Empires of Africa

Having had a rather tiring week I decided to take an hour off this evening and delve into the material I had downloaded from the BBC iPlayer. Thus it was that I came across Aminatta Forna’s fascinating program, The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu.

Why fascinating? Well for a start, while we Brit’s were busy killing each other in the Wars of the Roses, Timbuktu was a thriving Islamic university city with a population of around 100,000, about of quarter of whom were scholars and their families. That is mostly gone now. The Songhai Empire collapsed for a variety of reasons, one of which was economic decline brought about by competition in the gold market from imports from the Americas. War with Morocco was followed by internal religious wars and finally colonization by France. During the collapse, the middle class families of Timbuktu hid their treasures – their books – in safe places. Only now are they finally being made available to scholars again.

The national library of Mali owns some 300,000 manuscripts, only a fraction of which have been translated and studied. The Library of Congress has a small exhibition. Thousands more manuscripts still exist in private collections, or are lost in whatever safe storage location they were buried in.

Most of the manuscripts appear to be either religious or bureaucratic in nature, but some will inevitably be useful in throwing light on the history of West Africa. The Songhai were only the most recent empire to control Timbuktu. Before that was the Mali Empire, and before that the Ghana Empire. That history, however, takes us back only to the time of the Anglo-Saxons. Archaeological remains (described for us in the program by an American scholar who is actually descended from the great explorer, Mungo Park) suggest the existence of a vast civilization along the course of the Niger that was as big, and possibly as old, as those of Mesopotamia.

As you can imagine, I was sat there with story ideas flowing freely through my brain. And the good news is that you can tap that wellspring too. Someone has uploaded the entire thing, in bits, to YouTube. Here are the links:

Apologies for the links to Wikipedia above, but I don’t know enough about West African history to provide more reliable sources. Maybe one of you folks does.

11 thoughts on “Empires of Africa

  1. A few years ago I stumbled across a wonderful book called Lost Cities of Africa which filled me in on the Songhai and many other things. Its only flaw is it was written in 1959, so presumably a more recent book would have better information.

    Only I haven’t been able to find a more recent equivalent book. Books I have found on African history seem to fall into two categories: textbooks which dispense with everything before the Europeans turned up in a chapter or two, and memoirs which don’t go back any further than things the author can personally remember.

  2. I remember seeing a feature in a Sunday magazine supplement about ten or maybe more years ago about these manuscripts kept hidden for hundreds of years in cupboards and drawers and buried.

    It got me thinking back then about the survival of thoughts and the status of various manuscripts (which I thought I had written down, but can’t find, ironically enough – my thoughts are lost!). In a way an original Malian manuscript as written down by a single hand at one stage had the same sort of status as Beowulf, or Samuel Pepys’s diary, except that by still being hidden after hundreds of years many Malian mss are still both in and not in the world whereas Pepys and Beowulf have had prodigious careers.

    Beowulf only just made it out of oblivion, the single manuscript from around 1000 having to survive a fire in 1731 which might have dropped it out of the world forever – but it just slipped along the Corridor of Time enough to get past the Slamming Door of Destruction.

    Samuel Pepys’s diary manuscript was dark to the world for 150 years or so, until someone looked at it and translated it from the shorthand it was written in; one fire or decluttering exercise or misplacement and it would have gone forever, with all its useful info and tittle-tattle.

    So I wondered about the hordes of other mss, thoughts and works that have actually gone forever – does the info that had been in them still have any status in the world today? – and the hoards of mss that might yet be uncovered all round the world, and get a public career.

    On another tack, I first heard the word Songhai as the title of an album in the 1980s made by Ketama (a Spanish group), Toumani Diabete (the Malian kora virtuoso) and Danny Thompson (the English folk-jazz bassist), which I used to listen to quite a bit. Mind you, I’d thought Songhai meant something like Song Hai!, you know, a celebration of song…

    1. My first thought was that this is a library on a par with Alexandria. That was supposed (according to Wikipedia) to have had 650,000 manuscripts at its peak. It seems likely that Timbuktu was a center of learning before Islam reached the Niger, and in that case some of those un-examined manuscripts could relate to Egypt. In any case, Islamic science was way ahead of Christendom for a long time, so there could be some really interesting stuff in there.

  3. I hear a lot of the manuscripts are in desperate need of preservation. Strange to think that for a long time in the Western world the name Timbuktu was used to mean “the ends of the earth” when really, in its day it was a hub city.

    Right around the year 2000, US News and World Report did a special issue on the year 1000. It was interesting that the biggest cities then were by no means the same as the biggest cities now. I think Seville was the largest city in Europe.

  4. The BBC are three-quarters of the way through a series on BBC4 about the Lost Kingdoms of Africa — worth seeking out on iPlayer or YouTube.

  5. Fascinating, although I should point out that your use of the term ‘we Brits’ in relation to the War of the Roses isn’t quite correct, that would be the ‘we English’ perhaps, being a dynastic battle for the English throne long before the union of the crowns brought the Scottish monarchy into all that sort of thing. Scots would have had their own brand of treachery, conspiracy and backstabbing going on at that time 🙂

    1. Point taken about the Scots, but the eventual outcome of the Wars of the Roses was to put a Welshman on the throne of England.

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