Africa and the Africans in the Nineteenth Century: A Turbulent History

Africa and the Africans in the Nineteenth Century: A Turbulent History

Africa and the Africans in the Nineteenth Century: A Turbulent History

Africa and the Africans in the Nineteenth Century: A Turbulent History


Most histories seek to understand modern Africa as a troubled outcome of nineteenth century European colonialism, but that is only a small part of the story. In this celebrated book, beautifully translated from the French edition, the history of Africa in the nineteenth century unfolds from the perspective of Africans themselves rather than the European powers.It was above all a time of tremendous internal change on the African continent. Great jihads of Muslim conquest and conversion swept over West Africa. In the interior, warlords competed to control the internal slave trade. In the east, the sultanate of Zanzibar extended its reach via coastal and interior trade routes. In the north, Egypt began to modernize while Algeria was colonized. In the south, a series of forced migrations accelerated, spurred by the progression of white settlement.Through much of the century African societies assimilated and adapted to the changes generated by these diverse forces. In the end, the West's technological advantage prevailed and most of Africa fell under European control and lost its independence. Yet only by taking into account the rich complexity of this tumultuous past can we fully understand modern Africa from the colonial period to independence and the difficulties of today.


The goal of this book is to show how important the nineteenth century was in the history of the African continent as a whole. My priority has been to try to render this history as it was experienced by Africans, rather than as it has been described by Western observers.

Naturally, Western historians tend to focus on European colonial control, but how was that occupation experienced by Africans at the time? When we look at it more closely, we find that, for most Africans, the colonial intrusion, which was to have huge consequences, was not seen as the major issue in most of the continent during this period. Of course, in North Africa, Napoléon Bonaparte landed in Egypt in 1799 and the French in Algiers in 1830, and, in southern Africa, the British were in the Cape in 1795. However, elsewhere, across the vast majority of the continent, the new European presence became crucial only in the last third of the century. Before then, many Africans were not even aware of it. This is the reason why the European conquest enters the picture only toward the end of this book.

At the time, what was felt to be most important were the political and religious processes that were internal to African societies. Most of them were still independent. It is only in hindsight that it becomes apparent that some of these changes were at least partly in reaction to outside economic influences: for example, the gradual end of the slave trades, both across the Atlantic and, half a century later, across the Indian Ocean, was more or less related to the early impact of the British Industrial Revolution.

Nevertheless, the most important issues in the nineteenth century were the ideological and cultural changes that resulted, in many areas, in mass conversions to Islam. Christianity, by contrast, did not become popular until the end of the century. Other crucial factors were the social and political transformations caused by changes in the motivations behind and organization of African slavery and the internal slave trade. The increase in internal slavery was inseparable from world history, but, except in Portuguese areas, it had little to do with colonization, even though its growth was used as a justification for European colonialism at the end of the century.

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