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The Empires of West Africa

The Empires of West Africa

The ancient and medieval Mediterranean might have been a bustling stage of ever-changing empires but, across the inhospitable barrier of the Sahara Desert, West Africans were equally busy building up and toppling down their own kingdoms and empires. With wealth gained from vast herds of livestock, natural resources such as salt and gold, and control of trade routes, several states were able to conquer their less affluent and militarily-weaker neighbours to forge impressive empires. In this collection, we examine the big three of the Ghana Empire, Mali Empire, and Songhai Empire as well as the lucrative trade connections they made with West and North Africa. We also look at the important kingdoms of the southern coast of West Africa such as Nok, Benin, and Ife, and especially the art they produced which continues to wow museum visitors around the world. As the commercial tentacles of West African states extended so, too, they came under the influence of Islam as great trade cities arose like Timbuktu.

Through Timbuktu there passed such lucrative goods as ivory, textiles, horses (important for military use), glassware, weapons, sugar, kola nuts (a mild stimulant), cereals (e.g. sorghum and millet), spices, stone beads, craft products, and slaves. Goods were bartered for or paid using an agreed-upon commodity such as copper or gold ingots, set quantities of salt or ivory, or even cowry shells (which came from Persia).

Empires of West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhai

Welcome to Mrs. Matsubara's WebQuest! Today you will explore the effects of geography, culture, and government on the development of the West African empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai.

  • compare the trade relationships between the African empires
  • understand the role of trade in the development of the empires
  • compare and contrast the culture and geography of each empire
  • discuss the factors that led to the downfall of each empire

With a partner, you will explore various resources and complete the following tasks:

  1. Complete a chart of the West African Empires
  2. Compare and contrast two of the empires (your choice)
  3. Create an annotated map of West Africa that shows the location, geography, and major trade in West Africa

Use the information below to complete your graphic organizer, Venn diagram, and annotated map. You may also use your outline note packets and text to find more information.

Unit 3 West African Empires Process

Africa is a big place. In fact, it is the second-largest continent on earth. Only Asia is bigger. This vast land is shaped roughly like a soup bowl. Forming the bowl&rsquos northwestern rim are the Atlas Mountains. The Drakensberg range forms the southeastern edge. In eastern Africa mountains extend alongside great rifts. These rifts are long, deep valleys formed by the movement of the earth&rsquos crust. From all these mountains the land dips into plateaus and wide, low plains.

The plains of sub-Saharan Africa, or Africa south of the Sahara, are crossed by mighty rivers. Among the main rivers are the Congo, the Zambezi, and the Niger. Along the Niger River in West Africa great civilizations arose. The role this river played in the development of civilizations is one example of the way the physical geography of West Africa affected history there.

Look closely at the map below and find the Niger River. As a source of water, food, and transportation, the river allowed many people to live in the area. Along the Niger&rsquos middle section is a low-lying area of lakes and marshes. This watery region is called the inland delta. Though it looks much like the area where a river flows into the sea, it is hundreds of miles from the coast. Many animals and birds find food and shelter in the area. Among them are crocodiles, geese, and hippopotamus. Fish are also plentiful.

Effects Of Climatic And Environmental Changes On Ancient African Civilisations

In fact, even the theory of the evolution of man was dependent largely on the climatic influences on our ancient ancestors. It is hypothesised that the ancient versions of man were forced to walk upright, lose body hair and develop their coordination for survival in a changing environment. New skills also needed to be learned as farming techniques and living habits had to be adapted.

Ancient Africa experienced major vacillations between mega-droughts and Ice Ages, although these fluctuations occurred over thousands and thousands of years. As humans continued to develop and evolve through these phases, they needed to make major adaptations, not only to their ways of life, but also to their personal body structure. Prior to 135 000 years ago, the whole of Africa was lush and fertile, with a tropical climate. Then, the most intense mega-drought ever to occur hit the continent in the period referred to as the early part of the Late Pleistocene epoch. This is believed to have led to the migration of most of our human ancestors into other areas that were more habitable and fertile. Lake Malawi has been used by scientists as a rain gauge to ascertain water levels in ancient times. Research has shown that, during this mega-drought, the lake’s level dropped at least 1968 feet, or 600 metres! Evolutionists claim that this severe lack of water not only pushed ancient man from the area, it also forced aquatic animals (such as fish) to develop the facilities to be able to survive on dry land, thus evolving into land animals.

As people flocked out of the continent, only a very small proportion of this specific generation remained. Humankind as we know it is widely believed to have come from these few remaining on the continent, who evolved significantly and in response to the climatic changes.

These conditions continued until about 70 000 years ago, when the climate was again characterised by wetter conditions. These led to the growth and renewal of fresh vegetation, as well as an increased water supply to the region. More people were in the area during this time of abundance, and the population grew. This increase in numbers eventually led to migrations due to space limitations and the ownership of land.

Then, about 20 000 years ago, an Ice Age overcame the entire earth. This meant that the planet underwent a long-term period of cold temperatures over most of its surface. In places like North America and Eurasia, giant ice sheets covered enormous proportions of the land, making it impossible to farm and, sometimes, even live in these areas. This final Ice Age lasted for about 9 500 years. It forced most of the populations to migrate to the highlands, where they would be relatively protected from the ice sheets. Again, these civilisations had to adapt their farming methods, and change their diet, social habits, clothing and migratory patterns. This forced an evolution to a certain extent. Body hair was necessary to keep people warm, their skin lightened due to a lack of the harsh rays of the sun that they experienced during the mega-droughts, etc…

When this Ice Age came to an end 10 500 years ago, areas like the Sahara were left fertile and healthy. This made it and the other areas like it the ideal spots in which to settle as ancient man began to descend from the highlands. Animals and plants thrived in this environment, which made it very desirable in the eyes of mankind. The abundance of food, water and sunshine again changed the habits and physical structures of our earliest forefathers.

These conditions lasted for some time, but the Sahara in particular continued to experience fluctuations between humid and dry conditions. These eventually left the entire area unable to yield crops or sustain life for any extended period of time. Today, it remains a large stretch of desert. Then, approximately 2500 years ago, the group of people who had made their home in the Sahara began to follow the direction of the Nile River, which held promise of a rich water supply. The arid conditions of the Sahara and its surrounds continue to the present day.

Africa has, since prehistoric times, proven to be a place of fascination, life and evolution. Changes in the climate were often dramatic, and these were, to a great extent, responsible for determining the ancient civilisations that inhabited this vast continent. It is no wonder that many researchers and scientists maintain that Africa is the Cradle of Mankind, and research continues to yield fascinating evidence of this theory.

Which country is the best in African?

10 Best Countries to Visit in Africa

  • Namibia. © dreamstime. Nestled away in the southwest of the continent, Namibia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in Africa.
  • Tunisia. © dreamstime.
  • Uganda. © dreamstime.
  • Mauritius. © dreamstime.
  • Tanzania. © dreamstime.
  • Seychelles. © dreamstime.
  • Morocco. © dreamstime.
  • South Africa. © dreamstime.

Books About Mali and Songhai

Unless otherwise noted, these books are for sale at Amazon.com. Your purchase through these links will result in a commission for the owner of the Royalty.nu site.

