Introduction: Diffusion and other Problems in the History of African States

Professor James Giblin, Department of History, The University of Iowa

A discussion of the following African States:


In the study of the African past, attributing innovation to outside origins and influences has been very common. Sometimes developments are said to be the work of people who came from outside Africa, while other changes are credited to Africans from other regions. The development of states ­ institutions which create centralized government, exercise political authority through bureaucracy and armies, and integrate territories into unified economic systems - is one of the aspects of African history which has frequently been explained in this way. Writers have often claimed, for example, that the idea of the state first developed in Africa among Egyptians during the era of the pharaohs, and thereafter spread to the rest of Africa. Because these explanations remain influential, historians have been particularly interested in what might be called the "pre-history" of African states, that is, the developments which led African societies to create centralized political systems.

Historians and archaeologists have learned a great deal about the developments which preceded the emergence of states in Africa. They can now say with confidence that in most cases, Africans developed states in response to local conditions and opportunities. Rarely does the diffusion of ideas from distant sources seem to have been important in bringing about the formation of a state. Today historians do not think that the history of African states is a story of the spread of influences from Egypt, Europe or Asia into the rest of Africa. Instead, the story they see involves African people living in a great variety of locations who use their political skills and wisdom to create for themselves centralized systems of government.

Besides learning about the local origins of African states, historians have found that states were most likely to arise in regions endowed with fertile soils, abundant rains, lakes or rivers rich in fish, and mineral deposits, and in societies which enjoyed plentiful opportunities to trade. In fact, the four societies discussed below possessed famous traditions of art precisely because they had productive economies and vibrant commercial systems which allowed artists and craft workers freedom from scarcity, and provided access to metals, woods, clays and other media. Finally, historians have also learned that African states created sophisticated institutions of government, although, as has been true in all human societies, greed and love of power have often caused political instability and social crisis. The following sections, therefore, concentrate on the local conditions which led to the creation of states and the creation and destruction of political institutions. 

The Yoruba and the States of Ife and Oyo

The Yoruba-speaking people of southwestern Nigeria are heirs both to an ancient and cultured civilization, and a tragic history. Yoruba culture is known for its artistic triumphs, extraordinary oral literature, complex pantheon of gods, and urban lifestyle. Yet, it is also a civilization which sent millions of its men, women and children to the Americas as slaves. Their numbers and cultural impact were so great that their religion and culture have remained important in modern Brazil and Cuba, and are found today in the cities of the eastern United States. This combination of cultural triumph and human tragedy makes the Yoruba experience one of the most fascinating subjects of historical study in Africa.

The world, say traditions of the Yoruba people, began at Ife, a city of great historical and religious significance in the heart of Yoruba country. The earth was completely covered with water, these traditions tell us, when the Creator, Olodumare, equipped a party of messengers with five pieces of iron, a lump of soil, and a chicken. The party found a site where they could set down the iron, place the soil on it, and allow the chicken to begin spreading the soil with its feet. From this beginning, farm land spread across the world.

While the precise date of initial human settlement in Yoruba country remains unknown, many historians find in these traditions important aspects of early Yoruba history. First, Yoruba tradition can be forgiven for having seen the beginning of Yoruba culture as the creation of the world, for Yoruba culture is indeed old. The language of the Yoruba separated from that of some of their nearest neighbors at least 5000 years ago; from their linguistically most closely-related neighbors, the Igala, they separated 2000 years ago. (The relatively close linguistic relationship between Yoruba and Igala has led some scholars to suggest that Yoruba country may have been settled by migrants who came from the region where the Igala now live, near the confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers.)

Yoruba traditions remind us that farmland was not merely discovered, but was created by agriculturists, and that iron-working must have played a crucial role in its creation. Surely the great achievement of early Yoruba-speaking communities was carving open spaces for farming out of the forests which dominate most of Yoruba country. Probably as long as 2000 years ago, Yoruba agriculturists were already using iron tools. Early farmers would have relied upon the varieties of yams and cocoyams indigenous to West Africa. By about 2000 years ago, farmers would have begun to adopt plantains (bananas) which, having been brought to East Africa from Malaysia, were spreading across the continent.

Just as the evidence available to historians allows them to say relatively little about when and how farming peoples occupied the forests of southwestern Nigeria, so too they are not certain about their early political development. Some historians have suggested that the oldest political communities were villages, and that villages consolidated together to form states. Yoruba traditions, however, speak about the diffusion of kingship from Ife not only throughout Yoruba country, but also to neighboring regions, including Benin (see below). They say that it was the sons of Oduduwa, the leader of the group sent by the Creator to establish land, who dispersed and created kingdoms.

