African Rulers in defence of Sovereignty

A great majority of African rulers, then, did opt for the defence of their sovereignty and independence. It is in the strategies and the tactics that they adopted to achieve this universal objective that they differed. Most African rulers chose the strategy of confrontation, using either diplomatic or military weapons or both. As will be seen below, Samori Ture, and Kabarega of Bunyoro resorted to both weapons while Prempeh I and Mwanga of Buganda relied on diplomacy. Others such as Tofa of Porto Novo (in what is now Benin) chose the strategy of alliance or co-operation, not of collaboration. This question of strategy should be highlighted here because it has been grossly misunderstood hitherto and this has led to the classification of some of the African rulers as collaborators and their action as that of collaboration.

We are opposed to the use of this term collaboration not only because it is inaccurate but also because it is derogatory and Eurocentric. As we have seen above, the fundamental issue at stake between the 1880s and the 1900s as far as the African rulers were concerned, was that of sovereignty, and on this, it was quite clear that nobody was prepared to compromise. Those African rulers who have been mistakenly termed
collaborators were those who thought that the best way of safeguarding their sovereignty or even regaining the sovereignty that they might have lost to some African power previous to the arrival of the Europeans was not to collaborate but rather to ally with the European invaders. A collaborator is surely one who betrays the national cause by colluding with the enemy to pursue the goals and objectives of the enemy rather than the interests of his own nation. But as we have seen, the Africans were all faced with the question of surrendering, retaining or regaining their sovereignty. Those who threw in their lot with the Europeans therefore had their own objective, and it is therefore totally wrong to call them collaborators.

In any case, since the Second World War , the term collaborator has assumed very pejorative connotations and the interesting thing is that some of the historians who use it are aware of this. R . Robinson, for example, stated: ‘It should be stressed that the term [collaborator] is used in no pejorative sense’.13 The question then is if it can be so used, why use it at all, especially in the African case where it is so inaccurate?

Why not use the word ally which is indeed the more appropriate term? Tofa, the king of the Gun kingdom of Porto Novo has always been cited as a typical example of a collaborator. But was he? As Hargreaves has clearly shown, Tofa was facing three different enemies at the time of the arrival of the French – the Yoruba to the north-east, the Fon kings of Dahomey to the north and the British on the coast — and he must have seen the arrival of the French as a god-sent opportunity for him not only to protect his sovereignty but even to make some gains at the expense of his enemies. He naturally chose, therefore, not to collaborate but to ally with the French.

Surely only those historians who are not aware of the problems with which Tofa was confronted at that time, or who deny the African any initiative or an awareness of his own interests, or who see the whole issue from a Eurocentric viewpoint, would describe Tofa as a collaborator. Moreover, the fallacy of this term is further demonstrated by the fact that the socalled collaborators who at some points were prepared to ally with Europeans often later became the opposers or resisters of the Europeans: Wobogo, the king of Mossi, Lat Dior, the Darnel of Gayor, and even the great Samori Ture himself are examples of such rulers. This makes the classification quite absurd.

A. Adu Boahen (Ghana); specialist in West African colonial history; author of numerous publications and articles on African history; Professor and Head of the Department of History, University of Ghana.

Source: General History of Africa VII. [Editor: A. Adu Boahen] Africa under Colonial Domination 1880-1935. Chapter 1. Africa and the colonial challenge.


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African Sovereigns against Colonialism

African authorities and leaders were vehemently opposed to [colonialism] and expressed their determination to maintain the status quo and, above all, to retain their sovereignty and independence, an issue on which virtually all of them were not in any way prepared to compromise. This answer can be documented from the very words of the contemporary African leaders themselves.

In 1891, when the British offered protection to Prempeh I of Asante in the Gold Coast, he replied: 

”The suggestion that Asante in its present state should come and enjoy the protection of Her Majesty the Queen and Empress of India I may say is a matter of very serious consideration, and which I am happy to say we have arrived at this conclusion, that my kingdom of Asante will never commit itself to any such policy. Asante must remain as of old at the same time to remain friendly with all white men. I do not write this in a boastful spirit but in the clear sense of its meaning . . . the cause of Asante is progressing and there is no reason for any Asante man to feel alarm at the prospects or to believe for a single instant that our cause has been driven back by the events of the past hostilities.”

