Egypt's Avenue of the Sphinx in Luxor





Notes on Pre-Colonial West Africa

                    ~ The Story Begins ~


“High official approval was frequently given to mixed marriages, as well as to concubinage. White fathers more often than not accepted responsibility for their mulatto children, sometimes to the extent of sending them to Europe to be educated.” – Lucille Mathurin-Mair, “Erotic Expediency: The Early Growth of the Mulatto Group in West Africa,” in Caribbean Journal of African Studies



             An ancient Stone Circle in Sene-Gambia region of West Africa

Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop, in “Pre-Colonial Black Africa” explains that the tribes of West Africa descend from ancient, westward exploring Africans of Upper Kemet (Egypt). Some of the original migrant settlers (nations) were the Serer, Tuculor, Dogon, Peul, and Laobe of the Sene-Gambia Region; the Vai and Kissi of the Guinea Coast; Ashanti of Ghana; Yoruba in Nigeria; Fang of Cameroon; and the Bamun in Gabon.

Building a reed boat in Egypt.


Each can be linked linguistically and culturally with their progenitors of the cradle of Humankind in Central East Africa. The Ethiopian Sea (Atlantic Ocean) did not stop their exploration west. Slaves brought to the Western Hemisphere by Europeans, much later, came primarily, from these same West African nations.


Muslims reached the West coast of Africa sometimes between 600 A.D. and 800 A.D. mostly as traders and barterers, from the northern nations along the Mediterranean Sea, and the Sudan region to the east. The Islamic religion penetrated the African psyche and moved further south along the coastal region of West Africa, including the three major African empires that transpired. Founded by the king of the Soninke people, Ghana, a.k.a. Wagadu, was the earliest known empire west of the Sudan. It gained notoriety in North Africa in late 700 A.D. but probably originated long before that time. It became infamous as the "Land of Gold," and Ghana was known to have engendered sophisticated methods of government with taxation, a large army, and a myriad of well-hidden gold mines. Ancient Ghana remains a historical mystery. The nation never embraced Islam, but it enjoyed relations with Muslim traders who frequented the Empire.

                                                                                      The Ancient Ghana Empire.


Ghana's greatness faded in late 1200 A.D. after a protracted war with the Berber from the north and subsequently falling to the fast expanding Berber kingdom. The empire's legacy is still celebrated through the Republic of Ghana, although modern-day Ghana has no historical connections with the empire.



The Ethiopian Sea.


The Mali Empire was an Islamic Empire primarily made up of the Mandinka, a Mandi people, in West Africa that dated from 1300 A.D. to 1500 A.D. It was founded by King Sundiata Keita. The Mali Empire was made up of three allied states and 12 tributaries including the former Ghana Empire. It gained notoriety through Mansa Kankan (Gonga) Musa I and his generosity, wealth, and for the known wealth of Timbuktu. Sundiata expanded his Empire to include most of the important towns of West Africa on the southern end, to the desert trade routes on the northern end. It was in this period of African History that Kankan Abu Bakari’s fleet of boats left the west coast, crossed the Ethiopian Sea, to trade somewhere along the shores of the (Americas) Gulf Stream.


The Mali Empire, Early 1300 - 1546 A.D.


Mansa Kankan Musa I ruled over the Mali Empire while it was the source of most of the World's gold at that time. With Mansa Musa a donor, Sankore University in Timbuktu  reached its greatness. Craftsmen and Islamic scholars from the Muslim world came to receive a free education at the university. He is most famous for his Hajj in 1324. On his pilgrimage to Mecca, Musa gave away gold. dogonvillagemali.jpgWhen he passed through Cairo, he gave away so much gold that the value of gold in Egypt didn't recover for twelve years. The Mansa was so generous that he ran out of money and had to borrow funds to get he and his people back home. Mansa Musa's Hajj and his gold, caught the attention of Muslims and Christians, consequently, the name of Mali and Timbuktu began to appear on world maps. The Mali Empire existed and controlled its lands until it fell to Songhai protection forces in 1546. 


A Dogon Malian village. Anon


The Songhai Empire was one of the largest empires in African history. It ruled West Africa from the early fifteenth to the late sixteenth centuries. This empire was named for its Niger River in today’s Niger and Burkina Faso. The Songhai lands reached down the Niger to modern day Nigeria, all the way northeast to Mali, and included a small part on the Atlantic coast on the West. During the period of Mali rule, the region grew famous for the great riches gained from trade with the Arab world, and the legendary hajj of Mansa Musa, but by the early fifteenth century, the empire was in decline. Disputes over succession weakened the rulership and many of its subjects broke away and the Songhai people were one of them.


