Like the art of all peoples, the art of Africans expresses values, attitudes, and thought which are the products of their past experience. For that reason, the study of their art provides a way of learning about their history. Through the study of African art we can study the questions which have long preoccupied historians of Africa. This essay -- written by a historian who studies the African past -- presents an introduction to these questions. Its purpose is to encourage students to use their knowledge of African art to think about issues in African history.
As students of African art begin to consider the African past, they must also consider how Western conceptions of "race" and "racial" difference have influenced our notions of the African past. These ideas, which have usually contrasted the presumed inferiority of black peoples with the superiority of whites, arose in Western societies as Europeans sought to justify their enslavement of Africans and the subsequent colonization of Africa. Historians now recognize that ideas of racial inferiority have inspired the belief that in the past African peoples lived in a state of primitive barbarism. At the same time, they have realized that many of the European writings which they use to reconstruct the African past -- such as accounts by nineteenth-century missionaries and travelers, for example -- are themselves tainted by these same notions of African inferiority.
This realization has led historians to seek out alternative sources of information less influenced by European preoccupation with racial difference. These alternative sources include writings by Africans (which are found in only a few portions of Sub-Saharan Africa before the twentieth century), the much fuller bodies of oral tradition which are found throughout Africa, the vocabularies and structures of African languages themselves, and the physical artifacts uncovered by archaeologists. African art is also one of these alternative sources of information. Like the other alternative sources, it helps us to understand African history not from the standpoint of Europeans, but from the perspective of Africans themselves.
As historians have better understood the fallacy of Western ideas about racial inferiority, they have begun to seek other ways of thinking about differences between African and European history. Today, many historians combine ideas of difference and similarity in their interpretation of African history. They may regard African cultures as devising unusual solutions to problems which confront all human societies. For example, the eminent British historian Basil Davidson argues that Africans dealt with a problem found in all human communities -- the need to avoid tyranny -- by restricting the authority of rulers and by promoting the autonomy of small communities. Other historians explain difference not on racial grounds, but by considering other factors which affect social change.
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One example of this approach is found in the work of another British historian of Africa, John Iliffe. For Iliffe, the factor which most strongly shapes the character of African cultures is the African environment. Iliffe believes that Africans inhabit an environment whose aridity, infertile soils and profusion of diseases create particularly difficult challenges for humans. He sees the history of Africa as a process by which Africans surmount these challenges through agricultural innovation and sheer hard work. Of course, other historians disagree with the views of Davidson and Iliffe, and instead seek other factors which help to explain differences between Africans and other human societies. Thus part of the task of students who study African art is to ask themselves whether they see in it expressions of values and ideas which are unique, or whether they see manifestations of a common human spirit.
Human history in Africa is immensely long. In fact, both archaeological research and genetic studies strongly support the theory that the evolution of the modern human species (Homo sapiens sapiens) occurred in Africa. The earliest members of the hominid family of species to which we belong, the Australopithecines, separated from the ancestors of modern chimpanzees between four and six million years ago. The earliest archaeological evidence of Australopithecines comes from northern Ethiopia, and is about 4.4 million years old. The more dramatic evidence of these early human ancestors, however, are the famous Australopithecine footprints, made perhaps by parent and child about 3.5 million years ago at Laetoli, Tanzania. Traces of a more advanced hominid species, the stone tool-making Homo habilis, date to about two million years ago. Shortly thereafter, another human species, Homo erectus (so named for its ability to walk upright) emerged and developed more refined skills, including possibly the use of fire.