In 1895, Wobogo, the Moro Naba, or King of the Mossi (in modern Upper Volta), told the French officer, Captain Destenave:

”I know that the whites wish to kill me in order to take my country, and yet you claim that they will help me to organize my country. But I find m y country good just as it is. I have no need of them. I know what is necessary for me and what I want: I have my own
merchants: also, consider yourself fortunate that I do not order your head to be cut off. Go away now, and above all, never come back.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Lat Dior, the Darnel of Cayor (in modern Senegal) in 1883 (quoted in Chapter 6…), by King Machemba of the Yao in what is now mainland Tanzania in 1890 (quoted in Chapter 3…) and by Hendrik Wittboi, a king in what is now
Namibia (quoted in Chapter 3…).

A. Adu Boahen (Ghana); specialist in West African colonial history; author of numerous publications and articles on African history; Professor and Head of the Department of History, University of Ghana.

Source: General History of Africa VII. [Editor: A. Adu Boahen] Africa under Colonial Domination 1880-1935. Chapter 1. Africa and the colonial challenge.


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The Zulu

Mthethwa expansion under Dingiswayo had been checked by Zwide and his Ndwandwe regiments. Several wars had been fought by the rival armies. In 1818 Dingiswayo was captured by Zwide and killed. Because of the personal character of Dingiswayo’s rule, his death created a vacuum in the leadership of the Mthethwa. Shaka, who had been rising fast in Dingiswayo’s esteem (and had with his help become head of the small Zulu chiefdom) now quickly stepped into the breach. He replaced Dingiswayo as head of the Mthethwa confederacy of chiefdoms. He had, in effect, inherited the Mthethwa ’empire’. […] Shaka ‘incorporated’ the Mthethwa empire into the Zulu state, thus making the Mthethwa part of the Zulu nation. He did, however, allow the Mthethwa traditional system of government to continue under a minor son of Dingiswayo with a regent subservient to himself as the Zulu monarch. In dealing with other groups, however, Shaka appears to have insisted on total incorporation rather than mere suzerainty.

Even while he was only head of the Zulu state and subservient to Dingiswayo, Shaka had already started reorganizing his army. This process of rationalizing social institutions for military purposes was now carried to a logical conclusion. Shaka also revolutionized the military techniques themselves. The long throwing spear was replaced by a short broad-bladed stabbing spear that was much more effective in close-up fighting after the enemy had lost the long throwing spear or javelin. Zulu fighting m e n now carried long shields, discarded sandals and went barefoot for greater speed and mobility. Like Dingiswayo before him, Shaka kept a permanent army of regiments drawn from men under 40 years of age. Unlike Dingiswayo, he kept these regiments in military barracks where they were maintained by the state and led a life of celibacy until they were discharged from military service. Because they were maintained in barracks, Shaka’s regiments were well drilled and efficient and always ready for emergencies.

Shaka’s army was instructed in several military tactics of which the ‘cowhorns’ formation was only the most spectacular. The army was trained to be hardy and ruthless in dealing with the enemy. Unlike Sobhuza or Dingiswayo, Shaka often wiped out the ruling elites of the conquered peoples and sought total incorporation of captured groups into the Zulu system with members of the Zulu royal family replacing the original rulers.
Sometimes the chiefs of the larger groups were recognized by being allowed a free hand in the local control of their own peoples.

It was while Shaka was involved in the critical wars for the domination of what later became Zululand that he developed and perfected some of the techniques and tactics referred to above. This drive to bring all groups in the region of northern Nguni under his own control brought Shaka into direct conflict with Zwide’s Ndwandwe, whom he defeated in two successive battles in 1819 and 1820.

