Old World

General History of Africa/Volume I/Methodology and African Prehistory/I. Hrbek/Africa in the context of world history

UNESCO — General History of Africa
Volume I. Methodology and African Prehistory

Joseph Ki-Zerbo, ed. 1981, 820 pp.

1. — I. Hrbek
Africa in the context of world history

If an extraterrestrial visitor had looked at the Old World at the beginning of the seventh century of the Christian era and had then revisited it after five centuries — by 1100 — he might well have come to the conclusion that the world was on the way to becoming Muslim.
At the time of his first visit, the community around the Prophet Muhammad, who preached the new religious system, Islam, in the small town of Mecca, lost in the boundless wastes of the Arabian desert, did not count even a hundred people fighting for survival against the growing hostility of their compatriots. Five centuries later the adherents of this faith were to be found on a territory stretching from the banks of the Ebro, the Senegal and the Niger in the west, to the Syr-Darya and the Indus in the east, and from the Volga deep in the heart of the Eurasian continent to the East African coast.
In the central parts of this territory the Muslims formed the majority of the population whereas in some fringe areas they were rulers or traders, expanding further and further the Islamic frontiers. Although at this time the Islamic world had already lost its former political unity, being divided into many mutually independent states, and had even lost some of its territories (in northern Spain, in Sicily and just at the end of the period also a small territory in Palestine and Lebanon), it still represented a fairly homogeneous culture and civilization whose creativity was far from being exhausted.
In the meantime Islam had ceased to be an exclusively Arab religion; the new faith showed the capacity to win over and assimilate ethnic elements of the most diverse origins, fusing them into a single cultural and religious community. Islam, born in the sun-scorched peninsula of Arabia, was later able to acclimatize itself in various regions of the world and among such diverse peoples as the Persian, Egyptian and Spanish peasants, the Berber, Somali and Turkish nomads, the Afghan and Kurdish mountain-tribes, the Indian pariahs, the Soninke traders and Kanemi rulers. Many of these peoples became in their turn fiery champions of Islam taking the torch from the Arabs and expanding the faith in new directions.
No wonder that such a magnificent achievement would have impressed our hypothetical extraterrestrial visitor, as it has many historians who have not hesitated to call the period from the seventh to the eleventh century — and even beyond — “the Islamic age”. This label does not imply that the Muslim peoples dominated the whole world or that they exercised a decisive political, religious or cultural influence outside their own sphere. We have to understand it in relation to other cultural zones and in the sense that the Islamic world was during that period the most dynamic and the most progressive in several fields of human activity. It would, of course, be misleading to neglect the changes going on in other zones or to underestimate the achievements of other peoples in Africa, Asia and Europe at the same time, since there already existed germs of later evolution that did not remain without impact on the destinies of the world.

The rise of Islamic civilization

The Arab conquest was in many ways similar to but also in many ways different from all other conquests known to the world. First, although inspired by a religious teaching, the Arabs did not expect the conquered people, in principle, to enter their religious community; the conquered people were allowed to maintain their old religious allegiances. But after a few generations the majority of the urban population adopted Islam and even those who did not do so tended to use Arabic as a common medium of culture. The Arab empire had been conquered by a pastoralist military force but this force was led by urban merchants who were already acquainted with the culture of the occupied lands. The empire created by the Arabs, in contrast to those founded by other pastoralists, stayed in one piece and endured. In contrast also to, let us say, the Mongols, the Arabs did not adopt the local languages and religious systems but instead imposed their own language and allegiance on the various peoples they had conquered.
The Arab conquests in the seventh and eighth centuries produced two momentous and enduring effects. The more immediate and dramatic was the creation of a new world state in the Mediterranean Basin and the Near East. The second effect, less rapid and tumultuous but no less important, was the development of a new world culture within this state.
The Arab world state was launched as an imperial system with a rapidity seldom matched in history. Within a century of their appearance on the world scene, the Arabs held sway from the Pyrenees on the border of France to the Pamirs in Central Asia. Spain, North Africa, Egypt, the formet Byzantine territories south of the Taurus Mountains and the Persian empire in the east were welded together into an imperial realm that rivalled that of Rome at its peak.
For a little over a century the Arab conquerors were able to hold their subject lands together. After the mid-eighth century, various regions began to break away and non-Arab Muslims began to assert their right to share in the rule of state and society. In the west, Spain, North Africa and later Egypt gradually achieved independence and went their own ways. In the east, various dynasties of Persian and Turkish (but culturally Persianized) origin emerged until they became masters of the eastern parts of the Caliphate. By the end of the eleventh century the original Arab empire had long since ceased to exist. It was transformed into a bewildering array of petty states, regional powers and contending dynasties, few of them of Arab origin.
Thus the Arab empire of the first conquerors was transformed into the Muslim world of the Middle Ages. It was a world and not an empire, a political realm consisting of individual and often mutually hostile states, yet aware of common identity that distinguished it from the other world regions. It was Muslim, not solely Arab, based upon a common religion rather than on ethnic bonds.
The second enduring result of the original Arab conquest was the creation, within this Muslim setting, of a new world culture. The Arab conquerors used both their new faith, Islam, and their military prowess to establish an empire but the culture they brought from their desert home was rather unsophisticated and simple. Compared with the rich Classical, Hellenistic or Persian heritage, found in the conquered countries, the Arabs’ cultural contribution was rather limited although in many ways significant. Apart from the religion, they contributed their language as the main vehicle of administration, literature and science and also their poetry and aesthetic values.
The distinctive and rich civilization that characterized the Muslim world at its height came into being through the amalgam of varied traditions of all the people who adopted Islam or lived under its sway. It inherited not only the material and intellectual achievements of the Near Eastern and Mediterranean world but also appropriated and absorbed many elements of Indian and Chinese origin and transmitted them further.
It would be erroneous to see the Muslim civilization merely as a simple conglomerate of bits and pieces of borrowed cultural goods. At first, of course, many traits were appropriated directly without any reshaping but gradually they were combined, enlarged and developed into new patterns that served both as resource and stimulus to creative Muslim sciences, artistic expression and technological innovations. In this way emerged the Muslim civilization with its own distinctive pattern corresponding to the new universalistic spirit and new social order.

