A petty noble emerges; a void or a vacuum, leftovers of a great war or famine is filled by his dominion and something new is born. It grows, consuming all in its path, for stability in empire is mostly secured through violence – expanding out in glory and power until it becomes unwieldy and unstable, obese and arrogant and finally brittle, collapsing in upon itself.
And another emerges.
Human history has been dominated by these cycles, the rise and fall of empire; patterns repeated in the north and south, in the east and the west. Everything was the same for everyone in the pre-modern world. Empire, built by kings through invasion and conquest. Stratified society, kings and nobles and serfs and slaves: with artisans and merchants slipped between like lubricant which made the civilizations move. And this was the same the world over, from the Persians to the Inca; from the Vikings to the Celts and the Garamantians and the ancient Egyptians. Lords and peasants; Divine Right of Kings meeting noblesse oblige to the brief bitterness of the peasants.
Humans most usually consider our own histories, the stories of us and ours. Its natural, and there’s nothing wrong with that; which doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from the paths of those who are foreign, though they are not our paths. Sometimes, unfortunately, this ignorance leads to contempt, for we humans are a judgmental lot, aren’t we? This is often the case with Africa. A history-less place of tribal wars until the arrival of the Arabs, of the colonists. Right? Wrong. Truth of the matter is that medieval Africa is not that different of a place from medieval Europe, or medieval India, or medieval China. Empires and civilizations and the waxing and waning of significance. West Africa, Western Sudan as it was initially called, had all of this; linked more closely to the fate of the East – though the little Arab children in Riyadh probably don’t learn this. Islam and the caliphates of old – the Almoravids and the Almohads, the Berbers and Tuaregs and Arabs. Jihads to expand the reach of the Abbasids. Western Sudan is part of all these ancient stories.
I’ve been re-reading “The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay”. This simple book is about three kingdoms we rarely read about in America – the old kingdoms of Western Sudan. Kingdoms which were built in gold and slaves and salt; kingdoms that expanded and shrank, invaded others and were themselves invaded. It’s a fascinating story. Of Mansa Musa, one of the most imposing emperors in world history, the richest monarch of all time with a kingdom larger than western Europe that rivaled the great Khans of Mongolia; decentralized and administered by civil servants, taxation and conscription. A Muslim king taking an entourage of 60,000 to Mecca with so much gold that it sparked a twelve-year inflationary period for Cairo. Stories of a privileged city beyond the sand which inspired 400 years of explorers.
Of course that was then; Mali and Ghana these days are desperately poor West African countries; Songhai disappeared, although Gao is still there, empty but for jihadis and a contingent of Chinese peacekeepers peering nervously through concertina wire to a desert they cannot understand.
So why the great divergence? Why did some societies recover from empire to build strata-less places that respond to the consent of their people, while others just fell away – never experiencing the benefits of modernity which itself has already passed away? Why did enlightenment create prosperity for so many; while others languished? Those, of course, are the greatest questions of all time. This book won’t answer them, no one book will because there is no one answer – but being reminded that 400 years ago almost everybody was miserable, cargo on the same brutal boat, should serve as a starting point to ask ourselves, “Why the divergence of our fates?” Especially for those who of us who would have been peasants and wish not to return the old days of empire.