The Fortunes of Africa

A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor


By Martin Meredith

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A sweeping history the fortune seekers, adventurers, despots, and thieves who have ruthlessly endeavored to extract gold, diamonds, and other treasures from Africa and its people.

Africa has been coveted for its rich natural resources ever since the era of the Pharaohs. In past centuries, it was the lure of gold, ivory, and slaves that drew merchant-adventurers and conquerors from afar. In modern times, the focus of attention is on oil, diamonds, and other rare earth minerals.

In this vast and vivid panorama of history, Martin Meredith follows the fortunes of Africa over a period of 5,000 years. With compelling narrative, he traces the rise and fall of ancient kingdoms and empires; the spread of Christianity and Islam; the enduring quest for gold and other riches; the exploits of explorers and missionaries; and the impact of European colonization. He examines, too, the fate of modern African states and concludes with a glimpse of their future.

His cast of characters includes religious leaders, mining magnates, warlords, dictators, and many other legendary figures-among them Mansa Musa, ruler of the medieval Mali empire, said to be the richest man the world has ever known.



Ever since the era of the pharaohs, Africa has been coveted for its riches. The pyramids of the Nile Valley dazzled the rest of the world not just because of the ingenuity of their architects and builders but as symbols of the wealth of Egypt’s rulers who commissioned them as stepping stones to the afterlife.

Legends about Africa’s riches endured for millennia, drawing in explorers and conquerors from afar. Stories in the Bible about the fabulous gifts of gold and precious stones that the Queen of Sheba brought King Solomon during her visit to Jerusalem in the tenth century BCE grew into folklore about the land of Ophir that inspired European adventurers in their quest for gold to launch a war of conquest in southern Africa 3,000 years later.

Land was another prize. The Romans relied on their colonies in north Africa for vital grain shipments to feed the burgeoning population of Rome; they named one of their coastal provinces Africa after a Berber tribe known as the Afri who lived in the region of modern Tunisia. Arab invaders followed in the wake of the Romans, the first wave arriving in the seventh century, eventually supplanting indigenous chiefdoms across most of north Africa; they used the Arabic name ‘Ifriqiya’ to cover the same coastal region.

When European mariners began their exploration of the Atlantic coastline of Africa in the fifteenth century, they applied the name to encompass the whole continent. Their aim initially was to find a sea route to the goldfields of west Africa which they had learned was the location from where camel caravans carrying gold set out to cross the Sahara desert to reach commercial ports on Africa’s Mediterranean coast. Their interest in the west African goldfields had been stimulated as the result of a visit that the ruler of the Mali empire, Mansa Musa, paid to Cairo in 1324 while making a pilgrimage to Mecca. He was so generous in distributing gold that he ruined the money markets there for more than ten years. European cartographers duly took note. A picture of Mansa Musa decorates the Catalan Atlas of 1375, one of the first sets of European maps to provide valid information about Africa. A caption on the map reads: ‘So abundant is the gold that is found in his country that he is the richest and most noble king in all the land.’ Modern estimates suggest that Mansa Musa was the richest man the world has ever seen, richer even than today’s billionaires.

Another commodity in high demand from Africa was slaves. Slavery was a common feature in many African societies. Slaves were often war-captives, acquired by African leaders as they sought to build fiefdoms and empires and used as labourers and soldiers. But the long-distance trade in slaves, lasting for more than a thousand years, added a fearful new dimension. From the ninth century onwards, slaves from black Africa were regularly marched across the Sahara desert, shipped over the Red Sea and taken from the east coast region and sold into markets in the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Arabian peninsula and the Persian Gulf. In the sixteenth century, European merchants initiated the trans-Atlantic trade to the Americas. Most of the inland trade in slaves for sale abroad was handled by African traders and warlords. Fortunes were made at both ends of the trade. By the end of the nineteenth century, the traffic in African slaves amounted in all to about 24 million men, women and children.