History of Mali and West Africa

Historical Dictionary of Mali by Pascal James Imperato. Draws upon recent scholarship to give greatly expanded coverage of pre-colonial Mali. Contains a detailed and up-to-date chronology of Malian history, a dozen tables, six detailed maps, and an extensive cross-referenced dictionary of people, places and events.

The Peoples of the Middle Niger: The Island of Gold by Roderick James McIntosh. Discusses the Fulani, Songhai, Tuareg, the great empires, and more.

West Africa Before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850 by Basil Davidson. A survey of West Africa's history and major empires.


Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali by D. T. Niane. Sundiata was the 13th century founder of the Mali empire. This epic tale is part history and part legend.

Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa I, King of Kings: The Great Pilgrimage of an African King From Africa to Arabia, 1324-1325 by Jean-Louis Roy. The story of the young king of Mali who undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca with a retinue of 12,000 men.


Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sa'Di's Ta'Rikh Al-Sudan Down to 1613 and Other Contemporary Documents edited by John O. Hunwick. Writings of a 17th century scholar on the history of Timbuktu and Jenne, and the political history of the Songhay empire from the reign of Sunni 'Ali through Moroccan conquest of Songhay in 1591 and down to 1613, when the Pashalik of Timbuktu became an autonomous ruling institution in the Middle Niger region.

The Epic of Askia Mohammed edited by Thomas A. Hale, Nouhou Malio, Mounkaila Maiga.


The Bamana Empire by the Niger: Kingdom, Jihad and Colonization 1712-1920 by Sundiata A. Djata. An exploration of the powerful Bamana State, which emerged in 1712 and centred around the Middle Niger (in modern Mali).

The Heart of the Ngoni: Heroes of the African Kingdom of Segu by Harold Courlander, Ousmane Sako. The heroic legends of the kingdom of Segu and of the Bambara tribe, which formed important city-states along the Niger River during the 17th century. The deeds of kings and battles against invaders are among the subjects addressed.

Segu by Maryse Conde, translated by Barbara Bray. Fiction. This family saga is set in the Bambara kingdom of Segu in the 18th century.


Dogon: Africa's People of the Cliffs by Walter E.A. Vanbeek. In a remote area of Mali, the Dogon survive today as they have for thousands of years. This arresting photographic portrait allows us access to their traditional way of life.

Travel Guides

Mali: The Bradt Travel Guide by Ross Velton. Looks at every aspect of travel in Mali: planning, health and safety, where to stay and eat, ancient civilizations and culture, including the Tuareg and Dogon people communicating in Bambara and French.

Lonely Planet West Africa by Mary Fitzpatrick and others. Covers Bein, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Cote d'Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Ashanti, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo.

For Children and Young Adults

Mali: Land of Gold and Glory by Joy Masoff. Introduce elementary and middle school students to the ancient African empire of Mali. Includes photographs, timelines, maps, and legends of brave kings.

The Empire of Mali by Carol Thompson. Nonfiction for children ages 9 to 12.

Ghana, Mali, Songhay by David and Patricia Armentrout. For ages 9 to 12.

Kings and Queens of West Africa by Sylviane Anna Diouf. A survey of the historical regions and kingdoms of West Africa, including biographies of Mansa Musa, Emperor of Mali. For ages 9 to 12.

Sundiata: Lion King of Mali by David Wisniewski. Fictionalized biography for children ages 4 to 8.

Sunjata: Warrior King of Mali by Justine and Ron Fontes, illustrated by Sandy Carruthers. Graphic novel (comic book) about the 13th century West African king for children ages 9 to 12.

Mansa Musa by Khephra Burns, illustrated by Diane Dillon and Leo Dillon. A fictionalized account of the youth of Mansa Musa, a celebrated 14th century emperor of the kingdom of Mali. For children ages 9 to 12.

Mansa Musa by Peggy Pancella. Biography for children ages 9 to 12.

The Songhay Empire by David C. Conrad. A survey of the history and culture of the West African Songhai Empire. For children ages 9 to 12.

Dogon by Chukwuma Azuonye. History, social life, and customs. For children ages 9 to 12.

West African Empires

The empire of Mali began as a small Malinke kingdom in Western Africa. The empire flourished from 1240 to 1500 AD but the empire did not become very important until after 1235 AD. The investigation of cultures and exploring each of these African empires are crucial for understanding the past.

The Malian empire was located in Sub-Saharan Western Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to present-day Niger. The caliphate traded salt, gold, limestone, granite and other items, all of which are very common to find in this region of Africa. The empire was located near rivers and oasis towns were built so its economy was stable along with trading the items listed. The culture of Mali included involved art like jewelry and carvings, oral traditions, and the religion became Islamic due to numerous amount of trade.

The Ghana Empire came to be between 830 and 1235 AD. A leader of the clans of Soninke by the name of Dinga Cisse founded the empire. The location of this caliphate gave Ghana a great advantage in terms of economy. It was positioned in the middle of the Mali and Songhay Empires. Because of this, Ghana was the center of trade. The people were also interested in music. Instruments like drums that were made with animal skins and gourds were used to entertain people. Although the empire required having an annual sacrifice of a virgin due to its culture, the decline of Ghana was devastating. Not only did the king of Ghana lose the trade monopoly, but invasions of Muslims and a catastrophic drought, which caused the inability to sustain cattle and crops, ended the existence of the empire.

The Songhay Empire existed from 1340 to 1591 AD. Because of strong military, trade with Muslims, and the rise to power, this caliphate survived for a long period of time. The rise to power was taken place because of a great military leader named Sonni Ali. This person was known to have “magic powers” and expanded the Songhay territory across the Niger Valley, west to Senegal and east to.

The Empires of West Africa - History

Africa's Contribution To Contemporarily Western Civilization

By Edmund Zar-Zar Bargblor

This article is a contribution to the continuing debate between Western and African scholars regarding the role Africans played in the development of modern civilization. According to Dr. George G. M. James, author of the book, Stolen Legacy," the authors of Greek philosophy were not the Greeks but the people of North Africa, commonly called the Egyptians and the praise and honor falsely given to the Greeks for centuries belong to the people of North Africa, and therefore to the African continent."

Apparently, the impression given by some Western scholars that the African continent made little or no contributions to civilization, and that its people are naturally primitive has, unfortunately, become the basis of racial prejudice and negative perception directed against all people of African origin.

This article, therefore, is an overview of Africa's contributions to Western Civilization. As such, it will briefly trace the history of Africa beginning with the empire of ancient Egypt and continues on to other African empires that developed thereafter. It will also review some aspect of African Civilization and the impact it had on the development of Western Civilization.


The contributions made by Egyptians toward the development of what we consider modern civilization cannot be overemphasized. Between the periods of 3000 B. C and 1100 B. C, a long line of kings known as pharaohs governed Egypt. Under the pharaohs were the ruling of the royal court, governors of the provinces in which the kingdom was divided, and commanders of the army, etc. Priests and priestesses officiated at religious ceremonies and attended to the needs of their gods, but also served under the pharaohs.

