African Civilizations Reader

Document Sample
African Civilizations Reader Powered By Docstoc
					African Proverbs (19th C.)
         The languages of Africa are rich in proverbs. These examples were collected in the 19th century
and reflect traditional values. They were collected and translated by various Europeans and edited by the
famous explorer Richard F. Burton in 1865 in Wit and Wisdom from West Africa.
         Try rewording some of these proverbs to explain their meaning.
-The house-roof fights with the rain, but he who is sheltered ignores it.
-To love the king is not bad, but a king who loves you is better.
-Allah does not destroy the men whom one hates.
Oji (Ashanti):
-If nothing touches the palm-leaves they do not rustle. (1)
-He is a fool whose sheep runs away twice.
-The man who has bread to eat does not appreciate the severity of a famine.
-Because friendship is pleasant, we partake of our friend's entertainment; not because we have not enough
to eat in our own house.
-When your neighbor's horse falls into a pit, you should not rejoice at it, for your own child may fall into
it too.
-The pot-lid is always badly off: the pot gets all the sweet, the lid nothing but steam. (2)
-His opinions are like water in the bottom of a canoe, going from side to side.
-You lament not the dead, but lament the trouble of making a grave; the way of the ghost is longer than
the grave.

(1) Compare English "Where there's smoke there's fire."
(2) Said of slaves, who work without pay.

Leo Africanus: Description of Timbuktu
From The Description of Africa(1526)
El Hasan ben Muhammed el-Wazzan-ez-Zayyati was born in the Moorish city of Granada in 1485, but
was expelled along with his parents and thousands of other Muslims by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.
Settling in Morocco, he studied in Fez, and as a teenager accompanied his uncle on diplomatic missions
throughout North Africa and to the Sub-Saharan kingdom of Ghana. Still a young man, he was captured
by Christian pirates and presented as an exceptionally learned slave to the great Renaissance pope, Leo
X. Leo freed him, baptized him under the name "Johannis Leo de Medici," and commissioned him to write
in Italian the detailed survey of Africa which provided most of what Europeans knew about the continent
for the next several centuries. At the time he visited the Ghanaian city of Timbuktu, it was somewhat past
its peak, but still a thriving Islamic city famous for its learning. "Timbuktu" was to become a byword in
Europe as the most inaccessible of cities, but at the time Leo visited, it was the center of a busy trade in
African products and in books. Leo is said to have died in 1554 in Tunis, having reconverted to Islam.

What evidence does he provide that suggests the importance of learning in Timbuktu?

         The name of this kingdom is a modern one, after a city which was built by a king named Mansa
Suleyman in the year 610 of the hegira [1232 CE] around twelve miles from a branch of the Niger River.
         The houses of Timbuktu are huts made of clay-covered wattles with thatched roofs. In the center
of the city is a temple built of stone and mortar, built by an architect named Granata, (2) and in addition
there is a large palace, constructed by the same architect, where the king lives. The shops of the artisans,
the merchants, and especially weavers of cotton cloth are very numerous. Fabrics are also imported from
Europe to Timbuktu, borne by Berber merchants. (3)
         The women of the city maintain the custom of veiling their faces, except for the slaves who sell
all the foodstuffs. The inhabitants are very rich, especially the strangers who have settled in the country;
so much so that the current king (4) has given two of his daughters in marriage to two brothers, both
businessmen, on account of their wealth. There are many wells containing sweet water in Timbuktu; and
in addition, when the Niger is in flood canals deliver the water to the city. Grain and animals are
abundant, so that the consumption of milk and butter is considerable. But salt is in very short supply
because it is carried here from Tegaza, some 500 miles from Timbuktu. I happened to be in this city at a
time when a load of salt sold for eighty ducats. The king has a rich treasure of coins and gold ingots.
One of these ingots weighs 970 pounds. (5)
         The royal court is magnificent and very well organized. When the king goes from one city to
another with the people of his court, he rides a camel and the horses are led by hand by servants. If
fighting becomes necessary, the servants mount the camels and all the soldiers mount on horseback.
When someone wishes to speak to the king, he must kneel before him and bow down; but this is only
required of those who have never before spoken to the king, or of ambassadors. The king has about 3,000
horsemen and infinity of foot-soldiers armed with bows made of wild fennel [?] which they use to shoot
poisoned arrows. This king makes war only upon neighboring enemies and upon those who do not want
to pay him tribute. When he has gained a victory, he has all of them--even the children--sold in the market
at Timbuktu.
         Only small, poor horses are born in this country. The merchants use them for their voyages and
the courtiers to move about the city. But the good horses come from Barbary. They arrive in a caravan
and, ten or twelve days later, they are led to the ruler, who takes as many as he likes and pays
appropriately for them.
         The king is a declared enemy of the Jews. He will not allow any to live in the city. If he hears it
said that a Berber merchant frequents them or does business with them, he confiscates his goods. There
are in Timbuktu numerous judges, teachers and priests, all properly appointed by the king. He greatly
honors learning. Many hand-written books imported from Barbary are
also sold. There is more profit made from this commerce than from all other merchandise.
         Instead of coined money, pure gold nuggets are used; and for small purchases, cowrie shells
which have been carried from Persia, (6) and of which 400 equal a ducat. Six and two-thirds of their
ducats equal one Roman gold ounce. (7)
         The people of Timbuktu are of a peaceful nature. They have a custom of almost continuously
walking about the city in the evening (except for those that sell gold), between 10 PM and 1 AM, playing
musical instruments and dancing. The citizens have at their service many slaves, both men and women.
         The city is very much endangered by fire. At the time when I was there on my second voyage, (8)
half the city burned in the space of five hours. But the wind was violent and the inhabitants of the other
half of the city began to move their belongings for fear that the other half would burn.

