Emilia Tomescu, Iuliana Neagoș
The Spirit of a People and its National Anthem - the African Continent
Since the era of the pharaohs, the riches of the African continent have been desired. Legends about these riches survived along centuries, bringing in explorers and conquerors from afar. Stories in the Bible about the fabulous gifts of gold and precious stones that the Queen of Sheba brought king Solomon during her visit to Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE grew into folklore about the land of Ophir that inspired European adventurers in the quest for gold to launch a war of conquest in Southern Africa 3000 years later.
Land was also a prize, as it was valued by the Romans who relied on their colonies in north Africa for vital grain shipments to feed the population of Rome. The Romans named one of their coastal provinces of Africa after a Berber tribe known as the Afri who lived in the region of modern Tunisia. The Romans were followed by Arab invaders, the first Arab wave arriving during the 7th century. Eventually supplanting indigenous chiefdoms across most of north Africa, they used the Arabic name ”Ifriqiya” to cover the same coastal region.
When Europeans began their exploration of the Atlantic coastline of Africa in the 15th century, they applied the same name to encompass the whole continent. Initially they aimed to find a sea route to the gold fields of west Africa which they had heard was the location from where camel caravans carrying gold set out to cross the Sahara desert to reach commercial ports on Africa’s Mediterranean coast.
Another African commodity in high demand was represented by slaves. Slavery was a common feature in many African societies. Slaves were often war-captives, acquired by African leaders as they sought to build fiefdoms and empires and used as labourers and soldiers. But the long distance trade in slaves, lasting for more than a thousand years added a fearful new dimension. From the 9th century onwards, slaves from black Africa were regularly marched across the Sahara desert, shipped over the Red Sea and taken from the east coast region and sold into markets in the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Arabian peninsula and the Persian Gulf. In the 16th century, European merchants initiated the trans-Atlantic trade to the Americas. Most of the inland trade in slaves for sale abroad was handled by African traders and warlords. Fortunes were made at both ends of the trade. By the end of the 19th century, the traffic in African slaves amounted in all to about 24 million men, women and children.
Africa was also valued as the world’s main supplier of ivory. For centuries, the principal demand for Africa’s ivory came from Asia, from markets in India and China.
As the industrial revolution in Europe and North America gathered momentum in the 19th century, the use of ivory for piano keys, billiard balls, scientific instruments and a vast range of household items made it one of the most profitable commodities on Earth.
A greedy and devious European monarch, Leopold II of Belgium, set out to amass a personal fortune from ivory, declaring himself ‘King-Sovereign’ of a million square miles of the Congo Basin. Then, Leopold turned to another commodity-wild rubber-to make his money. Several million Africans died as a result of the rubber regime that Leopold enforced, but Leopold himself succeeded in becoming one of the richest men in the world.
In turn, Leopold’s ambition to acquire what he called ‘a slice of this ”magnifique gateau africain”’ was largely responsible for igniting the ”scramble” for African territory among European powers at the end of the 19th century. Hitherto, European activity in Africa had been confined mainly to small, isolated enclaves on the coast used for trading purposes. Only along Mediterranean coast of Algeria and at the foot of southern Africa had European settlement taken root. But now Africa became the target of fierce European competition.
Another personality to arouse the British interest in the African territory was David Livingstone, qualified as a doctor and a prominent member of the London Missionary Society,who gave a famous lecture at Cambridge University,urging his compatriots with thefollowing words: I beg to direct your attention to Africa... I go back to Africa to try to make a path for commerce and Christianity. Do carry on the work which I have begun. I leave it with you! Ten years after his body was buried at Westminster Abbey, the Berlin Conference started.