First steps

Walking tall: from 4 million years ago

Africa is the setting for the long dawn of human history. From about four million years ago ape-like creatures walk upright on two feet in this continent. Intermediate between apes and men, they have been named Australopithecus. Later, some two million years ago, the first creatures to be classed as part of the human species evolve in Africa. They develop a technology based on sharp tools of flint, introducing what has become known as the Stone age.

About a million years ago humans explore northwards out of Africa, beginning the process by which mankind has colonized the planet.

During the later part of the old Stone age (see Divisions of the Stone age), humans in Afica produce some of the earliest and most significant examples of Prehistoric art. Paintings on stone slabs, found in Namibia, date from nearly 30,000 years ago. Rock and cave paintings survive from widely separated areas. They range from those of the San people, in southern Africa, to others dating from about 8000 BC in what is now the Sahara.

The Sahara is also the site of the earliest new Stone age (or neolithic) culture to have been discovered in Africa.

A damp Sahara: 8000 - 3000 BC

The Sahara at this time supports not only elephant, giraffe and rhinoceros but hippopotamus and even fishes. It is a friendly landscape in which neolithic communities progress from hunting and gathering into a partly settled way of life, with the herding of cattle. Their paintings show that dogs have been domesticated and are sometimes used in the hunt - and that hunting methods include the pursuit of hippopotamus from boats made of reeds.

The paintings also suggest that these people wear woven materials as well as animal skins. The remains from their settlements reveal that they are skilful potters.

Around 3000 BC a climatic change gradually turns the Sahara to a desert (over the millennia it seems to have gone through a succession of humid and dry periods). The change brings to an end the first settled culture of Africa. The Sahara becomes the almost impenetrable barrier which throughout recorded history has separated the Mediterranean coast and north Africa from the rest of the continent.

At much the same time north Africa becomes the site of one of the world's first great civilizations, Egypt. There may perhaps be a link, in the migration eastwards of the Sahara people, but archaeology has found no evidence of it.

Africw's first civilizations: from 3000 BC

Egypt's natural links are in a northeasterly direction, following the Fertile crescent up into western Asia. Similarly Ethiopia, the other early civilization of northeast Africa, is most influenced by Arabia, just across the Red Sea. So these two regions, Egypt and Ethiopia, flanked by desert to the west and equatorial jungle to the south, evolve at first in isolation from the rest of Africa.

But the development of maritime trade along the Mediterranean coast, pioneered by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, does increasingly bring Egypt into a specifically north African context.

From the 8th century onwards the dominant power in north Africa is one of Phoenicia's colonies, Carthage. The empire of Carthage involves many other Phoenician settlements along the African coast, but does not penetrate far into the interior. This is occupied by the Berbers, nomadic tribes whose origin is not known but who are believed to have been in the region from at least 2000 BC.

From about 300 BC the north African coast has, in Alexandria, one of the most brilliant cities of the Mediterranean world. But the entire region soon falls under the control of Rome, which destroys Carthage in 146 BC and annexes Egypt in 30 BC.

The people of sub-Saharan Africa: 2000 - 500 BC

Much of the southern part of the African continent is occupied by tribes known as Khoisan, characterized by a language with a unique click in its repertoire of sounds. The main divisions of the Khoisan are the San (often referred to until recent times as Bushmen) and the Khoikhoi (similarly known until recently as Hottentots).

The tropical forests of central Africa are occupied largely by the Pygmies (with an average height of about 4'9', or less than 1.5m). But the Africans who will eventually dominate most of sub-Saharan Africa are tribes from the north speaking Bantu languages.

The Bantu languages probably derive from the region of modern Nigeria and Cameroon. This western area, bordering the Gulf of Guinea, is also the cradle of other early developments in African history.

Iron smelting is known here, as in other sites in a strip below the Sahara, by the middle of the 1st millennium BC. And the fascinating but still mysterious Nok culture, lasting from the 5th century BC to the 2nd century AD, provides magnificent pottery figures which stand at the beginning of a recognizably African sculptural tradition.

Probably during the first millennium BC, tribes speaking Bantu languages begin to move south. They gradually push ahead of them the Khoisan, in a process which will eventually make the Bantu masters of nearly all the southern part of the continent.

Meanwhile, in the regions immediately south of the desert, the first great kingdoms of sub-Saharan Africa become established during the first millennium AD.

5th -15th century AD

Trading kingdoms of West Africa: 5th - 15th century AD

A succession of powerful kingdoms in West Africa, spanning a millennium, are unusual in that their great wealth is based on trade rather than conquest. Admittedly much warfare goes on between them, enabling the ruler of the most powerful state to demand the submission of the others. But this is only the background to the main business of controlling the caravans of merchants and camels.

These routes run north and south through the Sahara. And the most precious of the commodities moving north is African gold.

The first kingdom to establish full control over the southern end of the Saharan trade is Ghana - situated not in the modern republic of that name but in the southwest corner of what is now Mali, in the triangle formed between the Senegal river to the west and the Niger to the east.

Ghana is well placed to control the traffic in gold from Bambuk, in the valley of the Senegal. This is the first of the great fields from which the Africans derive their alluvial gold (meaning gold carried downstream in a river and deposited in silt, from which grains and nuggets can be extracted).

Like subsequent great kingdoms in this region, Ghana is at a crossroads of trade routes. The Saharan caravans link the Mediterranean markets to the north with the supply of African raw materials to the south. Meanwhile along the savannah (or open grasslands) south of the Sahara communication is easy on an east-west axis, bringing to any commercial centre the produce of the whole width of the continent.

