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A Dispute on the Popular Beliefs of Warfare in Pre-Colonial Africa

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The popular belief of warfare in Pre-Colonial Africa is that of mere tribal wars, a sort of random, "bow and arrow" battle. The accepted view of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is based on the concept that Europeans bribed, initiated wars, and captured African civilians, all for the sake of the slave trade. In his book, "Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500-1800", John K. Thornton challenges both of these interpretations.

In fact, the author systematically describes in depth the complexity and diversity of different African states. The 300 years that the book covers, all tactics, weapons, and strategies evolved due to what seemed to be trial and error, availability of resources, influence of the Europeans, and motivations.

The way war was waged in the different African nations was primarily based on the location of that particular region. For instance, in the Senegambia and Sierra Leone region, navies had a large part of warfare due to the navigational rivers in the region. Each region described in this book fought wars very differently, but none was as I thought it might be. Warfare in Atlantic Africa, according to John K. Thornton, was very methodical, organized, and certainly more advanced than what I believed prior to reading his book.

A universally accepted image of warfare in Atlantic Africa were either a battle between tribes or a war that Europeans waged for the sake of gaining, either by capture or otherwise, slaves for the slave trade. Through Thornton's writings, I have come to understand these motivations differently. He points out that though most of the regions he speaks of have plenty of European contact, few actually take on a lot of European influence. The warfare that was waged between states was not unlike any other inter-state war, due to political, religious, and/or territorial differences. The capture of slaves was simply an after affect of the conflict. These wars, for the most part, didn't involve Europeans in any way, although there are a few exceptions, such as the war between the army of Ndongo and the Portuguese, citing only limited success of Europeans. It is apparent that the involvement of Europeans was limited, but there was ample access through the Atlantic Ocean and we have the knowledge that the Europeans did trade in the Atlantic African part of the country. It makes one wonder why, then, they didn't wage war against the Africans for slavery or even for territory. It has been illustrated by Thornton's book that the gun trade was there, but why didn't the Africans place a large importance on this type of trade? Perhaps it was because of tradition. One could only speculate, because there is little documentation on this particular subject, but perhaps the tradition of being a warrior was something that a young boy aspired to be and trained with his elders for many years to master. This would surely be more meaningful than pointing an iron barrel at an opponent and pulling a trigger. Another possibility is that the African people may have been apprehensive about committing to the Europeans for the continuous supply of ammunition. After all, what use are firearms if the supply of ammunition is limited to small portions each time trade is exercised and even then only to pay again for the ammunition. I get the sense from Thornton's book that the Atlantic African people were incredibly independent and certainly thought provoking people. This apprehension could have certainly been a factor for the slow progression of firearms trade between Europeans and Atlantic Africa.

Even in the regions that guns and ammunition were obtained, they weren't an important factor in the way the wars were fought. While some of the states used guns, no states relied heavily on guns for warfare. Wars were fought differently in different regions, depending on the terrain, climate, and the availability of waterways. The weaponry used was typically bow and poisonous arrows, sword, lance and javelin, just to name a few. These types of weapons were still more common than firearms, even after the introduction of firearms to a given region. Therefore, one could assume that the African peoples didn't put enough importance on the guns and ammunition to consider it a real commodity, particularly during the time span of 1500-1700. Whether it was due to tradition, or due to the possible fear of entanglement or commitment with



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