HIS212: Precolonial African Politics And  Government

​Precolonial Africa had many different forms of politics and government and such a variety of politics and government was closely related to the level of economic organization and production. Village-style government with a council of elders and/or village chiefs predominated in hunting and gathering and small agricultural societies. Centralized governments with monarchical or oligarchic politics capable of collecting taxes, regulating commerce, and mobilizing armies were common in intensive-agriculture societies with a crafts-manufacturing sector.  Egypt, Nubia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, and Songhay were examples of kingdoms and empires with centralized governments. Some empires and kingdoms were noted for their large towns or small- to medium-size cities. Many of these cities were trade and government centers, but some were renowned for education and culture. For example, the city of Timbuktu in present-day Mali not only sat on major trade routes, it was home to the University of Sankore, which was renowned as one of the high-intellectual centers of the medieval Muslim world. But regardless of level of economic organization and production, much political power in most societies rested in family or kinship groups. In addition, political or social identities had more to do with membership in family or kinship groups or in one’s language group than in being a resident in a given jurisdiction.
Slaves were present in numerous precolonial African societies. (Debates still rage as to whether Africans practiced slavery or some other form of unfree labor. Much depends on how people define slavery.) With the major exception of Pharonic Egypt, slaves never occupied central place in the political, economic, and social life of precolonial African societies. In other words, precolonial societies did not depend on enslaved labor like the United States once depended on enslaved labor. African slavery did not produce goods for the world market. African slaves augmented the labor power of their masters’ kinship or lineage groups. Enslaved women were more important than enslaved men because women were the primary farmers in agricultural societies and because enslaved women’s reproductive labor added new members to their masters’ kinship or lineage groups. In a number of precolonial societies, enslaved parents’ children were born free. Before and during the Atlantic slave trade, the vast majority of Africans became enslaved mainly through warfare as prisoners of war or as conquered people. Some became slaves through not paying their debts, being kidnapped, or committing a crime. But one must remember that Africans were not selling Africans into slavery. Since Africans did not see themselves as Africans before the late nineteenth century, one would be historically accurate to designate African enslavers from African slaves by mentioning their ethnic or linguistic identities. For example, the Ashante enslavers sold enslaved Yorubans to European enslavers for slave labor in the Americas. Amhara enslavers in Ethiopia sold enslaved Nuers to Muslim Africans or to Muslim Arabs for slave labor in northern Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere in Asia and under Turkish rule in southeastern Europe. 

The point herein is that most enslave Africans came from organized, agriculturally advanced societies; they were not from low-technology hunter-gather societies.

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