Egypt, Sene-Gambia Region 


The first king of Songhai was Sonni Ali, a Muslim like the Mali kings before him, although he did keep traditional tribal beliefs, also. Ali was a great warrior who, in the 1460s, conquered their neighboring states, including the remains of the Mali Empire. With his control of the trade routes and cities such as Timbuktu, Sonni Ali brought wealth to the Songhai Empire, which surpassed the wealth of the Mali Empire.



The Songhai Empire, 1546 – late 1500's.


Sonni Ali was succeeded by Askia Mohammad from the Mandi people, who ruled during Songhai's golden age. Ali had brought conquests, Mohammad brought political reform and revitalization. He set up a bureaucracy with departments of agriculture, the army, and the treasury, to which he appointed supervisors. As a devout Muslim, Mohammad not only completed a pilgrimage to Mecca like Mansa Musa had, he also opened religious schools, built mosques, and opened his court to scholars and poets from the Muslim world. Upper classes in society converted to Islam while lower classes chose traditional religions.


  Islam was a prominent religion in West Africa after, ca. 1035 A.D.


ole1.gif Safe economic trade flourished throughout the Empire, because of a 200,000 man army spread throughout all the provinces. Gold fields along the Niger River were the basic resource for national economics and the empire traded with the nearby independent gold fields. Salt was so precious in the region that people of West Africa sometimes traded gold for equal amounts of salt. The trans-Saharan trade consisted primarily of gold, salt, and slaves.


Portuguese introduced Christianity into West Africa with Catholicism, ca. 1200 A.D.



Songhai prospered until the late sixteenth century, under the peaceful rule of Askia Daoud from 1549 - 1582.  Following Daoud's death, however, a civil war over succession weakened the Empire, allowing Morocco Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur Saadi to send in an invasion army. Moroccan gunpowder weapons prevailed, despite vastly superior Songhai army numbers, destroying the Songhai as a regional power.


A West African monastery.

ole2.gifFrom around 1200 A.D., Portuguese sailors, mostly heretics fleeing poverty and the Catholic church in Portugal, and pirates, followed ancient Phoenician trade routes to explore southward along the coast of West Africa. They settled on the Guinea Coast and made their main town, Sierra Laoa, or Sierra Leone, "Lion Mountain," because thunder roars like a lion, continuously, in the nearby sierras. Noting the untapped wealth in Africa, these explorers and some pirates, became middlemen of trade


Elmina Prison, off the coast of the Sene-Gambia,West Africa.


with Europe. Called lancado (lan-SOD-o), they felt Africa was no place for a white woman so they married African women, and fathered mulatto children. West African tribal laws for the European immigrants were stringent when they pertained to Black women. Single white men were not allowed to flirt with maidens, or "look upon," nor converse with, a married woman. If married, he wasn't allowed to "be with" another woman. Penalty for these crimes was execution. Rules prevented the lancado, who became quite wealthy, from returning to Europe and leaving their families wanting. The children were often sent to European schools for an education that put them at odds with their culture and countrymen. It taught them to hate their Black mother (culturally and spiritually) and love the “uniqueness” of their white father's lifestyle. Mulatto children were taught that they were smarter and better than other Africans because they had "white blood in them."


Portuguese Flag, 1248 A.D.


Bibiana Vaz and Donna Catalina are two examples of many women who represent the power some of these Black women gained. In their bustle dress finery, these ladies commanded their large ship fleets, and army of employees, aided by Africans from the interior, to defeat the Portuguese and English in battle when they attempted to overtake West African markets. Yet and still, the mixing of the Africans with Europeans continued in West Africa.


King George of England Flag


The Portuguese merchants were well entrenched, living with the Natives, by 1640, when the British began settling in West Africa. When the lancados amassed enough wealth to demand respect back home in Europe, they absconded home with permission for a divorce from the African council on the grounds that his wife had been unfaithful. The deserted Black women and their mulatto children took over the inherited trade companies and continued to live life luxuriously as elitist.