While gold is the most valuable African commodity, Slaves run it a close second. They come mainly from the region around Lake Chad, where the Zaghawa tribes make a habit of raiding their neighbours and sending them up the caravan routes to Arab purchasers in the north.

Other African products in demand around the Mediterranean are ivory, ostrich feathers and the cola nut (containing caffeine and already popular 1000 years ago as the basis for a soft drink).

The most important commodity coming south with the caravans is salt, essential in the diet of African agricultural communities. The salt mines of the Sahara (sometimes controlled by Berber tribes from the north, sometimes by Africans from the south) are as valuable as the gold fields of the African rivers (see Salt mines and caravans). Traders from the north also bring dates and a wide range of metal goods - weapons, armour, and copper either in its pure form or as brass (the alloy of copper and zinc).

These various goods, travelling some 1200 miles from one end of the trade route to the other, rarely go in a single caravan for the whole distance. They are unloaded and packed on to new transport, as specialists undertake each very different section of the journey - to the edge of the desert (either from the Mediterranean coast or from the African forest and savannah) and then from oasis to oasis through the Sahara.

In the same way goods are likely to be bought and sold on the route by specialist middlemen, with whom merchants naturally establish their own regular contacts. In this way trading partnerships develop, often made up of members of the same community or even a single family.

Ghana and its successors: 8th - 16th century AD

Ghana remains the dominant kingdom of West Africa for a very long period, from well before the 8th century to the 13th. The prosperity resulting from its activities is evident in the town of Jenne - by800 already a thriving town on the Niger.

In the 13th century the gold field of Bure, on the upper reaches of the Niger, becomes more important than Bambuk. The shift in economic power is followed by a political change when a warrior by the name of Sundiata conquers Ghana and establishes the even more extensive kingdom of Mali - stretching from the Atlantic coast to beyond the Niger.

In the 15th century the western trade route through the Sahara to Morocco declines in importance, and a central one up to Tunis carries more of the desert trade. This change prompts the decline of the Mali kingdom - to be replaced for a while by another power further to the east, that of the Songhay people. Their capital is the city of Gao, built on both banks of the Niger downstream of the great curve in the river.

At the end of the 16th century Gao too loses its dominant position. By then a new foreign power is establishing a presence on African coasts, with a new religion, Christianity. But the Christians are four centuries behind the Muslims in penetrating these regions.

Islam in east Africa: 8th - 11th century AD

Africa is the first region into which Islam is carried by merchants rather than armies. It spreads down the well-established trade routes of the east coast, in which the coastal towns of the Red Sea (the very heart of Islam) play a major part.

There is archaeological evidence from the 8th century of a tiny wooden mosque, with space enough for about ten worshippers, as far south as modern Kenya - on Shanga, one of the islands offshore from Lamu. Shanga's international links at the time are further demonstrated by surviving fragments of Persian pottery and Chinese stoneware.

By the 11th century, when Islam makes its greatest advances in Africa, several settlements down the east coast have stone mosques.

At Kilwa, on the coast of modern Tanzania, a full-scale Muslim dynasty is established at this period. Coins from about 1070 give the name of the local ruler as 'the majestic Sultan Ali bin al-Hasan'. Three centuries later the Muslim traveller Ibn batuta finds Kilwa an extremely prosperous sultanate, busy with trade in gold and slaves. In the 20th century Muslims remain either a majority or a significant minority in most regions of the east African coast. But the early penetration of Islam is even more effective down the caravan routes of west Africa.

Islam in west Africa: 8th - 11th century AD

From the 8th century Islam spreads gradually south in the oases of the Sahara trade routes. By the 10th century many of the merchants at the southern end of the trade routes are Muslims. In the 11th century the rulers begin to be converted.

The first Muslim ruler in the region is the king of Gao, from about the year 1000. The ruling classes of other communities follow suit. The king of Ghana, the most powerful realm, is one of the last to accept Islam - probably in the 1070s.

The effect of Islam on African communities, with their own strong traditional cultures, is a gradual process. In 1352 Ibn batuta visits Mali. He is impressed by the people's regularity in saying their prayers, but he looks with stern disapproval at certain practices which are more evidently African.

He particularly frowns upon performances by masked dancers, and on the tendency of women to walk about in an unseemly shortage of clothing.

The effect of Islam on African communities, with their own strong traditional cultures, is a gradual process. In 1352 Ibn batuta visits Mali, the kingdom which in effect replaces Ghana. He is impressed by the people's regularity in saying their prayers, but he looks with stern disapproval at certain practices which are more evidently African.

He particularly frowns upon performances by masked dancers, and on the tendency of women to walk about in an unseemly shortage of clothing. Nevertheless the influence of Islam on this part of Africa is profound. From the Sudan to the Atlantic, the entire region north of the equatorial forests remains to this day largely Muslim.

Mali is famous throughout the Islamic world at the time of Ibn batuta's visit, because only a generation earlier its ruler has astonished Cairo by his wealth.

In 1324 Mansa Musa, the sultan of Mali, decides to make the pilgrimage to Ibn batuta. His richly attired retinue and his heavily laden animals reflect his financial status - for he effectively controls the African gold trade which now supports the currency not only of Islamic states but of European communes and kingdoms. (The most valuable coins of Roman Catholic Europe have until recently been minted in silver, but Genoa, Florence and Venice reintroduce gold in the late 13th century and northern kingdoms soon follow their example.)

Contemporary accounts say that when Mansa Musa passes through Cairo, on his way to Ibn batuta, his caravan numbers 60,000 people and his camels carry 12 tons of gold. He distributes largesse to religious institutions and to fawning courtiers alike.

Indeed he is so generous with the abundant gold of Mali that the value of the metal in Cairo suffers a temporary slump. But the reputation of Africa and its wealth is securely established.

