Africa's Medieval Golden AgeRoundup
tags: colonialism, racism, African history
François-Xavier Fauvelle is a historian, archaeologist and author. His book The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages is published in December by Princeton University Press
On 27 July 2007, the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy gave a speech to 1,300 guests at Cheikh Anta Diop University in the Senegalese capital, Dakar. In his address, given during a trip to bolster relations between France and the African continent, Sarkozy remarked that: “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history… They have never really launched themselves into the future.” He continued: “The African peasant, who for thousands of years has lived according to the seasons, whose life ideal was to be in harmony with nature, only knew the eternal renewal of time… In this imaginary world, where everything starts over and over again, there is room neither for human endeavour, nor for the idea of progress.”
Sarkozy’s speech did not go down well. I was based in Ethiopia at the time, and witnessed the explosive reaction it provoked – in Africa, among historians of Africa, and across the African diaspora. Many of my academic colleagues decided to respond to Sarkozy’s words, to demonstrate that it was wrong to say that Africa has no history. I also wanted to do something, but wasn’t immediately sure what.
Eventually, I realised that the problem was not with Sarkozy himself, nor even with the fact that he felt able to make that speech, but rather that there was room in wider society for it to be received. My diagnosis was that books addressing African history were absent from library shelves and bookstores – and therefore the fact that such a view of Africa could be aired was not the fault of politicians but of historians.
This view of Africa’s distant past as a dark age without history is deeply connected with the legacy of slavery. It’s part of an ideology that developed in the western world from the 16th century onwards, when Christian western European powers began to trade slaves with Africa, and between Africa and the New World. This commerce created a concept of Africans as almost non-human – as people and societies without substance and without pasts. And, though the mass commercial enslavement of Africans has ended, this ideology is in many ways still entrenched in the mentality of many people around the globe.
The fact that African history is such a sensitive issue means that the subtitle of the book I wrote in response to Sarkozy’s speech – The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages – could attract a few criticisms. Some might come from conservative historians who suggest that, since the term Middle Ages was created to describe a period of European history, it’s only fully legitimate in reference to Christian western Europe. Another round of criticism might come from African historians objecting to the application to that continent of a term coined for Europe, rather than creating a different, distinct name to designate the time period in Africa.
Yet, despite these objections, I think it’s useful to apply the term Middle Ages to Africa. It helps us to rethink the period as something more broad and inclusive, and not merely European. This is a period of global history – with a place for the Mediterranean, for the Byzantine empire, and for the Islamic world. Indeed, the Middle Ages was a period during which all of these regions were conversing and exchanging. If we understand it in those terms, it helps us to see Christian Europe at that time as just one part of a global medieval world made up of many different provinces.
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