Though there is scanty information on the early history of Africa, Africa has a rich and interesting history. It is believed that the modern humans, homo sapiens originated from East Africa somewhere between Ethiopia and Kenya. Despite the long history of habitation of Africa, there is very little African history prior to the second millennium AD outside of North Africa, Sudan & Ethiopia. It is believed that most inhabitants were hunter-gatherers similar to some cultures still found today on the continent, with no writing systems nor lasting structures, arts, or crafts (aside from some cave paintings that are common in several archaeological sites).
The region of North Africa, on the other hand, has a recorded history dating back several millennia with bountiful structures, writings, arts, and crafts which have survived to this day. The ancient Pharonic civilization centered in modern-day Egypt is recognized as the longest-lasting and one of the, if not the, greatest ancient civilizations lasting from around 3300BC until the invasion of Persians in 343BC. Today, their legacy lives with many of their cities well-preserved and now popular tourism attractions along with a few museums hosting their artifacts. Modern Jews believe themselves to be descendants of the slaves in the ancient Egypt and much of the Hebrew Bible, has religious texts for both Jews and Christians, that was based and written in the region.
The other great early civilizations on the continent were the Nubians in northern Sudan and southern Egypt, who were very similar to the ancient Egyptians, leaving behind the city of Meroe in Sudan, and the Aksumite Empire from the 4th century BC until the 7st century AD in modern-day Ethiopia and eastern Sudan which was important to trade between India and the Roman Empire and an important center of early Christianity.
Meanwhile, the 300s BC brought about the first (and less famous) invasions of Europeans to the continent. In 322 BC, Alexander the Great invaded Persian-occupied Egypt, establishing the famous city of Alexandria which would go on to serve as an important center of scholarship and Greek culture for many centuries. Meanwhile, the Romans conquered much of the Mediterranean coastline to the west, leaving behind such ruins as Carthage and Leptis Magna. In the first century AD, Christianity spread through much of the region, first to Egypt, then Nubia, Ethiopia, and on to the Roman Empire.
The Muslim invasion and the beginning of the Arab Slave Trade in the 7th century AD changed the cultural landscape of Northern Africa and large parts of Eastern and Western Africa. The newly-formed Arab caliphate invaded North Africa and the Horn of Africa within a few decades. In the west, Berbers would intermarry with the Arab invaders to become the Moorish population that would later invade the Iberian peninsula. When Damascus was invaded in the early eighth century, the Islamic religious and political centre of the Mediterranean shifted to Kairouan in Tunisia. Their progress was limited only by the dense forests of West and Central Africa and to coastal areas in the East. The last region to come under Muslim influence was that of Nubia (moden-day northern Sudan) in the 14th century.
The 7th-9th centuries would be a time contributing significant changes to the history of sub-Saharan Africa. In the west, there was a rise of large and powerful inland kingdoms, such as the Ghana (in Mali & Mauritania, no relation to modern Ghana), Dahomey (which lasted until French capture in 1894, now Benin), Za/Gao (in Mali and Niger), Kanem (in Chad), and Bornu (in Nigeria). As many of these kingdoms converted to Islam, trans-Saharan trade grew as salt and gold were transported to Libya and Egypt in large caravans—a trade made possible by the introduction of camels from Arabia in the 10th century and would support much of the area from northern Nigeria west to Mali and Mauritania until the 19th century. During the 13th-16th centuries, many of these early kingdoms were replaced with new empires, chief among them the Mali (in Mali, Guinea, and Senegal) and later Soghay (in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger) and a plethora of small, single-tribe kingdoms and city-states sprouted. Many of Mali’s popular tourist destinations, including Timbuktu, Djenne, and Gao, rose to prominence during this period as they became centers of trade and Islamic scholarship during this period. The Hausa tribes in northern Nigeria began organizing in walled city states, of which remnants remain in Kano. Coastal, forested West Africa remained largely unorganized, with the exceptions of a few Yorba city-states of Benin, Ife, & Oyo along with small Dahomey and Igbo empires all in modern-day Benin and Nigeria.