Early members of Homo sapiens lived in Africa perhaps 400,000 to 300,000 years ago, although anatomically modern humans whose skeletons cannot be distinguished from ours did not appear until about 140,000 years ago. Thereafter, these Homo sapiens sapiens spread rapidly throughout Africa and the rest of the world, reaching Europe perhaps 40,000 years ago and America no later than 15,000 years ago. Not only were these modern humans more successful than earlier hominid species in colonizing vast areas, but they made rapid progress in developing language, stone-tool technology, and artistic expression. As they spread across the globe, argues a famous authority on human evolution, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, modern humans adapted to very different environments by developing the slight genetic variations which produce differences in skin color, hair, body type and facial features. Cereal-eating inhabitants of colder northern climates developed fair skins, argues Cavalli-Sforza, because this trait allowed them to compensate for a dietary deficiency by absorbing vitamin D from sunlight. Other populations, however, including both fish-eating peoples of the northern hemisphere as well as Africans, derived no advantage from lighter skins, and instead developed the darker complexions which provide greater protection against ultraviolet rays.
Early communities of Homo sapiens, like older hominid species, lived by hunting, fishing and gathering undomesticated plants. However, change in the African climate appears to have prompted a fundamental transformation in African human life. Beginning about nine or ten thousand years ago, as much of Africa (including very arid regions of the Sahara desert and eastern Africa) developed a much wetter climate, Africans found new ways of obtaining their subsistence. As lakes and rivers became larger and more numerous, humans settled around them. At first, their purpose was to fish, collect relatively abundant plant foods along lake shores, and hunt the animals which congregated around water sources. When these communities eventually outgrew the food supplies which could be obtained by these methods, however, they began the very gradual process of learning how to cultivate crops and domesticate animals.
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In time, the advantages of farming and livestock keeping would become very great, because these skills provided more abundant and reliable supplies of food, and allowed more rapid population growth. Nevertheless, the adoption of these methods quite likely occurred as a response to crisis caused either by environmental degradation or by population growth. Farming and livestock-keeping would have been adopted only reluctantly because they required much more work than earlier methods of obtaining food. Moreover, these new methods of food production exposed humans to many new diseases, including infections contracted from domesticated animals.
Because archaeological evidence of early farming and animal domestication is very difficult to uncover, and even more difficult to interpret with certainty, scholars continue to disagree about when food production began, and about the processes which brought it into being. In particular, they disagree about whether the skills of farming and livestock-keeping were obtained from other parts of the world (particularly the Middle East), or whether these skills were developed independently in Africa. However, most scholars would agree that farming and livestock-keeping existed in portions of northern Africa no later than 7000 years ago. They also believe that as the African climate changed once again after about 3000 BC, abruptly introducing drier conditions, agricultural peoples moved southward into wetter areas, taking with them the skills of cultivation and livestock-tending.
The retreat of agricultural peoples away from the increasingly inhospitable Sahara led to the emergence of the fabulous Egyptian civilization which flourished from about 3100 BC to 332 BC. Without a doubt, the population of ancient Egypt was African. The clearest sign of its African origin is language, for the speech of ancient Egyptians belonged to the language group called Afroasiatic, a family of languages which originated probably in the southeastern Sahara. It includes not only ancient Egyptian, but also modern African languages such as Berber and Hausa, as well as Arabic and Hebrew. Egypt was populated probably by farming peoples who, having migrated from areas to the west of the Nile, developed highly productive agriculture in lands moistened and fertilized by its annual floods. Egypt's agricultural productivity was the basis of its cultural and material achievements. Its intensive agriculture freed a sizable portion of its population from food production so that they could invest their labor in monumental architecture (such as the pyramids), and specialize in political, military and religious affairs.
Whether the achievements of ancient Egypt had a major influence on the rest of Africa remains a controversial issue. One of Africa's most famous twentieth-century scholars, Cheikh Anta Diop of Senegal, has long maintained that, just as Greece was the birthplace of Western civilization, so too ancient Egypt was the cradle of African civilization. He and others see close resemblance between the languages, religious beliefs and art of Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa. Other scholars find such comparisons unpersuasive, and instead point to numerous differences between ancient Egypt and the cultures of Sub-Saharan Africa. Perhaps the most notable contrast is between the highly centralized nature of ancient Egypt, and the tendency in many African societies to favor local autonomy. These scholars would prefer to see Sub-Saharan African culture not as the legacy of ancient Egypt, but rather as the indigenous achievement of western, eastern and southern Africa.
