On The Intellectual, Artistic, and Cultural Wealth of Pre-Colonial Africa by RegularCockroach More Pasta

The Alt-History YouTuber Whatifalthist decided to dip his toes into real history again and made a YouTube video in which he supposedly breaks down his top 11 historical misconceptions, in which he says a section entitled “7: All of Pre-Colonial Africa.” As a massive enthusiast of pre-colonial Subsaharan African history, I decided I’d take a look at this section, I thought it would be interesting to take a look, but what I saw was very disappointing.

He starts by making the claim that Africa was not a monolith and that the development of urbanized societies was not consistent throughout the continent.

Africa was simultaneously primitive and advanced. You could find places like Tanzania where 100 year ago, 60% of the land was uninhabitable due to disease, and the rest was inhabited by illiterate iron age societies.

Now, this section is true in a hyper-literal sense. However, the problem is that this statement also applied to pretty much the entire world in the pre-modern age. Every continent has large swathes of land that are either unoccupied or inhabited by peoples who could be considered “illiterate iron age societies” by Whatifalthist’s standards. In short, the presence of nonliterate societies is in no way unique to Subsaharan Africa.

Then, he posts the cursed map. I don’t even know where to begin with everything wrong with this image. Supposedly displaying levels of development (whatever that means) before colonization, the map is riddled with atrocious errors.

Maybe the worst error in the map is Somalia, which he labels in its entirety as “nomadic goat herders.” Anyone with a passing knowledge of Somali history will know how inaccurate this is. Throughout the late middle ages and early modern period, Southern Somalia was dominated by the Ajuraan sultanate, a centralized and literate state. While much of rural Ajuraan was inhabited by nomadic pastoralists, these pastoralists were subject to the rule and whims of the urban elites who ruled over the region. Mogadishu was one of the most influential ports on the Indian Ocean throughout the medieval and early modern periods. In modern Eastern-Ethiopia, the Somali Adal sultanate was another example of a literate, centralized, urban state in the Eastern horn of Africa. Ok, maybe he was only referring to Somalia in the era immediately before European colonization. Well, even then, it’s still inaccurate, as there were plenty of urbanized and literate societies in 19th and early 20th century Somalia. In fact, the Geledi sultanate during its apex was at one point even capable of extracting regular tribute payments from the Sultan of Oman. (Read about this in Kevin Shillington’s History of Africa, 2005).

He also insulting labels the regions of Nigeria and Ghana as “urban illiterate peoples.” This is especially untrue in southern Nigeria, considering that the region literally developed a unique script for writing in late antiquity that remained in use until the late medieval period. Northern Nigeria being labelled as illiterate is equally insulting. The region, which was dominated by various Hausa city-states until united by the Sokoto Caliphate, had a long-standing tradition of literacy and literary education. Despite this, Whatifalthist arbitrarily labels half the region as illiterate and the other half as “jungle farmers”, whatever that means. In modern Ghana, on the other hand, there existed a state called the Ashanti kingdom. How widespread literacy was within Ashantiland in the precolonial era is not well documented. However, during the British invasion of the empire’s capital at Kumasi, the British note that the royal palace possessed an impressive collection of foreign and domestically produced books. They then proceeded to blow it up. I’d also like to mention that he arbitrarily designates several advanced, urban, and, in some cases, literate West African states in the West African forest region (such as Oyo and Akwamu) as “jungle farmers.”

He also questionably labels the Swahili coast as “illiterate cattle herders”, and just blots out Madagascar for some reason, which was inhabited by multiple advanced, literate states prior to colonization.

Now, with the cursed map out of the way, I want to get onto the next part of the video that bothered me. Whatifalthist makes some questionable statements in the section in between, but nothing major, and actually makes some good points in pointing out that many of the larger, more centralized states in Western Africa were just as advanced as those in any other part of the world. However, he then goes on to say this:

“However, as institutions went, they were quite primitive. No African state had a strong intellectual tradition, almost all were caste societies without any real ability for social advancement. You never saw parliaments, scientific revolutions, or cultural movements that spread to the rest of the world coming out of Subsaharan Africa.”