Geographic and economic factors

The flowering of this civilization was made possible by a set of favourable, dialectically interlocked factors. The Muslim empire was erected in the region of the most ancient world civilization. The conquering Arabs found there an age-long tradition of urban life and urban economy; very quickly they seized this opportunity and besides settling in ancient towns they founded many new ones. It was this urban character of the Muslim world and civilization that most profoundly marked its difference from the Christian West in the early Middle Ages. The existence of many populous cities in the Muslim empire was of considerable importance for the economy of the empire as a whole and especially for its commercial relations with other parts of the Old World. It was in the Muslim core lands that the most important centres of economic and cultural life were to be found, Western Europe offering at that time a quite different picture of scattered rural communities with only a minimum of commercial and intellectual activity. Thus the major trends of social and economic development in the Muslim world were exactly contrary to those that characterized the history of Europe at the same period.
The incorporation of so many countries in the Muslim empire created conditions for the expansion of trade activities on a scale that had been impossible to achieve when the region was politically fragmented. From the late seventh century to the end of the twelfth century the Muslim empire functioned like a free-trade area. The commodities produced in one part of the world became available in other parts so that a uniformity of consumer goods existed among a large, diverse population inhabiting a wide territory. The Muslim world, lying midway between East and West, served also to disseminate technological innovations among the peoples of outlying areas. The increased commercial activity between various parts of the Muslim world and beyond its frontiers stimulated local production of commodities for markets in other places. It also stimulated advances in applied and theoretical techniques, for example in navigation and the allied fields of shipbuilding, astronomy and geography as well as in commercial and banking practices.
The economic boom that had started in the eighth century and continued for some centuries was also to a great extent brought about by the flow of precious metals to the central lands of the Near East. Gold dinars were minted for the first time at the end of the seventh century by the Umayyads and circulated mainly in the former Byzantine provinces whereas the eastern parts had remained for a long time traditionally the silver area. The increase of gold supply in the ninth century led to a change in the monetary system of the Muslim empire: the countries where from time immemorial only silver coins had circulated, went over to bimetallism and all mints in the eastern parts of the Caliphate began to strike gold dinars. In the western part of the Muslim world the situation was different; for a long time the Maghrib and Muslim Spain remained in the orbit of silver currency, mainly for want of easily accessible gold mines. This began to change only in the tenth century with increased gold imports from the Western Sudan of West Africa, to reach its highpoint with the Almoravid dinar, a coinage that became internationally recognized . The issue of great quantities of excellent gold and silver coins had many consequences for economic life in the Muslim countries. Production was stimulated as people increased consumption of various goods but at the same time there was a steep rise in prices.
As a region the Muslim empire was favoured also by its central position in the heart of the Old World. By their domination of the isthmus area between the two great maritime domains of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean the Muslims gained a decisive advantage in long-distance trade. The sheer extent of the Muslim world from the shores of the Atlantic to the Chinese borders created a unique situation; it was the only one of the great cultural areas to be in direct contact with each of the others — with Byzantium, with Western Europe, with India and China. This geographical position also allowed it to enter into contact with the great frontier areas and new peoples — in the Eurasian fluvial plains, in Central Asia, across the Sahara in the Sudanic Sahel, in South-east Asia. These were the regions where Islam expanded after the first wave of the conquests following mainly the major long-distance trade routes, either the great continental route — the route of steppes, deserts and oases going from Central Asia to West Africa — or the maritime one leading to the countries around the Indian Ocean and to East Asia.
This central position predestined the Muslim world to the role of intermediary — or channel — between all the other regions of the Old World. Together with commercial commodities transported by land and sea routes went many new ideas and concepts, and innovations in technology and sciences. Some of them were accepted only by the Muslim peoples but many more were transmitted further to neighbouring areas. The actual routes or dates of cultural or material borrowings are in most cases obscure but there is no doubt that they were transmitted. The case of paper serves as an early example of an important product that was sent all the way from China to Europe via Muslim lands. Originally a Chinese invention, it was introduced to the Muslim empire by Chinese prisoners-of-war who were brought to Samarkand in 751. These Chinese papermakers taught the Muslims the technology of its production and Samarkand became the first place outside China to have a paper industry. From there the industry spread to Baghdad, then to Arabia, Syria and Egypt and lastly to Morocco (in the ninth century) and to Muslim Spain (in the first half of the tenth century). There the town of Játiva (Arabic, Shatiba) became the main centre of the industry whence the technology was introduced in the twelfth century to Catalonia, the first European country to produce paper. It is not necessary to stress the far-reaching consequences of the spread of one of the greatest inventions for culture and civilization in general.
In a similar way the Indian invention of positional notation in mathematics, the so-called Arabic numerals, was early (already in the eighth century) adopted by the Muslims (who called them Indian numerals) and at some time between the end of the ninth century and the middle of the tenth century the Western world came to know this system. The adoption of positional notation by the Muslims made possible the evolution of algebra, a branch of mathematics which until that time had not been the object of any serious, systematic study; the algebraic mathematics then became the foundation without which the modern branches of mathematics and natural sciences would have been impossible.

The Islamic world and Africa

Let us now turn to Africa and African peoples in the context of the Muslim world and its civilization. At first we shall consider those parts of the continent that became an integral part of the Muslim empire as a result of the first wave of conquests, i.e. Egypt and North Africa, then we will turn our attention to the regions that felt in various ways the impact of Islam or Muslim peoples without being politically integrated within any of the great Muslim states of the time.
The history of Islamic Egypt between the seventh century and the end of the eleventh century offers a fascinating picture of the evolution of an important but rather peripheral province of the Caliphate to become the core land of a new powerful Fātimid empire; from a mere granary to become the most important entrepôt for trade between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean; from the situation of a rather poor relative in the field of Muslim intellectual activities to become one of the main centres of Arab cultural life. In relation to other parts of Africa, Egypt played manifold roles; it was the starting point both of the Arab conquests in the Maghrib in the seventh century as well as of the Hilali invasion in the eleventh century. The first led to the Islamization of North Africa, the second to its Arabization. It was from Egypt that Arab Beduins began their advance to the south and made their way gradually into Nubia thereby paving the way for the eventual downfall of its Christian kingdoms and the Arabization of the Nilotic Sudan. Although Egypt lost its Christian character during this period and the majority of the population was converted to Islam, the Alexandrian patriarchate still retained its control over the Monophysite churches in Nubia and Ethiopia and at times became the tool of Egyptian politics in these countries.
It must not be forgotten, too, that Egypt was the final destination of many black African slaves imported from Nubia (in accordance with the famous bakt treaty), Ethiopia, and the Western and Central Sudan. Amongst this unfortunate human merchandise was one slave — Kafur — who emerged eventually as the virtual ruler of the country. Others, in their thousands, served as members of the armed forces who wielded considerable influence in domestic politics. The vast majority, however, were employed variously in humble and menial positions.
Although the prominent role of Egypt as the champion of Islam against the European Crusaders and the Mongol invaders came only later (in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries), it was made possible by the political and economic consolidation of the previous centuries.
In the Maghrib the conquering Arabs encountered staunch resistance from the Berbers and it was not until the end of the seventh centurv that the main regions were subdued. The majority of the Berbers then adopted Islam and although they resented the political domination of the Arabs, the Islamic faith gained vigorous new adherents among them who helped to expand it across the Strait of Gibraltar as well as across the Sahara. The Berber warriors formed the bulk of the Muslim army that conquered Spain for the Umayyads, of the Aghlabid troops that took Sicily away from the Byzantines, and of the Fātimid contingents in their victorious campaigns in Egypt and Syria.
North Africa occupied an essential strategic place in the Muslim world both politically and economically. It was from the Maghrib that the conquest of Spain and Sicily started with all its consequences for the history of the western Mediterranean and Europe. It constituted the important connecting link that permitted contact between civilizations and through which various influences flowed in both directions. Muslim domination reintroduced the Maghrib into the orbit of an extensive world-wide economy in which it played a very important role; during this period it underwent new demographic growth including major urbanization, and new economic and commercial prosperity.
From the religious point of view the role of the Berbers was twofold. First, their democratic and egalitarian traditions led them very early on to adhere to the teachings of those Islamic sects that preached these tendencies. Even though Berber Kharidjism was crushed after having flourished for several centuries and continued to exist in only a few communities, the spirit of reform and populism remained part and parcel of Islam in the Maghrib. It revealed itself in the great movements of the Almoravids and Almohads as well as in the proliferation of the sufi brotherhoods. The second important role of the Berbers — seen both in Islamic and African perspective — was to introduce Islam to trans-Saharan Africa. The caravans of the Berber traders that crossed the great desert to the more fertile regions of the Sahel and the Sudan carried not only material products but also new religious and cultural ideas that had found a response at first among the commercial class and later at the courts of African rulers . A second wave of Islamization of the Sudanic belt came about in the eleventh century with the rise of the Almoravids, a genuinely Berber religious movement. The imprint of Berber Islam with its reforming spirit never died out in the Sudan and it came to the fore most markedly in the nineteenth-century djihads
It was the opening up of the Sahara and the Sudanic zone that gave North Africa it specific significance for the economy of the Muslim world. When Sudanese gold started to flow in steadily increasing quantities to the Mediterranean coast it brought about an economic boom permitting many dynasties in the Muslim west to go over from silver to gold currency. The exploitation of the Saharan salt mines became more intensive in response to the growing demand for this indispensable mineral in sub-Saharan Africa. According to a recent authority the trade with sub-Saharan Africa was through many centuries probably the most profitable branch of the Muslim foreign trade
The Sudanic zone of West Africa was one of the African regions that were not conquered by the Arabs or other Muslim peoples and thus never formed a constituent part of the Caliphate; nevertheless it felt an everincreasing impact from the Muslim world through commercial and cultural contacts and became to a certain degree integrated into its economic structure. A similar situation obtained, with some important deviations, on the East African coast.
Since Classical times this coast had been visited for commercial purposes by merchants from southern Arabia and Persia. After the rise of Islam and the foundation of the Islamic empire there emerged on the Indian Ocean a vast commercial network controlled by Muslims, mostly Arabs and Persians; it had stretched from the Persian/Arabic Gulf and (later) the Red Sea to India, Malaya, Indonesia and southern China and included the East African coast, the Comoros and also parts of Madagascar. The prosperity of the coastal towns belonging to this network depended to a large degree on the general economic situation of the whole Indian Ocean area, particularly that of the Muslim countries. And since this economy was steadily expanding in the period under discussion, especially after the Fātimids had started to develop their commercial relations with the Indian Ocean, East African coastal settlements with their exports of gold, iron, hides and other commodities played a still more important role in the whole network. Not only the material welfare of the coastal cities benefited from this process but indirectly so did Islam as a religion and culture, contributing thus to the flowering of the Swahili culture in the next centuries.
There is no doubt that the rapid expansion of Islamic power did considerable damage to the economic life of Ethiopia by cutting it off from access to the Red Sea and by monopolizing the trade in adjacent regions. The repercussions of this were also felt in the political sphere; the country was politically fragmented and for more than two centuries the central authority of the state was weakened. Another result of the Muslim supremacy in the coastal regions was the shifting of the centre of the Ethiopian state southwards an d a more energetic expansion in this direction. These southern regions in their turn became the core from which the revival of the Christian Ethiopian state started in the ninth century. From the tenth century on there began a new period of Islamic penetration of the Ethiopian interior by Muslim merchants from the Dahlak Islands and Zaylā, and also the foundation of the first Muslim states in the southern parts of present-day Ethiopia. Thus by a combination of various factors the essential conditions were created for the long struggle between Islam and Christianity in the next centuries for the domination of the Ethiopian region.
If one tries to sum up the role that the rise of the Islamic empire played in regard to Africa during these five centuries, the conclusion will be as follows:

