Why is Axum significant in African history

In the 19th century the scramble for Africa by the colonising European powers can only be discussed on a continental wide basis.

It would be difficult to answer the question below on Quora without reference to the Fashoda Incident (1898) in present day South Sudan:

Bill Matthews (ビル・マシューズ)’s answer to How did Ethiopia avoid being colonized by European powers?

Fashoda was the flashpoint when the French had ambitions to have a land route entirely under French occupation from French Kongo in the Atlantic to French Somaliland on the Gulf of Aden. The British under Lord Kitchener wanted their land route from Cairo to Cape Town for its symbolic value, but also as Britain controlled the now opened Suez canal, they didn’t want the French to have a strategic presence on the Nile.

The Decolonisation of Africa and African nationalism are other pan-African topics of discussion.

However, Quorans love their big battles and geo-politics and how big was your cannon type discussions, art, bad ass warriors, obscure trivia and the what if’s of history.

Big cannon:

The Sebastopol (mortar) was forged in Ethiopia under Tewodros II. It was too heavy to be used against the British at the Battle of Magdala. However, Tewodros committed suicide by using a pistol which Queen Victoria presented to him as gift. Big cannon fetishists may leave now.

Let’s start a pan-African history with a painting: The King’s Fountain

This was painted from 1570 onwards and at that time Lisbon had a African born population equivalent to one in ten. This was how important African trade was with Portugal. There was a flourishing trade in imported ivory carvings and artwork from the Kingdom of Benin, in addition to gold, ivory and slaves. In return, Portugal was able to satisfy Benin’s craving for bronze and cowrie shells from Persia and cloth from India from their trading post at Ughoton (in present day Nigeria).

In 1514, the Kingdom of Benin initiated diplomatic relations with Portugal setting up an embassy in Lisbon.

When the Portuguese first arrived in West Africa this is the Africa they saw…


…cities that were as large, complex, and technologically advanced as Lisbon at the time, the Portuguese actually experienced far less culture shock than we might expect. In fact, they encountered urban centers in West Africa comparable to those back in Europe, governed by elaborate dynasties, organized around apprenticeship-based artistic guilds, and with agricultural systems capable of feeding their large populaces. Many African cities were even deemed to be larger, more hygienic, and better organized than those of Europe. Additionally, the Portuguese shared many beliefs about magic, the supernatural, and the treatment of illness with the African societies they encountered.

The Benin – Portuguese Encounter | Civilizations | P

In fact, during the Nanban trade period of trade between Portugal and Japan, many Africans travelled with the Portuguese. Yasuke the badass African Samurai from Mozambique is the most famous of these and is soon to be the subject of a Hollywood film.

Thousands of Japanese slaves were abducted from Japan by the Portuguese and were shipped to Lisbon, though some even found their way Portuguese African ports. They were forced to work as sex slaves and house slaves. Occasionally, Japanese women were sold as concubines to Asian lascars (mariners) and their African crewmates.

The history of the Japanese enslaved by the Portuguese and sold around the world over 400 years ago

Portugal was the centre of a vast trading empire and had seized a series of ports in Morocco.

Portugal had two key enemies at this time: Morocco and the Ottoman Empire which had decisively beaten the Christian Alliance fleet near Tunis at the Battle of Djerba in 1560.

The Ottoman Empire were also allies of Somali navies who harassed the Portuguese in naval skirmishes.

Somali merchants were the leaders in the trade between the Asia and Africa, exporting Giraffes, zebras and incense to the Ming Empire of China. In a small way the languages of Mandarin and Somali influenced one another.

After an unsuccessful Portuguese expedition against the Somalis in Mogadishu, the Somalis attacked Portuguese held territory in Oman and combined with an Ottoman fleet to attack the Swahili coastal strip occupied by Portugal including several important cities such as Pate (which may have Chinese descendants today), Mombasa and Kilwa. Kilwa is especially notable because it minted coins from 1100 ADE to 1600 ADE, some of which have been found as far away as the ruins of the Great Zimbabwe.


The Portuguese governor requested assistance from their possessions in India and with the arrival of the Indian fleet they took back most of their lost cities.