Meanwhile, East Africa saw a rise of Islamic influence and prosperity from Indian Ocean trade as ships from Arabia, Persia, India, and as far as Southeast Asia dropped anchor in major ports from Somalia down to Mozambique bringing spices and in return for slaves and ivory. Between the 7th and 19th centuries, over 18 million people were taken from the region as part of the Arab slave trade—roughly twice as many as the Atlantic slave trade would take to the Americas. Today, that influence remains in the culture and gastronomy of many places, most notably on the Indian Ocean islands such as Zanzibar, Comoros, the Seychelles, and Mauritius.
Southern Africa remained undeveloped, with primarily nomadic hunter-gatherers such as the San people and some small kingdoms. The Kingdom of Zimbabwe (namesake of today’s state) was one of the most notable, constructing the greatest stone structures in pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa at their capital Great Zimbabwe. The Kingdom of Mapungubwe in modern eastern South Africa also left smaller stone ruins. Both profited from the trade in gold and ivory with Arab and Asian merchants.
While a few Genoese, Castillian, and French explorers managed to reach parts of West Africa in the Middle Ages, European exploration of the continent truly began when Prince “Henry the Navigator” set out to acquire African territory for Portugal in the mid-15th century. The Portuguese reached Cape Verde in 1445, and by 1480, had charted the course to and began trade with the entire Guinea coast (modern Guinea-Bissau to Nigeria). In 1482, Diogo Cao reached the mouth of the Congo River, in 1488 Bartolomeu Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope (the southern tip of Africa), and in 1498 Vasco da Gama sailed up the eastern coast, where in Kenya his expedition set up a trading post at Malindi before finding a guide to take them to India. The Portuguese set up numerous forts along the African coast and established a highly profitable trade, (initially) held good relations with locals, and remained the dominant European power in the region until the 17th century while Spain, France, and Britain began exploring the Americas.
The lucrative trade and large amounts of gold obtained by the Portuguese lured other nations to the continent. As the demands for labor in the Americas grew, Portuguese sailors began taking shiploads of slaves to the Americas, beginning the Atlantic slave trade. In the early 17th century, the Dutch fought the Portuguese to win control of most of their West and Central African ports, some (like Luanda) would be retaken later, and established a couple dozen forts of their own, notably at Goree Island in Dakar and at the Cape of Good Hope—a port they hoped to use for trade routes to East Asia and which has become modern-day Cape Town. In 1642, the French built their first fort on Madagascar (which they claimed in 1667) and in 1663, the British built their first fort on the continent in the Gambia. Swedish merchants established a fort on Cape Coast, which later was overpowered by the Danish nearby at modern Accra.
In the 19th century, European attention shifted from establishing coastal ports for trade to fighting one another to colonize the continent and explore its uncharted interior. With slavery abolished by Britain and their strong efforts to thwart slavery around the world, Europe began to look for other sources of wealth on the continent. The most successful European colony, the Dutch Cape Colony, was seized by the British in 1795. Napoleonic France conquered Egypt in 1798, notably discovering the Rosetta Stone, only to be forced out by the British and then the Turks. France invaded a significant amount of coastal West Africa and the Barbary states in Algeria, cutting rampant piracy in the region. Accounts of brave adventurers travelling inland to find places such as Mount Kilimanjaro and rumored “inland sea” (the Great Lakes) and city of gold on the Nile sparked a wave of exploration in the mid-century primarily by Catholic and Jesuit missionaries in the Southern, Eastern, & Great Lakes regions of Africa. Chief among explorers was the British national hero David Livingstone, who as a poor missionary with few porters explored much of Southern and Eastern Africa, flowed down the Congo River from its sources, and sought the source of the Nile. In West & Central Africa, French, Belgian, & Spanish explorers ventured into the Sahara to find the legendary Timbuktu and Malian gold mines and the Congo in search of the Pygmies and hairy, large peoples (gorillas) of Greek legend.