  1. The Mediterranean faqade of the continent, from the Isthmus of Suez to the Strait of Gibraltar, and the adjacent Atlantic coast had been incorporated as an integral part of the Islamic world. It had ceased forever to be part of the Christian world and even served as the starting point for further Muslim expansion in Spain and Sicily on the one hand and in the Sahara and the Sudanic zone of West Africa on the other.
  2. In north-eastern Africa it had brought about the weakening of the Christian states of Nubia and Ethiopia, though neither of them was conquered. Whereas Nubia had come more and more under the economic and political control of Muslim Egypt and nomadic Arabs had begun to penetrate it so that it eventually lost its Christian character, Ethiopia had survived as an independent political and cultural unit although it had to accommodate its external relations to the growing Muslim influences surrounding it.
  3. The Sahara and large parts of the Sudan had now been linked through the trade network to an Islamic economic sphere in which their main exports — gold and slaves — played an increasingly important role. The religion and culture of Islam had penetrated along the trade routes, becoming gradually incorporated into the African ways of life.
  4. In East Africa the role of international trade controlled by the Muslims was similar with the important exception that the Muslim merchants had restricted their activities to coastal settlements and Islamic influence did not penetrate into the interior. But the growing demand, in Muslim countries and India, for Zimbabwe gold even seems to have led to some changes in the Zambezi region. Some parts of Madagascar and the Comoro Islands were also made a part of the great Indian Ocean commercial network.

Thus in the first five centuries of the Islamic era large parts of the African continent had come directly or indirectly under the impact of the new Islamic empire. In some regions this had helped break down former isolation from the outside world, and the external contacts offered the possibility of cultural exchange and borrowing. The adoption of Islam by the ruling classes of some of the West African states and East African coastal towns forged the links of these states and regions with the Muslim world. In West Africa where states had existed before the coming of Islam, their further expansion into large empires seems to have been fundamentally a reaction to the development of trade with North Africa
The contacts of the Muslim world with tropical Africa were important, too, in another way: the accounts of Arab geographers and historians are an indispensable and unique corpus of information about these regions . Without these we would know much less or hardly anything at all about the politics, economics and cultures of many African peoples during a crucial period of their history. This aspect, too, should not be forgotten in the general assessment of the interaction between the Muslim world and Africa.

Africa and medieval Europe in the age of transition

At the time when Muhammad started to preach the new faith in faraway Arabia, the western peninsula of the huge Euro-Asiatic continental mass, known as Europe, was divided into three areas that differed profoundly in their stages of general development: the Byzantine empire, the former Roman provinces of Western Europe now under the domination of various Germanic peoples, and lastly the part to the east of the Rhine and north of the Danube inhabited by Germanic and Slavonic peoples, many of them still on the move to their more permanent homes.

The Byzantine empire

Only the Byzantine empire could claim to continue Graeco-Roman tradition and to have a developed state organization with an efficient administration, a prospering money economy and a high degree of cultural activities in many fields. After surviving the upheavals of the first great migrations of peoples the empire was able in the sixth century — under Justinian — to reconquer and re-establish its domination in most of the central and western Mediterranean and to make it again a Byzantine lake. From its Asiatic provinces and Egypt, the part of the empire least touched by migrations, the Byzantines attempted to re-open the trade routes to the East both on land (the Great Silk Route to China) and on sea (through the Red Sea to India). These attempts were, however, frustrated by the other great power in the area, the Sassanid Persian empire, which ruled all the Irano-Semitic core area save the Syrian end of the Fertile Crescent. The struggle between these empires continued from the mid-sixth century until the first third of the seventh century with supremacy alternating between the Byzantines and Persians, although the latter eventually gained the upper hand.
This heavy struggle had exhausted both sides financially and militarily to such a degree that they showed themselves shortly afterwards unable to withstand the onslaught of the new dynamic force of Muslim Arabs. This onslaught spelt the disappearance of the Sassanid empire forever, whereas Byzantium lost some of its most valuable provinces; Syria and Egypt, during the first wave ofthe Arab conquest, and all North Africa by the end of the seventh century.
Throughout the ninth and tenth centuries the fighting between the Arabs and the Byzantines degenerated into frontier clashes in Asia Minor and northern Syria without much changing the balance of power, even if the empire was able to reconquer parts of Syria and Mesopotamia during the time of political disintegration of the eastern Caliphate.
The Arabs — exhausted as a political force — were then replaced by the Saldjuk Turks who resumed the Muslim advance in Asia Minor, definitively taking its major part by the end of the eleventh century. This new Muslim offensive constituted one of the main causes of the Crusades.
In relation to Africa the Byzantine empire ceased to play any significant role in the course of the seventh century. Egypt was lost very quickly and sporadic attempts to reconquer it from the sea were not successful; some coastal regions of North Africa remained in Byzantine hands until the end of the same century, the delay in ousting them being caused by civil wars among the Arabs who for some decades stopped their offensive. The Orthodox state Church of the Byzantines had never been strong in the African provinces because the Egyptians adhered tenaciously to their Monophysite creed, and the North African urban population to the Roman Church. Whatever influence the Orthodox Church had had in previous centuries, it lost for ever through the Muslim conquest. Although Nubia had never formed a part of the Byzantine empire, Byzantine cultural and religious influence remained comparatively strong there even after the Arab conquest of Egypt, especially in Makuria, the central of the three Christian Nubian states, which adopted — in contrast to the others — the Orthodox (Melkite) creed. The administration was modelled on Byzantine bureaucracy, the higher classes dressed in Byzantine manner and spoke Greek. But gradually the links with Byzantine culture and religion were weakened and at the end of the seventh century the king of Makurla introduced Monophysitism into his state which was now united with the northern Nobadia . This change led to a strengthening of the ties with Coptic Egypt and partly with Syria and Palestine, too, where Nubian Christians found more inspiration in contacts with their Monophysite coreligionists.
During its struggle against Persia, Byzantium was interested in an alliance with Christian, although Monophysite, Ethiopia. The Arab expansion cut off Byzantium from the Red Sea and the trade with India, thus making the alliance impossible as well as impracticable. As Monophysite Christianity became more and more the symbol of the Ethiopian state and nation, hostile both to Islam and to any other form of Christianity, it developcd its own original identity without any reference to Byzantine models, either in theology or in artistic and literary expression.

