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Africa’s Great Civilizations [Movie Review]


Africa’s Great Civilizations is a 2017 PBS miniseries hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. which charts the rise and fall of various African empires. The six episodes span the dawn of mankind through the early 20th century. It provides an overview of how culture, trade, war, and the battle for resources affected the development of individual African societies, the continent, and the world.


YouTube Video

Podcast Episode

Show Notes

The documentary begins by explaining the origins of humanity. It takes a look back through cave paintings and other archaeological finds and explorations to explain that the existence and history of human beings as we know them began in Africa. And then telling the story of how people migrated to other parts of the continent and elsewhere throughout the world.

It reminded me of post-apocalyptic type TV shows such as The Walking Dead. You have these small groups of people moving about from place to place and competing with other groups for resources. While they’re trying to defend themselves against other groups, they also have to protect themselves from the zombies or in this case wild animals.

The world was different from what we’re familiar with as the Sahara in the present is a desert but back then would have been a savanna. A lush green space with grass, plants, and various animals including the big herbivores and carnivores. But climate change resulted in desertification. People weren’t planting or farming as yet so as the land turned into a desert there were fewer plants and food available for humans. As they were still nomadic, people would have begun to move to other parts of the continent and then eventually to other parts of the world. But the focus here remains on Africa.

Going in somewhat chronological order, the documentary begins with the development of ancient Egyptian civilization and south of them the Kingdom of Kush. It was interesting to learn that so much of the gold that was used in what we see of the ancient Egyptian artifacts came from Kush. People have been fighting over resources seemingly since the beginning of time. And with that, it’s explained that a great war was fought between these two empires and a lot of it had to do with trade, resources, and geography. If Kush beat Egypt they’d gain control of trade routes to the Middle East and if Egypt won they would get control of the gold mines. Egypt proved victorious.

The workmanship that went into building the pyramids is impressive, especially because of the tools that would have been available at that time. Even in the present, people haven’t been able to figure out exactly how the pyramids were built. But there were also monuments and temples with carvings that are incredibly detailed and these things were made thousands of years ago. There’s a pyramid shown in I think Nigeria with smooth sides and the shape is a little bit different from the ones in Egypt but still very interesting. Even little artifacts and knick-knacks have very fine details. An Afro pick, a little wooden item has tiny details carved into the handle. I couldn’t even begin to make something like that.

Gates touches on the Kingdom of Aksum which was located in present-day Eritrea and Ethiopia and stretched across the Red Sea into the southern tip of present-day Yemen. Their location gave them control of overland trade into Arabia but also sea routes to the Indian Ocean. Like other civilizations, they had agriculture but also valuable trading ports.

In other parts of Africa, the kings or pharaohs would be buried beneath or within a pyramid. But in Aksum, they would be interred in the base of what seems to be aren’t referred to as obelisks. They’re very tall but narrow and built straight up, a bit phallic in shape. They would get these huge blocks, move them to the site, and then carve them quite intricately. The stone was mined from just a few kilometers away but because of the size, weight, and era, it would take a long time to move the stone this relatively short distance. Yet there are/were hundreds of these monuments.

Kush was a powerful empire until they got into a war with Egypt but then they were also eclipsed by Aksum. Looking at the geographic location of these empires is interesting. Aksum was located more directly on the coast and what appears to be a shorter distance across the Red Sea from Arabia. They also had control of land at the southern tip of Arabia. This gave them more options for sea travel and a path into Arabia, the East, and India. They pretty much controlled both coasts of the Red Sea. Imagine how differently things might have progressed if Kush won the war against Egypt and/or was then strong enough to take control of Aksum.

In addition to trade, religion in the form of Christianity and Islam had a tremendous impact on the development of African civilizations. An army led by Tarik of Africa who was a Berber traveled into Spain after landing at the Rock of Gibraltar and led his army on a fight inland, essentially conquering present-day Andalusia (the Southern region of Spain). The term seems to be a bit imprecise as they were different groups but these people are referred to as the “Moors”.

