Episode Guide

Origins | The Cross and The Crescent | Empires of Gold | Cities | The Atlantic Age | Commerce and the Clash of Civilizations

“Commerce and the Clash of Civilizations”

In the series' final hour, host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. brings the story of "Africa's Great Civilizations" into the nineteenth century, when a fierce competition for resources and trade stimulated ingenuity, while also enticing European powers and inciting conflicts that would threaten the stability and wellbeing of the continent. Gates begins his journey along South Africa's eastern coast, where, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the legendary warrior Shaka Zulu transformed a chiefdom into the feared Zulu empire, seizing territory with intensely trained, disciplined regiments of soldiers, amabutho, and deploying those regiments in new, close-combat battlefield formations with a formidable new weapon, a short, stabbing spear. It was an era of tumultuous change on the continent, known as the Mfecane, when African kingdoms felt the squeeze of their rivals, no less encroaching foreign traders, and conflict and environmental challenges disrupted borders and displaced populations.

Moving north to the Swahili Coast, Gates next takes viewers to the island of Zanzibar, the nineteenth century capital of a colonial trading empire established by the Sultanate of Oman. This Arab kingdom for over a century had dominated the East African outlets of the Indian Ocean trade. But from its new base at Stone Town in Zanzibar, it could now better meet the burgeoning international demand for ivory and slaves. One notorious trader from Zanzibar, Tibbu Tip, crisscrossed the African interior leveraging the wealth he accumulated from ivory, guns, and slaves to control a vast territory. He wasn't alone. The slave trade in central Africa spanned the Luba and Lunda empires of present-day Congo as well as the Ovimbundu of Angola. And, for those who associate the international slave trade only with the waters of the Atlantic, Gates makes clear that, in the nineteenth century alone, more than a million slaves were embarked across the Indian Ocean from East Africa, many through Zanzibar, where an Anglican cathedral Gates visits stands atop the former site of a slave market.

Returning to South Africa, Gates next recalls how the discovery of precious mines of diamonds at Kimberley in the late 1860s and gold in Johannesburg in the 1880s captured the attention of English industrialists, including Cecil Rhodes, and spurred a mass immigration that would subdue the Cape under British imperial control. Yet, as Gates explains, there was a cost to this "progress." While the British laid railroad tracks and acquired monopolies over South Africa's gold and diamond mines, they also imposed taxes, instituted pass laws, and built closed mining compounds to uproot blacks from their homes and compel them into dangerous mining jobs.

In West Africa, Gates recounts how African entrepreneurs around the Niger Delta turned the cultivation of oil palms into the "grease" of an industrializing world, a trade facilitated by their English trading partners' introduction of the steam ship in the nineteenth century. One of the most prosperous of West Africa's merchant princes was the Ghanaian William Ocansey.

But, as Gates shows, as the English and other European powers looked to Africa for trade and the extraction of natural resources, they also focused on empire, a development crystalized at the 1884-1885 West Africa Conference of Berlin, where, in a period of intense nationalism, these countries set the terms for carving up the African continent. The "Scramble for Africa" was on, Gates explains, and African art, including sculptures designed to ritually restore balance to the continent, was not all that was destroyed in its wake—a bitter lesson learned in 1896 by the Asante king, Prempeh I, who, refusing Britain's offer to turn his kingdom into a protectorate of the empire, was forced into exile.

The most brutal chapter in the "Scramble," Gates reveals, occurred in the Congo River basin. The abundant supply of rubber in those regions and a surging global demand led King Leopold II of Belgium to establish the Congo Free State in 1885, only to inflict misery on its inhabitants through relentless rubber quotas, which, if unfulfilled, brought the risk of mutilation and death. Whistleblowers included the African American investigative journalist George Washington Williams and the English missionary and photographer Alice Seeley Harris, whose revelations eventually sparked a public backlash that shamed the Belgian king into relinquishing control, but only after millions had perished under his rule.

Gates concludes by traveling to the one kingdom in Africa that successfully held its ground against colonization in the nineteenth century: Ethiopia, where, on the Plains of Adwa in 1896, Emperor Menelik II led his army to a resounding victory over Italian forces to ensure his kingdom's freedom. Throughout the African Diaspora, Ethiopia acquired mythic status, Gates explains, inspiring generations until the next wave of independence swept the continent after World War II.