Just about everything in this statement is incredibly wrong, so I’ll break it down one piece at a time.

“No subsaharan African state had a strong intellectual tradition”

This is grossly untrue. The most famous example of intellectual traditions in West Africa comes from the scholarly lineages of Timbuktu, but intellectual traditions in the region were far more widespread than just Timbuktu, with Kano and Gao also serving as important intellectual centers of theology, philosophy, and natural sciences.. In Ethiopia and Eritrea, there is a longstanding intellectual tradition which based itself primarily in the country’s many Christian monasteries. Because of this monastic tradition, Ethiopia has possesses some of the oldest and best preserved manuscripts of anywhere in the world.

“Almost all were caste societies without any real ability for social advancement.”

Keep in mind, this was true in pretty much every settled society until relatively recently. Even then, the concept that pre-colonial African societies were any more hierarchically rigid than their contemporaries in Europe and Asia is questionable at best. Arguably the most meritocratic civilization of antiquity, Aksum, was located in East Africa. Frumentius, the first bishop of Aksum and the first abuna of the Aksumite church, first came to Aksum as a slave. The same is true for Abraha, who was elevated from slave to royal advisor and eventually was given a generalship, which he then used to carve out his own independent kingdom in modern Yemen. These are, admittedly, extreme and unusual examples. Like in the rest of the world, if you were born in the lower classes in pre-colonial Africa, you’d probably die in the lower classes. This was not necessarily true all the time though. In the Ashanti kingdom, a common subject who acquired great amounts of wealth or showcased prowess on the battlefield could be granted the title of Obirempon (big man), by the Asantehene.

You never saw parliaments

Yes you did. Just for one example, the Ashanti kingdom possessed an institution called the Kotoko council, a council of nobles, elders, priests, and aristocrats.This institution is pretty similar to the House of Lords in Great Britain, and possessed real power, often overruling decisions made by the Asantehene (Ashanti King).

“You never saw scientific revolutions.”

I’m not sure what exactly he means by “scientific revolution”, but there were certainly numerous examples of scientific advancements made in Subsaharan Africa, some of which even had wide-ranging impacts on regions outside of the continent. The medical technique of innoculation is maybe the most well known. While inoculation techniques existed in East Asia and the Near East for a long time, the technique of smallpox inoculation was first introduced to the United States through an Akan slave from modern-day Ghana named Onesimus. This may be only one example (others exist), but it’s enough to disprove the absolute.

“Africa had no cultural movements that spread to the rest of the world.”

Because of the peculiar way it’s phrased, I’m not sure exactly what he meant by this. I assume he means that African culture has had little impact on the rest of the world. If this is indeed what he meant, it is not true. I can counter this with simply one word: music.

In the next part of the video, Whatifalthist switches gears to move away from making embarrassingly untrue statements about African societies and instead moves on to discussing colonialism and the slave trade.

“Also, another thing people forget about pre-colonial Africa is that Europeans weren’t the only colonizers. The Muslims operated the largest slave trade in history out of here. Traders operating in the Central DRC had far higher death-rates than the Europeans. The Omanis controlled the whole East Coast of Africa and the Egyptians had conquered everything down to the Congo by the Early 19th century.”

So, I looked really hard for figures on the death-rates of African slaves captured by Arabian slavers in the 19th century, and couldn’t find any reliable figures. Any scholarly census of either the transatlantic or Arab slave trades will note the unreliability of their estimates. Frankly, the statement that “the Islamic slave trade was the largest slave trade in history” sounds like something he pulled out of his ass. Based on the estimates we do have, the Arab slave trade is significantly smaller than the transatlantic slave trade even when you take into account that the latter lasted significantly longer. Regardless, is it really necessary to engage in slavery olympics? Slavery is bad no matter who does it. Now, I would have enjoyed it if the YouTuber in question actually went into more details about the tragic but interesting history of slavery in East Africa, such as the wars between the Afro-Arab slaver Tippu Tip and the Belgians in the 19th century, the history of clove plantations in the Swahili coast, etc. But, instead, he indulges in whataboutisms and dives no further.

