Black Panther could blow one of history’s greatest lies right out of the water.
The movie creates the technically potent black African city state of Wakanda that has somehow evolved without being touched by colonialism. Fantasy, right?
Well, yes, in its comic book inventions it is. But this misses the point about one of the most insidious effects of colonialism in Africa. The whole history of the continent has been rigged by Europeans to suggest that before the arrival of the white man Africans had been incapable of creating any semblance of modern urban civilization.
So let’s get this straight: long, long before any of those colonialists turned up there were cities and civilizations built by Africans that, in the context of their time, were every bit as kick-ass smart as Wakanda.
There’s a compelling irony in seeing a Marvel superhero collide directly with another fantasy, the remarkably durable Eurocentric view of world history in which the only legitimate origin of civilization is the one that began in the ancient east from the Nile to the “Fertile Crescent” bounded by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Many educators have yet to catch up with the truth. Maybe they don’t want to, or are not ready for the implications. But—thanks more to modern archaeologists than to white historians—we now know that there were great cities in Africa as early as 900 BC.
Let’s begin with the elusive Nok Civilization. In 1928 some tin miners working in central Nigeria came upon some strikingly beautiful life-sized terra-cotta statues. Since then excavations have revealed a fully developed center of civilization, the realm of a people named the Noks, originating around nine centuries before Christ.
At that time the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia had already been around for several millennia. But the Noks were advanced enough to create, sui generis, a society governed by laws, just as 800 years earlier in Babylon the man regarded as the intellectual father of all judicial systems, Hammurabi, had established the basis of Assyrian judicial codes.
With little evidence to go on, we have to assume that the Noks’ level of sophistication occurred independently among a people to whom the ancient east was just as unknown as West Africa was to the folks lounging around the hanging gardens of Babylon. The Noks thrived until around 200 AD and then, apparently, the whole society and culture just disappeared.
Early history across the world is timelined with frequent disappearances that remain unexplained; this one, like others, could have been as a result of sudden climate change, in the form of drought, as a result of some kind of plague, or war.
We will probably never know, but the millennium of the Noks spanned the time when Persia, Greece, and Rome built the first world empires and began the whole idea of conquest and colonization, spreading as far west as Ireland and as far east as India.
What we do know—with much more detail—is that on the east coast of Africa from the 10th century onward, some of the most advanced city states of the Middle Ages appeared, the equal of Venice in their impact on trade and culture.
These were teeming cosmopolitan entrepots. Typical of them is Songo Mnara, a Swahili walled city built on an artificial island on the coast of southern Tanzania, now a World Heritage Site undergoing frequent archaeological exploration. A similar but larger city nearby, Kilwa Kisiwani, is as yet relatively unexplored.
It’s now clear that these and other cities on the Indian Ocean were integrated with a world trading system using the Silk Route between Europe and China. African gold and ivory were exported and goods from Persia, Arabia, India, and China were imported. (The Chinese, who are smart about the lessons of history, are now busy re-building the Silk Route and through it expanding their trade with Africa.)
The cities were Islamic sultanates with independent rulers and a shared language, Kiswahili, an offshoot of today’s Swahili. They were laid out like other Muslim trading centers with domed mosques (built of stone) and shaded courtyards. These courtyards functioned like a caravanserai, as both social centers and market places, full of exotic goods and life, part of a prosperous and diverse African culture.
When archaeologists found these cities in the 20th century they were amazed that they hadn’t been disturbed by early 19th century European excavations—until it became apparent that their predecessors, blinded by racial stereotypes, thought they were too advanced in structure to be African and were simply more examples of what they already knew as Arab-built trading posts.
Cities like these died off in the 16th century when the Europeans—first the Portuguese and then others—usurped the whole trading system and supplanted it with their own, building new and larger ports along the African littoral to speed up colonization.
But perhaps the most spectral presence of a pre-colonial African city is Great Zimbabwe, near Lake Mutirikwe in present-day landlocked southern Zimbabwe. This site was discovered by the Portuguese in the 16th century, when the city and its culture had already become ruins, but never systematically explored until the late 19th century.
Great Zimbabwe was founded and developed by the Shona people, from the 12th to the 15th century. At its prime it covered more than 1,780 acres and had a population of 18,000, and a grand palace occupied by the Shona kings.
