From the sixteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, sub-Saharan Africa underwent drastic change, evolving from a continent of empires, kingdoms, states, and city-states to a continent under European domination.
From the sixteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, sub-Saharan Africa underwent drastic change, evolving from a continent of empires, kingdoms, states, and city-states to a continent under European domination. Although some sixteenth and seventeenth century African groups were living in stateless societies, most tended toward centralized states with significant military institutions. Powerful empires and kingdoms included those of Songhai, Oyo, Benin, and Bornu-Kanem in West Africa; Bunyoro, Buganda, and the Swahili city-states in East Africa; the kingdoms of the Kongo, Lunda, Luba, Changamire, and Mwanamutapa across Central Africa; the Funj Sultanate in the Sudan; and the Kingdom of Ethiopia.
Major causes of warfare were for the control of trade routes, including rivers and lakes, and of markets and agricultural and grazing land. Other causes were for the subjugation of peoples to serve as workers, soldiers, and taxpayers. There were hostilities along the west coast of Africa for control of international trade. Some wars were waged to consolidate power. Others, such as the Islamic jihads, or holy wars, in West Africa, involved religion, although most also had underlying economic or political considerations. In the nineteenth century African states warred against one another, but these confrontations soon were replaced by wars of resistance against European imperialism.
There is little consensus among historians concerning the relationship between the slave
In this environment of increased warfare, some kingdoms disappeared and others grew, as centralization emerged as a strategy for both expansion and defense. By the eighteenth century political and economic patterns had shifted. The savanna region of West Africa declined, as
In East Africa, Swahili economic and military power grew as city-states were unified.
The British attempt to subjugate the Afrikaner settlers in southern Africa during the First Boer War, 1881.
In Central Africa the Lunda, Kuba, Lozi, and Bemba kingdoms remained significant powers, as did the Ovimbundu kingdoms in Angola. The Luba
Nineteenth century warfare was more intense in southern
Throughout the nineteenth century, African kingdoms experienced a complex interplay of local, regional, and international forces. Economically, there was a dramatic shift away from the Atlantic slave trade toward the so-called legitimate trade, with a corresponding rearrangement of economic patterns and power balances. Politically, the process of centralization continued unabated in most parts of the continent. The integration of groups into larger, more centralized political entities provoked conflict and warfare, but in some cases promoted wider security and stability. The ending of the overseas slave trade, however, corresponded with the beginning of European
British troops advance on the Zulus at the Tugela River in 1900.
Between 1500 and 1900 the evolution of African warfare corresponded with the increasing centralization of African kingdoms, states, and empires. Centralization increased control of trade and resources that were used for further expansion. Conquest augmented the human and material resources for state formation, empire building, and consolidation of power. By the nineteenth century such consolidation had led to the economic integration of various regions of Africa.
In 1896, the Mahdist state of ՙAbdullāh et Taՙā՚isha proclaimed a jihad and used extensive cavalry units to force Egypt out of the Sudan.
In both East and Central Africa consolidation of state power allowed for the exploitation of a wide range of natural and human resources. Local trade networks were linked to long-distance routes, bringing products from remote regions into a wider market arena connected to both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Along the East African coast, trade was dominated by the
Although the consolidation of territory and governance and the expansion of economic relations were important accomplishments, two more overarching achievements of the African states and their militaries were realized in the years from 1500 to 1900. The first was the prevention of foreign occupation of African territory from 1500 to the 1870’s. By the latter date only 10 percent of African territory, mostly in South Africa and Algeria, was under direct European control. Although diseases and other factors contributed to this state of affairs, the strength of African kingdoms and empires played a major role. Even during the era of the devastating slave trade, Africans were able to control the terms of trade and limit Europeans to small fortifications on the west coast.
The other important achievement was the powerful resistance of many African states to nineteenth century European
In the period from 1500 to 1900, African weapons underwent slow, evolutionary development, until modern firearms were introduced in the mid-nineteenth century. In many African societies, weapons were part of a complex cultural system and were imbued with social, cultural, and religious, as well as military, significance. For example, amulets for spiritual protection were worn in leather pouches around soldiers’ necks, were tied to uniforms, or were attached to weapons. Islamic soldiers wore small pouches with pieces of paper inscribed with verses from the Qur՚ān.
African weapons types varied according to the geographical regions of their use. In the forest areas of West and Central Africa and the open veldt of southern Africa, infantries used throwing spears, multipointed throwing knives, and less common projectile weapons such as darts, slings, and throwing clubs. Infantry assault units carried shields and shock weapons: swords, clubs, axes, daggers, and spears.