Shaka’s defeat of the Ndwandwe army at Mhlatuze meant not only a disastrous military defeat for Zwide himself but also a collapse of the Ndwandwe state, a loose confederacy that had been built up through systematic subordination of small states in the Mkuze and Phongolo valleys. Fragments of the Ndwandwe state under the leadership of Zwide’s erstwhile generals fled panic-stricken northwards into what is now Mozambique.
The leaders of these splinter groups were Soshangane, Zwangendaba and Nqaba. The bulk of the Ndwandwe, now effectively subjugated, remained under Sikunyane as a tributary state of the Zulu sovereign.

D . Ngcongco (Botswana): specialist in Southern African history; has published various studies on Botswana in pre-colonial times; formerly Director, National Institute of Development, Research and Documentation; Professor and Head, Department of History, University of Botswana.

Source: General History of Africa Vol.VI. [Editor: J.F.Ade Ajai] Africa in the Nineteenth Century until the 1880s. Chapter 5. The Mfecane and the rise of new African states.


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The Mthethwa

The expulsion of the Ngwane-Dlamini from the Phongolo valley left Zwide of the Ndwandwe and Dingiswayo of the Mthethwa to confront each other in the northern Nguni country. Zwide himself had become king of the Ndwandwe around 1790. He appears to have been responsible for building a powerful Ndwandwe state based on the collection of tribute from subject polities, the use of an army based on age-regiments, the myth of a sacred kingship organized around the annual incwala first-fruits ceremonies and the control of trade routes with Delagoa Bay.

The Mthethwa kingdom had become famous under Dingiswayo, son of Jobe and grandson of Kayi (who may generally be regarded as founder of the Mthethwa kingdom). Like the Ndwandwe, Ngwane, and later the Zulu states, the power of the Mthethwa was also built on tribute collecting, cattle-raiding and an army based on age-regiments. The Mthethwa also traded extensively with Delagoa Bay.

As has already been pointed out, the age-regiments were being deployed generally throughout the major Nguni states of the region and most of the Nguni states appear to have been influenced by Pedi and other Sotho groups in the vicinity. But Dingiswayo seems to have brought his usual thoroughness and imagination to the reorganization of what was a fairly general practice in the area. H e terminated the circumcision rite that used to accompany the formation of age-grades in order to do away with the period of seclusion necessitated by such rites. He adopted the chest-and horns formation for his army. Dingiswayo also formed an alliance with the Maputo kingdom at Delagoa Bay. In subsequently conquering and incorporating the Qwabe state, Dingiswayo is said to have been assisted by soldiers armed with guns from his allied kingdom of Maputo, and not, as Fynn stated, a company of soldiers sent by the Portuguese. Dingiswayo’s Mthethwa kingdom collected tribute from more than thirty chiefdoms in the region, including a small chiefdom under Senzangakhona, namely the Zulu state. Subsequently Shaka, a son of Senzangakhona, became a general in Dingiswayo’s army.

D . Ngcongco (Botswana): specialist in Southern African history; has published various studies on Botswana in pre-colonial times; formerly Director, National Institute of Development, Research and Documentation; Professor and Head, Department of History, University of Botswana.

Source: General History of Africa Vol.VI. [Editor: J.F.Ade Ajai] Africa in the Nineteenth Century until the 1880s. Chapter 5. The Mfecane and the rise of new African states.

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The Haitian Revolution



It was in the Americas, however, that the freedom struggle first reached dramatic international proportions. Throughout the Americas small groups of blacks had gained their freedom, a few had never been slaves, but they all developed their own way of life and although powerless to influence general public policy, followed with interest world developments affecting black people. As a group, both they and the black slaves were profoundly influenced by the events on the island of San Domingo (Haiti).