Forest kingdoms of west Africa: 11th - 15th century AD

The great trade routes to the north, through the kingdoms first of Ghana and then of Mali and Gao, gradually provide a market for the produce of the forest regions of west Africa.

Unlike the open savannah of the northern kingdoms, the conditions of life in the tropical rain forest make it difficult for small communities to coalesce into more powerful states. But one such state emerges among the Yoruba people during the 11th century. It is Ife, famous now for its sculpture (see the sculpture of Ife and Benin). Lying west of the Niger and just within the border of the forest (in present-day Nigeria), Ife has the economic advantage of being close to a gold field.

In the 15th century Ife is eclipsed by a neighbouring kingdom, Benin, lying a little to the southeast and further into the forest. Rule from Benin city is established by a warrior king, Ewuare, over a forest region some seventy-five miles in extent. When the Portuguese arive, in 1486, they are greatly impressed by many elements of Benin. They are struck by the sophistication of life in the royal palace. They admire the efficiency of the administration.

But most of all they marvel, as the world has continued to marvel, at the brass sculptures of Benin - in a realistic tradition deriving from the nearby example of Ife (see the sculpture of Ife and Benin).

Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe: 11th - 15th century AD

The plateau between the rivers Zambezi and Limpopo, in southeast Africa, offers rich opportunities for human settlement. Its grasslands make excellent grazing for cattle. The tusks of dead elephants provide an easy basis for a trade in ivory. A seam of gold, running along the highest ridge, shows signs of having been worked in at least four places before 1000 AD.

The earliest important trading centre is at Mapungubwe, on the bank of the Limpopo. The settlement is established by a cattle-herding people, whose increasing prosperity leads to the emergence of a sophisticated court and ruling elite.

In 1075 the ruler of Mapungubwe separates his own dwelling from those of his people. He moves his court from the plain to the top of a sandstone hill, where he rules from a palace with imposing stone walls.

It is the first example of the zimbabwe of this region - a word in Shona, the local Bantu language, meaning literally 'stone houses'. Zimbabwe become the characteristic dwellings of chieftains, and about 100 hilltop ruins of this kind survive. Easily the most impressive is the group known as Great Zimbabwe, which in the 13th century succeeds Mapungubwe as the dominant Shona power - with a kingdom stretching over the whole region between the Limpopo and the Zambezi.

Great Zimbabwe is not close to the local gold seam, but its power derives from controlling the trade in gold. By this period mine shafts are sunk to a depth of 100 feet. Miners (among them women and children) descend these shafts to bring up the precious metal. As much as a ton of gold is sometimes extracted in a year.

The buildings of Great Zimbabwe are evidence of equally great labour. Massive stone walls enclose a palace complex with a great conical tower, while impressive dry-stone granite masonry is used in a fortress or acropolis at the top of a nearby hill. The buildings date from the 13th and 14th centuries, the peak of Great Zimbabwe's power.

In the 15th century Great Zimbabwe is eclipsed by two other kingdoms, one to the south at Khami (near modern Bulawayo) and one to the north, near Mount Darwin. This latter kingdom is established by a ruler who is known as the Munhumutapa - a title adopted by all his successors.

The Munhumutapa is the potentate of whom word is sent home to Europe by new arrivals on the African coast in the early 16th century. His court is first reached by a Portuguese traveller in about 1511.

16th - 18th century

Outsiders around Africa: 16th century AD

The story of Africa from the 16th century is that of outsiders prying round its coasts in search of plunder or trade.

The north receives the attention of the two most powerful Mediterranean nations. The so-called Barbary coast, stretching from Algeria to modern Libya, is disputed between the Spanish and the Turks - with the Turks prevailing. Around the rest of Africa, from Morocco down to the Cape and then up the east coast, European interest is pioneered by the Portuguese.

Beginnings of Portugal's empire: 15th - 16th century AD

The Portuguese, in their bold Exploration along the coasts of Africa, have an underlying purpose - to sail round the continent to the spice markets of the east. But in the process they develop a trading interest and a lasting presence in Africa itself.

On the west coast their interest is in the Slave trade, resulting in Portuguese settlements in both Guinea and angola. On the east coast they are drawn to Mozambique and the Zambezi river by news of a local ruler, the Munhumutapa, who has fabulous wealth in gold.

In their efforts to reach the Munhumutapa, the Portuguese establish in 1531 two settlements far up the Zambezi - one of them, at Tete, some 260 miles from the sea. The Munhumutapa and his gold mines remain beyond the grasp of the intruders. But in this region of east Africa - as in Guinea and angola in the west - Portuguese involvement becomes sufficiently strong to survive into the 20th century.

Throughout the 16th century the Portuguese have no European rivals on the long sea route round Africa. The situation changes in the early 17th century, when both The dutch and The british create East India companies. The dutch, in particular, damage Portugal's eastern trade.

Dutch and British trade: 17th-18th century AD

The commercial interest of the East India companies is focused on the Spice islands of the East Indies. Africa is merely a large object to be sailed around. But sailing ships need secure ports where they can take on water and fresh meat and vegetables.

The British ships make the island of St Helena, far out in the Atlantic, their main port of call. The East India Company forms a settlement there in 1659; it has remained a British possession, but a place of little consequence, ever since. By contrast the Dutch choice of a similar settlement has had momentous repercussions in history. They select in 1652 a harbour at the southern tip of Africa, nestling beneath Table Mountain at the Cape.

The expansion of the Dutch colony at the Cape is one of the two most significant developments in Africa during the 17th and 18th centuries. The other is a vast increase in the long-established African slave trade. European ships - increasingly from Britain - pick up their human cargo at collection points along the west coast of Africa and transport the slaves, in appalling conditions, across the Atlantic to plantations in the West Indies and continental America.

