The vastness of the African continent contains many mysteries, not the least are those that surround the origins of the human race. Some of the world’s more spectacular and mysterious monuments built of everlasting stone are found in the majestic ruins of Great Zimbabwe and in the awesome grandeur of the great pyramids and the enigmatic sphinx.
Against these enormous panorama of Africa’s past, one glimpses outstanding empires and great centres of learning and technological advancement at a time when the future’s master civilisations were still in their infancies. The rise, decline and fall of bygone civilisations are now often obscure and in the realm of myth, barely defined under mountains of sand. The vast sweep of peoples the African continent contains, ranges from proto-stone age to the genius of those who had mastered the mysteries of advanced astronomy, mathematics and other sciences, wome of which have not yet been discovered by western man and are still considered by him as occult.
It is from this world that millions were snatched, stolen, sold, sent or banished over a period of close to 400 years to another continent an ocean away, never to return. It was their fate, their unbelievable misfortune to become enslaved. It was the destiny of their descendants to form a significant proportion of the New World’s population. Their descendants’ challenge is to view themselves as heroic survivors of this terrifying passage, and not as its victims.
The great West African kingdoms, in fact empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhay, were centres of learning, science, political order, social progress and trade. It was from this cradle that many of our people - in fact, half of the population of Trinidad and Tobago - have come.
In ancient days, the migrations of people escaping the encroaching desert established a state that was later called Ghana by the west - the word ‘ghana’ meaning ‘king’ or ‘leader’.
“The people who migrated into the country from all directions had every reason to believe that they were far enough into the interior to be free and secure at last in a kingdom that had never been conquered either by the forces of nature or of men,” writes Chancellor Williams in his book ‘The destruction of black civilisations’.
The history of this reign goes back into time to well beyond recorded history, and may be glimpsed from its lists of kings dating from a period before the Christian era. This list of some 44 rulers takes on back to a period of about 700 B.C. Some claim the founding fathers came following the trade routes from ancient Ethiopia, the mother of Egypt. And some havew speculated whether it was an outpost in the west of that empire.
The kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay were known as the ‘Land of Gold’ and had expanded their territories by both peaceful alliances and conquest. Its dependencies included Sama, Garantel, Gadiano, Galam, Diara, Soso and Tekrur. The empire was a vast source of gold, but was also famous for its iron mining and iron manufacture for more than 1000 years. Leadership in this industry made her dominant over less progressive peoples and provided the impetus for a powerful army with enough gold to equip and support it.
Williams describes the caravan trade routes to the north east, Ethiopia and Egypt, and concludes that this was the most important factor in the ever growing wealth of this nation. There were import and export taxes, a system of weights and measures and the control of inflation by limiting the supply of gold.
At its heart were the twin cities of Kumbi-Kumbi, built of stone, with mansions for the nobles, temples, mosques and schools. The great Niger river was the road for trade, travel and conquest.
The most famous schools were at Kumbi-Saleh and Djenne. The world renowned university of Sankore was at Timbuktu.
The agricultural economy was mixed: wheat, millet, cotton, corn, yams, cattle raising. The guilds or societies of craftsmen included blacksmiths, goldsmiths, stonemasons, water diviners, carpenters, weavers, dyers, potters and cabinet makers, to name just a few.
The chief exports were gold, ivory, rubber and slaves. Its imports were salt, textiles, cowqrie shells, brass, dates, figs, pearls, sugar and dried raisins amongst others.
Under the emperor Tenkamenin, the imperial army stood at 200,000, of which 100,000 were mounted and 40,000 were bowmen.
The changing climate conditions over the millennia would affect this great nation, drying up its lakes, causing its rivers to vanish and its people to disperse. This was followed by Muslim conquest. But the memory of its greatness, its majesty and its genius will survive forever.
The inheritors of this great tradition now live still in their African homelands. They also live on in these islands on the world’s western rim. You may glance their souls in the eyes of the children. You may hear their wisdom in the worlds of the elders. All you need to do is look and listen!