These traditions have led historians to wonder whether they mean that Ife, the place where Oduduwa settled, was also the site of the first Yoruba kingdom. Scholars have long known that besides occupying a central place in Yoruba cosmology, Ife has had great symbolic importance in Yoruba politics. Even though Ife has not in recent centuries held political and military power, one of the ways in which a Yoruba leader won legitimacy in the eyes of subjects and fellow kings was by gaining recognition as a "son" of the king of Ife. Thus the king of Ife was considered the "father" of all legitimate Yoruba kings.

Yet, only in recent decades has archaeological research established the antiquity of Ife beyond doubt. Artifacts from Ife have shown that it has been occupied at least since the 6th century, and that from the 9th to 12th centuries it was "a settlement of substantial size," with houses featuring potsherd pavement. From this period date some of the terracotta sculptures and bronze castings which among students of African art are synonymous with Ife. The most famous Ife terracottas, which are believed to date from the 12th to the 14th centuries, along with the great bronze castings of the 14th and 15th centuries, mark the culmination of an artistic tradition at Ife which was several centuries old.

The study of Ife¹s famous Œbronze¹ castings has reminded historians about the importance of trade in Yoruba history. Finding that the so-called Œbronzes" are in fact composed of either brass or copper, scholars have been led to wonder about the source of the copper used by the artisans of Ife. They have speculated that copper may have reached Ife through trade routes extending to northwest Africa or central Europe. More recently, however, historians have realized that copper may have reached Ife from nearby deposits in southern Nigeria. If so, this would mean that copper was one of the many items, along with cloth, kola nuts, palm oil, fish, and many other goods, which were traded not only among the Yoruba themselves, but also between the Yoruba and their neighbors.

Trade was also a crucial factor in one of the most important political developments in Yoruba history: the rise of the kingdom of Oyo. A settlement at Oyo, which is located in the far north of Yorubaland, already existed about 1100 A.D. It appears to have developed into a small kingdom in the late 14th or early 15th century. Some Yoruba traditions say that Oyo was founded by Oranyan, the son or grandson of Oduduwa; other traditions say that Oyo was founded by Sango, who became the Yoruba god of Thunder and Lightning. Whomever was responsible, its emergence as the dominant political power in Yorubaland occurred in the 17th century, and was hastened by Oyo¹s acquisition of horses. Undoubtedly the horses came to Oyo from savannah and Sahel regions to the north. Oyo traded various goods, including kola nuts and palm products, in return for horses and salt.

Using horses to create cavalry forces, the rulers of Oyo conquered much of Yorubaland in the 17th century, and expanded their empire to its greatest extent when, between 1730 and 1748, they forced the powerful state of Dahomey to the west of Yorubaland to become their tributary. Oyo also took control of the seacoast between Whydah and Badagry, and expanded trade with Europeans. Its merchants sold slaves to Europeans in return for cloth and other goods. Sadly, as exports of slaves from Oyo reached about 20,000 per year between 1680 and 1730, this portion of the West African coast became known as the "Slave Coast."

The empire of Oyo collapsed during the first two decades of the 19th century. The increase of slave-holding likely played an important role. Enslavement had undoubtedly increased as slave trading expanded to meet European demand, and slave-holding probably increased further as a result of the British decision in 1807 to outlaw slave trading, for the gradual decline of European demand reduced the price of slaves, bringing them within the means of local purchasers. The increasing importance of slavery may have helped cause a revolt by an important military commander named Afonja in 1823. Afonja won support by appealing to Oyo¹s enslaved population. A 19th-century history of the Yoruba described Alfonja¹s rebellion in this way: "All the Hausa slaves in the adjacent towns hitherto employed as barbers, rope-makers and cowherds, now deserted their masters and flocked to Ilorin under the standard of AfonjaŠ and were protected against their masters.

With the collapse of Oyo, Yorubaland plunged into protracted warfare, leaving a landscape of ruined towns and huge numbers of refugees and captives. Perhaps 500,000 people migrated from the savannahs of the north, formerly the most densely populated portion of Yorubaland, to the forests and coastal areas of the south, where they founded new towns such as Ibadan and Abeokuta. This catastrophe may have prompted interest in new faiths. Christianity became important during the 19th century, and Abeokuta became the center of Yoruba Christianity. Its spread was largely the work of formerly enslaved Yoruba who returned home from Brazil and Sierra Leone. Internal conflict, however, prevented resistance against European colonial conquest. The British established a protectorate over the port of Lagos in 1861, and forced Ibadan to accept a resident administrator in 1893. Colonialism began a process which eventually would integrate Yorubaland into the Nigerian nation.