In both these undertakings the Europeans make contact only with the coastal regions of Africa. The 19th century brings an increasing interest in the interior of this last unexplored continent.

19th century

Commerce and Christianity: AD 1841-1857

In 1857 the most famous explorer of the day addresses an audience of young men in Cambridge's Senate House. He urges upon them an idealistic mission worthy of their attention in Africa. He is about to return there, he tells them, in the hope of opening a path into the continent 'for commerce and Christianity'. He needs young enthusiasts to continue this work. The speaker is David Livingstone, aptly described by a commentator of the time as an 'indefatigable pedestrian'.

Livingstone's first involvement with Africa has been purely as a missionary, sent out to South Africa in 1841 by the London Missionary Society. But he soon becomes interested in other tasks far beyond the responsibilities placed on him by the society.

The challenge which first inspires Livingstone is to establish mission stations ever further north into the unexplored interior of the continent. This in turn brings him experiences which dictate the pattern of his life.

In these remote regions he sees the continent's slave trade at its source, where the victims are captured by fellow Africans for sale to the Arab traders who despatch them to markets on the east coast. Livingstone becomes convinced that this pernicious trade will only be suppressed if routes are established along which European goods can reach the interior of the continent, providing the basis for new and different trading activities.

Along such routes missionaries too will travel, benefiting the Africans' spiritual as well as their material needs - hence 'commerce and Christianity'. But finding such routes requires from Livingstone the skills for which he becomes renowned, those of the explorer.

The great journey which has recently made his name, when he speaks in 1857 in Cambridge, has lasted the best part of three years.

Livingstone's first great journey: AD 1853-1856

In 1853 Livingstone is provided with twenty-seven men by a friendly chieftain at Sesheke on the Zambezi. With them he sets off west, into unknown territory, to find a way to the coast.

Six months later, after appalling difficulties from disease and hostile tribes, the group arrives at Luanda on the Atlantic coast. There are British ships in the harbour, whose captains offer Livingstone a passage home to instant fame. But he insists that he must take his men back to Sesheke.

Returning by a different route takes him even longer, suggesting that there is no easy access to the interior from the west side of the continent. Instead Livingstone now attempts a journey east from Sesheke down the Zambezi, this time accompanied by more than 100 tribesmen.

Within fifty miles their way is blocked by the Victoria Falls. This brings Livingstone the credit of being the first European to discover this marvel of nature, though to him it is merely an irritating obstacle. However in this direction the terrain does prove easier to cross on foot.

Reaching Portuguese Mozambique, Livingstone this time leaves his tribesmen at the coast (he returns two years later to guide them home). He sets sail in 1856 for England. Here he publishes Missionary Travels (1857), a dramatic account of his adventures which makes him famous. But by the end of 1858 he is back to Africa.

Over the next fifteen years his adventures form part of an intense search, mainly conducted by British explorers, to discover the sources of the Nile and the Congo among Africa's central cluster of great lakes.

Burton Speke and the Nile: AD 1857-1876

The quest to discover the source of the Nile becomes an obsession of the mid-19th century. For it is an extraordinary fact that this great river was at the heart of one of the world's First civilizations and yet, 5000 years later, no one knows where its enriching waters arrive from.

It is true that the source of one its two branches, the Blue Nile (which merges with the White Nile at Khartoum), is known with some degree of certainty from the 17th century - for its waters flow from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, a civilized area familiar to many visitors. But the White Nile comes from much further south, in impenetrable equatorial regions.

The first serious attempts to explore far up the waters of the White Nile are made from 1839 on the order of Mohammed ali, ruler of Egypt and recent conqueror of the Sudan. His explorers reach a point slightly upstream of Juba, where rising land and tumbling rapids make it impossible to continue any further on the river itself.

A land approach by another route towards the elusive headwaters is clearly required. Such an expedition is planned in 1856 by the Royal Geographical Society in London. Chosen to lead it are two young men, Richard Burton (already famous for the astonishingly bold pilgrimage which he has made in 1853 to Mecca, disguised as a Muslim) and the relatively inexperienced John Hanning Speke.

Burton and Speke arrive in December 1856 in Zanzibar, where they spend six months planning their journey into the interior of Africa. In June 1857 they are ready to set off from the coast at Bagamoyo. At first they are able to follow the well-trodden routes of Arab merchants which bring them by November to Tabora, the long-established hub of east African trading routes.

Here they are told of three great lakes in the region. To the south is Lake Nyasa (in western terms discovered in the following year by Livingstone, now back in Africa from England). To the west is Lake Tanganyika and to the north Lake Victoria, both about to be discovered by Burton and Speke.

It is a strange concept that Europeans should be described as discovering geographical features on which the local population are well able to provide them with information. Yet the first description of such places by outsiders does have a real significance.

Travellers returning from remote places to the developed world contribute news of them for the first time to a global pool of ever-developing knowledge. The detailed maps which we now take for granted, and which in the 19th century had many uncharted blank spaces, depend entirely on such second-hand 'discoveries' and on subsequent visits by other explorers to fill in the details.

Burton and Speke first explore westwards, towards Lake Tanganyika, which they reach in February 1858 at Ujiji (the site thirteen years later of Stanley's dramatic meeting with Livingstone - see Stanley and Livingstone). When they arrive back in Tabora, Burton is ill. Speke therefore strikes north alone to reach (and name) Lake Victoria.

Speke conceives the hunch, on no firm evidence, that this great stretch of water is probably the source of the White Nile. It could just as well be Lake Tanganyika, and the issue is hotly debated on the return of the explorers to England. The Royal Geographical Society therefore supports another expedition by Speke to try and resolve the matter.

