Africa 1789 CE

The Atlantic Slave Trade is at its height, and having a destructive impact on wide areas of the African interior.

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Most of Africa is home to bands of hunter-gatherers, but in the Nile valley, the civilization of Egypt is beginning to emerge.

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In the Nile Valley, Ancient Egypt, one of the great civilizations of the ancient world, is now flourishing.

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The civilization of Ancient Egypt, in the Nile Valley, is reaching new heights.

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The civilization of Ancient Egypt, in the Nile Valley, is now in decline; farming is spreading in western and central Africa.

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Bantu farmers from West Africa are beginning to spread out across the continent.

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Trade routes across the Sahara desert are being pioneered, while, to the south, Bantu farmers continue their swift expansion across the continent.

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North Africa is now part of the Roman empire, while in central Africa the Bantu expansion continues.

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All of North Africa is now part of the Roman empire, while to the south the Bantu migration continues.

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A powerful new kingdom is arising in Ethiopia, while in West Africa trade routes across the Sahara are developing.

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Wealthy kingdoms are emerging in West Africa.

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In North Africa, the Islamic religion has taken root, and a Shiite movement, called the Fatimids, now rules most of that region from Egypt. The Christian civilization of the Nubian kingdoms in the Nile Valley continues ...

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The expansion of trade in West Africa is leading to the rise of new kingdoms.

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New kingdoms are emerging in different parts of Africa.

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Large numbers of Africans are being taken to the Americas as slaves.

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The Zulu conquests are causing turmoil over a large part of south and central Africa.

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European explorers have visited the interior of Africa.

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The European powers have divided almost the whole of Africa up between them.

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The European nations are starting to withdraw from the empires in Africa.

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All European powers have withdrawn from their empires in Africa.

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What is happening in Africa in 1789CE

About 45,000 Africans are being forcibly taken to the Americas each year, in the holds of European and American ships. Modern scholars estimate that this trade is checking population growth, although not actually diminishing it. Slaving states, whose economy is based in servicing this trade, have arisen in West and Central Africa. Whereas the majority of slaves are being taken from West Africa, the impact of the slave trade is probably greater in Central Africa. This is because the population is much smaller here, and therefore more vulnerable to slaving activity; and also because the population suffers from predation from both the Atlantic coast, where Europeans slavers hold sway, and the Indian Ocean coast, where the slave trade is under Arab control. The impact of the slave trade spreads over a much wider area than that from which slaves are actually taken. Populations fleeing the slavers fan out across central and southern Africa, overwhelming older societies and causing new, more militarized states to emerge.

Dutch and French (known as Boer) farmers have settled in South Africa. These are under the rule of the Dutch East India Company.

In West Africa, a herding people called the Fulani, who adhere to a strict form of Islam, have spread out across a wide area and are beginning to launch Jihads against neighbouring states aimed at establishing pure Islamic states in the region. In East Africa also, another herding people, the Masai, have expanded over a large area.

Next map, Africa 1837


What is happening in Africa in 3500BCE

The area now covered by the Sahara desert was cooler and wetter than it is now, although at this date it is getting dryer. Farming peoples are slowly spreading along the north African coast, and down the fertile strip of land along the river Nile is already home to a dense population of farmers. In this area, some powerful chiefdoms are now emerging which will, over the next few centuries, come under one ruler to form the kingdom of Egypt.

Further south, in Nubia, in modern-day Sudan, wide grasslands give rise to cattle-herding cultures. Throughout the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, small groups of hunter-gatherers, mostly related to modern day San bushmen and Pygmy peoples, live in small, temporary encampments as they follow their prey and forage for nuts, berries and other nutritious plants. Beside rivers and lakes, settlements of fishermen are situated.

Next map, Africa 2500 BCE

What is happening in Africa in 2500BCE

Northern Africa has continued to get dryer, and the Sahara desert has reached roughly its present size. Farming communities now fringe its northern flank, and in the valley of the Nile, a great civilization has emerged, that of Ancient Egypt. To its south farming has also spread to Nubia, reaching the southern limits for agriculture based on wheat and barley.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the cattle-herding populations are now ranged over a vast swathe of territory, stretching from modern-day Sudan into West Africa. On the rest of the continent live hunter-gatherer peoples and fishermen, mostly related to today’s Pygmies or San Bushmen.

Next map, Africa 1500 BCE

What is happening in Africa in 1500BCE

In the valley of the Nile, Egypt’s New Kingdom is one of the leading powers in the Middle EastNubia is under Egyptian rule at this time. To the south, in a vast area stretching from the present-day Sudan into West Africa and down into East Africa, semi-nomadic populations of cattle herders occupy the land.

