East African History

Pre-history: The Origins of Modern Humans

East Africa has been inhabited by human-like beings for millions of years. Mary and Louis Leakey found remains of hominids belonging to early species of the genus Homo (the same genus that modern humans belong to—Homo sapiens) in Tanzania. One of these hominids is dated about 1.85 million years ago.

Donald Johanson discovered the skeleton of a female Australopithecus afarensis nicknamed “Lucy,” a hominid believed to be an ancestor of modern humans. Found in Ethiopia, Lucy is the earliest hominid known to date, estimated to have lived about 3 million years ago.

Early East African Kingdoms and Trade Networks

East Africa is home to one of the earliest known kingdoms in the world—Nubia (also known as Kush). Nubia, located in the Sudanese Nile river valley, dates back 5,000 years. It rivaled the early Egyptian civilizations in power and wealth. Aksum and the Swahili Coast were first mentioned in the written historical record in a Greek trading guide from the 1st century CE. This document is evidence that the East African coast has long been a part of extensive trade networks throughout the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.

Historians say that Arab commerce with the East African coast might date to the 2nd century BCE. East African trade with India started around the 7th century CE. International trade and markets centered on urban centers along the coast, such as Mogadishu, Shanga, Kilwa, and Mombasa. The merging of African, Arab, and Indian peoples along the East African coast produced the unique Swahili language and culture.

Aksum was a large empire located in present day Ethiopia and Eritrea. It had splendid gold coins, stone monuments, and elaborate palaces. During the 4th century, King Ezana adopted Christianity. Later in the 6th century, Aksumite kings extended their empire as far as southern Arabia.

Goods traded internationally along the Swahili coast included gold, ivory, and slaves. Arabs had been trading African slaves for over 1000 years. Europeans justified their colonization of East Africa as a means of ending slavery. The impact of the slave trade on Africa was devastating. It depopulated certain regions, caused social disruption, and increased violence through trading firearms.

European Colonialism

European explorers arrived on the African continent in the 15th century, hoping to monopolize trade with Africa. Vasco de Gama was the first European explorer to sail around the Cape of Good Hope to reach East Africa. This connection between the African Coast and Europe led to centuries of trade and European domination of Africa.

Christian missionaries and traders also arrived. The Atlantic slave trade lasted roughly from 1450 to 1850. Then the industrial revolution led to the need for cheap raw materials in European factories, another motivating factor for the colonization of Africa. East African colonies provided precious minerals, agricultural goods, rubber, animal skins, ivory, cotton, and many other raw materials.

Some Europeans felt it was their mission to “civilize” Africans, failing to recognize the rich African cultural and religious heritages that already existed. Europeans were economically exploiting Africa and draining much of its resources, while telling the Africans that they should imitate European ‘progress.’

The British, Belgians, Italians, French, and Germans all tried to set up formal colonial governments. They were not successful in colonizing all of East Africa. For example, Ethiopia was able to fend off formal colonial rule.

Source: East African History
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