Block Museum of Art/Princeton University Press, 311 pp., $65.00
There is a broad strain in Western thought that has long treated Africa as existing outside of history and progress; it ranges from some of our most famous thinkers to the entertainment that generations of children have grown up with. There are Disney cartoons that depict barely clothed African cannibals merrily stewing their victims in giant pots suspended above pit fires.1 Among intellectuals there is a wealth of appalling examples. Voltaire said of Africans, “A time will come, without a doubt, when these animals will know how to cultivate the earth well, to embellish it with houses and gardens, and to know the routes of the stars. Time is a must, for everything.” Hegel’s views of Africa were even more sweeping: “What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.” One can hear echoes of such views even today from Western politicians. Donald Trump referred to a number of African nations as “shithole countries” in 2018, and French president Emmanuel Macron said in 2017, “The challenge Africa faces is completely different and much deeper” than those faced by Europe. “It is civilizational.”
It may remain a little-known fact, but Africa has never lacked civilizations, nor has it ever been as cut off from world events as it has been routinely portrayed. Some remarkable new books make this case in scholarly but accessible terms, and they admirably complicate our understanding of Africa’s past and present.
The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages by François-Xavier Fauvelle reveals—to many readers almost certainly for the first time—the existence of what specialists increasingly construe as medieval Africa. For Fauvelle, a leading French scholar of the continent, this was a period between the antiquity of places like Egypt, Nubia, and Aksum, all of which left spectacular archaeological legacies, and around 1500, after which Africa was deeply scarred by the slave trade and Western imperialism.
In a succession of brisk chapters, Fauvelle makes the case that medieval Africa suffered no dearth of cultural accomplishments. There is, for example, evidence of long-distance trade as early as the ninth century between northern African settlements and caravan towns like Aoudaghost, at the southern edge of the Sahara. Manufactured copper goods were sent south in exchange for gold dust, to be cast into ingots out of which much of the fast-rising Arab world’s coinage was struck.2 To illustrate just how well established these commercial exchanges were by the late tenth century, Fauvelle describes an…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.