Speke sets off again in 1860 with a new companion, James Grant. (A disgruntled Burton has meanwhile hurried west to inspect and describe the Mormons in their recently established utopia at Salt lake city.)

Speke and Grant reach the southern shore of Lake Victoria in 1861 and begin exploring up its western coast. In July 1862 they discover and name the Ripon Falls, over which water tumbles from the northern extremity of the lake towards the distant Mediterranean. With considerable confidence Speke can now maintain that this great lake is indeed the source of the White Nile. But two more pieces of the jigsaw are required to clinch it.

Baker Stanley and the Nile: AD 1863-1872

While travelling round Lake Victoria, Speke hears news of another large lake to the northwest. He guesses that the water from the Ripon Falls may reach and flow through this other lake, but he is prevented by a local war from following the course of the river towards it.

On their way north Speke and Grant rejoin the Nile at Konokoro, near Juba. Here, in February 1863, they meet the most eccentric pair of characters of all those involved in the Nile exploration. Samuel Baker and his intrepid Hungarian wife, Florence von Sass, have equipped their own expedition and have travelled upstream from Khartoum with ninety-six attendants in three boats.

Speke and Baker, friends already from earlier encounters, treat each other with exemplary generosity. Speke tells Baker of the reported lake and hands over to him the maps which he has made since leaving Lake Victoria. Baker, forced now by the approaching rapids to take to the land, gives Speke and Grant his three boats for their continuing journey downstream.

Baker and his wife now plunge into two years of extreme danger among hostile tribes from whom their only protection is alliances with unscrupulous Arab slave-traders or powerful local potentates, one of whom even tries to claim Florence as payment for services rendered.

Not until March 1865 are Baker and his wife safely back in Konokoro. But in the interim they have reached the stretch of water which Baker names Lake Albert (thus nominally securing the entire upper reaches of the Nile for the British royal family). Baker has explored far enough round the lake to identify the points at which the water from Lake Victoria both arrives and departs.

The only unsolved question is whether the huge Lake Tanganyika might also contribute to the flow. This is finally answered in 1872, when Stanley and Livingstone explore the northern shores. They discover that the only river at that point flows into rather than out of Lake Tanganyika.

Livingstone Stanley and the Congo: AD 1872-1877

When Stanley departs for England in March 1872, he leaves Livingstone at Lake Tanganyika - for the veteran explorer is determined to investigate another river system, west of the lake, which he believes must be linked either to the Nile or to the Congo. In August 1872, receiving supplies and men sent from the coast by Stanley, he sets off south to the marshy area round Lake Bangweulu. Here, exhausted by dystentery, he dies in April 1873.

Stanley, devoted to Livingstone after the four months he has spent with him, is also well aware of the Livingstone legend, contact with which has secured his own fame. He decides to continue on his own account the explorer's final quest (see Stanley and Livingstone).

Stanley raises support in London for a new expedition to explore the Lualaba, the river whose source Livingstone was hoping to find near Lake Bangweulu. In November 1874 he and his party of three Europeans and about 300 Africans (some of them women and children) set off from the east coast at Bagamoyo and head for Lake Victoria.

They have with them a collapsible boat, the Lady Alice, in which Stanley surveys the entire circuit of the shores of Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika before moving on further west to the Lualaba. In 1876 he reaches Nyangwe, the furthest point reached by Livingstone in a journey of exploration along the river.

Beyond this is inhospitable territory, of dense rain forest and savage tribes, unreached even by the Arab traders whose routes have long crisscrossed the continent. Stanley presses on till he can launch the Lady Alice on the Congo itself, a meandering river often four miles broad. Eventually he reaches a vast basin which he names Stanley Pool (now the site of Brazzaville on one bank and Kinshasa on the other). Beyond this the river plunges down a long series of cataracts, named by Stanley the Livingstone Falls.

Many of Stanley's men drown here. For the last part of his transcontinental journey, from Isangila Falls, he strikes out cross-country. He reaches the estuary of the Congo, at Boma, in August 1877.

It has been the most dramatic and arduous of all the great journeys of African exploration of the previous twenty years. When the remnants of the party reach Boma, more than half the Africans recruited three years previously in Zanzibar are dead. So are Stanley's three European companions.

The cost has been high. But with the Congo charted, the pattern of the great rivers rising in central Africa is now finally clear. And Stanley's achievement turns out to be a pivotal event in the 19th-century European involvement in the continent. This last instalment of the mid-century saga of exploration is also the first chapter of the subsequent 'scramble for Africa'.

King Leopold and the Congo: AD 1875-1878

For two years it is known around the world that Stanley, if alive, is somewhere in west central Africa. The last news received from him is in 1875, just after he has sailed the Lady Alice round Lake Victoria. There is therefore much excitement and curiosity concerning his exploits as an explorer. But only one European ruler sees Stanley's adventure as a prelude to imperialism.

This exception is Leopold II, king of Europe's newest country, the small and relatively insignificant Belgium. At a time when the main imperial powers, Britain and France, are extremely reluctant to take on more commitments, Leopold sees the chance of prestige in a new colonial role.

In September 1876 Leopold invites the world's leading African explorers and experts to a lavish conference in Brussels. He invites them to join him in setting up an International African Association, the purpose of which will be 'to open to civilization the only part of our globe to which it has yet to penetrate'. The king emphasizes in his opening remarks that in this he has no selfish designs. 'No, gentlemen, if Belgium is small, she is happy and satisfied with her lot.'

But in a subsequent letter to the Belgian ambassador in London, he is more frank: 'I do not want to miss a good chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake.'

