Africa’s Great Civilisations: Endlessly enthralling and tremendously dramatic


There’s a lot of revisionism around at the moment about nineteenth-century imperialism. The British Empire, for example, is praised for having brought such useful innovations to uncivilised subject peoples as the English language, cricket, red post boxes, common law and Christianity.

The other European powers did much the same sort of thing, in varying degrees, though in Africa the Belgians were particularly cruel and the Germans neglectful, even by the standards of the time.

The other view is that Europeans pillaged, tortured, murdered and raped their way through peaceable peoples and deposed benevolent kings, and, most grievously, white slave traders sent some 12million black Africans across the Atlantic to be worked to death, one of the greatest of crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.

In the fifth of his six-part series telling the stories of Africa’s Great Civilisations, Henry Louis Gates Jr., an award-winning filmmaker and academic, showed us that the truth was more nuanced and uncomfortable for both “sides” of the traditional argument.

As Gates’s graphically demonstrated in sumptuously filmed scenes in and around the cities that were once the teeming centres of great civilisations, Africa was far from uncivilised, and certainly not so very different to the European powers of the time. Indeed, perhaps the least civilised behaviour on any content at any point in human history took place in Europe itself during the first half of the twentieth century. But he was not so blunt as to tell us so.

The old Kongo nation, for example, was by AD1500 one of the most powerful in the world, and was spoken of – by Europeans – in the same bracket as England, France, Japan and China. Kongo’s king had established diplomatic relations with Portugal and the Vatican. By AD1549 a fine cathedral had been built by him in his capital, M’banza-Kongo, now in modern Angola and a Unesco world heritage site.

That king, Nzinga Mbemba, had converted to Roman Catholicism and adopted the Portuguese/Catholic name Afonso. He had established loose alliance with the Portuguese, then a global superpower. In due course his kingdom, and later ones all around the continent, expanded their long-standing and modest trade in slaves to make money which, in turn, would fund wars with other African nations. The African rulers sold for export copper, ivory, exotic foods and animals, raffia and much else, but most of all they traded humans, those captured in battle or simply kidnapped.

As Gates points out, ever the unbiased objective scholar, many of Africa’s civilisations were willing partners in the slave trade, and the activity that was as old as civilisation itself. Kongo and Portugal opened up a primitive global free trade area, triangulated by Europe, Brazil, where the sugar plantations needed the labour, and western Africa, an economic partnership that eventually morphed into colonialism – but it was not a simple war of conquest.

Note too, that Afonso adopted Christianity, rather than having had it imposed upon him. In due course the Portuguese extended their influence, and began to help themselves to whatever they fancied, at which point there was some stiff resistance, an early counterpart to the “liberation struggles” that ended European suzerainty after the Second World War.

Of these rear-guard actions against the Europeans, the most impressive was staged by a woman, who I shall not dub “the Boudicca of Africa” because I suppose that would be a bit patronising, but also because hers were more successful than Boudicca’s efforts to kick the Romans out of Britain. Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba (again kingdoms roughly where Angola stands today), was a brilliantly effective diplomat as well as a general, and refused to be belittled by the Europeans. When she went to visit the Portuguese governor she noticed that he had parked himself in a big comfy velvet and gilt chair, while she was supposed to squat on the floor.

Instead, she beckoned one of her ladies-in-waiting to crouch down and she sat on her back for the duration of their negotiations, eye-to-eye with the envoy of the King of Portugal. She won concessions through the skilful deployment of what little power she had to threaten the Portuguese, and played them off against the English and French, and played politics with her rivals in neighbouring kingdoms too.

She converted to Catholicism largely for the sake of appeasing the Portuguese and protecting her nation. Yet she was also a brilliant military tactician, allying herself with the ambitious Dutch, and a tribe of cannibals to make war on the Portuguese when the time came, and with some notable victories, over a period of around 30 years.

So, you will appreciate, all tremendously dramatic. These stories of imperial rivalry between civilisations form two continents are endlessly enthralling, and yet, I freely confess, I’d never heard of Queen Nzinga, let alone Afonso of Kongo nor the much later the Sokoto Caliphate in northern Nigeria, a Muslim territory governed by scholars, an understanding of which can help contextualise events today.

These stories have everything: human sacrifice; breathtakingly art and architecture; raw politics; wars; voodoo; ethnic cleansing; a royal throne built on the severed heads of vanquished foes – all horrible histories. Obviously the Africans are outdone for nastiness by the Europeans (heaven knows what they made of Henry VIII and his marital adventures), but they were no angels either. Gates, straight to camera, asks: “How could any schoolchild not be taught this, about the history of the great African continent?” A bit late for me, but I listened like a kid to Gates’s tales of Africa’s great civilisations, narrated by him with the minimum of showiness and a cast of insightful and engaging experts (talking heads rather than severed ones).

I suppose the real question should be how come we don’t see more of Gates and Queen Nzinga, and just a teeny bit less of David Starkey and Elizabeth I?

Sean O'Grady