Colonial division of Africa, 1914
As accounts of Africa’s interior reached Europe, nations and merchants began to view the continent as a major source of commerce and wealth, simmilar to their Asian exploits, while the philanthropic and missionary class saw a great opportunity to “Christianize” and “civilize” the savage people of Africa. With social Darwinism introduced, many countries saw Africa as a great opportunity to establish colonial empires and establish their preeminence among other European nations, chiefly Germany to catch up with other European nations and France, to regain glories lost in North America and under Napoleon. Britain and Portugal joined this Scramble for Africa when they saw their interests threatened. In 1885, the Berlin Conference brought together European colonial powers to carve up the continent into defined colonial territories with many straight lines and no input from any African kingdom or settlement.
At the turn of the 20th century, Britain began a series of deadly South African Wars from their Cape Colony into surrounding African and Boer (white descendants of the Dutch) lands in modern South Africa, which brought Cecil Rhodes to fame for his vision to conquer and bring unite Africa from Cairo to Cape Town. The dense jungles of Central Africa lured Joseph Conrad, who wrote the novel Heart of Darkness from his experience. World War I saw one battle in German East Africa (Tanzania) which the British lost, although post-war, German possessions were divided amongst France, Belgium, & the UK. The Union of South Africa was granted independence from the UK in 1930. World War Two saw Ethiopia invaded by Italy along with major fighting in North Africa in which the Nazis were eventually evicted by the Allies. It was the social changes stemming from the war, in which tens of thousands of Africans fought for their colonial power, along with the Atlantic Charter which led to the spread of nationalistic movements post-war.
The decolonization of Africa began with Libyan independence from Italy in 1951. Colonial powers employed varying means of control over their colonies, some granting natives representation in the government and cultivating a select few civil servants while others maintained a firm grip with an all-European government. In some countries, nationalist movements were quashed and their leaders killed or jailed while others were able to peacefully achieve independence. In the 1950s, Guinea, Ghana, & North African nations gained independence non-violently with the exception of Algeria, where France violently fought independence movements until 1963. With the establishment and new constitution of France’s Fifth Republic in 1958, French West Africa & French Equatorial Africa ceased to exist and, after a brief “community” with France, the countries of these regions gained independence in 1960. By 1970, all but a handful of African nations were independent. The Portuguese bitterly fought to maintain their African possessions until 1975, all but one of whom gained independence through war. Zimbabwe was the last major colony to gain independence, in 1980. In 1990, semi-autonomous Namibia gained independence from South Africa and in 1993, Eritrea separated from Ethiopia following a protracted war. South Africa remained under firm control by its white minority, suppressing its black population under a system called apartheid until 1994. Morocco maintains control over Western Sahara, despite an established independence movement and remains a point of contention between Morocco and Algeria. South Sudan declared independence from Sudan in 2011.
Europe divided Africa with complete disregard for the cultures and ethnic groups in Africa, often dividing a peoples between 2 or more countries and forcing peoples with a history of fighting or differing religions into one country. Additionally, a lack of training in civil service before and even after independence left most countries with dysfunctional governments and leaders tended to reward their own ethnic groups with jobs and money and in many cases suppressed ethnic minorities. This has been a cause of much strife post-independence across most of sub-Saharan Africa and has led to dozens of prolonged civil wars (notably in Sudan, Angola, Ethiopia/Eritrea, Nigeria), countless coups, and a countless number of inept, corrupt leaders. The discovery of valuable natural resources such as oil, uranium, diamonds, and coltan, has produced numerous independence movements post-independence citing the taking value of resources from their land to benefit the entire country (notably tiny, oil-rich Cabinda in Angola). Fortunately, there are numerous examples in Africa where past conflict has made way for functional governments, offering some hope for the future of African self-government.