In the 1300s, Ibn Battuta saw the
- Mali Empire in West Africa,
- Mamluk Empire in the north and
- Kilwa in the east.
He saw them in all their glory. Zimbabwe in the south was also enjoying a golden age.
But in the 1400s, three new empires were on the rise to take their place in Africa:
- Songhay Empire,
- Portuguese Empire,
- Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman Empire would not take over Egypt till the early 1500s.
The Songhay Empire took over two of Mali’s star cities, Timbuktu and Jenne, in the late 1400s. It took over most of Mali’s trade that went north across the Sahara and south to the gold fields.
Portugal, meanwhile, was working on sailing down the coast of Africa so that it could cut out the Arab middlemen and their high prices for the gold of West Africa and the spices of India.
Sailing round Africa is harder than it looks on a map:
- No one knew how big Africa was or what shape it had.
- The trouble was not so much sailing down the coast, but getting back. It meant sailing against the wind.
But Henry the Navigator thought it could be done. By 1434 his men found out how to sail back from Cape Bojador (Western Sahara). It is not that far from Portugal, but if you could get back from there, you could most likely get back from anywhere. After that, it was just a matter of time before they reached India:
- 1430s Cape Bojador,
- 1440s Senegal (using present-day country names),
- 1450s Cape Verde,
- 1460s Sierra Leone,
- 1470s Ghana, Sao Tome & Principe,
- 1480s Congo, Angola, South Africa,
- 1490s East Africa, India.
That would spell the end of Kilwa in the 1500s: Portuguese shipping took over its trade with Asia.
In the longer run, it would also make West Africa into a backwaters too. European sea trade would prove cheaper and faster than the African desert trade across the Sahara.
Portugal had three main bases in Africa:
- Elmina (Ghana),
- Cape Verde,
- Sao Tome & Principe.
Elmina was a fort built to protect the gold trade. The other two were islands, which were easier to defend. Unlike in the 1800s, Europeans did not have a huge military advantage over Africans.
On Cape Verde, the Portuguese began what would become the tropical plantation system. It was based on African slave labour. It featured the sons of European men and African mothers who did the bidding of their fathers.
Enter Columbus: His brother worked for the Portuguese. Columbus himself was at Elmina. He most likely heard the stories about Malians sailing to a land west across the ocean. Something he would later do, arriving in the Americas.
Unlike in Africa, Europeans did have a huge military advantage in the Americas. And, with the land they took, they set up the plantation system. It drove the Transatlantic slave trade to such huge heights it became a body blow to Africa and led to the racism that still remains.
– Abagond, 2015.
- Ibn Battuta
- Songhay Empire
- Portuguese Empire
- Popes of the 1400s
- Transatlantic slave trade
- slaveries compared