Africa was also valued as the world’s main supplier of ivory. For centuries, the principal demand for Africa’s ivory came from Asia, from markets in India and China. But in the nineteenth century, as the industrial revolution in Europe and North America gathered momentum, the use of ivory for piano keys, billiard balls, scientific instruments and a vast range of household items made it one of the most profitable commodities on earth.

A greedy and devious European monarch, Leopold II of Belgium, set out to amass a personal fortune from ivory, declaring himself ‘King-Sovereign’ of a million square miles of the Congo Basin. When profits from the ivory trade began to dwindle, Leopold turned to another commodity – wild rubber – to make his money. Several million Africans died as a result of the rubber regime that Leopold enforced, but Leopold himself succeeded in becoming one of the richest men in the world.

In turn, Leopold’s ambition to acquire what he called ‘a slice of this magnifique gâteau africain’ was largely responsible for igniting the ‘scramble’ for African territory among European powers at the end of the nineteenth century. Hitherto, European activity in Africa had been confined mainly to small, isolated enclaves on the coast used for trading purposes. Only along the Mediterranean coast of Algeria and at the foot of southern Africa had European settlement taken root. But now Africa became the target of fierce European competition.

In the space of twenty years, mainly in the hope of gaining economic benefit and for reasons of national prestige, European powers claimed possession of virtually the entire continent. Europe’s occupation precipitated wars of resistance in almost every part of the continent. Scores of African rulers who opposed colonial rule died in battle or were executed or sent into exile after defeat. In the concluding act of partition, Britain, at the height of its imperial power, provoked a war with two Boer republics in southern Africa, determined to get its hands on the richest goldfield ever discovered, leaving a legacy of bitterness and hatred among Afrikaners that lasted for generations.

By the end of the scramble, European powers had merged some 10,000 African polities into just forty colonies. The new territories were almost all artificial entities, with boundaries that paid scant attention to the myriad of monarchies, chiefdoms and other societies on the ground. Most encompassed scores of diverse groups that shared no common history, culture, language or religion. Some were formed across the great divide between the desert regions of the Sahara and the belt of tropical forests to the south, throwing together Muslim and non-Muslim peoples in latent hostility. But all endured to form the basis of the modern states of Africa.

Colonial rule brought a myriad of change. Colonial governments built roads and railways in an attempt to stimulate economic growth and make their territories self-supporting. New patterns of economic activity were established. African colonies became significant exporters of agricultural commodities such as cotton, cocoa and coffee. In the highlands of eastern and southern Africa, European settlers acquired huge landholdings, laying the foundations for large-scale commercial agriculture. But what attracted most attention was Africa’s mineral wealth. The mineral riches of Katanga, when first discovered, were described as ‘a veritable geological scandal’. Africa was found to possess not only a profusion of gold, diamonds and copper but a host of other valuable minerals including oil.

Colonial rule was expected to last for hundreds of years, but turned out to be only an interlude in Africa’s history, lasting for little more than seventy years. Facing a rising tide of anti-colonial protest and insurrection, European governments handed over their African territories to independence movements. The colonial legacy included a framework of schools, medical services and transport infrastructure. Western education and literacy transformed African societies in tropical Africa. But only a few islands of modern economic development emerged, most of them confined to coastal areas or to mining enterprises in areas such as Katanga and the Zambian copper belt. Much of the interior remained undeveloped, remote, cut off from contact with the modern world. Moreover, while European governments departed, European companies retained their hold over business empires built up over half a century. Almost all modern manufacturing, banking, import-export trade, shipping, mining, plantations and timber enterprises remained largely in the hands of foreign corporations. As the end of colonial rule approached, Europeans followed the old adage: ‘Give them parliament and keep the banks.’