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While African agriculturalists retreating from increasingly drier regions were reestablishing themselves in Egypt, similar population movements were taking agriculture into western and eastern Africa. Cattle-keeping speakers of languages which belonged to the Nilo-Saharan family moved into the Rift Valley and highlands of East Africa. Meanwhile, speakers of Niger-Congo languages living in what is today eastern Nigeria and western Cameroon developed a new form of farming which, because it relied on yams and plantains (bananas) which flourish in moist, humid environments, was well adapted to the forests in which they lived. Some speakers of Niger-Congo would move west throughout present-day Nigeria. Another branch of the Niger-Congo family, the "Bantu" languages (so called because these languages share the same word for "person": ntu or its variants) would spread throughout central, eastern and southern Africa.
Today few issues in African history are as contentious as this so-called "Bantu migration," but not long ago many historians felt that its story was straightforward. They thought that the inhabitants of the Niger/Cameroon borderlands had developed a uniquely diverse range of skills (they liked to speak of this as a "tool kit") which included the ability to cultivate forest crops as well as iron-working. Knowledge of iron-working, they believed, had been acquired from the Middle East, and had been refined between about 500 and 300 BC by metal workers of the Nok culture (famous among African art historians for its terra-cotta busts) in central Nigeria. Equipped with this "tool kit," believed historians, speakers of Bantu languages colonized remarkably diverse environments across the southern half of the continent.
Today, however, historians place much less confidence in this story. They now realize that the spread of Bantu languages (which they think may have begun about 3000 BC) was a long and immensely complicated development. It probably occurred not only through the movement of Bantu-speaking migrants, but also through the adoption of Bantu languages (perhaps as trade lingua franca) by previously-established populations. Moreover, migration itself was a more complex process than historians once thought, for whereas they formerly imagined a rapid movement of conquering colonizers, historians are now more likely to speak of a very gradual, generation-by-generation spread of farming communities in search of fresh soils.
Scholars also now believe that the original Bantu-speaking communities did not practice iron-working. Instead, Bantu communities appear to have acquired this skill only after they had reached the Great Lakes region of eastern Africa, where iron-working may have been practiced in Rwanda and northwestern Tanzania as early as 800 BC. If this date is correct (and not all archaeologists agree with it), it would mean that East African iron-working surely developed independently of any Egyptian or Eurasian influence. Iron-working undoubtedly contributed to the further spread of Bantu-speaking farmers throughout eastern and southern Africa. Iron tools facilitated the domestication of millets and sorghums -- Sub-Saharan Africa's most important cereals before the twentieth century -- because they enabled farmers to cut the grain-bearing heads of these plants away from their tough stalks. Thus by about 400 AD, Bantu-speaking cultivators and iron-workers were well established along the East African coast (where some Bantu words would be recorded about this time by seafarers from the Mediterranean) and in South Africa as well.
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Perhaps no idea about the African past is as persistent and misleading as the idea that Africans traditionally lived in isolated and homogenous "tribes." This idea implies that connections among different societies, language groups and regions were unimportant. It also implies that Africans lived in a politically undeveloped condition, for "tribes" are usually assumed to be based on kinship and genealogical descent (they might be thought of as very large extended families). Thus African "tribal" life might be regarded as being governed not, as in Western societies, by sophisticated political institutions, but rather by primordial bonds of kinship and affinity. An additional implication of this "tribal" conception of African life is that difference and conflict existed between different "tribes" (hence the idea of "tribal" warfare), but not within tribes. Consequently, the "tribal" model of the African past leads us to overlook the importance of inter-regional connections, to underestimate the political sophistication of African cultures, and to ignore the importance of conflict between social classes, genders, and generations in African life.
