Africa: History

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The origin and meaning of the name of the continent are discussed elsewhere (see AFRICA, ROMAN.) The word Africa was applied originally to the country in the immediate neighbourhood of Carthage, that part of the continent first known to the Romans, and it was subsequently extended with their increasing knowledge, till it came at last to include all that they knew of the continent. The Arabs still confine the name Ifrikia to the territory of Tunisia.


The valley of the lower Nile was the home in remotest antiquity of a civilized race. Egyptian culture had, however, remarkably little direct influence on the rest of the continent, a result due in large measure to the fact that Egypt is shut off landwards by immense deserts. If ancient Egypt and Ethiopia (q.v.) be excluded, the story of Africa is largely a record of the doings of its Asiatic and European conquerors and colonizers, Abyssinia being the only state which throughout historic times has maintained its independence. The countries bordering the Mediterranean were first exploited by the Phoenicians, whose earliest settlements were made before 1000 B.C. Carthage, founded about 800 B.C., speedily grew into a city without rival in the Mediterranean, and the Phoenicians, subduing the Berber tribes, who then as now formed the bulk of the population, became masters of all the habitable region of North Africa west of the Great Syrtis, and found in commerce a source of immense prosperity.

Both Egyptians and Carthaginians made attempts to reach the unknown parts of the continent by sea. Herodotus relates that an expedition under Phoenician navigators, employed by Necho, king of Egypt, c. 600 B.C., circumnavigated Africa from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, a voyage stated to have been accomplished in three years. Apart from the reported circumnavigation of the continent, the west coast was well known to the Phoenicians as far as Cape Nun, and c. 520 B.C. Hanno, a Carthaginian, explored the coast as far, perhaps, as the Bight of Benin, certainly as far as Sierra Leone. A vague knowledge of the Niger regions was also possessed by the Phoenicians.

Meantime the first European colonists had planted themselves in Africa. At the point where the continent approaches nearest the Greek islands, Greeks founded the city of Cyrene (c. 631 B.C..) Cyrenaica became a flourishing colony, though being hemmed in on all sides by absolute desert it had little or no influence on inner Africa. The Greeks, however, exerted a powerful influence in Egypt. To Alexander the Great the city of Alexandria owes its foundation (332 B.C.), and under the Hellenistic dynasty of the Ptolemies attempts were made to penetrate southward, and in this way was obtained some knowledge of Abyssinia. Neither Cyrenaica nor Egypt was a serious rival to the Carthaginians, but all three powers were eventually supplanted by the Romans. After centuries of rivalry for supremacy1 the struggle was ended by the fall of Carthage in 146 B.C. Within little more than a century from that date Egypt and Cyrene had become incorporated in the Roman empire. Under Rome the settled portions of the country were very prosperous, and a Latin strain was introduced into the land. Though Fezzan was occupied by them, the Romans elsewhere found the Sahara an impassable barrier. Nubia and Abyssinia were reached, but an expedition sent by the emperor Nero to discover the source of the Nile ended in failure. The utmost extent of geographical knowledge of the continent is shown in the writings of Ptolemy (2nd century A.D.), who knew of or guessed the existence of the great lake reservoirs of the Nile and had heard of the river Niger. Still Africa for the civilized world remained simply the countries bordering the Mediterranean. The continual struggle between Rome and the Berber tribes; the introduction of Christianity and the glories and sufferings of the Egyptian and African Churches; the invasion and conquest of the African provinces by the Vandals in the 5th century; the passing of the supreme power in the following century to the Byzantine empire--all these events are told fully elsewhere.

Continued on page two.
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