Illustrated with fantastic images of artefacts and landscapes, Great Kingdoms of Africa enlightens readers on the rich history of the continent before the brief period of European colonisation
Review by by Mark Rowe
It was never enough for Europeans to exploit the peoples of Africa; we also decided that Africans had little history of their own worth studying. Great Kingdoms of Africa goes a long way to addressing this marginalisation, looking far back to a time before the brief interlude of European colonisation came and went.
The central theme is that of ‘kingship’ – how hundreds of kingdoms have risen and declined over 5,000 years of recorded African history. Geography turns out to be an important denominator, with kingdoms emerging from savannah, forest, the Sahel and the Maghrib. Nine kingdoms are documented by a variety of authors, ranging from Ancient Egypt and Nubia to Buganda, which covers much of the Great Lakes area from Burundi to Uganda and South Sudan, and the West African Sudanic empires, which spanned 1,000 years.
For the European reader, this – after a meandering foreword and introduction – is an enlightening non-colonial history that addresses a question that comes to mind: other empire builders from Alexander to Darius enjoyed the moniker ‘The Great’, so why, for so long, were African kings (and queens) simply described as ‘savage’ or ‘barbaric’?
One would hope that the ‘noble savage’ trope was debunked decades ago, but were any more nails required for that particular coffin, then this book provides them. In Parker’s own chapter on the Akan Forest Kingdom of Asante – incorporating modern-day Ghana – the author notes how 19th-century British diplomatic missions would wait while the king presided over his ‘fetish week’. A traditional account might stop there, securing an amusing anecdote about ‘funny’ customs of people far away. Instead, Parker elaborates and places such traditions in their context and emphasises the oral traditions that offer deeper insights into the Akan peoples. Elsewhere, we learn just how historically unusual it was for women to command meaningful power, for example, in the world of Kushite politics; and of the 15th-century trade routes in copper and raffia that buoyed the kingdom of Kongo.
For much of the book, academic rather than fluent writing prevails but, illustrated with fascinating images of artefacts and landscapes, this is a series of separate histories of a continent with a past as rich, varied and flawed as Europe’s.