The hundred years between 1800 and 1900 saw the most dramatic changes that had ever occurred in Africa. When the century began both Europeans and Arabs were restricted to small enclaves along the coast, while in the interior the native powers pursued their own independent policies. This is an era of great interest for the student of African military systems, as at this stage they were free from the outside influences that predominated by the end of our era, but unfortunately it is almost entirely undocumented. In a few cases later anthropologists have recovered useful oral traditions, but here it has been necessary to focus mainly on the period from 1860 onwards, because it is only then that written sources became available. Forty years after that the entire region had been divided up among the European powers and most of its indigenous institutions had been destroyed. Through that brief window we can catch only glimpses of an independent military tradition that had been evolving for millennia. It is hoped that this book will help to demonstrate how much more sophisticated it was than the old-fashioned stereotype of spear-throwing `savages' allows.
At the heart of the region covered in this volume is the great Congo rainforest, Stanley's archetypal `Darkest Africa'. Here it was not only the dense vegetation but also the lack of food which restricted travel mainly to the rivers. Even the local farming tribes found conditions in the interior of the forest unfavourable and largely left it to the pygmies, the only true hunter-gatherers in the region. Further south the forest merges gradually with the savannah of southern Congo and Zambia, a vast landscape across which people could travel with relative ease, meeting no insuperable natural obstacle until they reached the Zambezi River. In most places, however, infertile soils, erratic rainfall, and tropical diseases kept human population densities low and prevented the rise of powerful centralised kingdoms. Only where exceptionally favourable conditions allowed the inhabitants to increase their numbers - for example in the well-watered mountains of Rwanda and Burundi or on the floodplains of the Zambezi - did explorers encounter what they recognised as kingdoms. Elsewhere they found what seemed to be primitive, static societies tied to the land and incapable of bettering their condition. It was not realised at the time that the Africans were themselves the descendants of explorers and colonisers on a massive scale.
Several thousand years ago the members of a cluster of tribes in what is now Cameroon seem to have migrated southwards and westwards into the rainforest, beginning a process which would lead their descendants to occupy almost the entire continent south of the equator. It was probably their possession of iron weapons and agricultural technology that enabled them to displace or absorb the original Stone Age inhabitants, but the process was by no means a blitzkrieg. In fact it must still have been in its final stages when the whites arrived, as several explorers mention the recent presence north of the Zambezi of aboriginal groups similar to the San or `Bushmen' who still survive further south. This explains why a consistent theme in the oral history of many of the peoples of Central Africa tells of founders arriving from the north.
Another important result of this great migration is that nearly all the native languages now spoken along the Congo and further south belong to the Bantu sub-group of the Niger-Congo family. A relatively high proportion of them are mutually intelligible, which helps to explain some apparent mysteries in our sources, such as how Stanley managed to communicate with previously unknown tribes during his first descent of the Congo (see chapter 6). But this group of languages does present some problems when written in English, because it is characterised by the use of prefixes to denote the names of people and places. Thus, for example, the country which explorers called Warua or Urua was inhabited by the tribe known as the Warua, of which the singular is Mrua. Furthermore, although the use of the prefixes is universal, their actual form is not. So the plural form denoting a group of people is Ba- in most of the Congo Basin, but Wa- in Swahili (or more properly kiSwahili, the speech of the Swahilis), which became the lingua franca of the Arab-occupied zone. Along the Zambezi further south it becomes A- or Awa-. This has always created difficulties for Europeans attempting to render African names in a form intelligible to their readers, and a variety of versions of the same name will often be encountered. I have not attempted to be entirely consistent in the use of these, but have adopted the form that is most familiar to modern English readers or is most likely to be encountered in contemporary sources. Other variants which might cause confusion have, however, been noted where appropriate.
Other titles from Foundry Books:
ARMIES OF THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY
The Armies of England, Scotland, Ireland, the United Provinces and the Spanish Netherlands (1998) by Ian Heath
The Aztec and Inca Empires, Other Peoples of the Americas, and the Conquistadores (1998) by Ian Heath
ARMIES OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
Central Asia and the Himalayan Kingdoms (1998) by Ian Heath
China (1998) by Ian Heath
India's North-East Frontier (1999) by Ian Heath
East Africa (2003) by Chris Peers
Burma and Indo-China (2003) by Ian Heath
The British in India 1826-59 (2005) by John French
The Paraguayan War (2007) by Terry Hooker
Japan and Korea (2011) by Ian Heath
Colonial Armies in Africa 1850-1918 (2006) by Peter Abbott
Rivals of the Raj: Non-British Colonial Armies in Asia 1497-1941 (2010) by Peter Abbott
EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY
Small Wars and Skirmishes 1902-18 (2004) by Edwin Herbert
Risings and Rebellions 1919-39 (2007) by Edwin Herbert
The Boxer Rebellion (2011) by Mike Blake