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Great Kingdoms of Africa by John Parker: enlightening and liberating

With contributions from an array of leading historians, this is a vital work that corrects the tendency to define Africa’s past by European colonisation

Great Kingdoms of Africa
Author: John Parker
ISBN-13: 978-0500252529
Publisher: Thames & Hudson
Guideline Price: £25

Great Kingdoms of Africa, a major new work on the history of the continent, had this reader recalling a cultural moment from the 1990s. The boxing documentary When We Were Kings waxed nostalgic about Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s legendary bout, in 1974, in the Central African country then known as Zaire. Two great African Americans going to Kinshasa in a bid to be crowned heavyweight champion of the world tapped into the yearning of many in the diaspora to connect with a majestic African past.

People of African descent the world over have intoned, down the ages, that they came from great kingdoms in Africa. Few, however, can offer more than passing references to one or two kingdoms, with little detail or insight. At the same time, the continent’s image has taken a drubbing over many decades, Africa almost becoming a byword for famine, war and disease in the Western imagination.

It doesn’t help that historical perspectives on Africa have tended to lump everything into three periods: “precolonial”, “colonial” and “postcolonial”. As a result, as Rahmane Idrissa points out in a rhapsodic chapter on the Sudanic Empires, “The nineteenth century ‘discovery’ of a history of large-scale state-building south of the Sahara came as a surprise to European scholars, who had assumed that the continent was a vast realm of naked savages – the kinds Hegel had infamously banished from history.”

Great Kingdoms of Africa eschews the chronological approach predicated upon the intervention of European colonialism on the continent. As editor John Parker asserts in his introduction, “It is no longer appropriate to collapse African history before 1900 into an undifferentiated ‘precolonial’ period’.” African kingdoms, he insists, “need to be considered on their own terms”. This corrective ethos is evident in the use of language in this book. For example, the term “sub-Saharan Africa” only occurs twice in the text, one of which is in quotation. “Africa south of the Sahara” appears to be the preferred phrasing, underscoring a commitment to less loaded terminology.


In his foreword, renowned architect David Adjaye commends the book as a “pan-African view of the continent”, one that seeks to understand African kingdoms “on their own unique evolutionary terms”. Adjaye’s most famous projects take their inspiration from the continent’s golden age, with two in particular engaging “directly with the narratives of African kingdoms”. The two Adjaye projects referenced in the foreword concern the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC; and the under-construction Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, Nigeria, which is at the heart of a debate on the repatriation of Bronze artefacts looted from Benin Kingdom in 1897.

Edo culture and its iconic art are examined in a chapter by Olatunji Ojo on the Yoruba and Benin Kingdoms. Seven other leading historians write, with engrossing richness, across several thousand years of African history, including: Ancient Egypt and Nubia, The Kongo Kingdom, and The Zulu Kingdom. In the main, kingdoms about which “frustratingly little is known of how they operated in periods when they were, by far, the world’s most common forms of government”.

Parker helms a chapter on Buganda, “the archetypal East African kingdom”. He also looks at The Akan Forest Kingdom of Asante, in present-day Ghana, which “entered world history as an alluring kingdom of gold”. Ghana, Mali and Songhay bestrode West Africa’s Age of Empire – 1000 years of regional history spanning Europe’s Middle Ages. We are reminded that France, England, Spain and Portugal are historically younger than Ghana. And “even more than Ghana, Mali was the land of gold” – so much so that Mansa Musa I, passing through Cairo on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1322, depressed the gold market in the Middle East for years. Fabulous though it reads, Musa’s “profligacy” makes for striking reading in the context of some African leaders of the modern age.

“As classical Greek civilisation was emerging in the eastern Mediterranean, Ethiopia was already an important place,” Habtamu Tegegne and Wendy Laura Belcher write, on the Solomonic Christian Kingdom sustained by an inspirational dynasty that lasted 700 years. In successfully repelling European imperialism, Ethiopia “became a powerful symbol of Black freedom and of Africa’s glorious past”.

Great Kingdoms of Africa is an indispensable volume pulsating with valiant epochs and epics in the annals of the continent, commended to all who are interested in African civilisation and society. African history is not, and should not be, hinged on European colonial conquest. There is much to draw from what came before – kingdoms whose “greatness might be seen to reside less in an ability to dominate and coerce than in their inventiveness in forging forms of statecraft able to secure legitimacy by more inclusive means”.

Great Kingdoms of Africa is an endlessly illuminating, and liberating, read.