Medieval trading empires

The Empire of Wagadu (Ghana, 300 CE - 1100) established control over the gold and salt trade by the use of iron arms.

Wriiten by Michael Schmidt

Illustrationsby AmICollective

Today, that great cycle continues, driven by the likes of businessman Perious Mundia whose Zambian company designs smartphones, which are built and sold in China.

Both might and trade made King Musa I (c. 1280 – c. 1337) of the Malian empire the wealthiest man in history (his inflation-adjusted net worth was about US$400-billion compared to John D. Rockefeller’s US$340-billion).

Trade also transmitted ideas, ideologies and customs, so just as the Amazigh brought the Arabic language, Islamic religion and shariah law to West Africa, so the Axumites brought Christianity and its cultural and legal values inland into Ethiopia.

Pliny the Elder claimed that Hanno had made it all the way around the Cape to Arabia, but this is dubious. When Henry the Navigator of Portugal died in 1460, his fleets had only reached as far as the Canary Islands, and 28 years later, Bartolomeu Dias proved it was possible to round the Cape – yet the oldest proven chart of the entire African coastline is to be found on a Chinese Ming dynasty map produced in about 1390.

The Chinese circumnavigation of the world a century before Magellan brought elephants, ostriches, leopards, giraffe and parrots to China.

When the Portuguese traded with the Empire of Benin in the 12th to 15th Centuries, they acknowledged a sophisticated African polity with a university, a standing army, a dedicated and literate bureaucracy, defensive ramparts that stretched 16 000km -  four times longer than the Great Wall of China - and great art such as the 1300CE Yoruba “Ife Sculptures” that were unsurpassed globally in their skill.

Trade turned brutal with the dawn of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade of the 16th to 19th Centuries that saw European ships trading weapons, ammunition, alcohol, and textiles in exchange for captives taken in inter-kingdom wars or inter-tribal raids.

Finally, the terrible advent from 1885 of the Maafa (“Disaster” in Kiswahili), the scramble for Africa, saw the last of the African empires, all but Ethiopia, destroyed, with a British task force burning and looting Benin City of its artworks in 1897.

The colonial era did see the building of African railroads, but as their footprint today more than a century later makes plain, they were primarily designed to strip the continent of its raw produce and minerals and ship them straight out of the ports to Europe.

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