I wasn’t expecting all this drama when I sat down to watch Africa’s Great Civilizations. There’s the rise and fall of different civilizations as they fight over trade routes and alliances are formed but then fall apart. Fortunes shift where an empire could be doing remarkably well one moment which draws the attention of its neighbors and starts a war that leads to its collapse. These stories from history about scheming and intrigue are what sparked my interest in history as a child. The events shared here reminded me of Game of Thrones, The Wire, and other stories about families and groups fighting for territory and resources. But in this case, these events happened.

But balancing all of that mayhem in the quest for more is the art and architecture that these civilizations created with their wealth. For example, Lalibela, a series of churches carved out of stone showcases the tremendous influence of Christianity on the development of Ethiopia. The complex is described as a sort of second Jerusalem, a sacred religious site. The construction of the churches themselves is remarkable but they’re also painted in very vibrant colors.

Given my ties to Jamaica, I had some basic knowledge of the connection between Jamaica and Ethiopia via Rastafarianism and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. But I learned a lot from this different and more detailed perspective. You get some Ethiopian mythology concerning the line of Menelik and the story of the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was supposedly the vessel that contained the tablets on which the 10 Commandments were inscribed that were given to Moses by God. Menelik was believed to be the offspring of King David and the Queen of Sheba.

Legend has it that he brought the Ark of the Covenant to Aksum and became its first ruler. Claiming lineage that dated back to these very important historical and biblical figures was referred to as an indication of Aksum’s and its rulers’ connection to God. There was now this history intertwined with religious philosophy.

Religion not only shaped their society but was also used to help these rulers maintain their claim for about 700 years. And as often occurs with religion (even into the present) some people feel compelled to not just promote their religion but to push their way of practicing a particular religion as the only way. With that, there’s a push to first convert and then later to conquer others and force them to adopt your ideology.

There’s some retelling of the early days of Ghana and a few other communities on the fringes of the Sahara. As Aksum was the crossroads for the Horn of Africa Marrakech emerged as the crossroads for trade between the Mediterranean and the rest of Africa. As with other parts of the continent, there are very detailed architectural carvings but they’re adapted for the area so here you see more desert tones. I would have described the architecture in Marrakesh as Middle Eastern. But it’s explained that a lot of the details were influenced by Andalusia. Being close to Marrakech, artisans from Andalusia were brought in from Cordova and other parts of Spain to work and left their mark via architecture, carvings, and plasterwork. The crossroads of trade also became a crossroad for culture, architecture, and art.

I knew about Timbuktu as far as it being a place historical place of scholarship but I was previously unaware of Fez. These cities for education came about as a result of Muslim societies placing a great deal of importance on education. Thus they established these different institutions to ensure that Muslims would be educated. And I believe it’s stated that this was even before some of the great colleges of Europe had been established.

Something that’s mentioned in passing is the story of Leo Africanus. He was a scholar from Northern Africa who was captured by pirates and held in captivity for several years as a slave of the pope. A pope having slaves might sound crazy because this would be the head of the Roman Catholic Church owning slaves. But I’d recently visited New Orleans and went on a walking tour. New Orleans was once (and to some degree still is) a Catholic city but it was explained that priests and nuns owned/had slaves.

Gold had been mined and traded out of West Africa and built the wealth of those nations as well as places it was traded through such as Mali and Marrakech. But apparently, it’s difficult to find salt in Sub-Saharan Africa which made it very valuable. At that time there was no refrigeration and salt was needed to preserve food, especially for trade and travel. It’s stated that at times in some areas salt was as valuable as gold.

Africa’s Great Civilizations crisscrosses the continent as it moves in chronological order but focuses on typically one region at a time. It begins with Egypt and Nubia in the northeastern corner of Africa and then moves south along the eastern coast. It then jumps west and moves through North Africa and West Africa. Within that cluster of civilizations, there are societies in Morroco, Mali, and Nigeria. Moving east again the focus settles on Central Africa before ending in South Africa. Time and geography overlap for some of the empires but their existence spans this massive continent.