Western Europe

When we turn our attention to the western provinces of the former Roman empire, i.e. the part we call usually Western Europe, we encounter here, on the eve of the period under discussion, a situation totally different from that of Byzantium. All the territory to the west of the Rhine and to the south of the Alps including parts of the British Isles, had become, between the fourth and the seventh centuries, the theatre of the great migration of Germanic peoples.
These migrations left Western Europe to a high degree devastated; urban life declined and social life became highly localized in small agglomerations of population. Western Europe ceased to be an urban civilization, and became a civilization of small agricultural settlements which maintained only vestiges of mutual relationship.
The general disorganization of life changed Europe between the fifth and tenth centuries into a congeries of small disconnected territories. Its societies lived practically in the forests and plains where people fought desperately to survive until the next harvest; to have enough to eat every day was the prerogative of a few great and powerful men. These societies could have hardly adopted the ways of classical urban civilization.
During these troubled times trade, local as well as long-distance, could hardly progress; a tendency to autarkic economy on all levels led to the progressive disappearance of market exchange and the money economy. As cash became rarer, payment for necessary goods and services was made in agricultural products; the land and its tenure were now the chief source — besides war — of wealth and power. The peasants working on these lands entered, voluntarily or under duress, into various kinds of contractual relationship with their landlords giving a greater or larger part of their products in exchange for security and defence against foreign or domestic enemies. In this way there slowly emerged the feudal system which characterized the historical process in Europe for many centuries to come.
During the seventh century, at a time when the Byzantine empire had to fight against invaders from south and north, Western Europe, not yet threatened by external foes, was able to reorganize itself into some more-or-less stable territorial units. In the west the Visigoths dominated the entire Iberian peninsula, in Gaul and adjacent lands the Frankish Merovingians established their domination and in England the Anglo-Saxons founded their kingdoms. Italy was at the end of the century divided among the Byzantines in the south and the newly arrived Germanic Longobards in the north. In the course of the next centuries the Catholic creed was adopted by all Germanic peoples in Western Europe. Thus, by the seventh century Western Europe, divided ethnically, politically and economically, acquired an element of religious and cultural unity.
The Arabo-Berber conquest of Visigothic Spain at the beginning of the eighth century amputated a considerable part of the Latin West. The Franks were able to stop further Muslim penetration into Gaul but Arab incursions and raids on coastal places in southern France and in Italy continued for more than two centuries, contributing to general insecurity in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless at the end of the same century the first and for a long time the only successful attempt to give political unity to Western Europe was made; it was the work of the Carolingians. Charlemagne’s predecessors unified the Frankish territories between the Pyrenees and the Rhine and repulsed the attacks of other Germanic peoples from the east. Charlemagne (768-814) himself incorporated the majority of eastern Germans into his state and established a frontier against the Slavs on the Elbe. The northern half of Italy as well as some territories in northern Spain also fell under Frankish domination and it is no wonder that Charlemagne — as the most powerful monarch in the Latin West — was crowned Emperor in 8oo. But many parts of Western Europe remained outside his empire: the British Isles, the larger part of Spain under Muslim rule, and southern Italy still in Byzantine and Longobardian hands. With Charlemagne is connected the famous thesis of the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne that has led to vigorous debates concerning the relationship between the emergence of the Muslim empire and the fate of Western Europe . The Pirenne thesis claims, in a generalized way, that it was not the invasions of the “barbarian Germanic tribes” in the fifth century that ended Rome’s control of trade in the Mediterranean Basin but rather the creation of the Muslim empire. The wresting of North Africa and the eastern provinces from Byzantium by the Arabs created a final break between East and West. This forced Western Europe to turn inward upon itself and its own resources, substituting for the maritime economy of the Merovingians the landlocked and continental Carolingian economy, so that Western Europe became poor and barbarian. “Without Muhammad, no Charlemagne” runs the Pirenne formula; in this view the founder of the Western empire appears rather as a symbol of renunciation than of a renewed greatness and thus marks a change of direction in the destinies of the Latin West. Stagnation was overcome only after the tenth century with the emergence of a new European urbanism which, in the final analysis, enabled the rise of modern society.
Although this thesis has been finally rejected by the majority of historians, its main merit was to have drawn attention to important problems of change in medieval economies and to the rise of European feudalism. It also made historians aware of the impact of the Arabs and their domination of North Africa on developments in Europe, a long-neglected theme.
Whether there was a total closure of the Mediterranean and an interruption of long-distance trade as a result of the Arab conquests, or only a diminution in its volume — those were the moot points in the discussion — seems to be less relevant in view of the chief weak point of the Pirenne thesis, namely that this interruption should have had such far-reaching consequences. The long-distance trade, however lucrative or voluminous, did not play the decisive role in the social and economic life of Western Europe attributed to it by Pirenne. Consequently its interruption could not have caused such profound changes in the economic structure. The autarkic latifundium, which seriously menaced even the existence of towns in the empire, had existed long before the Germanic and Arab conquests.

The Old World. c. 230/845
Fig. 1. — The Old World. c. 230/845

The lasting Arab and Islamic impact on Europe did not result from the military confrontation or the interruption of trade contacts across the Mediterranean but rather from the long years of Muslim rule in Spain and Sicily. Through the innovations brought to these regions, new crops, agricultural processes and technology, and — mainly in sciences and philosophy — new concepts were introduced into a Europe that was less developed in these matters than the Islamic world. Although the European Renaissance began later — from the thirteenth century onwards — the foundations from which it arose were laid in the period of the greatest flowering of Islamic civilization, between the eighth and twelfth centuries.

