Precolonial Black Africa

Precolonial Black Africa

by Cheikh Anta Diop

ISBN: 9781556520884

Publisher Chicago Review Press

Published in History/Africa

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It seems necessary at the outset to point out the specific features of the caste system, in order more clearly to bring out the difference in social structure which has always existed between Europe and Africa. The originality of the system resides in the fact that the dynamic elements of society, whose discontent might have engendered revolution, are really satisfied with their social condition and do not seek to change it: a man of so-called "inferior caste" would categorically refuse to enter a so-called "superior" one. In Africa, it is not rare for members of the lower caste to refuse to enter into conjugal relations with those of the higher caste, even though the reverse would seem more normal.


Let us proceed to a description of the internal structure of the caste system, before attempting an explanation of its origin. The present territory of Senegal will be used here as a model for study: nevertheless, the conclusions which are drawn from it hold true for the whole of detribalized Sudanese Africa. In Senegal, society is divided into slaves and freemen, the latter being gor, including both gér and ñéño.

The gér comprise the nobles and all freemen with no manual profession other than agriculture, considered a sacred activity.

The ñéño comprise all artisans: shoemakers, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, etc. These are hereditary professions.

The djam, or slaves, include the djam-bur, who are slaves of the king; the djam neg nday, slaves of one's mother; and the djam neg bây, slaves of one's father. The gér formed the superior caste. But — and herein lay the real originality of the system — unlike the attitude of the nobles toward the bourgeoisie, the lords toward the serfs, or the Brahmans toward the other Indian castes, the gér could not materially exploit the lower castes without losing face in the eyes of others, as well as their own. On the contrary, they were obliged to assist lower caste members in every way possible: even if less wealthy, they had to "give" to a man of lower caste if so requested. In exchange, the latter had to allow them social precedence.

The specific feature of this system therefore consisted in the fact that the manual laborer, instead of being deprived of the fruits of his labor, as was the artisan or the serf of the Middle Ages, could, on the contrary, add to it wealth given him by the "lord."

Consequently, if a revolution were to occur, it would be initiated from above and not from below. But that is not all, as we shall see: members of all castes including slaves were closely associated to power, as de facto ministers; which resulted in constitutional monarchies governed by councils of ministers, made up of authentic representatives of all the people. We can understand from this why there were no revolutions in Africa against the regime, but only against those who administered it poorly, i.e., unworthy princes. In addition, there were, of course, also palace revolutions.

For every caste, advantages and disadvantages, deprivations of rights and compensations balanced out. So it is outside of consciences, in material progress and external influences, that the historical motives must be sought. Taking into account their isolation, which however must not be exaggerated, it can be understood why Africa's societies remained relatively stable.


The only group that would have an interest in overthrowing the social order were the slaves of the father's household, in alliance with the bâ-dolo ("those without power," socially speaking, the poor peasants). Indeed, it is clear from what preceded that the status of the artisans was an enviable one. Their consciences could in no way be bearers of the seeds of revolution: being the principal beneficiaries of the monarchical regime, they defend it up to this day, or regret its passing.

By definition, all slaves should make up the revolutionary class. One can easily imagine the state of mind of a warrior or any freeman whose condition through defeat in war radically changes from one day to the next, as he becomes a slave: as in classical antiquity, prisoners of war were automatically subject to being sold. Persons of rank might be ransomed by their families, who would give in exchange a certain number of slaves. In principle, one could have a nephew serve as a substitute: a man's sister's son, in this matriarchal regime, would be given by his uncle in ransom; whence the two Wolof expressions, na djây ("may he sell," i.e., the uncle), and djar bât ("he who can buy back," i.e., the nephew). But this is where the slaves come in.

