Culture, Religion, and Trade in 15th Century Eastern and Western Africaby Rit Nosotro
Compare the culture and politics of the Western coast of Africa with that of the Eastern coast of Africa during the time of Prince Henry the Navigator, or shortly thereafter. (15th century)
Although East and West Africa traded with each other, the two areas clashed in views on religion, slavery, and different trading structures.
The two coasts of Africa had unique cultures and economies in the 15th century. Islam influenced both coasts, but by different means. In West Africa, Islam influenced the culture when the kings declared Islam the state religion. On the East coast, however, the influence was more subtle, as the Arab traders integrated with the African public. Empires controlled most of the trade in the West, whereas city states directed most of East African trade. Slavery also had an important part in both economies.
Toward the beginning of the 15th century, Europe entered the Age of Exploration on the shoulders of the Portuguese explorers and Prince Henry the Navigator. Prince Henry sent many explorers down the coast of Africa to become involved in African trade, to evangelize the African natives, and to find a sea route to spice-rich India.2 When the Portuguese arrived, they found a nation with sprawling trade routes, reaching from West Africa across the vast Sahara Desert and into East Africa. Although these two sections of Africa traded with each other, the two areas clashed in views on religion, slavery, and different trading structures.
The Western Coast
Over a period of thirteen hundred years the west African empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay flourished on the banks of the Niger and Senegal rivers. The Malian Empire did not fall until the beginning of the 15th century. Mansa Musa, the most famous Malian king, traveled all the way to Mecca on a pilgrimage. His wealth was world renown. After the fall of Mali, the Songhai Empire expanded and took over the land previously controlled by the Malian Empire.10 However, the Songhai was short lived, and began to decline at the end of the 15th century but not ending entirely until 1590. One of the reasons for its decline was the arrival of Portuguese who traded for the African gold, and then later for slaves. Since, the Songhai had survived on the trans-Saharan trade routes; the Portuguese maritime trade diminished the trans-Saharan trade, thus contributing to the already present decline.10
These two large empires helped shaped the West African culture. Ever since Islamic forces swept through North Africa and all the way into Spain in the 8th century, Islam had been a major religion in Africa. Although the East was most affected, Islam also influenced much of West African history. Mansa Musa, the wealthy Malian king, was a Muslim, founded Mali on Islam, and built mosques and Islamic universities in Malian cities.7 The Songhai Empire used Islam as a uniting force as well.10
However, when the Europeans came, they not only traded with the West Africans, but they also introduced European religions, namely Christianity to the cultures. Explorers penetrated inland and spread their beliefs as they went. In 1484, the Portuguese explorer Diego Cam reached the Kongo Empire and took several Kongolese back to Portugal to study Christianity. Upon their return, the king of the Kongo asked for missionaries to come to his country. Still, the expansion of Christianity was the result of Africans spreading the Gospel in Africa, more so than that of the Europeans.9 This is one example of the fact that African rulers had control over religion in West Africa. As the king of the Kongo had accepted the Christian missionaries in the late 15th century and allowed for it to spread, the Malian and Songhai rulers had used Islam to facilitate their economic desires earlier in the 14th and early 15th centuries.
Politically, as mentioned above, West Africa was split into several kingdoms. One kingdom often dominated the others, but there was continual power struggles among the various empires. The Songhai and Malian Empires fought often until the eventual fall of the Malian Empire in the beginning of the 15th century. These wars resulted in each side taking prisoners of war which often became slaves. Many of these West African economies were dependent on the slave trade, particularly through the trans-Saharan trade route. In West Africa, land was not private, and the only type of private property a person could have was slaves. Thus, a person with many slaves was considered rich. 8 After the Portuguese began to trade for slaves, the West African economies increased their dependency on the slave trade for their economic well-being.3
The Eastern Coast
The Eastern coast of Africa was also strongly influenced by Islam, but the two regions were influenced in different ways. As mentioned above, Islam first came to North Africa in the 8th century and spread quickly when West African kings were coerced to adopted Islam as their tribal religion. However, on the East coast, Islam more often spread when Arab and Persian traders came down the coast to conduct business. Eventually, some of these traders settled down in the trading city states and intermarried with the Africans.12 In addition to trading with Arabs, East Africans also engaged in trade with Asians. Thus, the three cultures blended together in many of the larger trading cities, and formed the Swahili culture, which was impacted by Islam through the Arabs that helped create that unique culture. 13
East African city states became key trading hubs and important in the economy. Mogadishu, Kilwa, and Zanzibar were three of these wealthy and influential East African city states. During the early 15th century, before the arrival of the Europeans, the East African coastline was one of the wealthiest and most cultured places in the entire world.13 Unfortunately, much of this wealth came from trading slaves.3 Traders would travel into Central Africa, raid villages and capture prisoners, and then sell them. Many traders would go along the East African trade routes into the Middle East. As on the West coast, when the Portuguese arrived on the East coast, they found established trade routes and took advantage of them. These city states were the center of East African commerce and culture during the 15th century.
The East and West coasts of Africa had many differences in the 15th century. Many of these took root in the cultural background. West African kings used religion, namely Islam, as a uniting force to tie together their empires. These empires controlled most of the trade and developed and used the trans-Saharan trade route. On the East coast however, powerful city states controlled the trade. Since these city states functioned as trade and cultural centers, people from the Middle East and Asia settled down alongside the Africans. Islam also influenced the Eastern coast, but more through cultural diffusion and integration than through becoming the dominating government religion as in the West.
Despite these differences, the 15th century East and West coasts of Africa had similarities. Both coasts were influenced by Islam. Both depended on the slave trade as a source of prosperity. Each coast developed its own trade routes which stretched thousands of miles. Upon the arrival of the Europeans, pre-existing African trade, on both coasts, changed dramatically. Over time, the Europeans entered into the slave trade, and demanded more and more slaves. This culminated in the atrocious "Triangle Trade" trade route. European slave traders got slaves in Africa, stopped in Europe, and then sailed to the Americas to sell the slaves.
The issue of slavery has been fought over for years. To 15th century Africans, slavery was a part of life. Slaves were property. Because private land ownership did not exist, slaves were one of the only forms of property ownership. Christian scripture never outlaws slavery, but it never encourages slavery, and views slaves as people who are equal in value to everyone else. Jesus instructed on how to live as a slave: “If someone forces you to go with him one mile, go with him two miles.” (Mt. 5: 41) In New Testament times, a Roman could force a Jew to carry something for one mile. However, God was concerned about slavery in Africa. Exodus 3:7 says, “The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned for their suffering.’” God also instructed the Hebrews how to treat their own slaves kindly, "for you were also slaves in Egypt". The New Testament explains the good news of how God provided a way for all people to be free in Jesus Christ.
Additional information about <http://hyperhistory.net/apwh/essays/comp/cw19west-east-africa.htm>
Focus on Facts
The above essay was donated to hyperhistory.net.
of inaccuracies or plagiarism.
Post a link to this essay,
a great essay
on your blog or website :
|Comparative Essays||Biographies||Doc. Based Questions||Change Over Time|