In the present, we would think of these people as being Black. But to themselves much as with Europeans or Asians they’re different societies. They have various ethnic groups and thus different cultures and languages. Many developed at the same time but in remarkably different ways.

The Kingdom of Zimbabwe is still somewhat visible as the footprint of buildings and structures still exist which gives an idea of how the capital, Great Zimbabwe was laid out. The aerial shots give an idea of the magnitude and scale of its stone wall. But when the camera gets closer to where you can see the individual bricks it shows that while they interlock, there’s no mortar holding them together. These blocks were chiseled to fit together like a puzzle to the point where it’s still standing all these years later.

The space between the inner and outer wall was wide at some points and narrow at others where only one person might be able to fit through at a time. And then depending on the size of that person they might have to turn sideways. Thus even if attackers breached the first wall or there was an attack from within they’d reach a point where people couldn’t rush in three or four abreast. This would make it easier from a defense perspective to pick off attackers or launch a counterattack.

Pieces of china and pottery were found in the remnants of their society showing that they had contact with people from other parts of the world. This is just another one of the many ways in which the falsehoods about Africa are disproven. They’d traveled and had been traveling for centuries.

European explorers had also been traveling but Africa’s Great Civilizations offers a different take on their activities by describing them as pirates. These conquistadores were traveling throughout the world under the guise of trade or searching for new territories but they were really trying to take over everything. At the same time, you have these empires in Africa that are fighting each other and jockeying for position. This selfishness segued into a discussion of the Kingdom of Kongo (present-day northern Angola and Western Congo), other Central African empires, and their relationship with Portugal.

As part of establishing their relationship with Portugal, the king of Kongo converted to Catholicism. The Portuguese rejected the practice of Kongo customs and this seemingly began the practice of them regarding African traditions as inferior. But who is to say that one religion is superior to another as all religions have their mythology. As history would often show one religion would be commanded to give way to the other.

But what’s interesting here is that while Kongo did convert to Catholicism they localized the Catholic faith. They took religious art and icons and incorporated some of their local customs and traditions. They made it a point that the people within Kongo would be taught their catechism by people from within the kingdom. The king sent his son to Portugal to be educated and join the Catholic church so he could return to Kongo as the local bishop. It’s unclear how truly devout they were but converting was also certainly a diplomatic strategy. A way of ingratiating themselves to the Portuguese while still maintaining some degree of independence and control.

It’s unfortunate but Kongo and other African empires had and traded slaves. It might have varied from what would come to exist in the Western world but the fact remains that regardless of the details you had people owning other people. As the system of slavery developed, the people of African descent would be grouped en masse as a single race. But the concept of race as we now know it didn’t exist as yet thus people of the continent categorized themselves as separate tribes or societies.

I read Stamped From the Beginning just a few months before I watched Africa’s Great Civilizations. The author, Ibram X. Kendi, explained that for the Europeans certain people could be enslaved while others were off-limits. Eventually, it came to be that Christians could not enslave other Christians, this was the term that they used to describe what would come to be referred to as White people. This concept of otherness making groups of people fit for enslavement would eventually become based on “race”.

As part of trading, Portugal and other European countries would accept enslaved people as payment. The Kongo king was willing to hand over people to serve as slaves as long as they were not people from the Kingdom of Kongo. It occurs frequently that groups decide that anyone outside of me and my group is acceptable to enslave. But when you’re willing to tolerate the mistreatment of one group of people you put yourself at risk of eventually becoming a part of that group of mistreated people.

To accommodate the future growth of the slave trade, in collaboration with Kongo the Portuguese established Loanda, a city on Africa’s western coast in present-day Angola. This was the first such arrangement and the first European-style city to be established in Africa. But nothing in life is free and no one gives you money or resources without conditions and expectations.

The point of building this city was to have a convenient slave trading post. It would serve as a central location to which slaves who were captured would be brought from surrounding areas and more efficiently exported to Brazil. The Portuguese weren’t building this city as an act of goodwill towards their trade partners or out of the generosity of their hearts. It was an economic thing intended to make the capture and exportation of slaves more efficient. This was going to be a city built for and funded by slavery.