The Greeks brought Egyptian education and influences to the Western world. One of the Greeks who enunciated the cultural, religious, and philosophical teachings of the Egyptians was Pythagorus. He was one of the men who introduced the teachings of the Egyptians to the Europeans. As such, the knowledge he passed on to his followers were those he attained from the Egyptians. The teachings of Pythagorus came to us from three main sources. First, from the writings of one of his followers by the name of Nicomachus. In the introduction his book, “Introduction To Arithmetic,” Pythagorus’ theory was illustrated in a form closest to the original teachings by the Pythagorean brotherhood. Second, Pythagorean ideas can be found in the works of the great thinkers like Plato who was influence by followers of Pythagorus. Finally, some understanding of Pythagorus' theory may be attained form other famous writers like Aristotle.

The Egyptians developed the concept of the right angle, which is the basis of the Pythagorean theorem. This concept is one of the fundamental teachings of the Egyptian mystery school. It is reflected in the designs of the ancient Egyptian pyramids, which were initiated centuries before the birth of Pythagorus. This concept and others like it, however, were "introduced" by Pythagorus. They represent the understanding of man and the order of nature. According to the Pythagorean brotherhood, the study of the Number Theory which is the foundation of creation -- is an aid to achieving harmony between the soul and that which one meditates. In his book, THE UNIVERSE OF NUMBERS, Ralph M. Lewis states, "The influence of the Pythagorean brotherhood extended over a long period of time. The followers of Pythagorus influenced Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Thinkers such as Fluid, Vaughn, and Hoyden based their philosophy, to some extend, on Pythagorean ideas, including scientists such as Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton." Chikn Anta Diop, a Senegalese historian has argued that Pythagorean theory, the concept of Pi, Geometric formulas and the screw and level are only some of the patrimonies of ancient Egypt and not of Greece as conventional wisdom holds.

In the September 23, 1991, edition of Newsweek, page 49, Bernal, the author of the 575 page book, BLACK ATHENA, published in 1987, explores the reason why in the beginning of the 18th century European scholars intentionally omitted the names of Egypt and Canaan from the family tree of Western Civilization. Bernal's conclusion was that the classicists were racists and anti-Semites. They could not stand the idea that their beloved Greece had been made "impure" by African and Semitic influences. Therefore, they dismissed as mere coincidence, how Egyptian and Canaanite technologies, philosophies and political theories shaped Algean Civilization. Additionally, Bernal is convinced that many pharaohs were black. Among them was Menthotpe who reunited Egypt around 21 B. C after 300 years of chaos.

Egyptians also initiated the concept of monotheism-the belief in one God. Akhennaten, king of Egypt and God of the sun was the pharaoh who introduced monotheism to his people. He was also a poet, artistic, an innovator, visionary, instigator of monotheism and forerunner of Christ. He ruled Egypt during the 14th century BC. The personality of Akhennaten continues to fascinate students of Egyptology. He was the husband of Nefertiti, a goddess of her time. Historians perceived Akhennaten as a good ruler who loved mankind. Some of his religious practices and ideas have influenced fraternities in the Western world.


The empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai were powerful medieval states in West Africa. Each empire was advanced in matters regarding the administration of government and economic prosperity. During each era of their respective histories, they were powerful nations, which had vital trading links with the commercial world of North Africa and Europe.

Ghana was the first of the three empires to rise as a regional power in West Africa. The history of Ghana is based largely on the writings of Arab travelers who visited and traded with its people. Before the Roman Empire left North Africa in the 4th century AD, Ghana was already a powerful nation. Various countries in Europe were dependent on imports of gold before the discovery of America. The "civilization" of Ghana was advanced to such a level that a system of taxation was imposed on every load of goods entering or leaving the empire. Trading, therefore, was a highly organized system which the wealth and importance of Ghana was based.

According to El-farzari, an Arab writer of that period, the people of Ghana were also successful in overpowering their advanced methods of warfare and their weapons, which were swords and lances.

The Empire of Mali emerged when Ghana's powers declined. In the 13th century, the Mandingo speaking people began to extend their kingdom and pushed towards the South and southeast regions of West Africa. Ghana's military forces were eventually defeated. When Sundaiata Kita became ruler of Mali, it became the most powerful of all the kingdoms of the Sudan. The gold trades continue to flourish under his reign. After Sundiata, his grandson, Mansa Musa, became ruler. During his reign, Mali became known throughout the Mediterranean world and in Europe.

During the decline of Mali, the Songhai Empire emerged. In about 1464, Soni Ali became king of Songhai. He was an ambitious young man who led his army to capture Timbuktu, a city known for its learning centers and trade routes, in 1468. Thereafter, he also captured Jenne, another famous city like Timbuktu. After Soni Ali's death, one of his generals removed his son from the throne and took control of the empire by force. He, thereafter, named himself Mohammed. Mohammed was very organized and instituted a system of discipline government. He created a number of central offices, similar to our contemporary government departments to oversee justice, finance, agriculture and other matters of importance in the affairs of the state. Under his rule, trade in gold from Sudan region continued to flow northward into Europe.

Asking Mohammed imported manufactured goods, clothes, and salt from Spain and Germany. It was also during his reign that Timbuktu became a greater center of learning. Its university, one the first in Africa, was so famous that scholars came to it from all over the Muslim world, Europe and Asia. As a Muslim himself, Asking allowed Islamic influence to spread throughout the Sudan.

Why did these African empires collapse? Some scholars cited the difficulties of defending the empire in the open West African region, in addition to the corruption influence of the slave trade. While W. E. B. Du Bois stated that Sudanese civilization fell before the triphammer blows of two of the world's great religions, Islam and Christianity. Another reason also advanced by Es-Sadi, a Timbuktu intellectual who wrote a history of the Sudan, TARKH AL-SUDAN, for the fall of the Songhai Empire was that the people had grown fat and soft on luxury and good living. He said that, "At that moment, faith was exchanged go infidelity there was nothing forbidden by God which was not openly done … because of these abominations, the almighty in his vengeance drew upon the Songhai the victorious army of the Moors."

From the history of four of Africa's great empires, it can be clearly seen that Africa and Africans have contributed to what we now consider Western Civilization). All along the West African coast, Africans had developed various systems of government, from the extended family to regional empires and the Village State. Many of them consisting of those attributes of a modern state (i.e., armies, courts, etc.). According to Melville J. Herskovits, a known anthropologist, "of the areas inhabited by non-literate people, Africa exhibits the great incidence of complex governmental structures. Not even the kingdom of Peru and Mexico could mobilize resources and concentrate power more effectively than could some of these African monarchies, which are more to be compared with Europe of the middle ages then referred to the common conception of the 'primitive' state."

From the mystery schools of Egypt to the University of Sankore and other intellectual centers in Timbuktu and Jenne, scholars throughout the Western world came to Africa in search of knowledge and wisdom. Leo Africanus, a Christianized moor, informed us that at the time, "In Timbuktu there are numerous judges, doctors, clerics, all receiving good salaries from the king. He pays great respect to men of learning. There is a big import from Barbary. More profit is made from the book trade than from any other line of business." The learning centers in Timbuktu had large and valuable collections of manuscripts in several languages, including Greek and Latin.

Africans are also a deeply religious and artistic people. To most Africans, religion and art are the foundations of life. Religion and art are a collective expression in which all the people participate.