        There are no gardens or orchards in the area surrounding Timbuktu.

(1) Mansa Suleyman reigned 1336-1359. The city was in fact probably founded in the 11th century by
Tuaregs, but became the chief city of the king of Mali in 1324.
(2) Ishak es Sahili el-Gharnati, brought to Tinbuktu by Mansa Suleyman.
(3) By camel caravan across the Sahara Desert from NorthAfrica.
(4) 'Omar ben Mohammed Naddi, not in fact the king, but representative of the ruler of the kingdom of
(5) Such fabulous nuggets are commonly mentioned by Arab writers about Africa, but their size is
probably grossly exaggerated.
(6) Cowrie shells, widely used for money in West Africa, sometimes came in fact from even farther away,
from the Maladive Islands of Southeast Asia.
(7) A Sudanese gold ducat would weigh .15 oz.
(8) Probably in 1512.

Richard Eden: Decades of the New World (1555)
English merchants at the Royal Court of Benin
The Portuguese were the first to begin trading with various West African empires, including the famous
royal court of Benin, whose brilliant sculpture has been famous in Europe ever since. The English,
however, were soon looking for profit in the same area. This account of one trading voyage depicts their
insatiable desire for gold, or what was almost as good: pepper. Under the guidance of an impoverished
Portuguese guide named Captain Pinteado, Captain Windham and several English merchants made their
way to Benin. This voyage was to end disastrously, with both captains and many of the crew dying of the
tropical diseases which for so long prevented Europeans from penetrating far into Africa.

What evidence is there that the King of Benin was used to dealing with Europeans?