Back when I first started doing Black History profiles I covered Queen Nzinga who had ties to Ndongo and Matamba. She also traded slaves with the Portuguese but ended up going to war with them. So she as well as the Kongo king engaged in this slave bartering system with the Portuguese. These various kingdoms and their leaders were willing to enrich themselves at the expense of trading in human flesh.

There was an assumption that the Portuguese would continue to honor their trade terms. But as I expected, the Portuguese eventually disregarded these agreements and began kidnapping and enslaving people from within the Kingdom of Kongo. And not just rank and file people but members of high society and even the royal family. One would think that when you see that start happening it should give you pause that maybe this is more than you can handle. You might have done wrong so far but it’s not too late. Maybe you can stop and try to get things under control.

There was a short-lived three-way trade agreement with Ndongo (Queen Nzinga’s kingdom) that was located a bit south and inland from Loanda. When the deal fell apart these two African kingdoms and the Portuguese found themselves in a war that would last for 100 years. It was during this period that Queen Nzinga came to power and fought the Portuguese and some neighboring kingdoms.

African societies had been enslaving rivals since way back when. But these wars between empires over slavery led to more people being taken captive with some launching attacks for the sole purpose of capturing people and selling them to the Europeans. It created a cycle and the demand for slaves only continued to grow with an estimated one to two million enslaved people passing through this single city and port. The Portuguese loom large in this region of Africa during this period. And Columbus landing on Hispaniola and later what would become Brazil had a tremendous impact on the slave trade.

I knew slavery existed in Africa before the trans-Atlantic slave trade but I was unaware that African and European trade had been ongoing for centuries prior. Sugar plantations and other crops were being grown and cultivated in Africa for use by and/or trade with the Europeans. As would later occur in America, indentured workers from Europe were taken to Africa to work. But Christopher Columbus’s landing in the Americas was seen as a great opportunity for cultivating different crops. They first brought indentured servants from Europe to the Americas but eventually switched to slave labor.

Here’s something to consider that I hadn’t previously thought about. Slave labor built America and made it and several other countries incredibly wealthy to the point where signs of that wealth can still be seen in the present over a century after slavery ended in most parts of the world. For quite some time economies and wealth were built on agriculture.

Enslaved Africans were transported from the continent and brought to America where they were put to work producing the crops and otherwise providing the labor that helped make this a wealthy nation. They became a substantial workforce whose production created great value. Not to mention Africa has gold, diamonds, and other natural resources that made its colonizers wealthy. Exporting such a large amount of Africans out of the continent would be like essentially sending away a large part of the potential workforce. Imagine how differently the history of Africa and the world would have turned out if it had kept this portion of its population. If those crops had been cultivated and resources mined by these Africans for the benefit of Africa’s various civilizations as had been done up to this point.

Instead, these rulers were greedy and thought short-term. Sure they received guns and other items from the Europeans in exchange. But odds are they weren’t getting the for that time modern stuff from the Europeans as that could have made them a military threat later on down the road. The Europeans likely weren’t exporting babies, geriatrics, and the infirm en masse. The sick and elderly might not survive the journey and babies would require substantial care and it would take years to recoup the investment. They would have likely been trying to grab up the young and able-bodied.

Not to be callus but exporting these people from your society would be weakening your society. They took children and even if they had left the children behind, it would have taken a few years for them to come of age. So you’d be reducing your current and future population. In the event things start to go left, who do you have to stand and fight? You put yourself in the position of now being incredibly dependent on remaining in the good graces of these European powers. If they would take them, why wouldn’t they take you and yours as well?

There were all of these terms and conditions surrounding the slave trade. But because empires were gaining so many resources when push came to shove people showed themselves as being willing to compromise on their principles. There was an Islamic revolution to change the society within what became Nigeria. It began as an effort to eradicate the enslavement of Muslims but then they began enslaving other people. It was just this constant thing of it’s wrong for you to enslave me and my people, but anyone else? Have at it! Ignoring that they could be next, so many empires rushed into the slave trade hoping to grab all they could.

