Dr. William "Para" Riviere
Dr. William "Para" Riviere

By Dr. William William Riviere, Historian

It has long been postulated and, quite unfortunately, believed that European nations made contact with the West Coast of Africa in the second decade of the 15th century out of humanitarian considerations. They journeyed there, it is said, because the native populations were 'savages', 'beasts', 'monstrous folk', 'barbarous', 'immoral' and 'heathen' creatures, 'having traits comparable to those of dogs, hogs and goats', and who for the good of the human race needed to be raised in the "scale of civilization". This European concern for the well-being of black peoples, so it was asserted, was "the white man's burden".

Few assertions are more absurd. In fact, the majority of West African societies with whom Europeans made contact on their first landing had long enjoyed levels of political, economic and cultural development that compared favourably, at the very least, with those of their counterparts in Europe.

State-led Societies

The most advanced of these societies were the empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai. They were located in the open savannah region of Western Sudan. The greatness of Ghana peaked between the 9th and 10th centuries A.D. The empire of Mali succeeded Ghana and attained its highest level of sophistication in the 13th and 14th centuries, especially from 1307 to 1337 under the leadership of legendary ruler, Mansa Musa. The Songhai empire succeeded Mali and reached its prime in the 15th and 16th centuries before its destruction in 1591 by an expedition from Morocco in the North.

Smaller state systems, as opposed to empires, also developed in the savannah region and elsewhere in West Africa. In the savannah region were Hausaland, in the northern part of modern Nigeria; Oyo, in modern Yorubaland; and Gonja, Yatenga, Mossi and Dagomba, in today's Mali and Upper Volta. In the forest regions, the process of state-building intensified between the 13th and 16th centuries, leading to a proliferation of states in the Guinea forest. These included the kingdom of Mande in Sierra Leone, the Fante and Asante states in the area now modern Ghana, and the states of Benin and Ife in Northern Nigeria. Of these, at the moment of Europe's first encounter with the coast of Guinea, Benin was the largest and most significant. And in the areas now known as Congo and Angola, a number of small states also came into being between the 13th and 16th centuries; the largest and most stable was the kingdom of Kongo.

Segmented Societies

Alongside state-led empires and kingdoms there were societies where the state was not dominant. There was no central source of power and authority which controlled the affairs of subordinate entities. That is to say, administration was not conducted "from top to bottom". There was no place for the principle of heredity by which power was monopolized by and kept within, a family or clan. Instead, communities were divided along horizontal, that is to say, parallel lines, and power and authority were de-centralized to allow, as much as was practicable, for respective communities to administer their own affairs.

Examples of such "segmented societies" were the Balantas on the coast of Upper Guinea, and the Ibo (Igbo) and Ibibio on its lower coast. The Ibo were noted for the development and maintenance of politico-administrative units called "village democracies". It should be no surprise, then, that in the wake of their later conquest and subjugation by the British, they would revolt against the Colonial Power's preferred policy aimed at the amalgamation of villages into larger political units.

Clearly, the prevailing realities of West African societies at the moment of the first encounter with Europe do not support the negative portrayal, earlier painted, of our African ancestors. The only reasonable conclusion to be arrived at is that, as in the case of their meeting with our Kalinago predecessors, missionary and intellectual propagandists at the service of the nation-states of Europe were moved to misrepresent the true nature and character of native Africans so as to justify the crimes and injustices perpetrated against the Continent and its peoples. Three such crimes and injustices stand out: one, the horrible transatlantic traffic in human beings from West Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas; two, the associated monstrous institution of plantation slavery; and three, the reality of 500 years of economic exploitation of Africa's natural resources, supported on the racialist oppression of the black peoples of the Continent.

Copyright © William Riviere May 2017