A new exhibition at the Quay Branli Museum in Paris shows that contrary to accepted notions in the West, the history of Africa’s extensive connections with the rest of the world goes deep into antiquity, easily predating the age of writing. Stephen Williams reports.
The Musée du quai Branly is showing a spectacular exhibition, l’Afrique des Routes, that seeks to provide an “understanding” of Africa, using more than 300 exhibits to provide a historical narrative of the continent’s connections to the rest of the world.
It is a bold and ambitious project. On balance, it succeeds in its objective – even if there are some questionable approaches taken by the curators, Gaelle Beaujean and Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch.
For example, is it really necessary to observe that Africa is a continent with a history that predates writing and prior to European incursions? Whoever claimed that it did not?
But nitpicking aside, the exhibition categorically states: “This history is the oldest in the world. Specialists today agree that the origins of the human species can be located in sub-Saharan Africa.”
It goes on to say that contrary to the accepted notion, Africa has always been an open continent. This is of course the logical conclusion that many “experts” have lost sight of. If the human race began in sub-Saharan Africa, then clearly, it was the migratory routes, and the means employed to traverse them, that populated the rest of the world.
The visitor is taken on an almost chronological journey, as the exhibition charts the terrestrial, fluvial and maritime routes that have allowed Africans to connect and migrate both within and without the continent.
To traverse long distances by river, the canoe was developed well over 6,000 years ago, but l’Afrique des Routes chooses to highlight the use of the horse, which facilitated the caravan trade routes between the southern Sahara and Europe, as pivotal. The horse, which had migrated south into Africa when a land bridge existed between Arabia and Africa, was eventually replaced about 3,000 years ago by the dromedary, which could survive with little water and carry heavy loads over long distances. But as many objects displayed at Quai Branly indicate, they remained a prestige means of transport in the area between the arid tropical zones and the humid equatorial regions.
Routes traversing forests, along rivers and around Africa’s coastline, whether on foot, horseback, camels or in canoes, began to be developed. Even predating Carthage, established in 814 BC, the Nok civilisation of northern Nigeria, which extended in an arc of 500km, demonstrated that agriculture and metal work were practised between 1000 BC and 6 AD alongside the natural communication routes – the Niger River, the Benue River and Lake Chad.
Similarly, in East Africa, between 730 BC and 656 BC, the Nubians held great sway – and later, from the 1st to 6th century AD, Aksum was the seat of power that dominated active trade with the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.
Later, but still predating the disastrous European incursions, great trade hubs developed at Djennné (Mali); Timbuctou (Mali); Great Zimbabwe; Benin City (Nigeria); Loango (Congo); Monomutapa (Zimbabwe); and Kong (Côte d’Ivoire).
As the Europeans began to arrive, trading posts sprang up around the coast of Africa, belonging to the Portuguese, the Dutch, German, French and British.
These acted as nodes of commerce that attracted trade in all manner of goods both from, and destined for, Africa’s interior.
L’Afrique des Routes illustrates Africa’s diverse trade, with objects and images that illustrate how salt, beads, ivory, copper, gold, currencies, ceramics, textiles as well as pharmacopoeia and spices changed hands. Yet the exchange that Africa participated in also included an embrace of foreign monotheistic faiths – Christianity, Islam, Judaism et al. Often, these faith systems were subtly combined with indigenous beliefs, such as the Christian Catholic saints with the Voudon gods of West Africa.
Finally, the exhibition provides a summary of the movement of African people, dating back millions of years, and how the continent interacted with Arabs, Persians, Indians and Chinese.
It also only touches on the appalling European slave trade that began in the early 16th century, and existed for more than 250 years. Disappointingly, it treats the European industrial slavery operations as almost an incidental “detail of history”.
The obscenity of slavery was replaced with the humiliation of colonialism, taking us to the modern era of independence and the challenges of contemporary Africa. This exhibition, in an era of the far-right, with a thinly veiled racist political climate in Europe (and the US), is a timely reminder that Africa remains the cradle of mankind and the crucible of human civilisation.