In recent decades, historians have questioned the "tribal" model by investigating inter-regional connections, political institutions, and the multiplicity of social identities which existed in the African past. Historical research has been particularly effective in demonstrating that, far from living in isolated "tribes," Africans developed institutions which maintained political, social and economic relationships across wide regions. Consequently, African identities were shaped by both village life and the world of road and market, and by highly localized concerns as well as inter-regional relationships. This historical research poses a formidable challenge for students of African art history. It not only challenges them to seek manifestations of these aspects of social life in African art, but also forces them to ask whether we should be satisfied with the conventional ethnic or "tribal" classification of African art.
We might expect the "tribal" model of isolated ethnic groups to be nowhere more appropriate than in the great equatorial forest of modern-day Zaire. This vast and densely-vegetated region would appear to be the African environment most likely to impose isolation by impeding travel. Yet, forest peoples were never isolated. Using the great river systems of the Zaire basin as their highways, they maintained vibrant commercial and cultural relationships over wide areas. Drawing upon their common Bantu culture, the peoples of Zaire developed ingenious political institutions. This is well illustrated by the Kuba kingdom, which developed a political system capable not only of bringing about cultural change (its political institutions altered patterns of marriage and increased agricultural productivity), but also of supporting a magnificent artistic tradition. Elsewhere, political authority and commerce were regulated by a remarkable institution called the "drum of affliction," an association devoted to the treatment of certain illnesses which maintained contacts across great distances.
Similar inter-regional networks of trade and political authority existed in southern Africa. One regional system, centered on Mapungubwe, a site located south of the Limpopo River in modern South Africa, maintained trade contacts between the Indian Ocean coast, where Mapungubwe obtained glass beads and other Asian products, and pastoral communities of the eastern Kalahari Desert, where it found the products of cattle-keepers. As its wealth and power increased after 900 AD, Mapungubwe developed a social elite which, as a sign of its status, occupied hill tops and built high stone walls to distinguish its space from that of the common people who lived on lower ground.
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These developments would later be elaborated at Great Zimbabwe, a site in present-day Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe became important at about the time Mapungubwe was declining in the early 1200s. Like Mapungubwe, it was apparently a center of both political authority and long distance trade. Its rulers appear to have controlled the export of gold to Indian Ocean ports in modern-day Mozambique and Tanzania. Drawing on the tradition of social signification from Mapungubwe, its rulers built imposing structures, apparently to symbolize their political and religious authority. Yet, we must doubt that this process of creating centers of authority and networks of trade proceeded without dispute and disagreement, for we know that at the shrines where Zimbabweans venerated their ancestral spirits, spirit mediums gave voice to grievances against political leaders who threatened the autonomy of local communities.
The inter-regional networks which grew up around Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe were linked, in turn, to other regional networks. Evidence of one such network comes from a famous burial site in the Zambezi Valley (southern Zambia) at Ingombe Ilede, whose treasures show that in the 14th and 15th centuries, communities traded the mineral wealth of this region, particularly its gold and copper, for products of the wider Indian Ocean world. This trade would later contribute to the rise of the famous Luba states in the savannas just south of Zaire's equatorial forest.
The networks based at Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe also maintained connections with the East African coast. For here, along a coastline stretching from southern Somalia all the way to Mozambique, another remarkable African civilization -- that of the Swahili -- developed from about the 8th century. Moving from their original homeland in northern coastal Kenya, Swahili-speaking seafarers ventured south along the coast, pausing at islands, inlets and sheltered beaches to establish fishing villages which would eventually grow into important trading ports. Between 1000 and 1500 AD, as the trading networks of southern Africa began to send their products to the Indian Ocean coast, the Swahili towns grew larger and much more wealthy. They served as commercial entrepots, attracting products (especially gold and ivory) which would then be sold to Arabian merchants for a variety of prized imports, including cotton cloth, Persian glass beads, and Chinese porcelain. In this way, the Swahili cities became the linchpin between eastern and southern Africa and the Asian trade networks which extended from the Mediterranean to China.