Leopold's interest can be taken as the beginning of the scramble for Africa (a phrase coined in 1884). But as yet there is little of a practical nature that he can do. Stanley, the man who will be best equipped to help Leopold realize his ambitious plan, is in September 1876 only just striking west from Lake Tanganyika to reach the Lualaba and begin his exploration of the Congo.

A year later, in September 1877, news reaches Europe of Stanley's success. Leopold sends agents to intercept the explorer on his journey back to England. They approach him in January 1878, in the railway station at Marseilles, and invite him to accompany them immediately to Brussels.

Stanley declines the invitation. He is determined that Britain shall benefit from the riches (mainly ivory and rubber) which he has observed in the Congo basin. He spends the next few months - on the crest of a hero's welcome - preaching to politicians, businessmen and philanthropists a renewed version of Livingstone's original message. It is Britain's duty and opportunity to take Commerce and christianity into the heart of Africa.

Stanley's clarion call falls on deaf ears. Within six months, in June 1878, he sends a message to Leopold. He is coming to Brussels.

The race for Stanley Pool: AD 1879-1882

Stanley agrees to work for Leopold for five years. His task is to create a viable link between Boma and Stanley Pool. This lake is the all-important strategic site on the Congo, for Stanley has proved that upstream from here the river is navigable for 1000 miles or more.

The immediate and daunting undertaking is to use tons of explosive to blast roads, bypassing the stretches of river where cataracts make navigation impossible. Along these roads, and on the calm stretches of water, the parts of two steamboats, the Royal and the En Avant, will be transported - to be assembled in Stanley Pool and then to trade on the upper river. By August 1879 Stanley is back at Boma, ready to begin this mighty labour.

Progress is predictably slow. A year later Stanley has still covered less than half the distance. And he is as yet unaware that a French rival, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, has stolen a march on him.

Brazza has spent the years 1875-8 exploring the Ogooué river, north of the Congo in Gabon. Hearing on his return of Stanley's discoveries, and eager to claim the Congo for France, Brazza realizes that he knows a relatively quick and secret route to the great river. With considerable difficulty, he wins French support for a bold plan. Brazza proposes to forestall Stanley at his own strategically placed Stanley Pool.

Brazza starts his journey up the Ogooué late in 1879. By September 1880, with his rival still miles downstream, he is in Stanley Pool introducing himself to the local potentate, King Makoko, ruler of the territory along the north bank of the river. Within days Makoko puts his royal seal on a solemn treaty, placing his kingdom under the protection of France and agreeing to have no dealings with any Europeans other than the French.

With this achieved, Brazza makes his way down the lower Congo to the coast. In doing so he meets Stanley, busy with his laborious roadworks. Brazza mentions nothing to Stanley of his triumph, or of the treaty in his pocket.

Stanley discovers the unpleasant truth in the summer of 1881, when he reaches Stanley Pool. A tricolor is flying over a guardpost (on the site of what later becomes Brazzaville) and Stanley finds that he is refused all assistance on the north bank of the river. Even the local markets are closed to him. He has no option but to cross to the south.

Here there is a friendly ruler, Ngaliema. He and Stanley became blood brothers when they met in 1877. After some difficulties Stanley establishes in 1882 a foothold in Ngaliema's kingdom, on a site which he names Léopoldville. Thus the race between the two explorers results in the first unmistakable carve-up of African territory - French congo north of the river, Belgian congo to the south.

Because of Leopold's passionate interest in his venture, it is the Belgian undertaking which makes rapid progress. Stanley, unlike Brazza, is in situ. With his two steamers plying the reaches of the middle Congo, he is busy building trading stations. A serious commercial venture, the first in the interior of Africa, may perhaps be in the making in what soon becomes the Congo free state.

The scale of Leopold's ambition (evident, for example, when he tries in 1882 to persuade General Gordon to take command in the Congo) suddenly alarms the larger European powers. They have shown no interest in any race for African territory. But if there is to be such a race, perhaps they cannot afford not to be part of it.

Before the scramble: AD 1882-1884

In 1882, when Stanley is securely established in Léopoldville, the European involvement in Africa is still limited to a few colonial ventures around the coast. Some, such as Portugal's holdings in Mozambique and Angola, date back to the early voyages of exploration.

The next African colony to be founded, a century and more after the pioneering efforts of the Portuguese, has meanwhile developed into by far the best established of the European settlements. The 17th-century Dutch presence at the Cape of Good Hope has evolved into Britain's Cape colony and two independent Boer republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.

The 19th century brings increasing European involvement in north Africa, where economic interests cause France to annexe Algeria and Tunisia. They also draw a reluctant Britain into close involvement in Egyptian affairs.

Elsewhere there are only a few places, all of them in west Africa, where there is any European involvement other than in coastal trade. Nearly all the European settlements derive originally from depots for the purchase and embarkation of Slaves. But closer involvement in a few of them during the 19th century has a different purpose. In most cases the new aim is to develop markets for legitimate trade in place of Slavery. In a few it is to mitigate the evil of Slavery by providing havens for freed Slaves.

Past and present patterns of trade lie behind the French involvement in the Ivory coast (originally a source of ivory and Slaves) and in Senegal (valuable gums and Slaves). The same gradual development explains the British presence in Ghana (gold and Slaves) and Nigeria (mainly Slaves).

But the purpose of the British fort built on the Gambia in 1816 is to control the slave trade. Similarly a British trading group, the Sierra leone Company, founds Freetown as early as 1791 to settle freed Slaves. And France has the identical purpose in establishing Libreville on the Gabon in 1848.

Two much smaller colonies, Portuguese guinea and Spain's Equatorial guinea, complete this group of about a dozen territories. Together they are the only regions where any degree of formal European control is established before 1882.