Benin Kingdom

The Benin Empire was located in southern Nigeria, east of Yorubaland and west of the Niger River. It was populated by speakers of a group of closely related languages called Edo. Benin is one of the states of southern Nigeria which claim to have obtained kingship from the Yoruba city of Ife. Archaeological research at Benin has shown, however, that important developments preceded the foundation of the empire. In the countryside around Benin City lies an extraordinary complex of walls, thirty feet high in places and stretching perhaps 10,000 miles in length. Because they are older than the walls of the city which became the capital of the Benin Empire, historians believe that the region was the home of a large population before the emergence of a centralized state.

Historians of Benin believe that its first kingdom developed in the 12th or 13th century. They think, however, that the densely forested region around Benin City was still divided into perhaps several dozen tiny and quarrelsome chiefdoms when, about 1300, it found unity. According to Benin tradition, when the chiefs decided to unify they invited Oranyan (or Oranmiyan) from Ife to become their leader. Oranyan stayed in Benin only long enough to father a child with a daughter of a local chief. Their son, Eweka, is considered the first king, or oba, of Benin. Some historians have suggested that the tale of a marriage between Oranyan and a chiefly family of Benin may conceal the unpleasant truth that Benin was at this time conquered by outsiders who became its rulers.

During the 15th century, the famous Oba Ewuare increased his power by making important reforms. He tried to reduce the influence of the uzama, a body of hereditary chiefs who participated in the selection of the oba, by instituting primogeniture, the rule that a father should be succeeded by his son. He also tried to find a political counterweight to the uzama by creating new categories of chiefs, the "palace chiefs" and "town chiefs" whom he appointed himself. Ewuare is also credited in Benin tradition with having built a monumental system of walls and moats around Benin City. In addition, Ewuare vastly increased the territory under the control of Benin. He and his son, Ozolua, extended the sway of Benin from the Niger River in the east to the eastern portions of Yoruba country in the west.

Ewuare¹s reforms created a government based on checks and balances. It allowed the oba to play off different factions of chiefs against each other as "palace" and "town" chiefs competed with the uzama to gain influence. Yet, while they were appointed by the oba, the "palace" and "town" chiefs kept independent sources of power. Because they collected tribute (paid twice annually in palm oil, yams and other foodstuffs) provided by all the villages and districts to the court, the oba relied on the chiefs for his revenue. Moreover, Benin¹s political institutions created endless opportunities for individuals to compete for advancement through grades of seniority and authority. Even free male commoners enjoyed opportunities for advancement by competing for the chiefly titles awarded by the oba. Slaves, however, were denied these opportunities.

When Portuguese mariners became the first Europeans to visit this part of West Africa in 1486, the obas were able to benefit from trade with them. Ozolua¹s son, Esigie, who ruled from about 1504 to 1550, established close contacts with the Portuguese and, according to some accounts, learned to speak and read Portuguese. The obas established a royal monopoly over trade in pepper and ivory with Europeans. Benin also became an important exporter of cloth. However, Benin prevented the depletion of its own population by prohibiting the export of males slaves during the 16th and 17th centuries, although it did import slaves purchased by Europeans elsewhere in West Africa, and resold some of them to the region which is now Ghana (see section on Asante below).

Wealthy and powerful obas became the patrons of artists and craftspeople. Ewuare divided Benin City into two wards, one for the palace and the other for guilds of artists and craftworkers. Under Esigie the artists of Benin produced their most famous work. Because trade brought copper and brass into the kingdom, metalworkers were now able to refine techniques of bronze and brass casting which had been known in Benin since the 13th century. They produced a remarkable series of bronze bas-reliefs lining the walls of the oba¹s palace. The bas-reliefs, writes the historian Elizabeth Isichei, "recreate the world of the courtŠ The oba, his regalia, his attendants, a Portuguese hunter with his crossbow, and the bird he has shot, a royal drummer, naked palace attendantsŠ As a record of past events, one is tempted to compare them with the Bayeux tapestry.