In important Swahili towns such as Lamu in Kenya and Kilwa in southern Tanzania, a wealthy and cosmopolitan culture took shape. Its crowning achievement was stately public and residential architecture which utilized coral stone and mangrove poles. This was a culture which combined local and international elements -- for while Swahili people gloried in their urbane sophistication and embraced the Islamic faith of their Arab trading partners, they also honored eloquence in their own language, created a copious body of Swahili oral epics, and zealously guarded the independence of their small city-states. Their healing practices, political organization and structures of kinship drew much more heavily from their Bantu heritage than from their Arabian and Asian contacts.
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A not dissimilar urban, commercially-oriented culture also developed in West Africa, though here the greatest ports lay not by the sea, but along the southern margins of the Sahara desert. Rather than sheltering ships and seafarers, these West African ports received great camel caravans from North Africa. Yet, Arab and African geographers would have readily recognized the parallels between Indian Ocean ports and the desert-side cities of West Africa. In fact, the Arabic term which they applied to the "Swahili" coast was the very same word with which they referred to the "Sahel" -- the semi-arid West African region stretching along the southern margin of the Sahara. Recently, historians' understanding of these desert-side cities has been revolutionized. For many years, historians had believed that the famous Sahelian cities such as Timbuktu had emerged only after North African traders had established commercial contacts with West Africa from the 8th century AD. In other words, historians believed that North Africans had taken the initiative to open up trade with West Africans.
All of this has changed as the result of recent archaeological research at Djenné in Mali. Djenné was situated advantageously, for aside from its location on the Niger -- a great navigable river rich in fish -- it also lay within the Niger's "inland delta," where annual floods carry moisture and fertile silt onto farmlands. A town had already developed here by the 3rd century BC, and over succeeding centuries would become the hub of a steadily-expanding trade network. Initially, Djenné served as a market for local products from the inland delta and adjacent areas, but by about 400 AD it had begun attracting traders from distant desert and forest regions. Thus Djenné has changed our understanding of West African history by showing that long before Islamic North African merchants began regularly traversing the Sahara, already West Africa had developed trading networks which facilitated exchanges of products from desert, savanna and forest environments.
And yet, while West Africa developed great trading networks whose riches would eventually persuade the merchants of Islamic North Africa to make dangerous desert crossings, West Africans also guarded vigilantly their local autonomy. This was true even though Sahelian West Africa witnessed the rise of successive empires -- Ghana (located not within the modern nation of Ghana, but rather in modern Mauritania and Mali), Mali, Songhay, and Kanem-Borno. Each of these empires was actually founded upon small clusters of villages which, except when royal cavalry forces periodically demanded tribute, remained essentially autonomous. The West African forest and coastal regions stretching from Senegal to Cameroon also produced numerous small states, including Jolof and Waalo in Senegal and Benin in present-day Nigeria. At the same time, however, many societies, including most famously the Igbo communities of southeastern Nigeria, stubbornly resisted political centralization.
Politically decentralized societies were no less capable than states of great cultural achievement. West Africa's artistic traditions demonstrate this, for while a state such as Benin might celebrate its 15th and 16th century rulers in magnificent brass sculptures, and the Yoruba kingdom of Ife in southwestern Nigeria might from the 12th to 15th centuries create a great tradition of naturalistic sculpture in terra-cotta and brass, so too the politically decentralized Igbo produced the fabrics and bronze artifacts which would be buried with a 9th-century notable at Igbo-Ukwu.
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The aspects of African societies which we have discussed in the preceding section encouraged artistic expression and other cultural achievement. Utilizing a diversity of materials made available through inter-regional trade, artists celebrated the aesthetic and ethical values of their societies, including the value which African cultures placed on personal achievement, industriousness, and responsibility. Tragically, however, Africa's extensive trading systems and its predominantly small-scale and decentralized political structures made Africa sadly responsive to European demand for slaves.