The independence era, beginning in the 1950s, prompted much jubilation and enjoyed the world’s applause. Africa seemed to hold so much promise. African leaders stepped forward with energy and enthusiasm to tackle the tasks of development. The honeymoon, however, was brief. The new states of Africa were not ‘nations’. They possessed no ethnic, class or ideological cement to hold them together. Once the momentum to oust colonial rule had subsided, older loyalties and ambitions came thrusting to the fore, often exploited by politicians for their own ends. African leaders became preoccupied with gaining a monopoly of power, preferring to rule through systems of patronage to enforce their control. Ruling elites seized every opportunity for self-enrichment, looting state assets at will. Decades were lost in internal conflicts, mismanagement and corruption.

Despite the high level of risk and hassle, the lure of Africa’s riches remains as strong in the twenty-first century as in the past. As well as the activities of Western corporations, new players have entered the field. The rising economic might of China and other Asian countries has stimulated a boom in demand for Africa’s oil and mineral resources. Land too has become a prized commodity once more. To secure food supplies, foreign corporations have acquired huge landholdings in Africa, just as the Romans did.

But much of the wealth generated by foreign activity flows out of Africa to destinations abroad. Africa’s ruling elites further drain their countries of funds, stashing huge sums in bank accounts and property overseas. The World Bank estimates that 40 per cent of Africa’s private wealth is held offshore. Africa thus remains a continent of huge potential, but limited prospects.

When compiling his encyclopaedic work Historia Naturalis, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder referred to an ancient Greek proverb, mentioned by Aristotle in the fourth century BCE, about the profusion of strange animals that occurred in Africa. ‘Ex Africa semper aliquid novi,’ Pliny wrote. ‘Out of Africa always something new.’ Africa is indeed a continent of great diversity. It possesses a multiplicity of landscapes and cultures. Some 1,500 languages are spoken there. The hazards it presents are equally diverse. Much of Africa is afflicted by a harsh and variable climate; unreliable rainfall; frequent droughts; challenging terrains; poor soils; and a plethora of human and animal diseases. But what also stands out is the vast range of natural resources found there. It is this abundance of riches that has played such a significant role in shaping the fortunes of Africa over the past five thousand years. ‘I speak of Africa,’ Shakespeare wrote, ‘and of golden joys’.


Rising high above the desert plains in the south-western corner of Egypt, the steep cliffs of the Gilf Kebir plateau exude a sense of mystery. The plateau stands at the centre of the most arid and inhospitable part of the Sahara, the largest desert in the world that stretches across the width of Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. No one lives in the rocky wilderness of Gilf Kebir now. Yet prehistoric paintings and engravings there show scenes of people dancing, hunting, swimming and diving, evidence of a vanished era. As testimony of their existence, the ancient inhabitants of Gilf Kebir also left behind scores of their hand prints, with palms and fingers fully spread; and on the northern periphery of the plateau they constructed a circle of stones with precise astronomical alignments, hinting at their study of the stars.

The Sahara was once a well-watered region of savanna grasslands, lakes and rivers and abundant rainfall, the domain of nomadic cattle-herders and hunters and a huge variety of African wildlife – elephants, giraffes, rhinoceroses, hippopotami and giant buffalo. But about 7,000 years ago, the rainfall belt driven by winds from the South Atlantic began to shift progressively southwards, marking the start of an arid climate and forcing pastoral groups to migrate. By 6,000 years ago, much of the Sahara had become uninhabitable, reduced to a landscape of bare rock and moving mountains of sand. Like other communities of the eastern Sahara, the inhabitants of Gilf Kebir abandoned their home territory and gravitated towards the banks of the Nile. Apart from a scattering of oases in the desert wasteland, it was the region’s only source of water.

The Nile Valley, a narrow strip of fertile land hemmed in on both sides by barriers of desert, thus became the homeland of a rapidly growing population. Pastoralists from the Sahara, bringing with them a tradition of stone-carving and a knowledge of the stars, settled among valley peoples who used the floodplains of the Nile to cultivate crops such as wheat, barley and millet.