Probably by this date, a crucial breakthrough has been made. Somewhere within this huge territory the domestication of sorghum and millet has occurred. These cereals, much more difficult to domesticate than the wheat and barley which originated in western Asia, are suitable for tropical farming and will become the staple crops in the region. For now, however, populations of hunter-gatherers live throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa.

Next map, Africa 1000 BCE

What is happening in Africa in 1000BCE

In the north east, the kingdom of Egypt, after the glories of its “New Kingdom” phase, is now in decline. Its ancient civilization will retain its power for many centuries, however. The rising Greek civilization will come under its spell, its art and architecture heavily influenced by Egyptian models.

Nubia remains firmly within Egypt’s cultural and political orbit. In the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, cattle-herding and farming are gradually spreading throughout western and central Africa, having probably reached the Great Lakes region by now. Also, around this date, some peoples in West Africa, living on the fringes of the rain forests, are making the difficult transition to tropical forest farming. This agriculture is based on a quite different set of crops to savannah agriculture, with cultivated fruits and roots such as plantains and yams as the staples.

Throughout the greater part of central and southern Africa, people remain hunter-gatherers and fishermen.

Next map, Africa 500 BCE

What is happening in Africa in 500BCE

In North Africa, the Phoenician colony of Carthage has become the centre of a powerful maritime empire which dominates the western Mediterranean.

In the Nile Valley, the foreign power of Persia now rules Egypt. To its south, however, the civilization of Nubia continues to develop independently, becoming less “Egyptian” in its expression, and more “African”.

In sub-Saharan Africa, farming has taken root amongst the Bantu peoples of the West African rain forest region. This transition has given them the edge over their hunter-gatherer neighbours, and, starting from present-day Nigeria and Cameroon, they are expanding outwards. One branch is moving into the northern Congo region, while another is skirting the rain forests and heading towards the Great Lakes. These are stone-using peoples; but to the north, in present-day central Nigeria, an iron-using society, known to modern scholars as the Nok culture, has appeared. Already their art is highly developed, showing clear affinities with the later artistic traditions in the region.

Next map, Africa 200 BCE

What is happening in Africa in 200BCE

In the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests, a line of Greek-speaking kings, the Ptolemies, now rule Egypt. To its south, the civilization of Nubia continues to develop in its own distinctive way.

In North Africa, the great city of Carthage has been defeated in two great wars with the Romans, but remains a thriving commercial centre. Indeed, its commercial position is being boosted by the new trade routes across the western Sahara desert being pioneered by local Berber tribes.

By this date Bantu tribes occupy a huge stretch of territory, from the west African and Congo rain forests and the grasslands to their north, right across to the Great Lakes region. The Bantu have mastered both savannah and forest agriculture, and keep sheep, goats and possibly cattle. This mix of food producing capabilities gives them a distinct advantage over the other peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, and the spreading use of iron gives them a further superiority. Their population is beginning to grow rapidly, and continues to push further south.

Next map, Africa 30 BCE

What is happening in Africa in 30BCE

In sub-Saharan Africa, the southward migration of the Bantu peoples has by now reached full momentum. This expansion seems to have followed two lines of movement, one to the west, through the Congo forests and down into the grasslands of Namibia, the other through East Africa and now approaching southern Africa. The hunter-gatherers they encounter are either eliminated or pushed into the denser forests or the more arid areas. The speed of the Bantu movement is startling. In the forefront there are probably mobile bands of colonists seeking out the best land, farming it for a few years, and then move on to fresh land.

Meanwhile, the North Africa has passed under Roman control, either as provinces of the empire, as in the case of Egypt, and the former territory of Carthage; or as client tribes, like the Mauritanians to the west. Nubia, however, retains its independence.

Next map, Africa 200 CE

What is happening in Africa in 200CE

All of North Africa is now firmly under Roman rule. This territory includes some of the most flourishing and Romanized provinces within the Roman empire. In fact, the emperor at this time is Septimius Severus, whose family originated in North Africa. Egypt, meanwhile, has become the breadbasket on which the capital city of Rome depends for its grain.

A major new state has recently appeared in Ethiopia. This is the kingdom of Axum. The rulers of this kingdom trace their origins back to migrants from southern Arabia, and links between Axum and Arabia remain strong. The Ethiopian script is derived from an Arabian one.