Just two years after the United States of America had adopted the constitution that gave moral and legal sanction to slavery, a revolution erupted in France with the slogan: Liberty! Equality! Fraternity! It shook the structure of the French settlement on San Domingo, a prosperous sugar colony where 500 000 slaves and 24 000 free persons of colour lived under the domination of some 32 000 French settlers known for their opulence and cruel treatment of their slaves. The free African population, which included several slave-owners, took the revolutionary French slogan seriously and demanded full equality with the whites. Then, in 1791, the great black masses moved under the leadership of an illiterate fieldhand, Boukman, who bound his followers with voodoo ritual and African-style secret oaths to rise against their masters. The revolutionary government in Paris dispatched an army to restore order. It was at this stage, that one of the most remarkable figures in history appeared on the scene – a literate, Christian, slave-coachman, diaspora-born with an African father – Toussaint who took the name L’Ouverture (The Opener).

Toussaint called for guerrilla action to support his small army and, within five years, had defeated Napoleon’s invading army – with assistance from yellow fever. He restored order and prosperity to Haiti and was proclaimed throughout the world for his military ability, administrative skills, humanity and statesmanship. His reputation spread rapidly, reaching blacks in the United States through black sailors who played an important role in disseminating information throughout the black world.

The success of the African liberation movement in Haiti created terror among whites in the United States who feared that American Africans might also seek their freedom through violence. More stringent legislation was passed, police security was tightened and steps were taken to restrict the movement of blacks in the country and prevent black immigration, especially from Haiti. On the other hand, Africans in the United States were inspired by the achievement of their brothers in Haiti. Haiti and Toussaint L’Ouverture thus became symbols inspiring blacks in other parts of the Americas and the Carribean to seek their freedom with the possibility that independence could be theirs.

J. E . Harris (USA): specialist in African diaspora; author of various publications and articles on the subject; currently Professor at Howard University, Washington D C .

Source: General History of Africa Vol.V. [Editor: B.A.Ogot] Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Chapter 5. The African diaspora in the Old and the New Worlds.

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African Slave Revolts

Slave revolts represented the highest stage of the struggle for freedom from slavery, and areas with high black-slave population densities generally had more frequent and severe conspiracies and revolts. In British Guyana, for example, the slave population at its peak constituted about ninety per cent of the total population; Jamaica, Brazil and San Domingo (Haiti) had similar large black concentrations; and Cuba was not far behind. In the United States, however, blacks were in the majority in only two states, Mississippi and South Carolina.

Excluding San Domingo, the greatest African slave revolts in the Americas occurred in Jamaica and Guyana. The first was the Maroon War in Jamaica in 1725, when bands of slaves fled into the mountains to establish their own community. In 1739, the British were forced to sign a treaty with Captain Cudjoe, from the Gold Coast, who agreed to send back any runaway slaves in return for rights of self-government and a tax-free
existence. […]

It was in Brazil that the African armed struggle reached impressive proportions for an extended period – prior to the San Domingo epoch. Small-scale revolts had long been part of Brazil’s history of slavery but it was the state of Palmares which, for most of the seventeenth century, from 1605-95, established an autonomous African community estimated at 20 000 inhabitants originally Bantu from the Congo-Angola region. They sought to model their society on their homeland and resisted both the Dutch and Portuguese until they finally succumbed in 1695. These freedom struggles illustrate the nascent African nationalism in the Caribbean and Latin American segments of the diaspora. The objectives were not merely vengeance or escape to the hills but to establish areas where Africans would have political control and could defend themselves against their enemies. African religions such as obeah and vodum, were important as organizing tools. So too was Islam, especially in Bahia where it helped to solidify the Hausa and the Yoruba.

Scores of major plots and conspiracies and several serious insurrections by Africans also occurred in North America during this same period. Most plantations were far from any terrain suited to rebel activity, such as the mountains of Jamaica or the jungles of Guyana. But escape to live among the Indians or others was an option taken by a considerable number of slaves in some of the southern colonies, as in the flight to the Seminole Indians in Florida with whom the escaped slaves later raided neighbouring
plantations. Insurrections also occurred in Virginia and Maryland in the early eighteenth century as soon as it became clear that a pattern of enslaving Africans for life was replacing the indentured system, and as the Carolinas adopted extensive plantation production using slave codes developed in the Caribbean. In 1730, conspiracies involving slaves were uncovered in the three colonies of Virginia, Carolina and Louisiana. They were led by Africans who had previously been involved in revolts in West Africa. The following year there was a mutiny aboard a slave ship lying off the shore of Rhode Island and, four years later, a group of slaves destroyed themselves and their captors aboard the slaver, Dolphin. The most serious revolt of this period took place in 1739 in South Carolina as Cudjoe was checkmating the British army in the mountains of Jamaica. It is recorded as Cato’s Rebellion.