As I mentioned earlier, Africa's contribution to Western Civilization cannot be overemphasized. As early as in 1907, the great European artist, Picasso, changed the faces of his Canvas, LES DEMOISELLES D 'AVIGNON, to look like African masks. This marked a turning point in western art.

I hope that information contained in this article will inspire others to explore the rich study of African history especially African and African American youths that may want to know more about their heritage. Wise men throughout the ages have told us that, ''To understand and appreciate our history is to understand ourselves. In understanding ourselves, we gradually open the window to our ingenuity and inner creativeness.''

Slavery in the Asante Empire of West Africa

Across the Western world monuments dedicated to historical figures like Robert Milligan and Edward Coulston are being toppled. It is claimed that memorials to men such as these glorify imperialism and the enslavement of black people. However, we cannot cede the debate to the radical left. There is an unfortunate practice in intellectual circles to mainly critique only white people for their involvement in imperialism and slavery. Rarely do commentators discuss these enterprises from a non-Western angle. But this is an unbalanced presentation of history. Contrary to popular narratives, imperialism and slavery are not unique to white people. Throughout history, black people have willingly participated in both ventures. Many people are familiar with the stories of European dynasties, though the history of imperialism and slavery in West Africa is largely unknown outside the scholarly community of Africanists. We must shed light on these developments to destroy the myth that historically blacks have been passive actors in the pawn of European imperialism. West Africa is of significant interest to our analysis, because it is predominantly black. Of note is also the fact that descendants of West African slaves live in Western countries.

Irrespective of race, humans possess a natural inclination to acquire power by dominating weaker groups. As such West Africans also pursued what scholars call “great power politics.” Like their European peers, they too were interested in attaining political dominance over their rivals. Neither was slavery foreign to West Africa. Slavery was an accepted social institution in Europe and West Africa. Few need to be reminded of the exploits of the great British Empire, so we must share the story of its counterpart in West Africa—the Asante Empire. Due to its military prowess, by the mid-eighteenth century, the Asante Kingdom had become the most powerful state on the Gold Coast. Historian J.K. Fynn clearly describes the empire’s thirst for acquiring territories: “The Asante annexed parts of Akyem and Kwawu while maintaining their hold on Denkyera, Akwamu, Wassa, Sefwi, Assin, Aowin, and Ga-Adangbe. Indeed, when Opoku Ware died, in 1750, the only independent country in the south was the Fante group of states.”

Conquered states were reduced to tributaries of the Asante Empire. To administer these new territories, they were placed under the supervision of a chief from the empire. Fynn refers to this style of management as indirect rule—a term usually invoked to illustrate Britain’s administration of her colonies. The organizational sophistication of the Asante Empire was on par with contemporaneous European states, with several of its officials being responsible for the effective management of provinces. On the other hand, the Asante were not slouched in the area of defense not even the mighty British could defeat them at their apex. In the words of Agnes A. Aidoo: “A smashing defeat of a British led army of coastal Fante and allied states in 1824 crowned the long imperial enterprise….The Asantehene’s [“king of all Asante”] power and influence extended over an area perhaps one and a half times the size of modern Ghana, with a population of three to four million.” Intriguingly, Thomas Bowdich, a British commercial officer visiting Kumase in the nineteenth century argued that “Asante was indisputably the greatest and the rising power of Western Africa.”

And like all imperial powers, it never hesitated to defend its sphere of influence. Dethroning the Asante Empire proved to be a daunting task. From the 1820s, both parties engaged in intermittent warfare, yet a major blow to the hegemony of the Asante Empire only came in 1874. As leading Africanist Kwabena Adu-Boahen notes: “Up to 1874 Asante remained a formidable imperial power in the north but in 1874 the British seriously weakened this power when they invaded and defeated Asante. The British invasion marked their shift from their imperial policy which involved the gradual abandonment of caution for active intervention in the affairs of the interior of Ghana. The policy aimed at destroying Asante hegemony in the interior as a way of breaking its dominance of the trade routes and the flow of the north-south trade.” Despite what some believe even Africans were proud defenders of an imperial tradition.

Likewise, slavery was also evident in the Asante Empire. Yet listening to California’s lawmakers, who are in the process of creating a task force to make recommendations for reparations to African Americans, you would think that slavery is a uniquely Western sin. In his analysis of slavery in African societies Boniface I. Obichere writes that: “The philosophical attitude to slavery in Asante was that it was a natural institution…time honoured, practiced by the ancestors and sanctioned and approved by the Gods.” Slave procurement took a variety of forms, ranging from capturing victims of war to purchasing them in slave markets. Asante society had numerous uses for slaves. As an aggressive society, the Asante had a great demand for slaves to provide military service. Furthermore, many were employed as domestics or farm laborers. Slave labor actually formed a significant component of the economy according to Ivor Wilks: “Slaves were in fact of crucial importance to the Asante economy not so much for the export trade as for satisfying the labour requirements of agriculture and industry. It seems clear, however, that while free Asante commoners were also heavily involved in food production, there were other spheres of enterprise which were abhorrent to them in which, therefore, dependence upon unfree labour was all but total. Principal of these was gold mining, against which strong religious taboos operated.”

In addition, it must be stated that even in Africa involuntary servitude could be an inherited condition. For example, among the Asante people, the child of a free man and a slave woman was counted as a slave. Admittedly, slaves could occupy high positions in the royal court, but their treatment was not always benign. During special celebrations, it was typical for slaves to be sacrificed. Writing about the internal slave trade in precolonial Ghana, including the Asante Empire, Akosua Perbi details the horrendous treatment meted out to various slaves: “In the domestic trade, slaves in the markets were chained together in groups often to fifteen by the neck and exposed the whole day from morning till evening in the sun. They were often hungry, thirsty, and weak. Some documentary and oral records assert that on the whole domestic slaves were well treated. Other traditions, however, claim that there was a clear distinction between the treatment of male and female slaves. While the female slaves were treated more leniently, the males were harshly treated and made to do very hardwork….While a female slave would be starved and kept indoors, her male counterpart would be severely flogged.”

Moreover, because slavery was so essential to the Asante, like many conservatives they resisted pressure from the British to abolish the slave trade. Consider the following remarks of Asantehene Osei Bonsu when told by British consul Joseph Dupuis in 1820 that the slave trade had to be abolished for humanitarian reasons: “The white men who go to council with your master, and pray to the great God for him, do not understand my country, or they would not say the slave trade was bad. But if they think it bad now, why did they think it good before. Is not your law an old law, the same as the Crammo [1] Law?…If the great king would like to restore this trade, it would be too good for white men and for me too, because Ashantee is a country for war, and the people are strong so if you talk that palaver for me properly in the white country, I will give you plenty of gold, and I will make you richer than all the white men.” The slave trade was permitted in the Asante Empire until it was abolished by the British in 1874.

The history of the Asante demonstrates that black people, like humans in general, are rational actors who make calculating decisions. Depicting them as innocent victims is a denial of their agency. Some may highlight the role of Europe in imperialism and slavery for political purposes, but we do a disservice to black people by not telling their stories. In short, the truth is that if blacks can only be virtuous, then they are merely children. We must reject the whitewashing of black history.

