Africa, the arrival of Europeans and the transatlantic slave trade

Some aspects of Africa's history

by Marika Sherwood

Why should we learn about the history of Africa?

Because too many people still believe what Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper stated in 1964 that:

‘there is no African history to teach’.

In Europe, we generally find out very little about Africa’s past, apart from possibly transatlantic slavery. This means we grow up with very negative ideas about Africa and of people whose ancestors are African. This means we must begin to understand some general areas of African history to begin to get a better view of the world and people around us. Africa being a vast and diverse continent means that this is a vast subject, so in this short space we will look at a few areas that introduce some key aspects of Africa and its history.

Europeans needed a moral excuse to transport enslaved Africans and then to divide Africa among themselves. So they invented the myth of there being no African history and no African civilisation. This justified their exploitative dealings with the ‘savages’. The absence of African history from our textbooks today continues this myth of inferiority – if people have no history, they have no culture, no civilisation and are therefore inferior to westerners.

Egyptian civilisation

Yet one of the earliest civilisations was developed by Africans, in Egypt. The high level of sophistication is shown by the fact that writing, arithmetic, architecture, medicine, surgery, legal systems and organised government were there 6,000 years ago. The library at Alexandria (ancient Egypt, about 290BC) was the first internationally used storehouse of written knowledge.

Though desert areas seemingly divide the north of Africa from the rest of the continent, trade routes crossed the Sahara desert and there were also routes from east to west. Africans, Arabs and Europeans have traded with each other for thousands of years. People also migrated within Africa, in all directions, looking for more fertile lands, for minerals, for proximity to the trade routes and to rivers, and in search of accessible, drinkable water – or to escape marauders and conquerors.

Africa is about three times the size of Europe. Its people speak well over a thousand languages: for example, there are about 200 languages spoken in Congo and about 500 in Nigeria.

Similarities with Europe

There were great similarities between conditions in Europe and conditions in the regions south of the Sahara. Some Africans in these regions lived in small ethnic groups in villages, where they farmed and practised crafts such as blacksmiths, pottery making and weaving.

They traded their produce both within their village and with other villages where other crafts were practised or different food crops could be grown; the surplus was sold to the long distance traders. Some African people, as in Europe, lived in cities, which often housed people of diverse ethnicities and languages. There they worked as teachers, scribes, government officials, religious leaders/preachers, and traded internationally.


All Africans had their own social and political systems, ceremonies and religions. From the ninth century Islam moved with the traders, and then with scholars, spreading from the north. There were chiefdoms (similar to European ‘dukedoms’ – areas of land controlled by dukes or duchesses), kingdoms and empires. The chiefs practised customary law; kings and emperors, usually with their senior advisors, created nationwide laws, taxation systems, controlled trade and administered justice; some set up official embassies in countries important to them.


Most building was from sun dried mud-bricks: 'their houses are low, little hutts, not quite so bad as many in Yorkshire', according to a naval officer visiting Gambia in about 1730. (John Atkins, A Voyage to Guinea, Brazil & the West Indies, 1735, London: Frank Cass 1970, p.50)

Another interesting comparison was made in 1726 by William Smith. Smith was sent to the west African coast (known then as the ‘Coast of Guinea’) by the Royal Africa Company to carry out a survey of the local people’s settlements. He wrote that, 'In Sickness, they use the utmost Diligence for a Recovery, and make Use of Physicians, who are, many of them, as great Cheats as any in Europe. I must however say, that the Medicaments, Plants, Herbs etc have such Virtues here, they really perform very surprising Cures'.

Smith visited Benin, the capital city of the kingdom of Benin. He found the ‘streets prodigious long and broad, in which continual Markets are kept, either of Kine, Cotton, Elephants-Teeth or European Wares… they are kept very clean. The houses are large and handsome, with clay walls and cover’d with Reed, Straw, or Leaves’.