Historians have described the century following the death of Esigie in 1550 as a period when the obas withdrew from politics, yet it is not altogether certain that they were unable to influence politics even while remaining behind palace walls. Historians of Benin know relatively little about the kingdom¹s history during the 18th century, although they recognize that slaves supplanted cloth as Benin¹s major export after it abolished the prohibition on slave exports. Yet, they have been able to say little about how the slave trade of the 18th century affected the kingdom¹s economy and society.

The 19th century is often described by historians as a period of steady decline culminating in the conquest of Benin by the British in 1897. Like much of West Africa, Benin¹s economy was disrupted by the decision of the British in 1807 to abolish the slave trade. Meanwhile, militarily formidable Islamic states to the north of Benin posed a new threat; one of them, Nupe, seized control of Benin¹s northern peripheries. To the west, the Yoruba state of Ibadan menaced Benin. As the nineteenth century wore on, European traders also established an increasingly threatening presence.

This context of decline and external menace has been used by historians to explain an infamous aspect of Benin¹s history, the practice of human sacrifice. They have suggested that, faced with dwindling profits from trade and besieged by enemies on all sides, the obas resorted to ritual sacrifice as a way of overawing their subjects. "The intensification of human sacrifice in Benin City from the late 1880s," writes the Nigerian scholar A.I. Asiwaju, "has been interpreted by some as evidence of the desperation of the rulers seeking ritual solution to the political problem of an imminent collapse."


Much of the modern West African nation of Ghana was dominated from the late 17th through the late 19th century by a state known as Asante. Asante was the largest and most powerful of a series of states formed in the forest region of southern Ghana by people known as the Akan. Among the factors leading the Akan to form states, perhaps the most important was that they were rich in gold. In the 15th and 16th centuries, gold-seeking traders came to Akan country not only from the great Songhay empire (in the modern Republic of Mali) and the Hausa cities of northern Nigeria, but also from Europe. After the Portuguese built the first European fort in tropical Africa at El Mina in 1482, the stretch of the Atlantic coast now in Ghana became known in Europe as the Gold Coast.

Akan entrepreneurs used gold to purchase slaves from both African and European traders. Indeed, while Europeans would eventually ship at least twelve million slaves to the Americas, they initially became involved in slave trading by selling African slaves to African purchasers. The Portuguese supplied perhaps 12,000 slaves to Akan country between 1500 and 1535, and continued selling slaves from Sao Tome and Nigeria to the Gold Coast throughout the 16th century. Before Benin imposed a ban on slave exports (see above), a Portuguese slave trader reported that at Benin they purchased, "a great number of slaves who were bartered very profitably at [El] Mina.

The labor of these slaves enabled the Akan to expand gold production by developing deep-level mining in addition to panning alluvial soils. Even more importantly, slave labor enabled the Akan to undertake the immensely laborious task of clearing the dense forests of southern Ghana for farming. The most prominent historian of Asante, Ivor Wilks, suggests that while some farming on a very limited scale had probably been practiced in the Ghanaian forests for millennia, only when the Akan began importing slaves in the 15th and 16th centuries were they able to shift from an economy which relied primarily on hunting and gathering to one which became primarily agricultural.

As this transition to agriculture took place, Akan communities not only planted more of their traditional crops - plantains, yams, and rice - but also adopted a wide variety of new crops from the Americas, including maize (corn) and cassava, which were brought to Africa by Europeans. Farming led to rapid increase of population in the forest region. As the population grew, small groups migrated across the Ghanaian forest, searching for good farm land. Often these groups were led, believes Wilks, by entrepreneurs who used slave labor to do the initial work of clearing forest. Later, these entrepreneurs would invite free settlers to join them, and in this way new communities were created throughout the forest.

These developments set the stage for state-building in the 17th and 18th centuries. Politically ambitious groups sought not only to establish control over gold production and trading, but also to impose their authority on the new farming communities in the forest. Consequently, formerly independent villages combined together in growing states. Whereas in the late 1500s Akan country contained at least 38 small states, by the mid-1600s it had only a handful, and by 1700 only one state ­ Asante ­ reigned supreme. The events which led to the foundation of Asante began with the rise of Denkyira, a state which waged wars to gain control of the Akan gold trade between 1650 and 1670. These wars led many refugees to flee into uninhabited forest regions. Among the refugees were the clan of Oyoko, who settled at Kumasi, the town which would later become famous as the Asante capital.