Over the next twenty years this situation will change dramatically, until only a few African states remain out of European clutches. The catalyst for this sudden development is the German chancellor, who has been adamant that Germany is uninterested in African colonies. In 1884 Bismarck changes his mind.

The scramble begins: AD 1884-1886

In March 1884 Bismarck sends a secret cable to Gustav Nachtigal, a distinguished German explorer of the Sahara. It appoints him Imperial Consul-General for the west coast of Africa and instructs him to annexe for the empire three regions in which settlements of German merchants are engaged in trade. One is Togo. The next is Cameroon. And the third, much further down the coast, is Angra Pequena.

At Angra Pequena there is only a single German merchant, Heinrich Vogelsang, who has been trading there for less than a year after winning permission to do so in 1883 from the local Khoikhoi chief.

In 1883 Bismarck is so uninterested in a colonial presence in southwest Africa that he requests the British to confirm that this German outpost at Angra Pequena may rely on the protection of the Cape Colony. Yet in 1884 he sends his secret cable ordering the annexation of the region.

What changes his mind? The failure of the British government to send any reply to his query about Angra Pequena can only have been an irritation. A more likely influence is a growing enthusiasm among the German public for the idea of empire. Newspaper reports of the exploits of Stanley and brazza prompt the fear that a great and profitable adventure is under way from which Germany, unless she hurries, may be excluded.

A word is coined in the spring of 1884 for this new mood among the German electorate - Torschlusspanic, 'door-closing panic', the fear of being on the outside while the door to a treasure trove is shut. From the German chancellor's point of view, there is the added appeal that involvement in Africa will help him play off against each other his two European rivals, France and Britain.

Whatever his precise motives, in the summer of 1884 Bismarck gives his own shove to the closing door. Nachtigall arrives in Cameroon and Togo with the necessary flags and proclamations in the name of the German emperor. The captain of a passing German ship does the honours in Angra Pequena (henceforth to be German South West Africa).

Even at this stage Bismarck's predatory act barely ruffles feathers in London, since the territories which he has acquired (particularly Angra Pequena) seem of little value. The British prime minister, William Gladstone, remarks condescendingly that he looks 'with satisfaction, sympathy and joy upon the extension of Germany in these desert places of the earth'.

But Bismarck has no intention of letting matters rest. Playing to the hilt his new imperial role, he invites the powers to a West Africa Conference in Berlin in November 1884.

In his opening address Bismarck emphasizes the philanthropic concept of colonialism, evoking the original ideal of Livingstone - now extended from two to three Cs, 'commerce, Christianity and civilization'.

In practice much of the diplomacy in Berlin centres on the problem of the great private empire which Leopold ii of Belgium is trying to create in the heart of the continent. Each of the powers is terrified that this plum might fall into the lap of one of the others if it slips from Leopold's grasp. The resulting consensus, much to Leopold's relief, is acceptance of the Congo free state (amounting to about a million square miles) as an internationally recognized kingdom under his sovereignty.

Other decisions of the conference (guarantees of free trade in the Congo, and of free navigation on the Niger and Congo rivers) are the result of the powers jockeying to ensure that nobody wins a conclusive advantage in the coming race. But the significant underlying assumption is that Africa is about to be consumed in its entirety by Europe.

In 1886 a British colonial administrator, Harry Johnston, submits a roughly sketched map to the foreign office suggesting how the continent should be divided. Every single corner of the map is allocated to Britain, France, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Spain or Belgium. (Johnston also reveals, all too vividly, the colonial concept of how the European example is expected to improve the natives.)

20th century

The scramble completed: AD 1886-1912

By the end of the century, a mere fifteen years after the Berlin West Africa Conference, the continent is almost entirely shared out between the European powers. All that remains are a few territories bordering the Sahara. By 1912 they too are absorbed - four (Mauritania, the Central African Republic, Chad and Morocco) by France, and Libya by Italy. During this extraordinarily rapid process of Colonization, Africa has been penetrated and appropriated in three distinct geographical developments.

The earliest move after the Berlin conference is again a German initiative. It centres on east Africa, where large territories between the coast and Lake Tanganyika are rather loosely claimed by the Arab sultan of Zanzibar.

During 1884 (the year in which Bismarck claims his Three west african colonies), this part of east Africa is visited by a keenly imperialist young explorer, Karl Peters - who shortly before his African trip has founded in Berlin a Society for German Colonization. Avoiding the attention of the sultan's agents, Peters persuades local chiefs to enter into vague treaties with imperial Germany.

Bismarck hears of this achievement just after the end of the Berlin conference. In his new imperialist mood, he grants a charter to Peters to establish a German protectorate in east Africa. The other European powers are astonished to discover, early in 1885, that Bismarck is already claiming a fourth slice of the continent.

As it turns out, this particular issue is resolved amicably between Germany and Britain - though with scant regard for the sultan's supposed claims. It is agreed in 1886 that the two nations' spheres of interest will be divided by a line from the coast to Lake Victoria. The German area, to the south, becomes in 1891 German East Africa (subsequently Tanganyika). It is extended further west in 1899 to include Rwanda and burundi.

Meanwhile, north of the line, Britain establishes in 1895 the East Africa Protectorate (subsequently Kenya) and in 1896 Uganda. In 1890 the British also impose a protectorate on the sultan's rich trading island of Zanzibar.

The second of the three separate developments is the British pressure northwards up the continent from Cape Colony. Cecil Rhodes harbours the imperial fantasy of a continuous British corridor from the Cape of Good Hope to Egypt, and he makes an impressive start from the southern end - establishing Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1890 and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) in 1900.