Infantry units often were organized according to the weapons they carried. Typical examples were archer units, such as those of the Mossi and Luba.
Swords were among the most common weapons used by both infantry and cavalry units. These weapons had two-edged straight blades or curved blades. Most were manufactured locally, but the blades themselves were often imported. Swords used in the forest regions tended to be shorter in length. All cavalrymen carried a short sword for use after spears had been thrown or lost.
Uniforms of nineteenth century French soldiers in Algeria: infantry (left) and cavalry.
Infantries and cavalries made extensive use of the
The overall impact of the musket on African armies was limited. Guns and gunpowder of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were poor and unreliable. Muskets were insufficiently maintained and were difficult to reload quickly without considerable training. They were inaccurate because they were shot from the hip. Coordinated firepower was rarely used. There is no evidence that the use of muskets increased the death rate, or that they were always decisive against enemies without firearms. In 1726 an Oyo cavalry without firearms defeated a Dahomian force armed with muskets. Despite these limitations, the intense sound of firearms created psychological terror in the enemy. In eastern and southern Africa and Ethiopia, firearms had even less impact on warfare than they had elsewhere. In Central
After 1850 modern firearms were made available in Africa, where obsolete European guns were sold as more effective weapons were produced on the European continent. Breechloaders such as the single-shot Snider were used in West Africa. Eventually, repeating rifles, such as the Winchester, were also used. Other firearms sold to African states included the Snider-Enfield, Martini-Henry, Chassepot, Mauser, French Gras, Lee-Enfield, and French Lebel models. Although Europeans sold these weapons by the thousands, they were reluctant to sell machine guns and artillery to African states, with the exception of Ethiopia. Some artillery was captured from European armies, but its availability and usage was limited. Overall, Africans failed to take advantage of modern firearms. Their courage and high morale allowed them to resist the European onslaught, but they could not prevail.
Throughout Africa soldiers wore distinctive uniforms for identification, protection, and mobility. The most elaborate
Many African soldiers wore hats or
Units of heavy cavalry, such as those of the Sudan, wore
Given the diversity of African civilizations, military organization took a wide variety of forms. Historian Bruce Vandervort describes four types of organization used by African states and empires. All were hierarchical systems. The first type included armies in which recruits were summoned locally or regionally to serve as discrete units within the military structure. In
In the second type of military organization, exemplified by that of the
A third type of military organization was the “citizens’ army,” in which all physically able males were expected to bear arms during times of war. These levies commonly served as infantry under local officers and usually were required to bring their own weapons and provisions. Using this model, Mai Idris
The fourth type of military organization was the standing army of
The roles of
Military structure also varied in terms of balance between different types of units. In West Africa’s open savanna regions the main force was cavalry, usually supported by infantry. The cavalry was an elite corps, sometimes forming a military aristocracy. The supply of horses and tack was shared by the king and the territorial leadership. Some cavalries were divided into light and heavy units, based on the type of horse and the military objective. Cavalry units tended to have more autonomy with territorial leadership, whereas infantries were more hierarchically structured under a centralized command.
In the forest areas of West Africa, armies relied primarily on infantry, because horses could not survive the sleeping sickness carried by the tsetse fly that was prevalent throughout the region. Infantries were divided into units of men wielding different weapons such as spears, swords, or bows and arrows. Some infantrymen carried muskets, but in the nineteenth century more modern firearms appeared. The use of firearms by infantry was most prevalent among the forest states.
In addition to land forces, some African states maintained
The strategies of African militaries grew out of governmental policies and their long-term objectives. The causes of warfare and the development of strategic planning were interrelated. Strategic objectives included control of long-distance trade routes; access to cattle, horses, slaves, and food; creation of defensible borders; and ideological factors such as the establishment of Islamic theocracies. The achievement of strategic goals was based on the assessment of many variables, such as strength of the opposition, conditions at home, available weapons and manpower, perceptions of success, and the collection of intelligence.
Tactics included the conduct of the war, types of assaults or maneuvers, coordination of cavalry and infantry units, and use of weapons in the battle plan. Tactics varied widely from region to region. This was evident in the use of infantry. In late nineteenth century
Nineteenth century East African slavers march their captives to the coast. In virtually all African wars of the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, captives were sold to Europeans as slaves, often in exchange for firearms.