The Golden Empires of West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhai Barbara Brown

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11: Women and Authority in West African History

Authority is the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. This chapter explores the political authority of West Africa women and the spiritual female principle in the precolonial and colonial eras. A longue durée perspective on gender relations in precolonial West Africa illuminates a history of gender parity and, at times, women’s authority over men. This history has been obscured by Western patriarchal ideologies—which imagined West African women as “beasts of burden,” women who were sold to the highest bidder for the productive and reproductive labor in short, they imagined a West African woman that never was—and more recent historical processes, particularly the integration of West African societies into broader international mercantile networks and the ensuing establishment of formal colonial rule.

The starting premise of this chapter, therefore, is that during these precolonial times, West African women as a whole were never, as some scholars have argued, subjected to patriarchal forces that subjugated and subordinated them to men. Furthermore, West African women were not passive, but active participants in the making of their own histories. They played significant roles in their societies’ religious, political, social, and economic processes exhibiting control over key aspects therein. Indeed, West African women and the spiritual female principle, during the long precolonial period, had the power and right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience in short, they had authority. Female political leaders were as common as male rulers and women, and the female political principle, were central to the seamless functioning of their societies. This right, however, would be contested and tested during the colonial period, resulting in the systematic wrenching away of that power—the removal of women and the female spiritual principle from the avenues of power and authority that they had previously occupied. West African women and the female spiritual principle, did not however, take this sitting down. They employed, and evolved their precolonial strategies of enforcing obedience, i.e. precolonial strategies of resistance, into new strategies for fighting for their rights.

The West African World View

In order to appreciate the ways in which West African women wield authority, one must first understand how West Africans conceptualize their worlds, and what it means to exhibit power and authority therein. West African peoples identify two worlds—the human or physical/visible world, and the non-human or spiritual/invisible world. These worlds are not separate but like two half circles, or two halves of a kolanut, when connected, make up one continuous, complete, and whole West African world. Therefore, one cannot understand the West African world, nor appreciate West African history by focusing exclusively on the human physical realm. To do this would be only to tell one half of West African history. Likewise, one cannot understand, nor appreciate, West African women’s or gender history by focusing exclusively on the physical realm.

Indeed, West African cosmological structures—which operate within a cyclical movement of time or a continuum—demand that we engage with them in order to address the totality of West African experience. Thus, any informed study about female political authority in West Africa, must necessarily engage the female political spiritual principle—those unseen forces that are constructed by West Africans as female, such as goddesses, medicines, masked spirits, oracles as well as women, (read: human beings), who have been endowed with spiritual idiosyncrasies to interpret this unseen spiritual world and whose authority is personified in the work of priestesses, diviners, spirit mediums, healers, and prophetesses. It must consider the multiplicity of female manifestations in both worlds.

As mentioned earlier, West African people identify two worlds, the human or physical/visible world, which is made up of the heavens, earth, and waters and the non-human or spiritual/invisible world. The non-human world is the world which we cannot see. These two worlds are not separate, but connected, and make up one continuous, complete and whole West Africa world. The West African world is cyclical, or never- ending. This explains the West African belief in the never-ending cycle of life and in reincarnation. They believe that one is born, grows old, dies, and then is reborn.

The visible world is a world of human beings, of natural forces and phenomena. The invisible world is a world of divine beings, of good and bad spirits, and departed ancestors. The visible and invisible worlds commune and interact with each other.

West Africans believe that there are spirits all around them. These spirits are too many for one to even know. Therefore, West Africans have mediums (diviners, priests, priestesses) to help explain the universe. These are special human beings who are endowed with spiritual idiosyncrasies.

The spiritual and human worlds are hierarchical. At the zenith of the spiritual world is God. God is neither male nor female. God is a combination and balance of male and female forces. Many West African peoples have different names for God. The Asante and Fanti of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, call God, Nyame. The Bambara of Mali, call God, Jalang the Dogon of Burkina Faso and Mali, call the Great God, Amma. The Edo of Nigeria, call God, Osa. The Ewe of Benin, Ghana, and Togo, call God, Mawu. Among the Fon of Benin, God is called, Mawu-Lisa. The Ibibio of Nigeria, call God, Abassi and Chuku. The Igbo of Nigeria, call God, Chukwu, Chineke, and Olisa bi n’igwé. The Kpelle of Liberia, call God, Yala. The Mossi of Burkina Faso, call God, Winnam. The Nupe of Nigeria, call God, Soko and Waqa. The Vai of Liberia, call God, Kamba and the Yoruba of Nigeria call God, Olodumare, Olorun, or Olofin-Orun.

Alusi Ifejioku – The balance of femininity and masculinity of deities and shrines. Photograph by Daderot, 2012, CC0 1.0

God is too great to behold and therefore is assisted by a pantheon of more accessible lesser gods and goddesses. These gods and goddesses are autonomous, yet interdependent. They are personifications of natural phenomena. Thus, West Africans have goddesses of the lands, gods of lightning and thunder and, goddesses of the streams and rivers. The Yoruba goddess of the waters and love is oshun. The Igbo goddess of the lands is ani, and the Fon goddesses of fertility and harvests is legba.

Moreover, the West African world view is reflective of a balance of male and female principles, meaning that when there is a male god, that male god is served by a female priestess. Likewise, when there is a female goddess, a male priest serves the goddess.

Underneath the gods and goddess are the oracles. Oracles in West Africa can be both male and female. They are forces that explain the past and predict the future. Ibiniukpabi also known as the Arochukwu Long Juju by the British was an oracle in whose power was felt throughout the Nigerian Niger Delta region. And so powerful was she that the British ordered a series of patrols to attempt to destroy her.

Ancestors are the dead, who have come back to life. They represent the never-ending cycle of life. When West Africans pour libation, they do so to invite their ancestors to be present during important times. In many West African nations, ancestors assume the physical form of masquerades or masked spirits.

The human West African world is essentially made up of two types of societies—centralized and small-scale societies. Kings and queens (queen mothers) rule over centralized societies and male and female elders rule over small scale societies. In West Africa men and women take titles to demonstrate their achievement. Warriors in West Africa can be both male and female, including the Amazons warriors from ancient Dahomey kingdom. The work ethic is extremely important in West Africa. All able-bodied men and women work and as such, there are no stay-at-home West African mothers. Those able-bodied men and women who choose not work in West Africa are considered useless people because they are not contributing to society. So disregarded are they that they feature at the very bottom of societal hierarchy even more disregarded than West African slaves.

Politics in West Africa: The Precolonial Era

In West Africa, religion and politics have always been interconnected. This is reflected in the fact that most West African rulers—kings, queens, and chiefs—have ruled by divine right. Many are able to trace their ancestry back, through oral histories, to a semi-divine figure. The Nigerian Yoruba for instance believe that Oduduwa began life as a deity and then became the first King, or Ooni of Ife.

This section investigates the central and evolving place of West African women, as well as the female spiritual principle in precolonial politics by exploring the complexities of female political action in precolonial West Africa. It does this by dividing male and female politicking in precolonial West Africa into two broad analytical categories, namely, the human political constituency, and spiritual political constituency. The human political constituency is further divided into two complementary categories: female government and male government. Likewise, as discussed above, the spiritual political constituency is also divided into two: female government and male government.