Initially the small town of Kumasi had no choice but to become a vassal of powerful Denkyira, a situation which required not only that it pay tribute, but also that it send a hostage to live in the court of the Denkyira ruler as his servant. The chief of Kumasi chose a nephew, Osei Tutu, to become this hostage. According to Akan traditions, after becoming a distinguished general in the Denkyira army, Osei Tutu rebelled against the Denkyira king by refusing to hand over gold booty which he had captured in war. Then Osei Tutu fled home to Kumasi. His action must have marked him as a man of exceptional courage and leadership, for when the Kumasi chief died, probably in the early 1680s, the people of Kumasi selected Osei Tutu as his successor.

Osei Tutu soon expanded his authority, initially by placing the communities within a radius of about fifty miles of Kumasi under his control, and eventually by challenging Denkyira itself. In wars from 1699 to 1701, he defeated the Denkyira king and forced numerous Denkyira subchiefs to transfer their allegiance to Kumasi. In the remaining years before his death in 1717, Osei Tutu consolidated the power of his state. Osei Tutu was succeeded by Opoku Ware, who increased Asante¹s gold trade, tried to reduce dependence on European imports by establishing local distilling and weaving industries, and greatly increased the size of Asante. At his death in 1750, his realm stretched from the immediate hinterland of the Gold Coast to the savannahs of present-day northern Ghana. By this time it controlled an area of about 100,000 square miles and a population abbout 100,000 sq miles and a population of two to three million.

As Asante grew, it developed an administrative structure modeled on that of its predecessor Denkyira. Historians sometimes speak about Asante's "metropolitan" and "provincial" spheres. "Metropolitan" Asante consisted primarily of the towns in a fifty-mile radius around Kumasi. The rulers of these towns, many of whom shared membership in the Oyoko clan, participated in the enthronement of Asante kings, served on the king's advisory council, and retained considerable autonomy. By contrast, outlying Akan regions were more clearly subordinate and were forced to pay tribute to the Asante rulers. The most distant districts of the state which were populated by non-Akan people annually sent thousands of slaves to Kumasi." "Opoku Ware and his successors tried to centralize power in the hands of the king, or asantehene. They placed all trade under state agencies controlled by the asantehene, and created a complex bureaucracy to govern and collect taxes. They curbed the power of the military by creating a palace guard whose commanders were chosen by the asantehene himself. Asante achieved a high degree of administrative efficiency (its well-maintained roads, for example, were famous) and the ability to implement sophisticated fiscal policies. Nevertheless, the asantehene and his state always had many opponents. Opoku Ware himself barely survived a revolt by military leaders in 1748, while towns around Kumasi resisted interference by the asantehene¹s bureaucracy. Much of the opposition to the king came from a class of wealthy traders.

The nineteenth century brought new adversaries: British traders and colonial officials who wished to end Asante control of coastal towns and trade routes. Between 1801 and 1824, Asantehene Osei Bonsu resisted the spread of British influence, and led the defense of Kumasi when the British attacked in 1824. Although Asante had exported slaves to the Americas throughout its history, when Europe gradually ended its slave trade in the 19th century Asante was able to compensate for the decline in slave exports by increasing sales of kola nuts to savannah regions to the north. Like virtually all African societies, however, Asante was unable to prevent European colonization. Its independence ended in 1874, when a British force, retaliating for an Asante attack on El Mina two years earlier, sacked Kumasi and confiscated much of its wealth, including its artistic treasures.

Luba and Kuba

Central Africa witnessed the emergence of important states in both the great forest of the basin of the Zaire River, and the savannah grasslands to the south of the forest. Here we discuss two of these states. First we look at the Luba empire, which arose in the marshy grasslands of the Upemba depression in what is now the southern Democratic Republic of the Congo. We then turn to the Kuba kingdom, which was situated further north, in the forest of the Zaire basin. Both of these societies produced famous traditions of art.

According to an historian of the Luba, Thomas Q. Reefe, the marshy environment of the Upemba depression, the source of the Zaire River, encouraged the formation of a state. It demanded that its inhabitants develop forms of large-scale cooperation if they were to maintain a secure and productive lifestyle. In the Upemba environment of lakes, marshes and river channels, they needed dikes to protect homes against seasonal flooding, drainage channels, and dams to retain lake waters for dry-season fishing. Reefe believes that the need for large-scale cooperation in public works projects led the people of Upemba to develop political unity.