Eastern and Northern Europe

In the rest of Europe — beyond the ancient Roman frontiers on the Rhine and the Danube — the westward migrations of Germanic tribes opened the way for Slavonic expansion which took two general directions: southwards across the Danube to the Balkans and westwards into the territory of present-day Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the German Democratic Republic. In the Balkans the ancestors of Yugoslavs and Bulgars, after crossing the Danube in the sixth century, attacked Byzantine European provinces and gradually settled there, changing totally the political and ethnic pattern.
With regard to the Muslim world the Slavonic peoples were to play for some centuries a similar role to that of black Africans; they were imported thither as slaves . As victims of incessant wars and raids waged against them mostly by their German neighbours, or of their own internecine wars, they were not only retained as a labour force in Europe but were also exported abroad to the Muslim countries. Those captured in central Europe went through the Frankish state to Muslim Spain, whereas those from the Balkans were mostly sold by the Venetians to North Africa. Called by the Arabs “al-Sakaliba” (sing., al-Saklabi) they were employed mainly as soldiers, in state administration and, when castrated, in harems 10. Whereas in Muslim Spain the term “al-Sakaliba” soon expanded to designate all European slaves of whatever nationality, in the Maghrib and in Fātimid Egypt it retained its original meaning. And it was here that the Slavs of Balkan origin did play an important role, participating as soldiers and administrators in the consolidation as well as expansion of the Fātimid power 11. The most famous among them was Djawhar, the conqueror of Egypt, founder of Cairo and of the al-Azhar University. Although the Slavs were soon absorbed, ethnically and culturally, by the Muslim Arab society in the Maghrib and Egypt, they nevertheless did contribute to the shaping of the destiny of these parts of North Africa in the course of the tenth and eleventh centuries.
With the adoption of Christianity the majority of Slavonic peoples entered into the community of European “civilized” nations and ceased to be sold as slaves abroad. At the end of the eleventh century the states of Bohemia, Poland, Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria already existed, whereas in the east the state of Kiev accomplished the unification of the majority of eastern Slavonic peoples.
Between the, eighth and tenth centuries another group of peoples from beyond the horizon of Mediterranean nations emerged on the European scene, the Viking (or Norman) invaders, conquerors and merchant-adventurers who from their Scandinavian homes attacked coastal regions, and along rivers even some parts of the interior, from their technologically advanced ships. These attacks and raids were repeated over many years and caused heavy devastation and general insecurity in many regions such as the British Isles and France; but some Normans (called by the Arabs “al-Madjus”) reached as far south as Muslim Spain and even Morocco. In Eastern-Europe the Vikings (known here as Varyags) combined raids with commerce, establishing their factories along the Russian river system. Descending the Volga they reached the Caspian Sea and made contact with the countries of the Caliphate; sometimes they plundered the coastal regions of Transcaucasia, sometimes they travelled as merchants as far as Baghdad, trading in furs, swords and slaves.
Until the eleventh century the Normans, with the exception of the above-mentioned raid on the Moroccan coast in 858 or 859 which remained an ephemeral episode, did not enter into any direct contact with Africa. A group of Normans settled permanently in northern France (Normandy) founding there a strong state. Apart from conquering England in 1066, these same Normans also carved out for themselves a state in southern Italy. From here they undertook the conquest of Muslim Sicily making it their base for further expansion directed partly to North Africa. For one century the Normans of Sicily became an important factor in the political history of Muslim North Africa.
The Muslim raids from the south and Norman incursions from the north deeply influenced Western Europe. It became almost impossible to offer a centralized and organized resistance to these sudden attacks on so many places. Thus the local defence was organized by local lords; in consequence they became more and more independent of their nominal rulers, kings and emperors, and in many cases became even more powerful and wealthy than these. This process of gradual dissolution of centralized authority had already begun in the mid-ninth century and strengthened the already existing tendency to feudal fragmentation.
A relative security returned to Europe by the eleventh century; the dangerous invasions and migrations with their accompanying upheavals came to an end and in large parts of the continent a more-or-less permanent ethnic pattern emerged. From now on changes in political frontiers or the emergence and disappearance of states were due mainly to dynastic policies and aspirations, not to migrations of whole peoples.
It would not be inappropriate to call the period between the seventh and eleventh centuries in Europe the age of transition or transformation, in the sense that during these centuries there emerged a new Europe which differed profoundly from the Europe of Classical times.
New nations living in Antiquity beyond the horizon of the Greeks and Romans and therefore not considered belonging to Europe, became accepted into the European community by their adoption of Christianity and its cultural values and by their adherence to the common political system. The continent was politically and even more so economically fragmented into innumerable small units but already in the eleventh century there was a vague but growing awareness of religious and cultural solidarity especially vis-à-vis the Muslim world. But this awareness was not strong enough to stop the quarrels between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches or to avert the great schisms of the mid-eleventh century.
The eleventh century also marks the end of the transitional period in the economy; serfdom was from now on the dominant mode of production in medieval Europe in which ties of vassalage were also dominant, forming thus the socio-political structure properly called feudal. In some parts of Western and Northern Europe, after a long stagnation, agriculture went through a process of innovation with the introduction of the heavy plough, open fields, triennal rotation, all of which improved methods of producing food. There also emerged new technologies in industrial production such as the application of water power in clothmaking or to activate hammers and bellows in producing more and better iron and iron implements. Transport was made easier on land by the invention of the whippletree for long wagons and the better harnessing of horses; much improvement was also made in ship construction.
No less important was the rise of European towns after so many centuries of decadence. Most spectacular was the revival of Italian towns, especially the ports of Venice, Amalfi, Pisa and Genoa. Before the tenth century their merchants had already started to develop trade with the Byzantine empire as well as with Muslim countries of North Africa and the Near East, exporting timber, metals and slaves, and importing luxury goods such as silk fabrics and spices but also flax, cotton, olive oil and soap. In the eleventh century the Italian merchant republics already dominated the Mediterranean trade; the most active among them, Venice, was given free-trade privileges in all Byzantine ports by the Byzantine emperor and nearly monopolized maritime transport so that Byzantium became a commercial colony of the Venetians.
In the eleventh century Western Europe, until then involved in the struggle for survival in the face of many invasions, gained enough forces to abandon the defensive and prepare to take the offensive. The offensive started in Sicily; between 106o and 1091 the Normans conquered the entire island from its Arab rulers and founded a strong state from which they attacked the North African coast and its towns. In 1085 Toledo, one of the most important Muslim cities in Spain, fell into the hands of the Christians. Although the Christian offensive was then halted by the interventions of Berber Almoravids and Almohads for more than a century, this date nevertheless marks the real beginning of the reconquista, the Spanish Muslims being driven permanently onto the defensive.
By the end of the century the First Crusade — the earliest serious overseas enterprise and one in which various European peoples were represented — had also achieved its first success with the conquest of Jerusalem and some other towns in the Levant. For nearly two hundred years the Europeans, called Franks by their Muslim enemies, animated at the beginning by a sincere religious zeal and later by the more mundane interests of feudal lords and Italian merchants, tried to incorporate the eastern Mediterranean into their sphere of influence. But the Muslim counteroffensives, in spite of further Crusades, gradually eroded the Latin states in the Levant and succeeded at the end of the thirteenth century in expelling the last Crusaders from Palestine. In the meantime the Byzantine empire, regarded by the Westerners with envy and hostility, became the main victim of the Crusades, emerging at the end much weaker than before. The real victors of this two centuries’ long struggle were the Muslims and then the Italian republics which became great mercantile powers.
In the preceding pages we have amply shown the various implications which the Muslim presence on the southern shores of the Mediterranean in North Africa had on Western Europe. Although we do not subscribe fully to Pirenne’s thesis, it nevertheless remains a historical fact that with the Arab conquest of North Africa the Mediterranean Basin ceased to be a part of a single large cultural area as it has been in the preceding millennium and became divided between the European (or Christian) and the Arabo-Berber (or Muslim) zones, each with its own culture and going separate ways.
From the Western European point of view, Africa became identified with the Muslim world as it was from this region that the main incursions and invasions, but also various influences and ideas, were coming. When more intensive commercial contacts between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean developed later, Africa, which the Europeans then came to know, was still Muslim Africa. It is thus not surprising that Africa was identified with the arch-enemy of Christianity, and its inhabitants, irrespective of their colour, were regarded and treated accordingly 12
The lack in Europe of any direct contacts with Africa beyond the Muslim sphere must have inevitably led to the emergence of a very distorted image of the continent and particularly of its black inhabitants. Some recent studies, mainly those by J. Devisse and F. de Medeiros 13 have clearly shown how both this ignorance, and the presumed identification of black Africans with Muslims, fashioned the European image of black Africans as the impersonation of sin, evil and inferiority. It was in those early medieval times that European negative attitudes, prejudices and hostility to peoples of black skin emerged, to be later strengthened by the slave trade and slavery.

Africa, Asia and the Indian Ocean

Since the general aspects of the Indian Ocean factor in African history, particularly those of a geographical and oceanographical nature, are discussed in Volume II of the General History 14, we shall here examine only such developments that were significant in the period between the seventh and eleventh centuries.
In the course of the last two decades a few specialized colloquiums and some collective studies have been dedicated to the problem of relations between different parts of the Indian Ocean region 15; a common feature of them was to call attention to extant problems and to indicate orientations for future research rather than offering definitive answers to a great number of as yet unsolved questions of paramount interest for the history of Africa and the adjacent islands.
The period under discussion is especially beset by these unsolved problems. The main difficulty arises from the fact that owing to some peculiar coincidences — in contrast to the preceding and subsequent periods — our knowledge about the history of the Indian Ocean and the relations between the countries bordering it, is based on rather slender evidence.
It consists up to now of a few, mostly second-hand accounts written by Muslim authors after the tenth century, of some scattered archaeological findings of goods of Asian provenance on the East African coast and on the islands, and of some parallels in the material culture. The situation is not helped by the insufficiency of historical material originating in South India and South-east Asia whose history at this period is far less well known than that of the Islamic countries to the west of India. Another difficulty concerns the dating; in Africa we do find some plants of unquestionably Asian origin, and some African languages — particularly Kiswahili — contain many Indian loan-words, but to pinpoint the precise time of their introduction is problematic. As for other problems and questions that are waiting to be tackled, it suffices to look at the long list catalogued in the report of the Unesco meeting on historical relations across the Indian Ocean 16 to see the enormous research that needs to be done before a clearer picture of the mutual coritacts in this region emerges.