By about 5,500 years ago, the entire length of the Nile Valley – from the First Cataract, a stretch of unnavigable rapids near the modern town of Aswan, to the marshlands of the Nile Delta, where the river divided into seven branches – was covered by a string of villages. Several village clusters developed into walled towns. The towns became cult centres for the worship of local gods. Local gods were propitiated to ensure the fertility of the land and hence the stability of the lives of inhabitants. Religious ideas grew from a belief in the magical powers of objects, to a belief in the magical power of animals – such as the hawk, the jackal, the snake and the crocodile – and eventually to a faith in gods with animal heads and human bodies.

The new societies that emerged in the Nile Valley became increasingly hierarchical. At the apex was a small, wealthy elite who exercised power over the mass of subjects, controlled trade and a network of supply, and acted as patrons to a new class of craftsmen skilled at working both hard and soft stone and fashioning artefacts from copper, gold, silver and ivory for their personal use. Pottery painters began to draw intricate images on bowls, pots and vases, developing a tradition of illustration and design that led eventually to hieroglyphic writing.

The elite were also increasingly influenced by the notion of resurrection. In preparing for an afterlife, their burial practices became ever more elaborate. They set aside for themselves separate cemeteries with tombs that were richly decorated and filled with valuable grave goods. And they arranged for the bodies of the dead to be embalmed and wrapped in resin-soaked linen cloths – mummified – to ensure the survival of their undying spirits.

Life and death for the rest of the population meanwhile remained simple. Most subjects were subsistence farmers and fishermen living in mud houses in small villages, who produced agricultural surpluses that were heavily taxed and who were required to provide labour for government projects. They were buried in rudimentary sandpits without coffins or grave goods.

Because rainfall levels were so negligible, the fate of the Nile Valley communities depended entirely on the annual flooding of the river. Each year, following the deluge of monsoon rains in highlands deep in the African interior, the river rose dramatically, reaching a peak in July and August before receding in September, enabling farmers to plant crops which matured during winter months and could be harvested in spring. In good years, the floodplains, enriched by deposits of silt, produced huge agricultural surpluses. But bad years were a common hazard. High floods destroyed homes and buildings and inundated fields. Low floods left the land parched and barren, resulting in famine. Accounts in the Bible later spoke of ‘seven fat years and seven lean years’.

The rhythms of the Nile affected all life. Among the host of local deities and household spirits that Nile communities worshipped, the role of Hapi, the Lord of the River and its flooding, figured prominently. The flood was commonly known as ‘the arrival of Hapi’, which villagers celebrated by throwing sacrifices, amulets and other offerings into the river in the hope of securing a good year.

The Nile also served as an artery for communications and trade, a unifying thread linking distant communities. Travel on the river benefited not only from currents flowing northwards but from prevailing winds blowing southwards. Boats were sent to the far south to obtain luxury raw materials such as ivory, ebony, incense and exotic animal skins. From the north came commodities such as copper ingots and aromatic oils.

As valley societies became more organised, the pace of innovation quickened. By 5,100 years ago, the ruling elite had begun to experiment with an indigenous pictorial system of writing using hieroglyphs. The earliest known evidence of Egyptian writing was found on small bone labels attached to grave goods in the ornate tomb of a local potentate buried at the royal cemetery at Abydos, near the ancient city of Tjeni, in about 3100 BCE. Early writings were recorded on clay tablets or palettes, inscribed on wet clay before it dried. Subsequently, Egyptians developed a prototype paper from crushed papyrus reeds woven together.

For several centuries, three small kingdoms in the Nile Valley vied with each other for control of territory and trade. But in the final outcome it was the kings of Tjeni (near modern Girga) who managed to extend their power over the whole of the Nile Valley, or Upper Egypt, as it became known. The kings of Upper Egypt then proceeded to incorporate into their realm the Delta region, or Lower Egypt, the fan-shaped alluvial plain to the north that stretched to the shores of the Mediterranean.

The unification of Egypt nearly 5,000 years ago marked the emergence of the world’s first nation-state. Its rulers – a succession of dynasties of pharaohs that lasted for 3,000 years – acquired the status of gods and devoted their time to demonstrating their divine authority and omnipotence. They built huge royal tombs and temples, financed royal building projects on a lavish scale and presided over one of the most dazzling civilisations in human history.