The Boer war (1899-1902) brings into British hands the intervening republics of the Orange Free State and Transvaal.

The third great colonial movement through the continent is that of the French in northwest Africa. France becomes the only European power to achieve a vast contiguous African empire, stretching all the way from the Mediterranean down to the Bight of Benin and the estuary of the Congo.

Ten French sub-Saharan colonies are added to the earlier Ivory Coast and Senegal. They range from Gabon in 1886 to Chad and the Central African Republic in 1910. Eight of these are grouped administratively as French west africa and four as French equatorial africa.

German Africa: AD 1884-1919

The German empire in Africa, more rapidly assembled than any other, is the first to be dismantled. It is also marred by two of the worst atrocities carried out by any of the colonial powers.

From Bismarck's initial interest in the continent, in 1884, only a few years elapse before German control is established in four widely separated regions of the continent - in Togo, Cameroon and Namibia down the west coast, and in present-day Tanzania in east Africa. Namibia and Tanzania are the sites of the atrocities, at the hands of Von trotha in 1904 and of Von götzen in 1905.

World War I is the reason for the sudden end of the German empire in Africa. From the outbreak of the war, in 1914, all the German territories are under threat from troops in neighbouring French and British colonies. By early in 1916 the whole of German Africa is in allied hands.

At the treaty of Versailles, in 1919, Germany gives up all her imperial claims. The League of Nations subsequently hands responsibility to France (part of Togo, part of Cameroon), to Britain (the other part of these and Tanzania), to Belgium (Ruanda-urundi) and to South Africa (Namibia). With these dispensations the European presence in Africa is finalized for the last years of colonialism and the subsequent struggle for independence.

The struggle for independence: to AD 1980

The colonial domination of Africa by Europe lasts less than a century. In the early part of this period there are frequent uprisings against the intruders in regions of the interior, where colonial rule is not yet fully established or where forced labour is imposed on tribes which find the strength to resist.

The harsh reality of the forced labour employed in many European enterprises (in effect slavery under another name) causes outrage among liberal circles when detailed accounts are published in Europe. The scandals arising from Belgian and French practices in the Congo and Chad are notorious but not isolated examples.

In most regions African resentment of the colonial presence first develops into political agitation in the period between the world wars. These are the formative years of the politicians who will eventually lead their countries into independence in the decades after World War II.

The colonial powers vary in their readiness to relinquish control. France seems at first the most willing, giving real power to African politicians in an across-the-board Gesture in 1946, but subsequently the French strongly resist change in Tunisia, Morocco and above all Algeria. Portugal, the pioneer of colonialism in Africa, fights hardest to retain a foothold in the continent - sustaining brutal and costly wars on several fronts until 1975.

Britain follows a middle path, ostensibly appreciative of African aspirations but instinctively seeking compromises which will preserve something of the status quo. Nevertheless the pressure for change in the more developed British colonies proves irresistible. Ghana becomes, in 1957, the first colony in sub-Saharan Africa to win independence under African rule.

The European settlers in one British colony strongly resist the continent-wide trend towards majority rule. The British government finds itself in direct conflict with British settlers after Ian Smith proclaims, in 1965, an independent Rhodesia under white minority rule.

It takes fourteen years before the rebellion in Rhodesia finally collapses, in 1979. Elections follow in 1980 and the colony is transformed into Zimbabwe - the last African nation to become independent (three years after tiny Djibouti), though South africa is the last to achieve majority rule (in 1994).

The African continent thus returns to independence as a group of modern nations, defined by boundaries agreed between the colonial powers. In many cases these boundaries slice through tribal territories, creating difficulties between neighbouring regimes. In another way, too, influences from outside Africa profoundly affect the newly independent nations, for their freedom coincides with the Cold War.

Cold War and after: AD 1945-2000

The emerging African nations both benefit from and are harmed by the global competition between the USA and the USSR in the decades after World War II. The chess game of the Cold War makes each superpower eager to acquire client states.

The advantage of this to new and impoverished African nations is that subsidies are easily available in return for unquestioning allegiance and internal suppression of the opposing ideology, whether it be communism or capitalism. The disadvantage is that many unscrupulous dictators in the continent are kept in power by this patronage, enjoying an unchallenged licence to line the pockets of their family and entourage.

This broad generalization overlooks many and varied exceptions. Several responsible African rulers manage to pursue very effectively their own chosen course while supping quite closely with one devil or the other - Nasser for example in Egypt, or Nyerere in Tanzania.

Equally, several brutal tyrants thrive for a while without the benefit of Cold War aid. Bokassa does so in the Central African Republic (with perverse encouragement from France), while Amin survives for eight years in Uganda without outside support.

The end of the Cold War, in 1989, has a profound effect in Africa. The western nations, no longer needing to support client dictators in the fight against communism, divert their attention to another shibboleth of the free world - the introduction of democracy.

From the early 1990s aid to Africa increasingly comes with a proviso - the legitimization of political parties and the holding of free elections. Almost everywhere in the continent these terms are ostensibly complied with. In many of the resulting elections opposition parties back out at the last moment, observers report widespread fraud, and presidents and their parties are returned with extraordinarily high percentages of the vote. Even so, the overall trend is towards greater legitimacy.

But in terms of human misery the last two decades of the century are bleak ones for Africa. Famine prevails in many parts (the Ethiopian disaster of 1984 being the best known only because it is the first to be widely reported). Brutal civil wars result in massacre and mutilation and millions of refugees (in the 1990s Angola is just one example among many). In 1994 the small republic of Rwanda is the scene of perhaps the most violent spasm of genocide in human history. And among all this, AIDS devastates Africa as nowhere else in the world.

The continent enters the third millennium free but tormented.
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