Muslim commerce

The important place that the Islamic empire held in inter-continental relations was demonstrated earlier on in this chapter and we do not propose here to recount all the factors that played a role in establishing its predominance in the fields ofeconomics, trade, navigation etc.
In contrast to the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean has been in general an ocean of peace. The trade relations between its peoples, going back to early times, though not always advantageous in the same way to all participants, were only rarely disturbed by wars. Permanent trade tendencles seem to have been stronger than transitional political ones, the push towards economic exchanges stronger than political antagonism. In the early medieval Mediterranean, Muslim and Christian powers were involved in a continuous struggle and although commercial contacts never totally ceased, the state of war was not generally favourable to trade. By contrast, the expansion of Islam in the Indian Ocean had not negatively influenced Arabo-Persian trade activities since the merchants were anxious not to disturb established commercial relations through forceful conversion.
This does not mean, however, that the Indian Ocean trade has been an idyllic one. In addition to the slave trade, which was often accompanied by warlike deeds and the use of force, there existed throughout the period large-scale piracy. But it should be pointed out that it never reached the extent known from the Mediterranean where it was inflamed and even justified by religious differences.
There were some other negative factors that interfered with the otherwise continuous prosperity of the Muslim enterprise. In the second half of the ninth century two incidents seriously disrupted the Indian Ocean trade. The first was the great Zandj revolt in the region of lower Iraq and the Persian Gulf in the years 252/866-27o/883 17. Some of the most important ports — Basra, Ubulla, Abadan — were devastated and Baghdad was cut off from access to the sea. The merchants of these ports who survived the massacres fled into the interior or to other ports, and many ships were lost. For more than fifteen years the maritime trade in this region stagnated from want of merchant capital, goods and ships.
The second blow to the Muslim trade occurred almost simultaneously, in 265/878, when the forces of the Chinese rebel Huang Ch’ao sacked Canton and massacred a huge number of foreign traders, mostly from Muslim countries. The lives of some merchants were apparently spared, for according to the narrator of this disastrous incident, the rebels oppressed Arab shipmasters, imposed illegal burdens on the merchants and appropriated their wealth 18
Two calamities of this order could not, of course, occur without leaving traces on Muslim merchant seafaring. The ports at the terminal of the Persian Gulf went through a period of decline and in the East the Muslim merchants preferred to stop at Kalah (on the west coast of the Malayan peninsula) at that time a part of the Srīvijāya empire of Sumatra (cf. pp. 27-9 below) and to meet there with their Chinese counterparts.
In spite of the calamities of the ninth century, and the monopolistic tendencies of the Srīvijāya rulers, the Muslim trade gradually recovered and slowly started to regain its former importance. Not even some disasters of the tenth century, such as the sack of Basra by the Karmatians from eastern Arabia in 308/920, the burning of the whole Omani fleet in 330/942 by the ruler of Basra besieged by this fleet, or the earthquake that destroyed Siraf in 366/977, were able to stop the movements of Muslim ships on the sealanes of the Indian Ocean.
The eleventh century witnessed a major shift in the Muslim trade caused by the decline of the Abbasid Caliphate in the Middle East and the simultaneous rise of the Fatimids on North African soil. The age-old rivalry between the route terminating in the Persian Gulf, and the route leading through the Red Sea, was then resolved to the advantage of the latter after many centuries in which it played a minor role in Indian Ocean commerce. So far we have spoken about the role of the Muslim Arabs and Persians in Indian Ocean interrelations. What about the others; Africans, Indians, Indonesians and Chinese? To what degree did these peoples participate in these relations? Did their cultural and material interchange occur through direct or only through indirect contacts?
All this is connected with another problem: do we not overestimate or exaggerate the part played by Muslims in the Indian Ocean merely on the grounds that the evidence and documentation for their activities is at present the most abundant? Only a careful study of all available evidence could bring a definitive answer; already the discovery of some new facts and aspects of the question permits a better assessment of the role played in Indian Ocean relations by non-Muslims. Nevertheless the overall picture of Muslim predominance in this area seems to be unaffected by the recognition of other peoples’ roles.
This is only natural: the dominant position of Muslim trade did not emerge “ex nihilo”, it reflected the dynamics of the whole socio-economic structure of the Muslim world in these centuries as well as its favourable geographical situation on the crossroads of continents. As mentioned earlier, none of the cultural areas of the Old World was able at this time to sustain continuous contacts with all the others; the Islamic area was the only one to develop a truly intercontinental trade network. And the period between the seventh and eleventh centuries was just the time when this intercontinental trade evolved to reach its maturity, even if its greatest expansion was to be achieved only later.

Chinese commerce

Now to the participation of other nations; we will deal firstly with the Chinese, mainly for the reason that there are already some exhaustive studies on their enterprise in the Indian Ocean and contacts with Africa 19. Chinese contacts in ancient and medieval times with the other main areas of the Old World — India, western Asia and the lands around the Mediterranean — were established almost entirely through the export trade in which the most important commodity was silk and, later, chinaware.
Although China already possessed the necessary technical knowledge and means for long-distance sea voyages on the Indian Ocean under the T’ang dynasty (618-9o6), she did not employ her own ships for trade beyond the Malayan peninsula. The reasons for Chinese absence from the Indian Ocean were of a cultural and institutional order 20. In the centuries immediately preceding the rise of Islam, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was the main entrepôt for sea trade between China and western Asia. Ships from Champa or Indonesian states used to sail as far west as Ceylon; from here westwards the trade was in the hands of Persians and Axumites.
The Chinese came to know the Indian Ocean through Indian, Persian and later Arab intermediaries. They presumably were not aware of the existence of another continent at the other side of the ocean. The fragmentary accounts in Chinese literary sources about Africans and Africa seem to be drawn from Muslim accounts. In consequence they came to think of the Africans as subjects of Muslim rulers and of their countries as forming part of the Arab empire 21. African commodities wanted and welcomed by China were easily obtainable through foreign merchants who came in their own ships to Chinese ports.
Among the African goods that reached China the most important were ivory, ambergris, frankincense and myrrh as well as Zandj slaves 22. In the well-known account of Ibn Lakis about the attack on Kanbalu (Pemba) in the year 334/945-6 by the Wāk-Wāk people, the Chinese are also said to demand tortoiseshell and panther skins 23
For some time the opinion was held that the history of East Africa has been written in Chinese porcelain 24. Indeed, in East African coastal cities an enormous quantity of Chinese porcelain has been found, so that this ware must have formed an important part of Chinese exports to Africa. Sherds which closely correspond to finds on the East African coast have also been found in Somalia and South Arabia; all this indicates that the whole area of the western Indian Ocean may be considered as forming one single area from the point of view of imports of this type 25. But the bulk of the Chinese porcelain belongs to a period later than the eleventh century. A similar situation obtains for Chinese coins found on the coast. The evidence thus points to the conclusion that whereas African commodities formed a constant part of Chinese imports from early times, the arrival of Chinese goods in significant quantities could be placed only in the period after the eleventh century. As mentioned above, the exchange between China and Africa was not direct, but passed through the Muslim trade network in the Indian Ocean.

Indian commerce

The entire problem of India’s role in the Indian Ocean, particularly in the first millennium of the Christian era, is still open. It concerns mainly the participation of Indians in international trade, and the Indian influence on various parts of this region. The task of solving this complex problem is not made easier by the almost total lack of evidence of Indian provenance in the period under discussion.
One of the first observations that springs to mind is the great difference between the Indian impact on the eastern and western parts of the Indian Ocean area; throughout the whole of South-cast Asia the Indian cultural influence is more than evident both in material and spiritual spheres, notwithstanding the fact that in some parts it was overlaid later by Islam. On the opposite side of the Indian Ocean there is nothing comparable to Borobudur, the Old Javanese Ramayana epics, Balinese Hinduism, the Sanskrit loan-words in dozens of languages and so on. It seems as if the Indians had established a north-south line across the Indian Ocean, deliberately deciding to turn their eyes only eastwards and to avert them from the west. This must have occurred sometime in the middle of the first millennium; in the first centuries of the Christian era there is enough evidence of Indian ships plying between India and the western parts of the ocean and of Indian influence in Ethiopia and even Nubia, but as has been rightly remarked by D. K. Keswam 26, this glorious period of Indian maritime activities did not last very long. But even so, the Indian cultural impact in this part of Africa is weaker than that in South-east Asia and not comparable with it. Later, at the time of the flourishing of the East African coastal cities, the Indians started to participate in steadily growing numbers in the trade between Africa and India but it was then too late for Indian culture to exercise any deeper influence on the already Islamized coastal society.
In the period between the seventh and the eleventh centuries, relations between Africa and India seem to have been at their lowest ebb 27. Contact nevertheless existed, and was mostly connected with the exchange of goods. One of the most important African commodities exported to India has always been ivory. The ivory trade flourished already in Antiquity and there is hardly any Arabic source that does not mention it when describing the East African coast. Al-Mas’udi (d. 345/956) wrote that ivory from East Africa was destined for export to India and China and adds that its main entrepôt was Oman. This confirms the already expressed suggestion that there was no direct connection between Africa and India at this time 28. As for other export goods no evidence is available from these centuries but we have to bear in mind that al-Idrisi’s (d. 549/1154) well-known report of African iron exports to India relates in all probability to earlier times and therefore to our period. This African product played an important role in the development of one branch of Indian industry, the production of steel blades. It seems that this is one of the rare occurrences of African export goods that did not belong in the category of primary commodities; it must be stressed here that Africa did not export iron ore (in any case too bulky a cargo for the capacity of contemporary vessels) but already a processed product, probably pig-iron 29
Although in later periods many people of African origin imported as slaves came to prominence in India, nothing similar occurred in our period. Some African slaves were certainly exported to India via Arabia or Persia but so far no corresponding documents or other evidence has come to light. Nor do we have sufficient indications about population movements in the opposite direction, of Indians towards Africa. In many oral traditions from the coast and adjacent islands there are many references to people called Debuli (Wadebuli) who are believed to have arrived at the coast even before the Shirazi and thus before the twelfth century. Some ancient buildings are connected with them. Their name is considered to be derived from the great port of al-Daybul (Dabhol) in the mouth of the Indus River 30. The date of their arrival at the coast is highly controversial, some traditions placing it before the conversion of the coastal towns to Islam, others connecting it with the introduction of firearms, and thus rather late. Only one person with the nisba al-Dabuli is recorded, a man whom the Portuguese installed as sultan of Kilwa in 1502.
All this does not exclude the possibility that some people of Indian origin had settled — most likely as traders — on the coast in earlier times. But in any case their number would not have been great since otherwise more concrete traces, In written sources or in material culture, would have been preserved. Kiswaluli contains, indeed, many loanwords of Indian origin but until now it has been impossible to determine the epoch in which they were introduced. However, owing to the well-documented increase of Indian expatriates in later centuries, these loan-words seem to have been borrowed comparatively recently, certainly not in the period under discussion.