         They were brought with a great company to the presence of the king, who, being a black Moor (1)
(although not so black as the rest), sat in a great huge hall, long and wide, the walls made of earth without
windows, the roof of thin boards, open in sundry places, like unto louvers to let in the air.
         And here to speak of the great reverence they give to their king, it is such that, if we would give
as much to Our Savior Christ,
we should remove from our heads many plagues which we daily deserve for our contempt and impiety.
         So it is, therefore, that, when his noblemen are in his presence, they never look him in the face,
but sit cowering, as we upon our knees, so they upon their buttocks with their elbows upon their knees
and their hands before their faces, not looking up until the king command them. And when they are
coming toward the king, as far as they do see him they do show such reverence, sitting on the ground with
their faces covered as before. Likewise, when they depart from him, they turn not their backs toward him,
but go creeping backward with like reverence.
         And now to speak somewhat of the communication that was between the king and our men, you
shall first understand that he himself could speak the Portugal tongue, which he had learned of (2) a child.
Therefore, after he had commanded our men to stand up, and demanded of them the cause of their coming
into the country, they answered by Pinteado that they were merchants, traveling into those parts for the
commodities of his country for exchange of wares, which they had brought from their countries, being
such as should be no less commodious for him and his people. The king, then, having of old lying in a
certain storehouse 30 or 40 quintals of pepper (every quintal being a hundred weight), willed them to look
upon the same, and again to bring him a sight of such merchandise as they had brought with them. And
thereupon sent with the captain and the merchants certain of his men to conduct them to the waterside
with others to bring the wares from the pinnace to the court. Who, when they were returned and the wares
seen, the king grew to this end with the merchants to provide in 30 days the lading of all their ships with
pepper. And in case their merchandise would not extend to the value of so much pepper, he promised to
credit them to their next return, and thereupon sent the country round about to gather pepper, causing the
same to be brought to the court. So that within the space of 30 days, they had gathered fourscore tons of
         In the mean season, our men, partly having no rule of themselves, but eating without measure of
the fruits of the country and drinking the wine of the palm trees, that drop in the night from the cut of the
branches of the same, and in such extreme heat running continuously into the water, not used before to
such sudden and vehement alterations (than the which nothing is more dangerous), were thereby brought
into swellings and agues: (3) insomuch that the latter time of the year coming on caused them to die
sometimes three and sometimes 4 or 5 in a day. Then Windham, perceiving the time of the 30 days to be
expired and his men dying so fast, sent to the court in post to Captain Pinteado and the rest to come away
and to tarry no longer. But Pinteado with the rest wrote back to him again, certifying him of the great
quantity of pepper they had already gathered and looked daily for much more, desiring him furthermore
to remember the great praise and name they should win if they came home prosperously, and what shame
of the contrary. With which answer Windham, not satisfied, and many of their men dying daily, willed
and commanded them again either to come away forthwith or else threatened to leave them behind. When
Pinteado heard this answer, thinking to persuade him with reason, he took his way from the court toward
the ships, being conducted thither with men by the king's commandment.
         In the meantime, Windham, all raging, broke up Pinteado's cabin, broke open his chests, spoiled
such provision of cold stilled waters and suckets (4) as he had provided for his health, and left him
nothing, neither of his instruments to sail by, nor yet of his apparel; and in the meantime, falling sick,
himself died also.
The Adornment of West Africans
         The merchants wanted pepper because it could be turned into gold in Europe, of course; and they
were fascinated by the quantity of gold and ivory they found circulating along the coast of West Africa.
         Among other things . . . touching the manners and nature of the people, this may seem strange,
that their princes and noblemen used to pounce (5) and raise their skins with pretty knots in diverse forms,
as it were branched damask, thinking that to be a decent ornament. And albeit they go in manner all
naked, yet are many of them, and especially their women, in manner laden with collars, bracelets, hoops
and chains, either of gold, copper, or ivory. I myself have one of their bracelets of ivory, weighing two
pound and six ounces of troy weight, which make eight and thirty ounces. This one of their women did
wear upon her arm. It is made of one whole piece of the biggest part of the tooth, (6) turned and
somewhat carved, with a hole in the midst, wherein they put their hands to wear it on their arm. Some
have on every arm one, and as many on their legs, wherewith some of them are so galled that, although
they are in manner made lame thereby, yet will they by no means leave them off. Some wear also on their
legs great shackles of bright copper, which they think to be no less comely. They wear also collars,
bracelets, garlands and girdles, of certain blue stones like beads. Likewise, some of their women wear on
their bare arms certain foresleeves made of the plates of beaten gold. On their fingers also they wear
rings, made of golden wires, with a knot or wreath, like unto that which children make in a ring of a rush.
Among other things of gold, that our men bought of them for exchange of their wares, were certain
dog-chains and collars.
         They are very wary people in their bargaining, and will not lose one spark of gold of any value.
They use weights and measures, and are very circumspect in occupying the same. (7) They that shall have
to do with them, must use them gently; for they will not traffic (8) or bring in any wares, if they be evil

(1) That is, a black man, not actually Moorish.
(2) As.
(3) Aches and fevers.
(4) Candies.
(5) Prick.
(6) Tusk.
(7) Very precise in using their scales.
(8) Trade.

Shared By: