MIGHTY PEOPLE OF COLOR:
An Essay on “Caravans of Gold” and “Africa: A History Denied”
A powerful and peaceful land of trade and scholarship was established in Africa long before European ships even landed there. ereat African Empires flourished from the wealth of Africa’s natural resources that marked its rich and lavish history. Though Europeans and Arabs, people who most benefited from the wealth of Africa, denied Africa its legacy, the magnificence of people of color is embedded in the history of powerful empires such as Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Cairo, and Zimbabwe.
The gold deposits of West Africa brought great wealth to the surrounding people from which great empires emerged. The first of the three most powerful successive empires of West Africa is Ghana. By the 11th century, the armies of Ghana made master trade routes extending from modern-day Morocco in the north to the coastal forests of West Africa in the South. Though the gold deposits brought much wealth to Ghana, the Niger River served as a source of fish, which was also a valuable medium of trade. Soon Arabs and Muslims began to exploit these trade routes. Late in the 11th century, a militant Muslim group destroyed Ghana but the Susu people regained power during the 12th century. The people of Mali conquered them, in turn, in about 1240.
Mali, the second and most extensive of the three successive empires of West Africa, rose to dominance in the 13th and 14th centuries. The Mali Empire was one of the largest trading post of the world with its roots in the gold of West Africa. There was a complete sense of safety, stability, and prosperity in the Mali Empire. Tombouctou, a city in the Mali Empire, came to be a center of African scholarship as well as a famed market town which attracted traders from as far as across the Sahara Desert. There were many judges, doctors, and “learned” people who resided in Tombouctou. Madagesh was another famous trade post of Mali. When word got out about the wealth of Africa, maps were drawn up depicting the wealthy lands of Mali and its emperor. The Mali Empire served as a model of statecraft for later kingdoms long after its decline in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Songhai, the third of the Great West African Empires, was centered on the largest bend of the Niger River and reached its zenith in the 15th and 16th centuries. The people of Songhai were fishing and trading people who dominated petty adjacent states but was overshadowed by the affluence of the Mali Empire to the west. Under the Sunni dynasty, Songhai expansion incorporated the eastern part of Mali into its empire in 1471. The Sunni dynasty was then succeeded by the Askia dynasty that made Tombouctou once again a thriving cultural center. In 1591, an assault by Moroccan forces equipped with firearms crumbled the Songhai Empire, which never recovered.
Another magnificent empire of Africans was Old Cairo. The origins of Old Cairo can be traced back to the Egyptian capital of Memphis near the head of the Nile River delta. The location of Old Cairo has commanded political power ever since its establishment. The Mamelukes established their capital in Cairo in the 13th century, and the city became renowned for its spending on scholarship and architecture through Africa, Asia, and Europe. Old Cairo was the center of international trade from the coasts of the Atlantic to East China. Early Europeans looked to cities such as Cairo for Renaissance art work and even changed their currency to gold coins, mimicking the currency of the Africans. Cairo was noted as “the metropolis of the universe.” Cairo declined after the mid 14th century when an epidemic of Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black death, struck the city; decimating its population. This disease was believed to have been brought to Africa by Europeans.
Swahili cities were built all along the East Coast of Africa down to an enormous gold deposit in present-day Zimbabwe, known then as the Mwene Mutapa Empire which arose in the 14th century. Remains of these cities and buildings magnify the intelligence of the Africans long before slaves were appropriated. Houses had indoor sanitation and walls of stone. Zimbabwe, which means “great house of stone”, takes its name from these cities. When the well-designed homes of the Swahili domestic architecture were built, there were houses hardly anywhere else in the world. Great Zimbabwe was constructed devoted people to honor their king and provider. The source of the wealth of this kingdom was, of course, gold and also cattle, which were traded with Arabs and Indians. Arab traders and African merchants came together here in great cathedrals for calls of cathedrals. These cathedrals are compared to the most expansive and majestic cathedrals of Europe. One of the great Zimbabwean cities was Kilwa, which was ravaged by Portuguese expeditionists who stole the wealth of the city in 1400. The Dutch, English, and French then followed in taking the wealth of the Africans.
It is clearly seen that the history of the Africans is perhaps the greatest history of wealth and intelligence of any group of people in the medieval time period. Why then would a history so rich in culture and knowledge be denied to its descendants? Why is it so deeply embedded in our society that Africans are people without history? Europeans robbed, killed, and appropriated Africans from their own stable societies for personal use and wealth and brought them against their will to a land much, much more primitive than their own. This is how my people got to America where the majority population is of European or Caucasian decent. To allow such a lavish and illustrious history to be taught here, the majority would have to admit that their very own institutions implemented in our past and present society are the same institutions that interrupted, destroyed, and massacred the societies of intelligent Africans. Racism, greed, and selfishness imparted into the minds of these Europeans as they sailed to the coasts of Africa and saw the flourishing African kingdoms. And because their minds could not comprehend the language or understand the culture, their first thought was to oppress the people and suppress the great work they had done. Some whites go as far as to make themselves believe that there was a “lost white tribe” that built the great cities where ruins now lay. It is the same elements mentioned previously (racism, greed, and selfishness) that are the reasons why African history is still denied to our society.
Now that I have knowledge of great kingdoms my ancestors came from, I can have confidence in knowing that I am the descendant of astronomers, doctors, architects, mathematicians, philosophers, kings, and queens. I can now relay the knowledge that I have acquired to another who has not learned of the great things Africans have done. Being denied the history of my ancestors makes me aware of the extent to which some have gone to erase the achievements of mighty people of color.