A Continent Away – Africa

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This map, from the United Nations website, provides a unique perspective of our world.  It appears to be based on a map referred to as “The Peters Projection World Map.”  This rendering of our mother Earth is distinct from the universally-distributed Mercator projection.  Perhaps what is most striking for me is that England is almost imperceptible.  Another consideration also comes to mind: the land-river based kingdoms of Africa and their trade relationships with the ocean-focused nations of Europe.

It is clear, from this map, why European nations like Spain, England and Holland sought to build empires on the sea.  The scarcity of land in Europe was simply an insuperable obstacle.  By contrast the African continent has long, navigable rivers and a resource-rich interior.  This dynamic led to African kingdoms being created inland – and away from coastal areas- while further encouraging those kingdoms to focus resources where the greatest return could be achieved.

This is not the time, but I am intrigued by the notion of comparing the historical African kingdoms from 900 A.D. through roughly 1850 A.D. with their counterparts in Asia, Europe and the Americas.  Jared Diamond’s work in “Guns, Germs and Steel” explained that the impossibility of domesticating African animals precluded the development of macro-agricultural empires.  Nonetheless, I’d like to delve deeper into how, for example, Timbuktu was able to thrive as a city with an ample trade in books.  The historical record is sparse, but there have been some interesting findings in the past few decades (Nigeria, Ghana, etc.).

My principal interest is in uncovering the various economic systems at work.  For example, in West Africa a complex system of gold weights were used for trade.  Cowrie shells were currency.  How did empires go about the business of controlling inventories?  How was chance and catastrophe accounted for?  What efforts were made to minimize the hazards of the unexpected?  That will be a point of departure for my explorations.

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