Aksum arose in the 3rd century BCE. Aksum was located at a junction on the Red Se that allowed her to control the sea trade coming down from the Mediterranean, along the African Coast, Persia Gulf and India. Aksum was also the point at which Mediterranean and Eastern Merchants accessed the goods of the African interior. There was very rich trade through Aksum of goods like Ivory, Gold, Ebony, Frankincense, Myrrh and slaves. In the early 4th century Aksum adopted Christianity under King Ezana who spread Orthodox Christianity throughout Northeast Africa. From this point Orthodox Christianity remain a very strong factor in Northeast Africa. One of the more remarkable features of the Axumites were their custom of erecting Stelas to mark Royal burials. In the 8th century the Islamic armies began to exert pressure on the kingdom chipping away at the red sea coastal possessions to gain access to the valuable trade routes. Axumite civilization shifted to the highlands of the interior of East Africa. The disconnect from the trade routes gave rise to legend in Europe about Presbyter John a legendary king.
West African Trade
In West Africa the local peoples had been major players in the gold trade since Antiquity. There were regular trade relations and prosperous trade routes north to Carthage. So much gold came from West Africa that it was said that 2/3 of Europe’s gold came from the Kingdom of Mali. When Mansa Musa of Mali made a pilgrimage to Mecca in the 1300s he spent so much gold in Egypt that he destabilized the Egyptian economy for a decade. West Africa was drawn into the trade network of western Europe who were at the time trying to by pass the Islamic trade networks of the Mediterranean. The Europeans were increasingly frustrated by the Islamic merchant who restricted their access to trade goods as a form religious economic warfare.
So they decided to by pass the Islamic traders and go directly to the source of the wealth themselves. In the1430s the Portuguese rounded the Bulge of Africa in 1488 Bartolomeu Diaz rounded the Capo Bueno Esperanza or Cape of Good Hope on the Southern tip of Africa. By 1498 Vasco de Gama had landed at Mozambique and travelled as far as Mombasa. Then crossed over to India on the Monsoon winds. During the next four centuries Africans were drawn increasingly into a much wider economic world fueled by insatiable desires for raw materials but also for slaves. The Africans were not passive in this trade but aggressive participants who seized new opportunities to acquire wealth and political prestige.
The history of African states of the interior is intimately tied with the Web of Interconnectedness. It is an interaction not a passive giving or a passive receiving but parties on both sides filling needs of prestige.
Trading at Great Zimbabwe
Down in the valley they built a vat free standing stone enclosure known as the Great Enclosure this was the resident of the local hegemon and was known locally as Dzimba-hwe Venerated Stones. A Shona expression reflecting the permanent residence of the local hegemon we know it as Great Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe would be adopted by the former British colony of Southern Rhodesia after its independence. Great Zimbabwe prospered greatly as a religious site and as a terminus of the coastal gold trade between 1100-1400the trade was not one conducted by heavy caravan traffic but of occasional but regular trade expeditions from the coastal settlements to Great Zimbabwe. Where they bartered Cowrie Shells, Glass Beads, Chinese Porcelain for Ivory, Gold and Slaves.
In the centuries before the arrival Europeans Zimbabwe was a great focus of this trade. Great Zimbabwe was a secluded place with massive stone walls of granite 800 miles long and 32 feet high. The enclosures at the top of the hill were import worship centers for honoring ancestors and rain making. This was a wealthy sacred place by 1400 Zimbabwe was the most prosperous of a dozen cattle Kingdoms. Zimbabwe while wealthy did not control a great deal of territories less than 150miles at most. Enough to support agriculture and herd grazing. Cattle require a great deal of water and pastures. Zimbabwe at its height could have supported 18,000 inhabitants. The rulers of Zimbabwe measured their wealth in cattle and imported goods such has Chinese Porcelain, Glass, Sea Shells Gold and Ivory.
Islamic East Africa
They founded stone built towns clustered along strategic bays Lamu and Mombasa began as such settlements the port of Kilwa on the Tanzanian coasts was another port town that carried much of the trade with southeast Africa. Kilwa became a major trade port in the preceding centuries were gold, Ivory and Slaves were to the Islamic world. The East African coastal civilization was distinctive and cosmopolitan a blend of African and Islamic worlds in towns controlled by the merchant elite on a strong secular foundation. Beyond the coastal trip behind mangrove swamps lay the vast and little visited African interior. The fabled source of the Gold Ivory and copper which was exchanged from community to community. This East African trade generated enormous profits because African Ivory was in great demand in India.
The Ivory of the Indian Elephant s brittle not well suited for fashioning jewelry while the Ivory from the African Elephant is much softer and amenable to sculpting. Ivory was also an important medium for the ornaments used in rituals. At the same time textiles from India were in great demand in Est Africa. Mangrove poles and Iron ore were also in great demand in India Glass beads were also exchanged in Africa. Glass was not made outside of Egypt in Africa. Another important trade item were cowrie shells sea shells that were sent to Africa where they were prestige items due to their exotic nature. They became a symbol of authority in East Africa this trade developed a symbiosis between East African and Indian societies.
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