Egypt and Nubia



One of the most treasured possessions of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is an ancient siltstone slab, about two feet high, carved with expert precision on both sides with scenes depicting the exploits of King Narmer, the first pharaoh to rule over the Two Lands of Egypt. On one side, Narmer is portrayed as the triumphant king of Upper Egypt, wearing its ‘White Crown’, standing over a kneeling prisoner, grasping him by the hair and threatening to strike him with a mace. Looking on with approval is the falcon god Horus, the patron deity of the Egyptian monarchy, holding a tether attached to six papyrus plants, the symbol of Lower Egypt. On the other side, Narmer is shown wearing the ‘Red Crown’ of Lower Egypt, inspecting two rows of decapitated corpses whose genitals have been cut off. The purpose of the Narmer Palette, as it is known by Egyptologists, was to signify the power and force that lay behind pharaonic rule.

The greatest challenge facing Narmer and his successors in the First Dynasty was to consolidate their control over diverse peoples, numbering about one million, scattered across a state that now stretched from the southern frontier at the Nile’s First Cataract to the shores of the Mediterranean. One of their early decisions was to construct a new capital at Memphis, a strategic location on the west bank of the Nile at the junction between Upper and Lower Egypt, enabling them to keep an equal grip over the Two Lands. Lying a few miles south of modern Cairo, Memphis remained a focal point of Egypt for most of its dynastic history. To guard the southern frontier, First Dynasty pharaohs built a fortress at another strategic location – an island on the Nile at the First Cataract known as Abu or Elephantine, named for its role in the ivory trade.

The pharaonic system established during the First Dynasty eventually encompassed every aspect of life in Egypt. A state bureaucracy was set up to bring the entire country under royal control. Upper Egypt was divided into twenty-two provinces and Lower Egypt into twenty provinces, each administered by provincial governors answerable to the king. A network of officials ensured that taxes on trade and agricultural produce were paid to support the Crown and its grand projects. Peasant farmers were required to hand over a proportion of their crops or serve in lieu as conscripts on royal projects, quarrying stone or digging canals. Whole swathes of land were appropriated as royal property. Royal workshops turned out a wide range of products such as stone vases, leather, linen and basketry, providing further revenues for the treasury. Royal power became absolute.

All this was sanctified by ceremonies, rituals and royal writs proclaiming the reigning pharaoh to be a living god, the earthly incarnation of the supreme celestial deity, Horus. The pharaoh’s seal – serekhs inscribed on trade goods to mark royal ownership or carved in stone on royal monuments – showed Horus standing on top of a rectangular panel within which the pharaoh’s ‘Horus name’ was written. According to inscriptions on a piece of basalt stela known as the Palermo Stone, King Narmer’s successor, Aha, conducted a biennial tour of inspection in Egypt, imposing his presence on local communities, delivering legal judgements and ensuring that taxes were collected, in an event called the ‘Following of Horus’. The notion of divine kingship became deeply embedded in Egyptian consciousness. As manifestations of the divine, the pharaohs were seen as the guarantors of stability and prosperity, in this life as well as the next.

Much of the wealth that First Dynasty pharaohs and their entourages enjoyed was directed towards building increasingly elaborate tombs and funerary enclosures, designed to provide them with every comfort for the afterlife. The trend continued during the Second Dynasty when stone as well as mud bricks were used for the first time. The funerary buildings for the last of the Second Dynasty kings, Khasekhemy, were constructed on a monumental scale. The perimeter walls, made of mud-brick, were more than sixteen feet thick and nearly sixty feet high. The tomb consisted of fifty-eight rooms with a central burial chamber made of quarried limestone. Khasekhemy’s funerary possessions included huge quantities of copper tools and vessels, pottery vessels filled with grain and fruit, and a fleet of boats to help him navigate into the afterlife. The quest for eternity became an abiding preoccupation. Egypt’s pharaohs expected to continue to reign after death, traversing the heavens in the company of gods.

