Sat | Aug 24, 2019

Letter of the Day | Africa was not 3,000 years behind Europe

Published:Wednesday | August 8, 2018 | 12:00 AM


One is appalled by Brian Sale's proposition in his letter of August 3, 2018, page A5, that "in terms of intellectual development", West Africans "were approximately 2,000 to 3,000 years behind most of the Middle East and Europe" by the time Europe began its slave trade from that region in the late 15th century.

This opinion is the regurgitation of 18th- and 19th-century European 'scientific' and hegemonic relegation of Africans to animal status or at best bestial Calibans, mentally inferior to Europeans. These positions have been decisively overturned by 20th-century research and analysis.

Clearly, Sale has not read Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, nor has he profited from Ali Mazrui's televised introduction to the history of Africa, or Basil Davidson's masterly exposÈ in his TV series on Africa, or even from Henry Louis Gates' more recent TV documentary on the subject.

Sale ignores the advances in state formation and administrative organisation in West Africa, which led to the establishment of several empires, the multiple trading networks and marketplaces, the striking achievements in metallurgy, architecture, sculpture, pottery, cloth-weaving and applique, agricultural terracing and land fortifications, the establishment of large, organised urban centres in Yorubaland, the development of ajami script based on Arabic calligraphy applied to African languages of the Sahel, the libraries of theological and scientific thought at Timbuctu, the evolution of mathematically based games, the festivals of water sports, the tours of dramatic troupes.

True, West Africans had not developed weaponry as Europe had devised out of Chinese gunpowder invention, nor could the West African tsetse fly infestation allow for the evolution of wheeled animal-drawn transport, and the early efforts of Mali's maritime transatlantic expeditions did not lead to expertise in ship-rigging as had been developed in China, Europe, and the Mediterranean. Nor do we know of any scientific revolution as Europe had experienced in the 15th to 18th centuries.

But to say that West Africa was 2,000 to 3,000 years behind Europe, when only the European intelligentsia knew anything of the advances in scientific inquiry heralded by the Renaissance, is the height of misrepresentation.


Professor Emeritus

St Andrew