The integration of
A political cartoon by John Tenniel warns the British against underestimating the indigenous peoples it was attempting to subjugate in southern Africa.
There were two significant exceptions to the traditional Sudanic cavalry and its associated military tactics. Nineteenth century
Another example of outstanding tactical use of infantry was Shaka’s Zulu army.
African military doctrine was influenced by the interrelationship of religion and warfare. Written documentation, oral tradition, and material culture indicate that virtually all armies engaged in pre- and postbattle ceremonies for purification, protection, and victory. Some kings and military leaders used divination to choose the best time for battle. In some societies the religious pantheon included a god of war who was usually associated with iron, such as Gu in Dahomey or Ogun in Yoruba territory. Invocation of the supernatural was considered essential in warfare.
Primary sources for the study of African military history include African, Arabic, and European writings; African oral tradition; and local histories written by African authors. For the savanna regions of West Africa, there are many sources written in Arabic by African Muslims and North Africans. Two seventeenth century works are essential: Tarikh
Beginning in the 1500’s European merchants made regular visits to the African coasts. Many left descriptions of wars, trade, and diplomacy. There are accounts by William Snelgrave, William Bosman, John Norris, Archibald Dalzel, Jean Barbot, O. Dapper, and many others. A plethora of Portuguese records exist, but these accounts, written before the mid-nineteenth century, deal almost exclusively with African coastal regions and contain little reliable information on events in the interior.
Many late-eighteenth and nineteenth century European sources were written by explorers, merchants, and missionaries. Some of the most important authors include Richard Burton, Hugh Clapperton, Henry Fynn, Heinrich Barth, Henry Stanley, John Duncan, Samuel Baker, René Caillié, J. S. Gallieni, John Speke, Mungo Park, and James Bruce. These works are valuable as sources but must be used carefully, as they contain ethnocentric observations and stereotypes, exaggerations, and misleading information. Nevertheless, they remain important sources for the study of African armies.
There are two other types of African sources. The first, oral tradition, is an integral part of African cultures and a rich source for military history. Given the connection between warfare and royal power, oral tradition must also be evaluated with caution, because it often reflects the viewpoint of the ruling elite. The second source includes local histories written by African authors. These are collections of oral traditions supplemented by the experiences of the authors and the memories of the local inhabitants. Examples are works by Nigerian authors Samuel Johnson and Jacob Egharevba. Historians should examine works of art, music, song, and dance for further insights into the role of the military. These sources become valuable when they are integrated and corroborated. Only then will one gain an understanding of warfare and society as it is reflected in the “new military history.”
Akinjogbin, Adeagbo, ed. War and Peace in Yorubaland, 1793-1893. Ibadan, Nigeria: Heinemann, 1998. Crowder, Michael, ed. West African Resistance: The Military Response to Colonial Occupation. New York: African, 1971. Falola, Toyin, and Robin Law, eds. Warfare and Diplomacy in Precolonial Nigeria. Madison: African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin, 1992. Inikori, J. E. “The Import of Firearms into West Africa, 1750-1807: A Quantitative Analysis.” In Warfare and Empires: Contact and Conflict Between European and Non-European Military and Maritime Forces and Cultures, edited by Douglas M. Peers. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate/Variorum, 1997. Lamphear, John. “Sub-Saharan African Warfare.” In War in the Modern World Since 1815, edited by Jeremy Black. New York: Routledge, 2003. Law, Robin. “Warfare on the West African Slave Coast, 1650-1850.” In War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warfare, edited by R. Brian Ferguson and Neil L. Whitehead. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: School of American Research Press, 1992. Peers, C. J. Warrior Peoples of East Africa, 1840-1900. Illustrated by Raffaele Ruggeri. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2005. Smaldone, Joseph P. Warfare in the Sokoto Caliphate: Historical and Sociological Perspectives. 1977. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Smith, Robert S. Warfare and Diplomacy in Precolonial West Africa. 2d ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. Spring, Christopher. African Arms and Armor. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993. Thornton, John K. Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500-1800. London: UCL Press, 1999. _______. “Warfare, Slave Trading, and European Influence: Atlantic Africa, 1450-1800.” In War in the Early Modern World, edited by Jeremy Black. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Vandervort, Bruce. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830-1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. The Battle of Algiers. Feature film. Magna, 1966. The British Empire in Color. Documentary. History Channel, 2008. Shaka Zulu. Television miniseries. Harmony Gold, 1986. Warriors: Zulu Siege. Documentary. History Channel, 2009.
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