose to join his army, but also massacring certain tribes who proved the most reluctant to give in to his rule. 

Ali’s successor, Askia Mohamad, would see the empire reach its greatest height, both politically and culturally. Controlling most of West Africa and its trade, Timbuktu reached a population of 100,000, nearly a third of which were university students. The most profitable trade for this era was in books, as Askia Mohammed constructed universities, as well as a massive library. Islamic scholars made Timbuktu a center of learning for mathematics, astronomy, and medicine.

The Asante Empire (1701 - 1900)

One of several African kingdoms in the age of the transatlantic slave trade, the Asante, came to power through conquest and selling captives. Leader Osei Tutu took control in the 1670s, uniting the local peoples and establishing a ‘Golden Stool’ as a symbol of his authority. The Asante Empire conquered local tribes, taking them captive before selling them to Europeans in exchange for military goods like firearms. This enabled them to become well-armed and powerful enough to defeat the British in multiple wars starting in 1824. They were not fully defeated until 1895, when the British had the use of the ‘Maxim’ machine gun.

The legacy of African nations like the Asante is complicated due to their complacency in the slave trade. That said, it was Europeans who committed the atrocities of the Middle Passage and race-based hereditary slavery in the new world, making it unclear how much blame can be placed on African nations who practiced a much more ancient form of conflict-based slavery. 

The Scramble for Africa (1881-1914)

Europeans were finally able to conquer Africa at the turn of the 20th century, thanks to 2 major inventions: the machine gun and the steamboat. Up until this point, Europeans held territory only along the coast of Africa, rarely venturing into the interior even as they established huge territorial colonies in other parts of the world. The infamous Berlin conference of 1884-85 saw European nations carve up Africa according to their ambitions, with no regard for African history or the presence of any African representatives. These European-drawn borders would haunt many African nations for years to come.

In West Africa, Samori Ture famously led the Mandinka people in resistance to a takeover from France, who had been given their land at the Berlin conference. After winning initially, Ture was slowly forced back by the French until he signed a peace treaty in 1889. Instead of giving up, Ture built a second empire eastward and prepared to resist the French in a second conflict, but was defeated and captured in 1898.

West Africa under Imperialism (1914 - 1960)

The majority of West Africa was held by the French, with their forces centered in Senegal on the western coast where the Portuguese and British also held territory. The main goals of Europeans in Africa were economic: to export as much cash crop and natural resources as possible and to encourage African markets to begin consuming European manufactured goods. This unbalanced trade system allowed European nations to exploit their colonies for tremendous profit. They followed a policy of forced assimilation and French became the most commonly spoken language in West Africa. 

Infrastructure, such as railroads, was built by Europeans, but rather than linking West African communities together, they were used to link major production centers to a port to expedite trade with Europe. Little was done to invest in education or healthcare, as Europeans instead focused on forcing Africans to participate in the labor market for cash crops and materials.

West African resistance was present throughout the entire period of colonization. Strategies varied between countries, including everything from insurrections to non-violent demonstrations.

Post Colonial West Africa (Post 1960)

Decolonization began in earnest following World War II, leading to the formation of some of the world’s youngest countries, with some unique problems left to address. Ghana gained its independence in 1957 due in part to the tireless work of Kwame Nkrumah, who returned from his studies abroad to lead the movement and became Ghana’s first prime minister and president. France soon followed suit and freed all of its West African colonies by 1960.

Newly independent West African nations faced serious economic and political issues. Neocolonialism emerged, where large foreign multinational corporations retained power over African economies. The leftover political boundaries drawn by Europeans left new countries often divided amongst multiple tribal peoples with distinct languages and cultures, leading to civil conflicts. A lack of educational infrastructure had to be corrected so new generations could start to compete in more profitable industries. Despite these issues, West African nations have made tremendous progress since gaining independence.

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