Berber tribes are pioneering long-distance trade routes across the Sahara, aided by the use of camels, introduced into this region around this time. The traders are in search of salt, ivory, gold, exotic animals for the Roman circus, and slaves.

In the southern regions of sub-Saharan Africa, the Bantu iron age migration continues, confining the San hunter-gatherer peoples ever further south.

Next map, Africa 500 CE

What is happening in Africa in 500CE

The Roman provinces of North Africa have shared in the troubles of the declining Roman empire. By this date the western portions of North Africa have fallen away from the empire, and are being occupied by Berber nomads from beyond the old imperial frontiers, as well as by a German tribe which has crossed over from Europe, the Vandals.

Egypt remains an important part of the Eastern Roman Empire. To its south, the centuries-old kingdom of Nubia has been shattered by a strong invasion from the Axumite kingdom of Ethiopia; it has fragmented into three smaller kingdoms. Meanwhile, Axum has become a powerful Christian state, converted by monks from the Byzantine empire. Axum, and its port Adulis, on the Red Sea coast, are flourishing centres of trade, and at this time seem to have controlled the maritime trade coming up the Red Sea from India and the East.

In West Africa, large chiefdoms are emerging on the southern fringes of the Sahara. This is probably the result of efforts by some chiefs to control the southern end of the trans-Saharan trade. Importing horses from the north allows some chiefs to form cavalry forces, and so to dominate surrounding villages more easily. Kingdoms are in the making.

By the time the Bantu migration has reached South Africa. At this latitude, the Bantu farmers reach the limits of tropical crops, and therefore can go no further.

Next map, Africa 750 CE

What is happening in Africa in 750CE

North Africa, including Egypt, has been conquered by Arab armies and is now part of the vast Islamic caliphate. Meanwhile the Nubian kingdoms in the upper Nile valley have become home to a vibrant Christian culture.

Sub-Saharan Africa

In West Africa, the powerful and wealthy kingdom of Ghana has appeared, built on the proceeds of the lucrative trans-Saharan trade in salt, gold and slaves.

By this date, a flourishing Indian Ocean trade has been established between the east coast of Africa, India and the Middle East. Arab Merchants and sailors visit coastal settlements in search of gold, ivory and slaves, and have set up a string of trading posts there.

In central and southern Africa the economy shows a shift away from the mixed farming, which the Bantu brought with them, towards an increasingly herding way of life. The herding of cattle is better suited to the extensive plains and grasslands of the region.

In Madagascar, one of the most remarkable migrations in world history has been completed with the arrival of boat-borne Malay colonists from South East Asia. At around the same time, groups of Bantu make the crossing from East Africa to northern Madagascar.

Next map, Africa 979 CE


What is happening in Africa in 979CE

In North Africa, the Islamic religion has taken root, and a Shiite movement, called the Fatimids, now rules most of that region from Egypt.

The Christian civilization of the Nubian kingdoms in the Nile Valley continues to flourish, while the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia is under fierce pressure from surrounding pagan tribes.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Islam is also now spreading across the Sahara desert into West Africa, carried by merchants and missionaries, although at his date the great bulk of the population remain pagans. West African civilization continues to advance, and other kingdoms have appeared beside Ghana, notably Songhai and Mali. Further east, the development of a more easterly trade route across the Sahara has led to the rise of the kingdom of Kanem, on the shores of Lake Chad.

The maritime trade between the east coast of Africa, Arabia and India is also expanding, and is leading to the rise of a coastal society, predominantly black by race and Muslim by culture, which will later be given the name “Swahili”. There is evidence for the beginnings of urbanization in this period along the coast.

In southern Africa, the Bantu herding cultures are thriving, pushing the pre-Bantu hunter-gatherer peoples further and further into inhospitable desert areas.

Next map, Africa 1215

What is happening in Africa in 1215CE

Ethiopia is now experiencing something of a Golden Age. Powerful and prosperous, its Christian culture, though isolated, is flourishing and giving rise to the great rock-cut churches of king Lalibela.

In North Africa, a series of Islamic movements, the Almoravids and the Almohads have conquered large areas, at one point even stretching into West Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa

These movements have given the Islamic religion a huge boost in the West African kingdoms, and by this date their ruling classes are mostly Muslim, at least nominally. By the period, also, extensive trade networks criss-cross the region. Several large trading cities, such as Timbuktu and Jenne, flourish, and to the east of the Niger, the Hausa people have founded their own powerful city states. Trade routes are also penetrating into the southern rainforest region, leading to the rise of the first kingdoms there, especially the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo.