During the Third Dynasty, further leaps were made in tomb design. At a site on the edge of the desert escarpment at Saqqara, overlooking the capital city of Memphis, an Egyptian nobleman named Imhotep supervised the construction of a pyramid of six steps to house the tomb of Netjerikhet (Djoser), a pharaoh who reigned in the twenty-seventh century BCE. The Step Pyramid at Saqqara was the first monument in the world to be built entirely of stone. Rising to a height of 204 feet, it was the tallest building of its time. And its construction marked the beginning of the Pyramid Age.

Compared to all previous structures, the logistical undertaking at Saqqara was immense. Pyramid building required a highly organised supply system involving quarries, mines, shipyards, storehouses, workshops and a labour force of thousands. The pyramid itself consisted of 600,000 tons of limestone blocks. Its main burial chamber was made up of ten blocks of granite, each weighing twelve and a half tons, which had been transported by river barge from quarries at Aswan. But the construction went further. The pyramid was set within a forty-acre complex of buildings enclosed by a mile-long rectangle of perimeter walls built of fine white stone. It is estimated that the quantity of copper chisels needed to cut such a vast assembly of stone blocks would have amounted to seventy tons’ worth, delivered to workshops from newly opened copper mines in the eastern desert.

The peak of pyramid building came a century later during the Fourth Dynasty – about 4,500 years ago. Shortly after ascending to the throne, King Khufu ordered the construction of a burial place grander than any of the tombs built for his predecessors. The site he chose was the Giza plateau, further downstream from Saqqara. Over a period of twenty years, a labour force numbering tens of thousands – stonemasons, toolmakers, craftsmen, quarry workers and haulage crews, many of them peasant conscripts – worked relentlessly to complete the monument before the pharaoh’s death. The scale of the endeavour was extraordinary. By the time Khufu’s Great Pyramid was complete, it consisted of 2.3 million blocks of stone, each weighing on average more than a ton, reaching a height of 480 feet; the slopes of the outer surface were covered by a layer of polished white casing stone that glittered in the sun. The entire edifice was engineered with remarkable precision. The base, extending over more than thirteen acres, was a near-perfect square closely aligned to the four cardinal points of the compass, with a precise orientation to true north. In later ages, the Great Pyramid was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It remained the tallest building in the world for the next thirty-eight centuries.

Khufu’s son, Khafra, added his own pyramid complex at Giza. It reached a similar height but included a striking additional feature: alongside the causeway leading to his pyramid, facing eastwards towards the rising sun, stood a huge guardian statue of a recumbent lion with a king’s head that later became known as the Great Sphinx. Measuring 200 feet long and rising to a height of 65 feet above the desert floor, it served as a dramatic symbol of royal power.

Khafra’s successor, Menkaura, built a third pyramid at Giza, but it was on a much smaller scale. Egypt’s pharaohs could no longer sustain the economic drain of funding such colossal monuments.


  • "Mr. Meredith artfully weaves together exploration, trade, and geography in a narrative that is both detailed and arresting.... [He] leaves the reader bursting with a wealth of facts."
    The Economist
  • "Even the longtime specialist is likely to learn lots of things because of the extraordinary amount of ground the author covers."
    Howard French, Wall Street Journal
  • "This is the new standard against which future histories will be considered."
    Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • "A gripping tale of insatiable greed-personal and collective."
    Booklist, starred review
  • "[A] broad-ranging history of Africa from the age of the pharaohs to the present, with a solid emphasis on economics...richly detailed...a useful study."
    Kirkus Reviews

On Sale
Oct 14, 2014
Page Count
784 pages

Martin Meredith

About the Author

Martin Meredith is a journalist, biographer, and historian who has written extensively on Africa and its recent history. His previous books include Mandela; Mugabe; Diamonds, Gold, and War; Born in Africa; and The Fate of Africa. He lives near Oxford, England.

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