Leadership and power were not alien to West Africa women in pre-colonial society. Their position was complementary, rather than subordinate, to that of men. Political power and authority was divided between West African men and women in what has been described as a dual-sex political system in which each sex managed and controlled their own affairs.

West African societies recognize two political constituencies, the spiritual and the human. The spiritual political constituency in West Africa consists of divinities, male and female functionaries who derived political power from an association with spiritual world. The human political constituency in West Africa is made up of executives who achieve political potential as human actors in physical realm.

Female Power in the Spiritual Political Constituency: Case Study of the Igbo of Nigeria

The female spiritual political constituency in West Africa of medicines, goddesses, priestesses, masked spirits or masquerades, and diviners figured as political heads in Igbo communities. Female masked spirits featured prominently as judicial courts and judges of moral conduct. They were the dead who had come back to life in the life of the community. For instance, among the eastern Nigerian Igbo, the female night masquerade, Abere, came out only at night and was said to carry all good luck and curses in her market pan. At the dead of night, she moved about acting as a night guard. Her presence was detected by a myriad of gruesome sounds—disagreeable music, screams, screeches and curses—that accompanied her wherever she went. Abere often sang an awe-inspiring song that charged Obukpa citizenry to behave themselves for—“Abere kills the husband, takes the wife captive and also takes captive the man who marries the woman whom she has taken captive.” She also visited homesteads and openly disclosed and lampooned the nefarious activities of particular community members. No secret was safe from Abere. In the precolonial era Abere operated as an integral part of the legal system and actively functioned as an agent of social control. She had the power and authority to order humans without challenge and her decrees and punishments were uncontestable. She was a strict disciplinarian who handed down tough sentences and visited anyone whose activities were considered a threat to community wholeness with sickness—chronic sores and mental illness—and if necessary, death. Abere also functioned as a community court, pronouncing judgments in cases brought before her and collecting retributions from offenders. As an embodiment of a dead woman, Abere particularly promoted and protected women’s industry (marketing and trade especially), and men were said to fear her pronouncements.

Female Power in the Human Political Constituency: Queen Mothers in the Government and Politics of Asanteland, Ghana

Government and politics in Asanteland was organized along a complimentary basis between the sexes. Some scholars have called this a dual-sex political system. Therefore, the Asante, had male and female government. Queen mothers were women co-rulers of Asanteland. They derived their power from the matrilineal nature of social organization. The Asante have a saying that “it is woman who gave birth to a man, it is a woman who gave birth to a chief.” Queen mothers determined succession, inheritance, rights, obligations and citizenship.

At the very top of the centralized government were the Asantehemma or queen mother, and Asantehene or king. Under these leaders were the queen mothers and kings of the paramounts, the female, Ohemaa and the male, Omanhene. The Ohemaa was the co-ruler who had joint responsibility with the male chief in all affairs of the state. Under the divisional areas are the towns, which are governed by their own queen mother called Oba Panin, and male chief Odikro. Under the towns are the eight clans of Asanteland, which are governed by sub female chiefs called, Abusuapanyin.

Responsibilities and Obligations of the Queen Mothers

Asante Queen Mothers exercised authority in many domains. The most important duty however was her responsibilities with regards to the king. First and foremost, the Asante Queen Mother elects the king. She is the royal genealogist who determines the legitimacy of all claimants to the vacant stool. When a king’s stool becomes vacant, the Asantehemma nominates a candidate for the Golden Stool. She has three chances to nominate a candidate who must be approved by the traditional council.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Asante Queen Mother’s stool, CC BY-SA 3.0 .

The Queen Mother guides and advises the king, in all matters of state, tradition and religion. She ensures that taboos are not breached, and she is the only one who has the right to criticize and rebuke the King in public. She is a member of the governing council or the assembly of state and the queen mother’s presence is required whenever important matters of state are to be decided.

The Queen Mother also had judicial responsibilities. She has her own separate court in her palace where she was assisted by female counselors and functionaries. She hears all judicial cases involving the sacred oaths of the state and has independent jurisdiction over all domestic matters affecting women and members of the royal family. In certain cases, male litigants could apply to have their civil cases transferred from king’s court to the queen mother’s court. If she accepts them, then her judgment is final.

As Queen Mother, she is in charge of female governance, and brought women together to, for instance, clean the village. She performed important rituals for the community and was present during important ceremonies like funerals. It was the Queen Mother who performed all initiation rites and all young women had to be brought to the queen mother once they started menstruating. Unlike most women, the Queen Mother married has right to have affairs with men in the kingdom.

The Iyalode in Yoruba (Nigeria) Politics

The Iyalode, like the male chiefs of Yorubaland, was a chief in her own right. She had her own special insignia of office which consisted of a necklace of special beads, wide brimmed straw hats, and a shawl. The Iyalode had her own personal servants, special drummers, and bell ringers to call the women of the kingdom to attention.

The Iyalode title was all embracing. She was given jurisdiction over all women. She was given the title Eiyelobinrin, “mother of all women.” The Iyadole was the chosen representative of all women. Her position was achieved, not inherited.

The Iyalode office was an elective office that had to have stamp of popular approval. The most important qualification was the Iyalode’s proven ability as leader to articulate the feelings of the women of the kingdom. She controlled vast economic resources and was popular. Once appointed, the Iyalode became not only voice of women in government, but also, the queen who coordinated their activities.

The Iyalode settled quarrels in court, and met with women to determine what women’s stand should be on such questions as the declaration of war, opening of new markets, and the administration of women at local levels.

As spokeswoman of the women, the Iyalode was given access to all positions of power and authority within the State. She exercised legislative, judicial, and executive powers with male chiefs in their council.

She had her own council of subordinate female chiefs who exercised jurisdiction over all matters that pertained to women. Her council of women chiefs were involved in the settlement of disputes between women, cleanliness of the markets, and other women’s concerns. The Iyalode also controlled the markets in the kingdom. She was the honorary president-general for all women’s societies in town. A great deal of what the Iyalode could achieve depended on the qualities of the Iyalode, her personality, dynamism, and political astuteness.

Igbo Women in Community Politics

There were two arms of government in the human political constituency in Igboland, the male and the female. Female government in Igboland was further divided into two arms, the otu umuada and the otu iyomdi.

Igbo ancestral shrine Onica Olona, photograph by Northcote Whitridge Thomas, 1914, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

The umuada included all married, unmarried, divorced, and widowed daughters of the lineage or community. Their meetings were held on rotational basis between the communities in which they married. The result was the creation of communication networks of women throughout Igboland. These networks made solidarity between women from vast areas possible during the Women’s War of 1929 or Ogu Umunwanyi.

The duties of the otu umuada were many:

  1. They served as political pressure groups in their natal villages.
  2. They created unifying influences between their natal lineages and marital lineages.
  3. They settled disputes, intra lineage disputes and disputes between natal villages and villages in which they were married.
  4. They performed rites, rituals, and sacrifices for the community, including the final absolution rites for new brides. On the day in question, the bride-to-be would confess all her wrong doings to the otu umuada who would then purify her.
  5. The otu umuada also performed purification rituals for lineage houses and other areas that were considered polluted, so that the gods or goddesses would not leash out their wrath on the people, but instead, provide them with good health, bounty and offspring.
  6. The otu umuada heard confessions from adulterous wives and performed purification rituals for them.