In the northern American colonies, where there were fewer than 3000 Africans among approximately six times as many whites and where there were no plantations, there were similar troubles. In 1712 a group led by a Gold Coast African tried to burn down New York City. A similar attempt was made in Boston in 1723. In 1741, the most widely publicized episode occurred – another attempt at arson in New York City, the details of which are still in dispute. Two years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, there was another scare in Boston. It is significant that this first cycle of plots and revolts in North America tended to be led by Africans recently imported and still fighting against enslavement. By 1772 suggestions were being heard in several parts of the American colonies that all free blacks should be deported to Africa or the West Indies. Free blacks were regarded as instigators of resistance. Hangings and similar brutal treatment were applied to those caught following revolutionary activities.

J. E . Harris (USA): specialist in African diaspora; author of various publications and articles on the subject; currently Professor at Howard University, Washington D C .

Source: General History of Africa Vol.V. [Editor: B.A.Ogot] Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Chapter 5. The African diaspora in the Old and the New Worlds.




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The Slave Trade

Portugal was initially attracted to Black Africa by its gold, previously exported to the Islamic countries. The Portuguese, however, soon discovered a second African product attractive to Europeans, namely slaves.

Though slavery in Africa differed from that known to Europeans, the tradition of exporting slaves to the Arab countries was an old one in large parts of the continent, particularly Sudan. This tradition seems to have facilitated somewhat the organization – during the 1400s and 1500s – of regular purchases of slaves by the Portuguese from a large part of West Africa, particularly Senegambia, a long-standing economic partner of the Maghrib. The Portuguese, who penetrated farther and farther inland in the south-eastern part of West Africa, successfully applied the trade methods used in Senegambia. Realizing success depended on the cooperation of local chiefs and traders, they worked to interest them in the slave trade. The Portuguese also realized that such trade would lead to increased fighting between peoples and states, because prisoners of war soon became the main subject of the trade. The Portuguese soon abandoned their moral objections to the slave trade, believing, as did many in Europe, that it enabled blacks to reach salvation whereas had they remained in their own countries, they would as non-Christians have been damned to eternal perdition.

Soon another argument for the slave trade was propounded – that blacks were descended from Ham , who had been cursed, and for that reason were condemned to permanent slavery. Such ideological motivations should not be underestimated. It should be added here that black slaves appeared in Europe at a time when trade in white slaves from the Black Sea zone was almost dead. From this time on slaves were identified as Negroes, other representatives of the black race being unknown.

Throughout the 1400s and early 1500s, the main market for African slaves was Europe, particularly Portugal and the Spanish countries and, to a certain extent, islands in the Atlantic such as Madeira, the Canaries, the Cape Verde Islands and subsequently St Thomas Island — although the number of slaves transported to these islands was limited by the small size of the islands themselves. The main incentive for the slave trade in Madeira, the Cape Verde Islands and, in particular, St Thomas Island was the introduction of the cultivation of sugar cane and cotton.

Slavery could not develop to any great extent on the European continent because there was no economic reason for it. The Africans who were brought into Portugal and the Spanish countries were mainly employed as domestic servants or semi-skilled artisans in the towns. There is no evidence that Africans played an important role in agriculture, the foundation of Europe’s economy.

M. Malowist (Poland): specialist in the economic and social history of the Late Middle Ages and early modern times; author of various publications and articles on the subject; former Professor of History, University of Warsaw; former member of Clare Hall, Cambridge and visiting member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. Deceased.

Source: General History of Africa Vol.V. [Editor: B.A.Ogot] Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Chapter 1. The struggle for international trade and its implications for Africa.

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