Flag of France


By the time the British invaded West Africa, the elite class was made up of Africans who had either embraced Islam, introduced into the Sene-Gambia region, ca. 1035 A.D., or Catholicism from the Portuguese, ca. 1200 A.D. These outside influences changed coastal cities’ cultures drastically from Africans living in the hinterlands, who kept ancient beliefs in their lifestyle. Religious and Human considerations were major differences in the three conflicting cultural factors, along with language and monetary ideals. Africans from the interior saw these coastal Africans as allies of invaders, and warred against them.


Lucille Mathurin-Mair, in her Caribbean Journal of African Studies article, "Erotic Expediency: The Early Growth of the Mulatto Group In West Africa,” she details:

“From as early as the fifteenth century, miscegenation was already a limited but significant part of West African social experience. The first Portuguese traders/explorers mated with African women, both free and slave, and produced mulatto families. This occurred in Upper Guinea along the coastal areas between Senegal and Gambia, on the Cape Verde Islands, and the Gold Coast. As Portuguese and mulatto traders proceeded to penetrate the interior of Upper Guinea, following the river-rain courses, they often settle inland and bred more mixed groups. Portugal’s adventures in the Congo in the sixteenth century left a similar trail of half-caste children as did her commercial activities in Angola.”

“By the mid-seventeenth century, Portuguese monopoly of West African business had been breached: France was installed in Senegal and Britain in Gambia. Their factors continued the Portuguese pattern of relationships with African women.”

“High official approval was frequently given to mixed marriages, as well as to concubinage.”


It seems to me that as European explorers and traders began to infiltrate African hinterlands, the fall and defeat of the Mali Empire began and the Songhai came into power. Although Islam had reigned for hundreds of years, Christianity and the siring of mulattos amongst the indigenous Peoples, for their own selfish purposes, established Christian power bases. You, too, will find that poor relationships between Black African societal classes did not begin in the Western Hemisphere because of enslavement, but were already in place before their arrivals in the West.


On the coast of West Africa, there were names for the various African factions living together. A "grumete" (groo-MEET) was an African originally from the hinterlands living among the Europeans, like a European, with a disregard for their own culture. They were merchants, servants, lawmen, dockworkers, and prison guards. A Black, professional slave catcher was called a "gambisa" (gam-BEE-sah). These warriors became engrossed in a life of ease and spent most of their time drinking rum at the grog houses. They traded with or raided villages to furnish Black flesh to feed Europe’s and Britain’s slave societies. They chose captives for their capabilities, such as physicians, artisans, architects, or farmers, to build a new land. The Black slavers simply wanted payment in rum for selling, maintaining their life of drunkenness, and living leisurely. Gambisas were often assisted by a "tango mao" (TON-go MAH-o), white men who dressed like, and took on the lifestyles of the Native warriors. By 1651, the English had taken control of the Gambia region, and even, Mandinka King Buckor Sano, on the Gambia River, was noted for selling slaves and wives to them. In 1772, Mulatto slave trader Penda Lawrence of Gambia was in Charleston, South Carolina making deals for selling his Black captives.


West African shoreline.


"Krio," a creole language of trade, evolved along the west coast of Africa. The pidgin language, composed from "the king's English" and various African tongues, was spoken fluently within the mulatto elite. In the Americas, Krio was used by anyone who came in contact with mulattoes and coastal pure blood West African slaves. It became known assemforest.jpg "gulluh," or "plantation English" (Black English; Ebonics; Jamaican; Quichee, etc.). So, for those who felt that the broad spectrum of slave nationalities prevented them from communicating, it is found to be a fallacy, so revolt and escape was fairly easy for them, especially on terrain that wasn't that much different from their homeland terra. It is told that the Africans thought the white slavers had simply taken them out to sea, and brought them back to an unfamiliar region of their homelands. The eastern and western coastlines of the Atlantic are naturally, that much alike. This was the Briton’s reason for invading the Sene-Gambia region ("the land of monoliths and mounds") for slaves with the knowledge necessary to colonize and build the Carolinas and Georgia.

When Africans from the interior were captured, they were not immediately sent West. Most often, they were confined for about a year in prison guarded by mulatto and grumete Africans working for European and mulatto trading companies. Here developed the first instances of animosity between dark and light skin Africans, caused by the slave trade. And those animosities moved west onto the shores of the Americas.


An untamed American pine forest.


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