The otu inyomdi were wives of the village. Their leader, anasi, was the most senior wife in the community. She was the wife who was married longest in the community. The anasi was the medium through which the women could voice their concerns and protect their interests as wives, mothers, farmers, and traders.

The duties of the otu inyomdi was many:

  1. They helped lineage wives in times of stress and illness.
  2. They heard and pronounced punishments in cases involving husbands who mistreated their wives.
  3. They made sure that the village stream and market place was clean.
  4. They made decisions involving the planting and harvesting of crops.
  5. They took care of animals that had destroyed their crops.

From time to time in the life of the community, the otu umuada and otu inyomdi came together as the women’s assembly to discuss issues that affected them as women in the community.

Ogbo associations or Age Grade associations

Age grades were groups of women of same age, who came together in order to provide incentives toward ambition and hard work. They performed religious, social and political functions within the community provided training for young people in group life and provided avenues for socialization and companionship which were very useful and integrative factors in society. In Igboland, unmarried lineage daughters formed themselves into various ogbo associations. One of them was the okpo ntu and their duties included cleaning and maintaining the village latrines and garbage dumps performing communal labor services such as house building and associated tasks and, organizing themselves into dance groups, which provided forums where girls could build strong and lasting relationships with other girls in the group.

In Igboland status was achieved, not ascribed and a woman’s status was determined by her own achievements, not those of her husband. Igbo women could improve their social standing by taking titles. These titles included the ikenga, inachi and inwene. Titled women were accorded a lot of respect and those who showed leadership capabilities could often hold political office.

The omu and her cabinet of titled women councilors, ilogu, were charged with take care of the female section of the community. The market place was the Igbo woman’s domain. It was held every four days. The omu and her cabinet oversaw the market and defined its rules and regulations. The omu and her cabinet fixed the prices of market goods and defined market prohibitions. They acted as a court in the judging of cases and persecuting of wrong doers. The omu appointed a police woman called the awo. The awo implemented the fixed price regulations in the markets. She made sure market taboos were observed, and arrested wrongdoers and brought them before the omu court. Market taboos included, no fighting in the market, palm produce should not to be sold in bunches, but separated first and last but not least, peppers should be boiled first before being sold.

Strategies of female resistance in precolonial West Africa

In the precolonial era, West African women gathered together to vocalize their feelings about situations that affected them. These meeting grounds also served as support networks that women could depend upon to exact punishment of offending men.

What exactly would women do? First, they would request that whatever objectionable behavior stop. If it did not, the women’s groups would serve as ‘pressure groups’ which would exact punishments on the guilty party or parties. West African women’s group tactics included: the use of strikes, boycotts, force, nudity as protest, and “making war” or “sitting on a man.” “Making war” or “sitting on a man,” was the toughest measure that West African women employed for punishing wrongdoers and enforcing compliance to their rules and regulations.

Strikes and boycotts often meant that West African women would ignore their household or marital responsibilities. For instance, West African women could “boycott” or abstain from sexual intercourse with their husbands. J. S. Harris reports on a case when a community of Igbo women repeatedly asked their clansmen to clear the paths leading to the market. When they did not, all the women in the village refused to cook for their husbands until they did. The boycott worked because all the women of the village cooperated. Husbands could not ask their mothers or sisters for food.

A West African woman could enlist the support of other women in “making war” on an individual in a number of ways. The aggrieved woman could lodge a complaint at the market place or at one of the women’s gatherings. They could let out a traditional cry of grievance which would echo the village over. All the village women would gather at a common ground, the market place or the village square. Palm twigs would be passed around from woman to woman a symbol of the war to come. The women would dress in war gear, their heads bound with ferns and their faces smeared with ashes. They would then move with war-like precision, and gather at the offender’s compound. Once there, they would dance and sing derisive songs that outlined their grievances. Some of the songs called the manhood of the offender into question. They would bang on the offender’s door with their cooking pestles. Then they would skirt the offender’s compound and cover it with mud. On some occasions the women would destroy the house. They would pull the wrongdoer out and rough him up. They would surround him and then take turns in symbolically “sitting on” him.

A man thus reprimanded, stood humiliated in the presence of all his peers. He could be so punished if he repeatedly mistreated his wife, violated market rules, or allowed his animals to destroy women’s crops.

Effect of Colonialism on West African Women’s Political Structures

Colonialism in West Africa allowed a foreign power to rule West African people without their permission. The European colonialists were able to take over West African land through military conquest. Colonialism did not value the world of the colonized. It divided the colonized society and rendered all its members weak.

Colonialism marked beginning of end of any equality between sexes in village and politics. Women suffered the greatest loss of power. They were relegated to the background and could no longer take part in decision making. In non-centralized societies, opportunistic young men who befriended colonial masters were chosen to fill leadership positions as warrant chiefs, and the cases that previously went before women’s organizations, were now taken to the colonial courts. Except for Ahebi Ugbabe of colonial Nigeria, there were no women warrant chiefs, or members of courts. Women were not made court messengers, interpreters, clerks, or police women.

The warrant chiefs were very corrupt. They constantly helped themselves to women’s agricultural produce and animals and forced Igbo women into marriage without allowing them the customary right to refuse them.

Women’s political organization lost prestige and members as their political and religious functions were replaced by colonial rule and Christianity. Clinics and foreign drugs replaced the need for rituals and sacrifices that women’s organizations undertook for welfare of village.

The colonial governments banned self-help and the use of force by individuals or groups to bring wrong doers to justice. They also banned “sitting on a man.” The colonial environment did not allow for group solidarity amongst women, nor did it provide provision for dispersed leadership or shared power.

The colonial masters laid claim to African land, privatizing and commercializing it, thus obstructing the traditional system of communal land ownership. They introduced crown grants which allowed men who wanted to purchase or own land to do so. The system not only made women’s ownership of land impossible, but restricted access to it for farming purposes.

Colonialism eroded many of the economic avenues women had in traditional society. With the introduction of cash cropping for world markets, men were increasingly employed to work on farms, overlooking women, traditional cultivators, in the process. Colonialism brought about the importation of European goods, thus ruining traditional price fixing systems, another woman-controlled sector.

With colonialism came Christianity and the introduction of western ideas and culture. The new faith attracted only a few converts to begin with. When West African women realized that western education was the key to political leadership, many more joined, so that their children would be allowed to attend missionary school.

Church and school were synonymous, with classes held in church building. Girls had less access than boys to missionary education. These schools generally provided opportunities for education in vocations that were considered male, like carpentry and printing, thus excluding women in the process. The few girls that did attend missionary school were confined entirely to the private life of family. They were taught cooking, cleaning, child care, and sewing—the necessary domestic skills for Christian marriage and motherhood in their minds. This, unlike preparation which enabled them in pre-colonial culture to be involved in both private and public domains.

Prejudices against West African women by the missionaries was in keeping with the Victorian ideology that a woman’s place was in home. They believed that women were frail minded and incapable of mastering the so-called masculine subjects. Moreover, Christian marriage introduced the title of “Mrs.” Which replaced the tradition of West African women going by their mother’s first name, further diffusing the validation of women.