Contacts with Indonesia

Whereas the contacts between Africa on one hand, and China and India on the other, have been, as indicated, indirect rather than direct, there existed on the other side of the Indian Ocean one region that left indubitable traces in at least some parts of Africa. The Indonesian contribution to the peopling of Madagascar has been long recognized. At present one of the main tasks of Malagasy history is to elucidate the process of mingling of elements of Indonesian and African origin in the Malagasy culture. As these and cognate problems of Malagasy history are discussed in other chapters of this work 31, we shall deal here only with those topics that have a direct bearing on the African continent.
It seems now that the impact of the Indonesians on the African mainland has been exaggerated. There is virtually no evidence for direct Indonesian penetration of East Africa similar to what obtains in Madagascar. Until, now no archaeological, linguistic or somatic data have been discovered to demonstrate a prolonged presence of Indonesians. The theory of H. Deschamps 32 that before settling in Madagascar the proto-Malagasy made a stay on the coast of Africa where they mixed or married with Africans, lacks any supporting evidence. Raymond Kent has expanded this hypothesis, assuming a movement from Indonesia into East Africa before the arrival of the Bantu-speaking groups; later the Indonesians and Bantu met and mixed in the interior and from this mingling the Afro-Malagasy population resulted. The expansion of the Bantu to the coastal areas forced this population to migrate to Madagascar 33
These theories were developed on the ground that the Indonesians were believed to be unable to accomplish a nonstop migration across the Indian Ocean. As a corollary to this some further stopping places like the Nicobars, Sri Lanka, India, the Laccadives and Maldives are mentioned so that the Indonesian migration is seen as a series of relatively short springs from island to island with some stops in India and East Africa. Such a reconstruction is in itself not impossible or improbable but similar stops must have been of rather short duration as the Indonesians have left no discernible vestiges of their presence in these places.
Much has been made, chiefly by G. P. Murdock, of the so-called “Malaysian botanical complex” comprising such plants as rice, bananas, taro (cocoyam), yams, breadfruit tree and others that came to form the staple food of many Africans. Murdock and others believed that this complex had been brought to Madagascar during the first millennium before the Christian era by migrants from Indonesia who travelled right along the coast of southern Asia before reaching the East African coast. Leaving aside the complex problem of the origin of these plants, it should be pointed out that the diffusion of cultivated plants does not depend on physical migrations of the peoples who first started to cultivate them or had earlier adopted them, as is more than clearly demonstrated by the diffusion of some American crops through western and central Africa after the sixteenth century. This, of course, does not exclude the possibility that some of the South-east Asian plants were introduced later to the African mainland from Madagascar.
There is, however, no doubt that the Indonesians were capable and accomplished navigators and that they undertook many voyages in all directions from their island homes. Apart from being perhaps the first to open maritime commerce with China, they were particularly active on the sea routes towards India. In Sumatra and Java there emerged in the second half of the first millennium great maritime powers such as the empire of Srīvijāya in Sumatra (seventh to thirteenth centuries) and the state of the Sailendra dynasty (eighth century) in Java which later also came to power in Srīvijāya 34
We are here concerned merely with those aspects of their history that relate to the general situation in the Indian Ocean region on the one hand, and to their possible contacts with Africa on the other. The Srīvijāya state, with its first centre in south-eastern Sumatra, emerged as a maritime power in the second half of the seventh century. During the following centuries its territorial as well as commercial expansion continued and when in the tenth century the first accounts of Arabic/Persian geographers started to appear, the Srīvijāya ruler became for them the “Maharaja” par excellence, being the most powerful and important sovereign of the whole region, the “King of the isles of the eastern seas”. The Srīvijāya rulers imposed their control on the main export ports in the region, thus securing a vast monopoly on the spice trade. The control of the Malacca Strait gave them an enormous advantage since all maritime traffic had to flow through it and to call at its ports. The relations with the Cholas in South India on the one hand, and with China on the other, were continuous and friendly until the first quarter of the eleventh century.
After the almost total destruction of the Muslim merchant colony in China in 265/878 (cf. p. 21 above) and the ensuing decline of direct Muslim-Chinese trade, the Srīvijāya’s rulers seized the opportunity to insert themselves into this lucrative enterprise;s the eastbound Muslim ships met with the southbound Chinese ships at Kalah in the Malacca Strait, a port under the suzerainty of the Srīvijāya empire. At the same time the ships of Srīvijāya participated in the Indian Ocean trade; the close contacts with South India are documented by inscriptions in Buddhist monasteries and schools of Negapatam. As for the voyages to the western Indian Ocean we dispose of a few but extremely important Arabic texts. The first is the well-known account about the attack of the Wāk-Wāk people on Kanbalii (Pemba) in 334/945-6 35
The mention of the whole year’s journey necessary to accomplish the voyage from their homes to East Africa already led the narrator to the conclusion that the islands of Wāk-Wāk are situated opposite China. G. Ferrand has shown that under the term Wāk-Wāk the Muslim authors understood two regions or people, one somewhere in the south-western part of the Indian Ocean, including Madagascar and the African coast to the south of Sufala, the other in South-east Asia, in present-day Indonesia 36. Various fables and “mirabilia” were narrated about them and successive authors added a lot of contradictory details so that the picture is highly confused. But it seems that until the present nobody paid attention to the curious coincidence that the Wāk-Wāk appear in Arabic geographical literature always in connection with those areas where people of Indonesian/Malayan origin lived together with or were neighbours of or mixed with the Negroids. This seems to be confirmed by al-Bīrūnī 37 who says that the peoples of the Wāk-Wāk island are dark-skinned although in their neighbourhood live others of lighter skin and resembling the Turks (the Muslim stereotype for the Mongoloids). Al-Bīrūnī had in mind here parts of South-east Asia and his Wāk-Wāk is either New Guinea (Irian) where a locality called Fakfak is still to be found, or some of the Moluccas Islands partly inhabited by Melanesians, or both. Many Muslim authors were not always capable or they did not care to ascertain the precise ethmcity of the people called Wāk-Wāk. So each single reference has to be analysed in its own context before reaching the probable concrete meaning of the term.
In this case some details of Ibn Lakis’ narrative point unmistakably to South-east Asia as the home of these Wāk-Wāk people. And since we know that at this period the Srīvijāya empire was the major maritime power in the eastern Indian Ocean, it is not too far-fetched to see in this longdistance expedition an attempt to expand the area of Srīvijāya’s trade network in order to reach directly the sources of African commodities, thus evading the Muslim monopoly. It was perhaps not the first voyage of this kind, and it is possible that these expeditions began at the time when Muslim commercial activities were severely restricted by the Zandj revolt as well as by the expulsion of foreign merchants from Chinese ports in the second half of the ninth century. How far these expeditions — and al-Idrisi confirms that Indonesian ships continued to visit African shores and Madagascar in later centuries, too — were related to the new waves of Indonesian migrations to Madagascar between the tenth and twelfth centuries, remains an as yet unsolved problem. On the other hand it is not excluded that these late migrations were in some way connected with the invasions or raids of the South Indian Cholas on Srīvijāya in the first half of the eleventh century that considerably weakened the state and could have led to flights and movements of population. The difficulty of coming to more certain conclusions is due to lack of adequate sources for Srīvijāya history.


