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How Was Africa Divided before Colonization?

Before colonization, Africa was a mosaic of diverse kingdoms, empires, and tribal lands, each with its own distinct cultures, languages, and social structures. Historical boundaries were shaped by natural features, trade routes, and centuries-old alliances or conflicts. Discover the intricate tapestry of pre-colonial Africa and how it set the stage for the continent's future—what untold stories might these ancient borders reveal?

Colonization of Africa remains the most significant factor in how the fate of this large continent has turned out. But was Africa divided before colonization and if so, how? What did the pre-colonial map of Africa look like?

One of the largest continents and the second most populated continent in the world, Africa indeed had divisions and states before Europeans partitioned Africa. Before colonial rule, Africa was made of up to 10,000 different states and groups.

Man holding a globe
Man holding a globe

The present map of the African continent is a direct result of European colonization of Africa which began about 1870. The map of pre-colonial Africa looked different. The pre-colonial native African states were mostly determined by tribal identities. Some of the major African states at the time were: Marutse-Manbunda Land, Great Namaqua, Zulu Land, Somauli Land, Darfoor, Abyssinia, Nubia, Egypt, Tripoli, Tunis, Algeria, Morocco, Barbary, Sene-Gambia, Karta, Bambara, Ashantee, Gando, Yoruba, Benin, Bornoo. The colonization of Africa by France, Portugal, Britain, Belgium, Spain and Italy changed the borders of native African states and has resulted in the present divisions and boundaries in Africa.

As of 2015, there are more than 50 countries in Africa and more than 800 different languages. After Asia, it is the most populous continent in the world with a population of 1.1 billion.

More about Africa:

  • By 2050, it is expected the population of Africa will be 2.3 billion.
  • Liberia was the first African country to gain independence, in 1847. Eritrea was the last African country to gain independence, in 1993.
  • Africa is the poorest continent in the world, despite having the world's largest reserves of precious metals.

Frequently Asked Questions

What were the main political structures in Africa before colonization?

Before colonization, Africa was a continent with diverse political structures. These ranged from large empires like the Mali Empire, which was known for its wealth and trade networks, to city-states such as those found in the Swahili coast, which were centers of commerce and culture. Kingdoms like the Kingdom of Kongo had centralized authority, while in other regions, like among the Igbo people, society was organized in a more decentralized fashion with village assemblies and councils of elders playing significant roles in governance.

How did African societies organize their economies before European colonization?

African economies before colonization were varied and sophisticated. Many societies engaged in subsistence agriculture, but there were also complex trade networks spanning the continent. For instance, the trans-Saharan trade connected West African empires like Ghana and Mali to North Africa and beyond, exchanging gold, salt, and other commodities. Coastal regions traded with merchants from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, dealing in goods such as ivory, spices, and textiles. Additionally, some regions, like Great Zimbabwe, were known for their metalworking and mining.

What role did language and culture play in pre-colonial African societies?

Language and culture were central to identity and social cohesion in pre-colonial African societies. With over a thousand languages spoken across the continent, linguistic diversity was immense. This diversity often corresponded to different ethnic groups, each with its own customs, traditions, and social norms. Oral traditions, including storytelling, poetry, and music, were crucial for preserving history, educating the young, and reinforcing cultural values. Festivals, religious practices, and art were also important expressions of cultural identity.

Were there any forms of written documentation in Africa before colonization?

Yes, there were several forms of written documentation in Africa before colonization. The ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphics, while the Ethiopians had their own script called Ge'ez. In West Africa, the Vai script and Nsibidi were used by the Vai people and the Igbo people respectively. Additionally, Islamic influence brought the Arabic script to parts of the continent, which was used to write African languages in the form of Ajami. The famous Timbuktu manuscripts are an example of the rich scholarly tradition in Africa, with texts on religion, science, and law.

How did pre-colonial African states and empires handle conflict and diplomacy?

Pre-colonial African states and empires had various methods for handling conflict and diplomacy. They engaged in warfare, alliances, and marriage ties to manage disputes and expand territories. Diplomatic relations were often formalized through trade agreements and treaties. For example, the Ashanti Empire used a combination of military strength and strategic marriages to exert influence, while the Ethiopian Empire had a long history of diplomatic relations with European powers. Moreover, conflict resolution often involved negotiation and mediation by respected elders or neutral parties.

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