As a side note the Portuguese also carried on an Arabic tradition of sending African slaves and indentured servants from South East Africa to India who have descendants called the Siddi living in India today.

Despite help from Moorish allies, the Portuguese were routed by the Moroccans at the Battle of Alcácer Quibir in 1578. The Moroccans were aided by cannons from England.

This decisive victory could have ended there, but there was a knock on effect. The war with the Portuguese was a costly affair and Morocco needed to turn south, specifically the Songhai Empire.

The Songhai Empire centred around Gao and Timbuktu, two of the great African centres of Islamic learning which had populations of 100,000 each in 1500. London had 50,000! It was at the heart of a great land trade route from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean built on salt and gold and slaves from West Africa. It was also an empire Portugal traded extensively with.

The Portuguese had ports on the island of Gorée (part of present day Dakar), and Bissau both of which were close to territory controlled by the Songhai Empire and its struggling forerunner the Kingdom of Mali.

The Songhai would have been the perfect ally for the Portuguese. Its military prowess was built on the speed and overwhelming force of its huge cavalry, but while this form of warfare was ideally suited for the open Sahel, it became more difficult to sustain in areas where the tsetse fly reigned, or the coastal areas where the Portuguese had ports. As they didn’t have naval power they could not be a serious threat to the seafaring Portuguese.

However, with additional firepower from the Portuguese they would have formidable opponents against the Moroccans and possibly a bulwark against Ottoman encroachment in the Sudan.

In fact, the Portuguese did help Gelawdewos, the Ethiopian ruler in his unsuccessful fight against the encroaching Ottoman’s, including Portuguese soldiers. So this kind of alliance with the Songhai would fit in with Portuguese ambition.

The key ethnic group of the Songhai Empire were the Fula people who are the largest nomadic pastoral tribal grouping in the world today with an estimated population of 35m to 45m. They are a genetic intermix of West African, North African and Arabic peoples.

As this map shows they extend right across Africa.

As it happened despite the obvious strategic advantage of an alliance the Portuguese chose not to. Perhaps because an Islamic ally might not go down well with the Pope who was the usual arbiter between Portugal and Spain in their disputes. The Portuguese weren’t above seeking help from Moorish allies against Morocco at the Battle of Alcácer Quibir.

Moreover, during the Battle of Diu in 1509, the (Catholic) Republic of Venice sided with the Ottomans and the Sultanates of Gujarat and Egypt against the Portuguese. The same Republic of Venice won a major naval victory against the Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 with help from Spain and the Papal States.

Perhaps it was because they had friendly trading relations with the Kingdom of Mali who were rivals of the Songhai and their neighbours with Bissau.

The Moroccan Sultan was advised it was illegal to wage war against another Islamic kingdom, but he was unpersuaded.

In any case, after several months of trekking across the desert, the Moroccans ended the Songhai Empire at the Battle of Tondibi in 1591 despite the Songhai’s vastly superior numbers.

The Sultan of Morocco sought to bring the lucrative trade in salt, slaves and especially the gold of the Songhay kingdom under his control. A force of some 4,000 well-trained mercenaries armed with guns was thus dispatched to bring it to heel. Organization of the invasion force was impressive, with some 8,000 camels in support, sapper units, and abundant supplies of gunpowder and lead. There were about 2,000 infantry harquebusiers, 500 mounted gunmen, and a miscellany of other forces, including 1500 mounted lancers. In sum, the Moroccan expedition was a serious, well-equipped one, with armaments comparable to most 16th-century Mediterranean states.

The Moroccans were led by a Spanish born enuch, and won out because of their fusiliers and English cannons. A huge opportunity for Portugal was lost.

It can be argued the Portuguese were caught cold by this bold Moroccan attack, but they had a second bite at the cherry when the Kingdom of Mali attacked the Moroccan held Djenné at the heart of the former Songhai Empire in 1599. Mali had requested Portugal’s help against the Songhai, but did nothing. Again, at Djenné, the Portuguese did nothing to assist their trading partner. Eventually, the Malians were repulsed by superior Moroccan firepower though it was a close run battle.

Military assistance from the Portuguese would have altered the course of history.


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