The root of the problem with the video are its sources

At the end of each section, Whatifalthist lists his sources used on the section. Once I saw what they were, it immediately became clear to me what the problem was. His sources are “The Tree of Culture”, a book written by anthropologist Ralph Linton, and “Conquests and Cultures” by economist Thomas Sowell.

The Tree of Culture is not a book about African history, but rather an anthropological study on the origin of human cultures. To my knowledge, the book is largely considered good, if outdated (it was written in the early 50s), as Linton was a respected academic who laid out a detailed methodology. However, keep in mind, it is not a book about African history, but an anthropological study that dedicates only a few chapters to Africa. No disrespect to Linton, his work is undeniably formative in the field of anthropology. I’m sure Linton himself would not be happy if people read this book and walked away with the impression that it was remotely close to offering a full, detailed picture of African history.

Sowell’s book is similarly not a book on African history, but is better described as Sowell’s academic manifesto for his philosophical conceptions of race and culture. Ok, neat, but considering that the book only dedicates a portion of its contents to Africa and that most of that is generalities of geography and culture, not history, it’s not appropriate to cite as a source on African history.

This is ultimately the problem with the video. Instead of engaging in true research with sources on African history, Whatifalthist instead engaged in research with anthropological vagueries and filled in the historical blanks with his own preconceptions and stereotypes.

TL;DR: I did not like the video. I can’t speak for the rest of it, but the parts about Africa were really bad.

Sorry for the typo in the title

Thanks for the gold and platinum! Much appreciated.

Citations (in order of their appearance in the post):

  • Cassanelli, Lee V. Pastoral Power: The Ajuraan in History and Tradition.” The Shaping of Somali Society, 1982. https://doi.org/10.9783/9781512806663-007.
  • Chaudhuri, K. N. Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean: an Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Mukhtar, Mohamed Haji. “Adal Sultanate.” The Encyclopedia of Empire, 2016, 1–3. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118455074.wbeoe145.
  • Luling, Virginia. Somali Sultanate: the Geledi City-State over 150 Years. London: HAAN, 2002.
  • Nwosu, Maik. “In the Name of the Sign: The Nsibidi Script as the * Language and Literature of the Crossroads.” Semiotica 2010, no. 182 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1515/semi.2010.061.
  • Mohammed, Hassan Salah El. Lore of the Traditional Malam: Material * Culture of Literacy and Ethnography of Writing among the Hausa of Northern Nigeria, 1990.
  • Lloyd, Alan. The Drums of Kumasi: the Story of the Ashanti Wars. London: Panther Book, 1965.
  • Kane, Ousmane. Beyond Timbuktu: an Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.
  • Bausi, Alessandro. “Cataloguing Ethiopic Manuscripts: Update and Overview on Ongoing Work.” Accessed March 22, 2021. https://www.csmc.* uni-hamburg.de/publications/conference-contributions/files/bausi-text.pdf.
  • McCaskie, T. C. State and Society in Pre-Colonial Asante. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Brown, Thomas H. “The African Connection.” JAMA 260, no. 15, 1988.
  • Berlin, Edward A., and Edward A. Berlin. Ragtime: a Musical and Cultural History. University of California Press, 2002.
  • “The Mediterranean Islamic Slave Trade out of Africa: A Tentative Census.” Slave Trades, 1500–1800, 2016, 35–70. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315243016-8.
  • The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Uprooted Millions. Accessed March 22, 2021. https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/the-trans-atlantic-slave-trade-uprooted-millions/ar-AAG3WvO.