Trade is also playing a decisive role in Central and East Africa. Here, the Indian Ocean trade between Africa, Arabia and India has resulted in the rise of coastal city-states. Trade routes have spread inland, leading to the appearance of the wealthy and powerful Shona kingdom, centred on the famous urban centre of Great Zimbabwe.

Next map, Africa 1453

What is happening in Africa in 1453CE

By this date, large-scale immigration of Arabs into North Africa have made this region largely Arab-speaking.

Sub-Saharan Africa

The Africa coasts have been visited by the ships of two alien powers. At the beginning of the 15th century, a large Chinese fleet visited some of the Swahili ports on the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa. In the mid-century, the first Portuguese ships arrived off the coast of West Africa. Whereas Chinese ships have not returned since, the Portuguese ships, although appearing in far smaller numbers (and are themselves far smaller in size than the great Chinese vessels), have started trading in the area.

They are mainly interested in buying gold from local chiefs, but they soon get involved in the slave trade of the region. Shortly slaves are being shipped back to Europe in Portuguese holds, mainly for work on the sugar plantations of Portugal and Madeira.

The West African kingdoms have continued to flourish and to grow, and the trade network has continued to expand. This has led to the rise of more kingdoms in the forest regions, near the coast. Elsewhere in Africa, other kingdoms are also emerging. In the south and east, this is probably related to the penetration of trade routes further and further inland from the Indian Ocean. Here, the maritime trade with Arabia and India has been expanding, and the Swahili city-states have been flourishing. Arab and Swahili traders have planted more ports southwards along the coast.

Next map, Africa 1648

What is happening in Africa in 1648CE

Egypt and most of North Africa have come under the rule of the Ottoman empire. Meanwhile, the kingdom of Morocco has formed its own empire, straddling the Sahara desert. By now, however, the southern regions of this empire essentially form independent kingdoms.

Sub-Saharan Africa

European sailors and traders first arrived off the coast of West Africa in the mid-15th century. Since then, Africa has been incorporated into an Atlantic trading system which is centred on the enslavement of large numbers of Africans and shipping them to the labour-hungry European colonies in the Americas.  About 60% of the slaves are taken from the West African coast, the rest from south of the equator. Within Africa itself, the trade is mostly in the hands of African chiefs and merchants, and in return for supplying slaves, they demand metal goods, cloths, spirits and guns.

In Central and East Africa, new kingdoms are forming as trade networks spread deeper into the continent. Meanwhile, on the east coast of Africa, the Swahili trading states have had to face the eruption of the Portuguese into the Indian Ocean. Superior warships and cannon have given the newcomers a dominating position, and they have now seized the southern cities, and exert a tight influence over the rest of the coast. The Portuguese domination has led to a decline in the prosperity of all the Swahili cities.

The Portuguese have established the first European colonies in Africa south of the Sahara. Their settlement in modern-day Angola is the base for their slave trade. In South Africa, the Cape has become a regular point of call for European ships, particularly those of the Dutch East India Company. There, they barter with the Khoikhoi natives for provisions for the onward journey.

Next map, Africa 1789

What is happening in Africa in 1837CE

By now, Western countries have mostly banned the slave trade. A ban is one thing, however; to enforce it is quite another. The slave trade continues to flourish, shifting its centre of gravity further south. Two thirds of the slaves are now taken from central and southern Africa, with most slaves destined for Brazil.

In central and southern Africa, the slave trade, and later the ivory trades, and the endemic violence these have fuelled, have led to the wholesale dissolution of traditional tribal structures and ways of life. In many cases, peaceful communities have turned themselves into armed bands. In southern Africa the increasing competition for land, caused by the expansion of European settlement, has intensified these conditions, which see the rise of the highly-militarized Zulu kingdom. The Zulu conquests set off a mass migration of other armed groups, the effects of which are felt a thousand miles and more to the north.

In West Africa, Fulani jihads have led to the rise of large states, most notably the empire founded by Usman dan Fidio which now controls the ancient Hausa city-states and their neighbours.

The Cape colony in South Africa, founded by Dutch settlers, has now passed from Dutch to British control. This has led to the original settlers (called the Boer) moving into the interior and founding new states (the “Great Trek”), where they can live free from British interference.