The Effect Colonialism on Igbo Women—The Women’s War or Ogu Umunwanyi of 1929

Women “made war” in 1929 to call attention to a number of situations that adversely affected their interests as women.

  1. They believed that the British colonial government would institute direct taxation on them. In 1927, the British had instituted direct taxation on men. It was rumored that women would be taxed next.
  2. They “made war” in reaction to dramatic falling of palm oil prices due to the world depression. Food pricing was an Igbo woman-controlled venture and before the institution of direct taxation on men in 1927, the official price of palm oil was between 12 and 13 shillings. The official price of mixed oil was between 9 and 10 shillings for a four-gallon tin. The official price of palm kernels was between 7 and 8 shillings for 50 pounds. In 1928, the price of palm oil fell to 7 shillings 5 pence. By 1929, the price fell some more to 5 shillings 11 pence

What did the women do? They decided to negotiate, which is a method that the women employed in pre-colonial times to right any wrong done them. Therefore, on December 30, 1929, Igbo women held a mass meeting. They met with the District Officer and representatives of United Africa Company, John Holt, Russell’s etc. They demand a higher price for palm oil and kernels: “we have fixed a certain price for palm oil and kernels and if we get that we will bring them in. We want 10 shillings a tin for oil and 9 shillings a bushel for kernels.”

  1. They “made war” because of the high price of imported goods. In 1928, the duty on tobacco rose from 1 shilling 6 pence to 2 shillings in 1929.
  2. They “made war” because of the change in the method of purchase from measure to weight instituted by the colonial government. Igbo women were convinced that they were being cheated.
  3. Igbo women “made war” because the government had introduced an inspection of the women’s produce.
  4. Igbo women were enraged at the persecutions, extortions and corruption of the warrant chiefs and Native Court members.

It was these factors that fueled Igbo women’s anger, presenting a need to put the British colonialists in order.

What happened? In Oloko area of Bende Division, the acting District Officer Mr. Cook asks warrant chief, Okogu to start counting adult males, females, children and animals. Warrant chief Okogu assigns this task to Emeruwa, who is his messenger. On November 23, 1929, Emeruwa goes to Nwanyereuwa’s house to ask her for this count. An angry Nwanyereuwa screams to him: “was your mother counted?” They seize each other by the throats, and a scuffle ensues. Nwanyereuwa raises an alarm. Coincidentally the women meeting at the market, to discuss this tax rumor. Nwanyereuwa bursts in and tells them what happened. This is an overt sign that they are indeed going to be taxed. Women thus send word to other women by sending palm twigs to women in neighboring villages asking them to come to Oloko. The significance of this action represented the war to come. These women in turn send palm fronds to other women.

On November 24, the Oloko market is filled with women from far and near:

One Sunday an alarm was raised, our attention was called to the fact the case had occurred, that is to say, what we had been anticipating had occurred. We all started that night for Oloko to see what had happened there.

Once gathered, the women trooped to Niger Delta Pastorate Mission to demonstrate against Emeruwa:

they danced and danced outside the Mission compound all night, eating and drinking palm wine and singing that Nwanyereuwa had been told to count her goats, sheep and people.

From the Mission, they marched to Okogu’s compound, to ask him to explain why he had ordered them to pay tax. They ended up storming his compound, looting his property, and attacking his wives and servants. The method that the women employed was the method that they employed in the precolonial area to “make war,” or “sit on a man.”

On November 26, the women went to Bende Divisional Headquarters to report the assault on Nwanyereuwa. The next day, Igbo women of Bende, Aba and Owerri Division assembled at Oloko, and refused to disperse until the acting District Officer Cook informed them that they would not be taxed. The women also insist that Okogu is arrested and removed as warrant chief.

According to District Officer Captain Hill who had just returned from leave:

The women numbering over 10,000 were shouting and yelling round the office in a frenzy. They demanded his cap of office, which I threw to them and it met the same fate as a fox’s carcass thrown to a pack of hounds. The station between the office and the Epsom and just round the office resembled Epsom Downs on Derby Day. The crowd extended right away through Bende Village and the pandemonium was beyond al belief. It took me two hours to get an opportunity of sending the wire asking for more police.

The women left with written declaration that they will not be taxed. Okogu was arrested and sentenced to 2 years in prison.

The colonial government thought that women would be appeased by this arrest. The reverse, however, occurred. News of Okogu’s imprisonment encouraged women who believed that they had scored a victory, and as a result, they stormed village after village.

On December 12, they invaded Nguru, Okpuala, and Ngor and destroyed colonial court buildings and burnt all records. To prevent further destruction, the British colonial government deployed a mobile striking force. On December 13, colonial government sent dispatches out to Aba, Port Harcourt, Mbosi and Owerri. In Calabar Province, Ikot Ekpene, Abak and Opobo were attacked. Fire was opened and there were a number of casualties.

All in all, over fifty women are killed and fifty were wounded. The effects were not positive for women. Politically, the British outlawed the warrant chief system and replace it with the “massed bench” system, which put a number of judges in power instead of one. The British also outlawed self-help and “making war” or “sitting on a man”

Additionally, the colonial government sent a slew of anthropologists and ethnographers into the field to study Igbo political systems in order to make sure that nothing like the Women’s war ever happened again. The British sent colonial government anthropologists like C. K. Meek, Sylvia Leith-Ross, Margaret Green, and Ida Woods to study the Igbo. Thus, by the end of 1934, over 200 intelligence reports had been published.

From the ancient Nok civilization and the Benin Empire to culturally diverse groups, here are some amazing facts to know about these groups of countries.

1. The Kingdom of Ghana/Ghanata/Wagadugu was one of the most powerful African empires for thousands of years.

It was one of the first of the great medieval trading empires of western Africa during the 7th–13th century and was situated between the Sahara and the headwaters of the Sénégal and Niger rivers. At that time it was far more developed than any European country.

2. The Nok Civilization is considered to be one of the most advanced ancient sub-Saharan civilizations in African history. Beginning sometime around 1500 BC and was largely concentrated in Nigeria. It produced some of the first sub-Saharan iron smelting and terracotta architecture. They mysteriously disappeared around 200 AD.

3. Mansa Musa I of Mali is the richest human being in all history. The 14th-century king was named the richest person in all history by the Celebrity Net Worth website.

Mansa Musa I ruled West Africa’s Malian Empire in the early 1300s, making his fortune by exploiting Mali’s salt and gold production.

4. West Africa is more culturally diverse than the whole of Asia. Nigeria alone has over 500+ languages. More languages are spoken in Taraba state than in 30 countries.

5. Liberia is Africa's first independent country. It was found by freed American slaves when they started settling around 1820.

The country was declared independent in 1847 by the United States, thereby marking Liberia as Africa’s first independent republic. That's 101 years before India got free from British rule.

6. Sokoto Caliphate is an Islamic empire in Nigeria, led by the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’adu Abubakar. Founded during the Fulani Jihad in the early 19th century, it was one of the most powerful empires in sub-Saharan Africa prior to European conquest and colonization. The caliphate remained extant through the colonial period and afterwards, though with reduced power.