Shaka Zula is one of the African leaders of which many people might be aware. Most likely because there was a TV movie about him that was released in 1986. I saw bits and pieces but have never seen the entire miniseries. Here you get a brief overview of the rise, reign, and fall of Shaka Zulu.

Throughout history, some individuals rose to greatness, especially within the military or government after beginning their lives as outcasts. In this case, Shaka was the illegitimate son of the Zulu king. At the time they were a relatively small group of people. His advancements with warfare and weaponry allowed him to expand the Zulu Kingdom within present-day South Africa. Through drive and determination, Shaka became the historic figure that we know of today only to be assassinated by his half-brothers.

Given the multiple empires covered, there’s only so much time that can be spent on an individual. But the little I learned about Shaka made me curious to know more. I don’t know if I want to watch the miniseries as creative license is usually taken with these types of projects. But it sounded like the detailed real story of Shaka and the Zulus would be very interesting.

In comparison to some of the other empires profiled, the history of South Africa and some neighboring countries extend into the more recent past rather than ending centuries ago. The perspective continues moving through South Africa’s history to the discovery of diamonds, gold, etc. and the impact mining had on this area. Finding these precious resources just further intensified the European grab for land. And with that the development of apartheid, the rise of DeBeers and other mining interests, and the explosion of the palm oil industry.

It was all very interesting but I wish that there was a second part to Africa’s Great Civilizations telling the story of the other regions in the more recent past as far as how they were affected by colonization. Also, the explanation of the Zulu Kingdom didn’t begin until the rise of Shaka. Maybe this is because there were still just relatively small groups living in the area at the time and not a large-scale society.

There’s some discussion of the Berlin Conference at which various European nations and America gathered to decide how Africa would be carved up for colonization. Instead of them fighting amongst each other for control of the continent they would sit down and decide amongst themselves with no African representatives present. I’d previously read about Leopold of Belgium going into Kongo and pillaging the region. A few years back I completed a feature profile about South Africa and its history with colonial powers was much the same as Kongo.

But of course, with this being Africa and its connection to slavery and White supremacy, various achievements are often overlooked or attempts are made to distance them from African history. For example, there are these very intricate sculptures from Nigeria called Bronze heads (though they were made from copper). Artisans made them hundreds of years ago but people seem to have forgotten about them for quite some time. 18 of the sculptures were found in 1938 by I believe it was a German explorer. Like many of the other carvings shown, they had a lot of intricate detail.

Yet, despite them having been found in Ife, Nigeria all kinds of efforts were made to disconnect them from Africa. The guy who found them went so far as to claim that they were proof of the existence of the lost city of Atlantis. Because supposedly there’s no way that Nigerians or people in this area of Africa could have created such artwork.

According to mainstream history or more accurately American and European history there was no civilization in Africa. Excluding maybe ancient Egypt, but that’s only because the ancient Egyptians are often not portrayed as having been Black. Africa was and still is considered the “dark continent” and not just because of the color of its people. It’s implied that people on the continent were just running around naked doing nothing until the Europeans arrived so they had no accomplishments and thus no history.

Not only did Africa have typical simple nomadic groups but they also had a variety of rather large and organized civilizations dating back thousands of years. The images we get of Africa in the present are war and starvation and a past with nothing of note. But you can visit different parts of Africa and still see monuments, buildings, churches, and colleges that were created hundreds if not thousands of years ago. And not just the pyramids in Egypt but throughout the continent.

Coming somewhat full circle and triumphant is Africa’s Great Civilizations ending not far from where it started with the discussion of Aksum or modern-day Ethiopia. It might have changed form but was seemingly the only empire to last from ancient times to the present. And it’s especially inspiring that they never came under the rule of European power. The country exists as a shining beacon of hope for the African diaspora. It felt like a good ending point. Africa’s Great Civilizations felt rather well-paced at many points but towards the end, especially the last episode, it felt a bit more rushed. But it was an overall very enjoyable and informative documentary that is certainly worth checking out.

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