Next map, Africa 1871

What is happening in Africa in 1871CE

With the abolition of slavery in the USA, in 1865, the Atlantic Slave Trade has been dealt a decisive blow, and is now in steep decline. However, European nations are beginning to take a more assertive stance towards Africa. They have become more involved in Egypt with the building of the Suez Canal (1869), France has now colonized the coast of North Africa, and both France and Britain have established colonial enclaves on the coasts of West Africa. In South Africa, the original Dutch-speaking settlers (the Boer) have founded homelands in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, away from the British-controlled Cape; however, the discovery of diamonds in the interior (1867) starts a rush of British settlers into the area and increases tensions between the two European communities.

The Zulu conquests, and the mass-migrations they have caused, have resulted in a huge upheaval over a large part of southern Africa. In this process, many old kingdoms have been destroyed, and new ones formed. Southern and central Africa have experienced huge dislocation. Into this turbulent region have come the first Christian missionaries from Europe, David Livingstone being the most famous. They are appalled at what they see, and their reports home arouse widespread indignation. Agitation in Britain against the Indian Ocean slave trade follows, and a new imperial movement gathers pace, which regards Europeans as agents of a superior civilization, whose duty it is to bring Africans the benefits that their own people enjoy.

Next map, Africa 1914

What is happening in Africa in 1914CE

In the latter part of the 19th century, European interest in Africa grew. With the discovery of quinine, giving Europeans resistance to malaria and therefore opening up the interior of sub-Saharan Africa to them, the continent suddenly became a potential sphere for commercial and colonial expansion. Britain and France, with their already-existing toe-holds in Africa, led the way in sending expeditions of exploration and conquest into the continent. Other European countries were soon following suit, and the last two decades of the 19th century saw what modern historians call the “Scramble for Africa”. The inevitable tensions which resulted from overlapping ambitions led to European diplomats carving Africa up into “spheres of influence”, within which each power could do almost what it liked.

The British took the lion’s share, with the French close on their heels, but other powers came in too – Italy, Belgium (or rather, the king of the Belgians, who took the Congo as his personal estate), and the Germans.

In South Africa, British attempts to bring the Boer homelands more under their control eventually led to full-scale war (the Boer War 1899-1902). The British were only able to subdue the Boers with greatest of difficulty. The Boer republics were incorporated into the British-ruled Union of South Africa.

Next map, Africa 1960

What is happening in Africa in 1960CE

Both World War 1 and World War 2 saw significant campaigns on African soil, and also thousands of African troops serving in other parts of the world in the service of  the colonial powers. As a result of the First World War, the German territories were transferred to France (Cameroon) and Britain (in South West Africa and East Africa). In the years since the Second World War, the European powers have begun withdrawing from Africa.

This process of decolonization is in response to nationalist movements within Africa; to international pressure from the USA and the Soviet Union; and to the European countries’ own awareness of their economic weakness after two world wars. The North African countries became independent from France in 1956 – except Algeria, where the French settlers have insisted that Algeria becomes administratively integrated with France, and where a major uprising has thus broken out.

French West Africa was divided amongst a cluster of newly independent countries by the end of 1960.

The British left Egypt in 1947, Sudan in 1956, Ghana in 1957, and Nigeria and Somalia in 1960. Large chunks of East Africa remain under British rule at the end of 1960, but these  are all preparing for independence.

The Belgians hurriedly withdraw from the Congo in 1960 with no preparation, leaving it in such chaos the the UN has to send troops to keep order there; and the Portuguese seem to be making no moves to leave.

In South Africa, even though it has been independent from Britain since 1931, a white regime is in power. Under the system of Apartheid, it ensures that whites remain dominant within the country, politically, economically and socially.

Next map, Africa 2005

What is happening in Africa in 2005CE

Decolonization was mostly completed within a few years of 1960, though white minorities effectively continued colonial rule in South Africa and Rhodesia for somewhat longer, whilst the Portuguese hung on in their possessions in Angola and Mozambique.

Since independence, African countries, with very few exceptions, have experienced political instability, ethnic and religious strife, military dictatorship, corruption, entrenched poverty, and a lethal HIV/AIDS pandemic. With the end of the Cold War, however, and the cessation of the destructive international rivalries within Africa, a more constructive approach to Africa’s problems has been evident, both on the part of the international community and within Africa itself.

Recent years have also seen the end of white rule in South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and freedom for Angola and Mozambique. In the former, the apartheid system was brought to an end in a peaceful transition to multi-racial rule, largely brokered by the charismatic Nelson Mandela.

However, some parts of the continent have continued a descent into anarchy – above all in the Congo, which has seen the largest scale war-related death-toll anywhere in the world since the World War 2 – but also in Liberia and Sierra Leone. A fearful genocide in the small country of Rwanda (1994) shocked the entire world.

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