Between about 1450 and 1880, roughly twelve million Africans, torn from homes and families from Senegal to Angola, reached the Americas as slaves. Countless others, perhaps millions, died either during the course of enslavement in Africa or en route to the Americas. Most slaves were taken to the plantation and mining regions of the Caribbean and South America; indeed, the tiny sugar-plantation island of Barbados imported as many slaves as the United States. The slave trade reached its peak during the 18th century when American plantation production expanded and over six million slaves reached the Americas. However, the rapid expansion of slavery increased the threat of slave revolt (a threat realized at the end of century when rebellious Haitian slaves established the first African-ruled republic in the Americas), and at the same time made Europeans increasingly aware of the inhumanity of the slave trade. Consequently, led by the British decision in 1807 to abolish its slave trade, most European nations outlawed slave trading during the first quarter of the 19th century. Nevertheless, the slave trade continued on a diminished scale, and about 3.3 million slaves were exported to the Americas after 1800.
Historians have long debated both the causes and consequences of the slave trade, and much disagreement remains. Few scholars would deny that Europeans bear major responsibility. It was they, after all, who purchased Africans and employed them in their American colonies. At the same time, however, historians of Africa have long realized that the slave trade required cooperation between Europeans and Africans. Europeans were prevented, both by African military power and by tropical diseases against which they had no immunological resistance, from invading Africa and kidnapping its inhabitants. Consequently, European slavers relied on African merchants, soldiers and rulers to acquire slaves and make them available for purchase in sea ports. The dominant pattern of enslavement was well described by Olaudah Equiano, who in his 18th-century autobiography described his capture as a young boy in southern Nigeria, and his subsequent sale and resale to a succession of African masters, before finally being sold to Europeans.
Why Africans participated in the slave trade remains one of the most vigorously debated questions in African history. Among the answers which historians have offered are that Africans living in small-scale political units sought to profit by raiding neighboring societies for slaves; that the lack of centralized political authority prevented internecine conflict; that Africans were driven by famine and other disasters to enslave themselves and others; and that, because slavery and slave trading had long existed in much of Africa (though perhaps in forms less brutal than the slavery practiced in the Americas), Africans were untroubled by selling slaves to Europeans. Answering this question leads us to consider not only what was different about Africa, however, but also the qualities of human nature that Africans share with other humans. For, like most human communities, African societies were divided into rich and poor, men and women, powerful and powerless. As in other societies, the powerful often succumbed to the temptation to exploit the weak.
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Only slightly less controversial are the consequences of the slave trade for Africa. Some historians have argued that the slave trade caused devastation, depopulation and political disruption. Others have argued that Africans engaged in this commerce precisely because its harmful effects were minimal. One argument is that the slave trade worsened the condition of women because men were more often exported, leaving women to assume the labor of missing men, and increasing the practice of polygyny. Recent research has suggested that while the slave trade did not cause an overall decline of African population (though certain regions of West Africa indeed suffered loss of population), the slave trade prevented the growth of population which would have occurred otherwise. Consequently, Africa's population in 1850 was only half the size that it would have attained in the absence of the slave trade.
Thus the slave trade can be blamed for having left Africa underpopulated, and for having transferred African labor to the Americas, where it contributed to American, rather than African, economic growth. The slave trade can also be seen as one stage in a very long-term process by which Africa came to be integrated into a European-dominated global economy. For as the slave trade gradually died out after 1807, Africans, rather than breaking their ties with Europe, now employed slaves, who could no longer be sold abroad, in the production of agricultural goods for sale to Europe. One final aspect of the slave trade involves its impact on African thought and morality. Some historians have suggested that the slave trade made African societies more violent, more interested in personal aggrandizement, and less caring about human life. While this issue is important, the scarcity of documentary and oral evidence from the slave trade era leaves historians poorly equipped to address it. Certainly one challenge for students of African art is to consider whether African reflection on their involvement in the slave trade is expressed in art.