There is no doubt that the inhabitants of the Upemba depression found ways of managing their environment effectively, for archaeological research shows the region has been occupied continuously since at least the 5th century. By the 6th century, fishing people lived on lakeshores, worked iron, and traded palm oil. Soon thereafter, they began trading dried fish to inhabitants of adjacent forest regions who lacked sources of protein. By the 10th century, the people of Upemba had diversified their economy, combining fishing, farming and metal-working. Metal-workers relied on traders to bring them copper and charcoal which they needed in smelting. Traders exported salt and iron items, and imported glass beads and cowry shells from the distant Indian Ocean.

Oral tradition suggests that Luba state formation was associated both with economic diversification and the need for effective government described by Reefe. Two of the characters credited by Luba traditions with having played crucial roles in the creation of states, Nkongolo and Kalala Ilunga, are linked with salt and iron respectively. Traditions say that Nkongolo conquered the original inhabitants of important salt marshes, and that Kalala Ilunga introduced iron-working into Luba society. Kalala Ilunga also seems to have introduced better government, for Nkongolo, the king whom he is said to have overthrown, was a famous drunkard. Historians are not sure whether Nkongolo and Kalala Ilunga were real historical actors or simply mythical characters. They are also unsure when Luba states came into existence, for they may have begun to emerge anywhere between the 15th and beginning of the 18th centuries.

Eventually several Luba kingdoms developed, and trade contributed to their growth. Luba traders linked the Zaire forest to the north with the mineral-rich region in the center of modern Zambia known as the Copperbelt. Copper supplies became so abundant among the Luba that the dead were often buried holding copper crosses. From forest regions to the north came a variety of products, including raffia cloth. The trade routes passing through Luba territory were also connected with wider networks extending to both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts. Ultimately, however, long-distance trade destroyed the Luba kingdoms. In the 1870s and 1880s, traders from East Africa began searching for slaves and ivory in the savannahs of central Africa. Tempted by the lure of quick profits, ruthless warriors began slave raiding and rapidly destroyed the unity of the Luba kingdoms.

One of the trading partners of the Luba was the kingdom of Kuba, located in the forests to the northwest of Luba country. The Kuba state developed east of the confluence of the Sankuru and Kasai rivers, a region whose mixture of forest, savannah and rivers, and variety of vegetation and animal life, attracted settlers from the less diverse forest environment north of the Sankuru. Settlers gradually drifted into the Kuba region between 1000 and 1500 A.D., initially forming small communities. About 1600, a dynamic leader named Shyaam migrated into Kuba country from the west, and established a new kingdom. Throughout the remainder of the 17th century, Shyaam¹s successors increased the size of their realm. They established a government which balanced power among the royal family, aristocrats and the bureaucrats who collected taxes and presided over courts.

The leading historian of the Kuba, Jan Vansina, has shown how the kingdom created a dynamic economy capable of supporting a remarkable artistic culture. During the 17th century, farmers adopted numerous new crops, including maize (corn), cassava, peanuts, sweet potatoes, chili peppers and tobacco, which were brought to Africa from the Americas by European slave traders. For even though the Kuba lived far from the Atlantic ports where Europeans traded, long-distance trade routes brought these crops to them. Like the leaders of modern states, Kuba rulers used taxation to force their citizens to become more productive. Kuba farmers responded by reorganizing their agricultural calendar to allow two or three maize harvests per year, modifying the division of labor between men and women, and allowing men to marry at a younger age. Because unmarried men did not farm, changing the age of marriage drew young men into agricultural work.

Vansina believes that these changes doubled the output of farming communities, and improved the standard of living of the entire Kuba population. Production of an agricultural surplus allowed the Kuba to increase their trade. Not only did they participate in trade networks which reached the Atlantic coast, but also traded with the peoples of the forests to the north and the savannahs of the south, including the Luba. To the Luba they sent cloth, ivory, mats, camwood and smoked meat and fish, and received in return slaves, copper, pottery and medicines. Kuba involvement in commerce continued to increase until they fell under the colonial rule of Belgium in the early 1900s.

Economic growth fostered the development of Kuba art and crafts. As the economy became more productive and diverse, and as the division of labor within it became more elaborate, so too artists and craft workers became specialized and refined their skills. In the manufacture of smoking pipes, for example, some carvers specialized in the bowls of pipes while others concentrated on the stems. At the same time, economic growth made the Kuba elite wealthy and allowed it to patronize fine art. Kings, aristocrats and bureaucrats become consumers of art and patrons of artists and craftspeople. Moreover, taxation and tribute payments brought a great variety of valuable resources from outlying districts to the royal capital, making metals and prized woods available to the artists and craftworkers who lived at the capital under royal patronage.

Back to the Museum