As the magnificence of the city dawned on the first generation of white settlers in the country they named Rhodesia, for the British entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes who first grabbed the territory, it became an embarrassing contradiction of their racist dogma that indigenous Africans would never have been capable of building and running a highly advanced urban civilization.
As a result, continuing through to the last gasp of British colonial rule in the 1970s Greater Zimbabwe was written out of Rhodesian history. Disregarding the archaeological evidence, guidebooks, museums, and school textbooks were purged of any suggestion that some of the oldest and largest structures in Southern Africa, including the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara, could be the work of Africans.
This practice reflected a deeply and widely held prejudice that gained a firm hold on the entire white world’s view of Africa and was sustained by white-dominated popular culture. Indeed, a whole body of literature grew out of the popular Victorian view of Africa as the Dark Continent, a virtually impenetrable place where it was impossible to imagine the existence of developed civilizations.
The concept of Africa, a continent three times the size of Europe, as basically a vast, dark unknown (in which rivers are often the only perilous means of passage into and out of the interior, a trope that is explicit in many tales) was based not on its actual topography but on Europe’s lack of knowledge of it. For example, as late as 1978, the Encylopaedia Britannica was saying that “Although Africa was the first continent whose entire coastline was known, much of the interior remained unknown to the rest of the world until the nineteenth century.”
This imagined landscape could be as specific as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness where the vulnerable white man disappears up the river into the mesmerizing embrace of the deep jungle or as absurd as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ version (circa 1912) where the virile young white man emerges from the same jungle as Tarzan having been saved and tutored in survivalism by primates. (In these narratives the line between apes and tribal savages is always thinly drawn, with the frenzied beat of African drums being the forewarning of evil afoot.)
A popular 1930s example of the genre is a movie, Sanders of the River, based on a series of stories by Edgar Wallace (also the creator of King Kong). Sanders is a British colonial overlord, a district commissioner, portrayed as a relatively enlightened white man playing the adjudicator between inherently untrustworthy tribal kings. In the movie Paul Robeson agreed to appear as one of those chiefs, believing that it was a genuine attempt to show indigenous African culture.
After filming Robeson discovered that the plot had been changed with a spin summed up in the dedication in the closing titles to “the handful of white men whose everyday work is an unsung saga of courage and efficiency.” Although Robeson disowned the movie, the Sanders stories remained popular through to the Britain of the 1950s when the BBC ran them as a drama series on radio and when Britain’s colonial role was still regarded as paternalistic.
The persistence of this idea can seem chilling. As Emma Dabiri, a social historian and teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies in London, pointed out recently in the British magazine World Histories: “Hugh Trevor-Roper, the eminent Oxford professor of history, declared in 1962: ‘Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at the present there is none—there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness… and darkness is not a subject of history.’”
Nothing could better show the arrogance of the historical establishment toward African studies.
The great crime they buried and wanted to stay buried was one in which their forbears participated. When the indigenous societies and cultures of the whole continent of Africa were largely reconfigured by European colonialism roughly 10,000 distinctively rooted and independent human ecosystems were bundled into 40 European-style “nations” often referred to as protectorates. Barring the actions of the Belgians, it was certainly not ethnic cleansing, but it was ethnic mayhem in which dignity, identity, and particularly history were shredded.
As Emma Dabiri wrote: “Africa remains a prisoner of the lies told about its pre-colonial past, and of the legacy of its colonial history. The kidnapping of millions of able-bodied young people in their prime, the destruction of complex societal organization, the decimation of often egalitarian and socially just spiritual belief systems and philosophies—all these paved the way for fictitious states… any meaningful acknowledgement of this remains a long way off.”
That is sadly true. There is a built-in lag in the time it takes to revise history with the benefit of new empirical evidence and to have it accepted in the curriculum, and an even longer time for attitudes to change enough to accept the truth.
Even worse, bad history is the essential foundation of all bigotry, from white supremacy to Holocaust denial. Uncomfortably closer to home, bad history still corrupts the way America’s schools teach subjects like slavery and Native American history, where euphemisms and anodyne accounts mask atrocities and embedded racial prejudice.
When a president of the United States can talk about sending Africans “back to their huts” it’s going to take a lot more than a Marvel superhero to get us to where we need to be.