Africa's integration into a European-dominated economy has shaped its history since the 1880s. During the last quarter of the 19th century, Europe became increasing interested in exerting direct control over the Africa's raw materials and markets. European heads of state laid down ground rules for the colonial conquest of Africa at the Congress of Berlin in 1884-5. Over the next twenty years, all of Africa except Ethiopia and Liberia was violently conquered, despite many instances of African resistance. The British and French established the largest African empires, although the Portuguese, Belgians and Germans claimed major colonial possessions as well.
Under colonialism, African economies were completely subordinated to the interests of Europe. Africa served primarily as a source of minerals and agricultural commodities, and as a market for European manufacturers. Consequently, colonial rulers made little effort to build diversified economies in their colonies, and introduced little manufacturing. The result is that modern Africa remains almost entirely dependent on external sources of manufactured goods. Because these colonial economies required cheap rather than skilled labor, colonial administrators had little motivation to provide either education or health care for Africans. Indeed, Europeans preferred to employ migrant laborers, who left their rural homes for only relatively brief periods to work in mining or plantation regions, rather than employing permanently urbanized workers. African colonies were governed by quite small corps of European officials; most local-level administration was provided by African employees and appointees of the colonial government. Nevertheless, colonial government was profoundly undemocratic, for public policy was made entirely by European officials, and Africans enjoyed no political rights.
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For most Africans (and this was particularly true for women), the colonial period was deeply frustrating, because they had little opportunity to obtain the new forms of knowledge and economic opportunity which were being introduced by colonialism, and instead were confined to menial, poorly-paid occupations. African frustration was compounded by the inconsistency between, on the one hand, universalistic Christian ideals (for Christianity spread widely during the colonial period, as did Islam) and liberal political ideas which colonialism introduced into Africa, and, on the other hand, the discrimination and racism which marked colonialism everywhere. This discrepancy deepened during the Second World War, when the British and French exhorted their African subjects to provide military service and labor for a war effort which was intended, in part, to uphold the principle of national self-determination. Post-war Africans were well aware that they were being denied the very rights for which they and their colonial masters had fought.
This deepening sense of frustration and injustice set in motion the events which would lead to national independence for most of Africa by the mid-1960s. As the Cold War came to dominate world affairs from the late 1940s, Western Europe worried that its restive African subjects would adopt Communism. This fear was intensified by a series of armed revolts (most notably the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya, but also rebellions against French rule in Algeria, Madagascar, Cameroon), and by the rise of powerful, though non-violent nationalist movements. Persuaded that colonialism could be preserved only through unacceptably costly military and economic investment, more interested in the post-war reconstruction of their own economies, and increasingly confident that a Western-educated African elite would have little sympathy with Communism, the Europeans began to concede independence to Africans in the late 1950s, beginning with the independence of Ghana in 1957 under its charismatic president Kwame Nkrumah.
Although much of the continent was free of colonial rule by the mid-1960s, European domination of southern Africa seemed unshaken until the mid-1970s, when liberation movements in Angola and Mozambique expelled the Portuguese, paving the way for the Zimbabwe liberation struggle which triumphed finally in 1980. Nevertheless, the most brutal and implacable form of white domination in Africa -- South Africa's apartheid regime -- would survive into the 1990s. The historic election of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa in 1994 marked not only African victory in a long and terror-filled struggle against apartheid, but also the conclusion of the struggle against white rule which dominated African history through the second half of the twentieth century. Thus the dawn of the twenty-first century would bring a new era when Africans would confront persistent economic and political stability, rapid population growth, increasing environmental degradation, and forms of external domination which continued to be exerted by Western governments and financial institutions. Their long history of achievement suggests, however, that they would find ways of overcoming these dilemmas.