In comparison with the preceding period the extent and character of mutual contacts between the African continent and other parts of the Indian Ocean region underwent some quantitative and qualitative changes. First we can observe a steadily increasing presence of Middle Eastern peoples in all parts of the area and particularly on the East African coast. There the Arabs and Persians were able to develop further their commercial activities whose foundations had already been laid in the first centuries of the Christian era. This new expansion was connected with the rise of the Caliphate as a unifying political, cultural and economic great power. With this background it was possible for the Muslims to monopolize the East African trade and achieve a dominating position in the external relations of this region. While these contacts undoubtedly contributed to the flourishing of some coastal cities as centres of international trade and led to the rise of an African entrepreneurial class, it should not be forgotten that at the same time great numbers of African slaves were exported outside the continent to contribute to the economies of various Asiatic countries, mostly in the Middle East. Secondly there was a marked decline of direct contacts with India. Before the seventh century Ethiopian ships traded with some Indian ports and these relations are well attested by hoards of Indian (Kushan) coins found in Ethiopia as well as by many traces of Indian influence in Ethiopian material and intellectual culture. Between the seventh and eleventh centuries nothing comparable is to be observed; it was due mainly to the passing of the traffic between India and Ethiopia into the hands of Muslims who imposed their own cultural layers on these relations. Thirdly, nothwithstanding the Muslim preponderance in the Indian Ocean the Indonesians were still able to maintain contacts with Madagascar and even with some parts of the African coast. Their impact on the mainland, however, must have been negligible; assertions of some scholars about the decisive contribution of Indonesia to African culture are to be considered as hypotheses without sufficient evidence. The situation in the case of Madagascar is, of course, quite different as the Indonesian connection is more than evident. We shall now investigate the role played by peoples of African origin in the Indian Ocean context. In assessing it we should bear in mind that during this period only a tiny part of the African continent, i.e. the narrow coastal strip, was in contact with the outside world. The number of Afticans with any opportunity to exercise any influence or to be exposed to it, must have been rather restricted. There was thus a substantial difference from the situation obtained in West Africa where cross-cultural contacts occurred on a wider and deeper front. But even so, their role has been in no way negligible, on the contrary, it was the Africans who contributed substantially to profound changes in the destinies of a great empire. The Zandj revolt, an authentic social rising, had far-reaching consequences in many fields — political, social, economic. The uprising shattered the unity of the Muslim empire as great provinces broke away from the Caliphate, and it paved the way for the downfall of the old Abbasid regime. The political crisis ushered in by the Zandj revolt had deepened the cleavage between the social classes, and the well-to-do classes, being afraid for their privileges, began to put their confidence in the professional armies of Turkish and other mercenaries as the only force capable of keeping order; this heralded the new era in the history of the Muslim Middle East. The revolt also taught a lesson to the Muslim ruling classes; never again do we find in the Muslim East any large-scale enterprise based on concentration of slave labour and it seems that the exploitation of slaves in agriculture and irrigation was abandoned. This in turn led in the next century to the rise of feudalism as the prevailing mode of production in eastern Muslim countries, the slave exploitation giving way to the feudal one. Whether there was as a consequence a decrease in the number of imported African slaves is, in the absence of any statistics, an open question. Another consequence of the Zandj revolt seems to have been a hardening of racial feelings in those times; the black Africans came to be held in contempt, in spite of the teachings of Islam, and there emerged in Muslim literature many previously unknown themes expressing a negative attitude towards blacks. Other aspects of African history during this period were partly due to the interaction of various Indian Ocean regions. Among them we should mention the growth of the participation of towns on the East African coast in the international maritime trade. Even if the shipping was controlled by foreign merchants, the producers and exporters were African coastal peoples. Although the full flowering of Swahili political, economic and cultural life occurred in the next centuries, it was in our period that its foundations were laid.

. Cf. C. Cahen, 1981.
. For further information on the spread of Islam, see Chapter 3 below.
. E. Ashtor, 1976, pp. 100-2.
. The official name is “Persian Gulf”.
. J. D. Fage, 1964, p. 32.
. Cf. Unesco, General History of Africa, Vol. I, ch. 5 for an evaluation of these sources.
. On the question of Orthodox and Monophysite religion in Nubia cf. Unesco, General History of Africa, Vol. II, ch. 12; Vol. III, ch. 8.
. H. Pirenne, 1937; A. F. Havighurst, 1958.
. It is significant that in all West European languages the word for “slave” (Sklave, esclave, esclavo, escravo, etc.) is derived from the ethnonym “Slav”, the name various Slavonic peoples used for themselves. This points to the fact that during the formative period of European national languages, which coincides precisely with the period under discussion, the Slavonic prisoners of war must have formed the main bulk of the slave population in Western Europe.
10. The castration, being forbidden by the Muslim law, was performed already in Europe with the town of Verdun as the most important place so that Reinhard Dozy called it a “eunuch factory”.
11. Cf. Chapter 12 below.
12. The term ‘Moors’ (and other derivates of Lat. Mauri) signified for a long time both the Muslims and the blacks; only later the distinction was being made between ‘white Moors’ and ‘black Moors’ (Blackamoors); cf. J. Devisse, 1979a, pp. 53-4 and notes on p. 22o.
13. Ibid, pp, 47ff., and passim; F. de Medeiros, 1973.
14. Cf. Unesco, General History of Africa, Vol. II, ch. 22.
15. Cf. mainly D. S. Richards (ed.), 1970; M. Mollat, 1971; Colloque de Saint-Denis, 1972; H. N. Chittick and R. I. Rotberg (eds), 1975; Unesco, 1980.
16. Unesco, 198o.
17. Cf. Chapter 26 below.
18. G. F. Hourani, 1951, pp. 77-9.
19. Cf. J. J. L. Duyvendak, 1949; T. Filesi, 1962, 1970.
20. Wang Gungwu, 1980.
21. Ibid.
22. Cf. Chapter 26 below.
23. Buzurg ibn Shahriyar, 1883-6; cf. also Chapter 25 below.
24. Sir Mortimer Wheeler, quoted by G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville, 1962a, p. 35.
25. Ibid.
26. Cf. D. K. Keswani, 1980, p. 42.
27. There is evidence about the activities of Indian pirates operating from Socotra during this time, but pirates do not usually fulfil the role of cultural apostles. Al-Mukaddasi, 1877, p. 14; al-Mas’udi, 1861-77, Vol 3, pp. 36-7; cf. G. F. Hourani, 1951, p. 80.
28. Cf. G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville, 1962a, pp. 201-2, who discusses the commercial and nautical reasons for the lack of direct communications.
29. Al-ldrisi, 1970, Vol I, Iklim I/8, pp. 67-8
30. Cf. J. M. Gray, 1954, pp. 25-30; G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville, 1962a, pp. 202-3.
31. Cf. Chapter 25 below and Unesco, General History of Africa, Vol. II, ch. 28.
32. H. Deschamps, 1960.
33. R. K. Kent, 1970.
34. Cf. D. G. Hall, 1964, pp. 53ff.
35. Cf. Buzurg ibn Shahriyar, 1883-6, pp. 174-5; a full translation of this account is to be found in Unesco, General History of Africa, Vol. II, pp. 7o6-7, where the second sentence should read: “… they arrived in about a thousand of ships and fought vigorously against them (inhabitants of Kanbalu) but were not able to defeat them.”
36. G. Ferrand, 1929. For the most up-to-date discussion on this problem, see G. R. Tibbets, 1979, pp. 166-77.
37. Al-Bīrūnī, 1887, p. 164; for English translation, see 1888, Vol. I, pp. 210-11




Bienvenue dans mon monde d'exploration et de découverte ! Je suis Ingrid Allain, une voyageuse passionnée avec une curiosité insatiable pour la riche tapisserie de la culture africaine. Pour moi, l'Afrique n'est pas juste une destination ; c'est une fascination de toute une vie et une source d'inspiration. Des rythmes vibrants des cercles de tambours d'Afrique de l'Ouest à la perlerie complexe des artisans Maasaï, chaque coin de ce continent détient un trésor de traditions à découvrir. À travers mes écrits, je vise à partager la beauté, la diversité et la résilience des cultures africaines avec le monde. E-mail: [email protected] / Linkedin
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.