In this aristocratic regime, the nobles formed the cavalry of the army (the chivalry). The infantry was composed of slaves, former prisoners of war taken from outside the national territory. The slaves of the king formed the greater part of his forces and in consequence their condition was greatly improved. They were now slaves in name only. The rancor in their hearts had been lightened by the favors they received: they shared in the booty after an expedition; under protection of the king, during periods of social unrest, they could even indulge in discreet pillage within the national territory, against the poor peasants, the bâ-dolo — but never against the artisans who were always able to gain restitution of their confiscated goods. The regime, the social mores obtaining, allowed the artisans to go directly to the prince, without fear, and complain to him. The slaves were commanded by one of their own, the infantry general, who was a pseudo-prince in that he might rule over a fief inhabited by freemen. Such was the case, in the monarchy of Cayor (Senegal), of the djarâf Bunt Keur, the representative of the slaves within the government and commander-in-chief of the army. His power and authority were so great that the day of his betrayal brought an end to the kingdom of Cayor. We will return to this matter, under the heading of political constitutions.

However, the ennobling of a slave, even by the king, was impossible in Africa, in contrast to the customs of European courts. Birth appeared to be something intrinsic in the eyes of this society and even the king would have been ill-advised to ennoble anyone at all, even a freeman.

The slaves of the king, by force of circumstance, thus became an element favorable to the preservation of the regime; they were a conservative element.

The slave of the mother's household was the captive of our mother, as opposed to the slave of our father. He might have been bought on the open market, come from an inheritance, or be a gift. Once established in the family he became almost an integral part of it; he was the loyal domestic, respected, feared, and consulted by the children. Due to the matriarchal and polygamous regime, we feel him closer to us, because he belongs to our mother, than the slave of the father, who is at an equal distance, socially speaking, from all the children of the same father and different mothers. As can easily be seen, the slave of the father would become the scapegoat for the society. Therefore, the slave of the mother could not be a revolutionary.

The slave of the father's household, by contrast, considering his anonymous position (our father is everyone's, so to speak, while our mother is truly our own), will be of no interest to anyone and have no special protection in society. He may be disposed of without compensation. However, his condition is not comparable to that of the plebeian of ancient Rome, the thete of Athens, or the sudra of India. The condition of the sudra was based on a religious significance. Contact with them was considered impure; society had been structured without taking their existence into account; they could not even live in the cities nor participate in religious ceremonies, nor at the ouset have a religion of their own. We will return to this matter later. However, the alienation of the slaves of the father's household in Africa was great enough, on the moral and material plane, that their minds could be truly revolutionary. But for reasons connected to the preindustrial nature of Africa, such as the dispersion of the population into villages, for example, they could not effect a revolution. We must also add that they were really intruders in a hostile society which watched them day and night, and would never have allowed them time to plot a rebellion with their peers. It made it even less possible for them to acquire economic position and moral and intellectual education, in short, any social strength comparable to that of the bourgeoisie of the West when it overthrew the aristocracy. Slaves of this category might apparently at best have joined forces with the poor peasants, those bâ-dolo ("without power") whose labor actually sustained the nation more than that of the artisans.


The bâ-dolo by definition, were not ñéños, but gérs of modest means, doomed to the cultivation of the earth. As gérs, belonging to the same level as the prince, the latter found nothing dishonorable or debasing in pillaging their goods, however small they might be. Since a well-to-do gér, finding himself in privileged circumstances, might marry a princess, although of secondary rank to be sure, the bâ-dolo being a gér without means would have to carry the fiscal burdens of society. Indeed, according to the African concept of honor, it was not those of inferior rank who were to be exploited, should occasion arise, but rather social equals, particularly where the latter did not have the material power to defend themselves, which was the case of the bâ-dolo. For reasons of this kind, the possessions of the artisan were spared. In such preindustrial, agricultural regimes, it is true, everyone was involved in the cultivation of the soil, including the king (who, according to Cailliaud, was the foremost farmer of Seennaar). But on closer examination, it was the bâ-dolo, more than the artisans, who fed the population and constituted the majority of the laboring class.

Out of caste prejudice, however, as can easily be deduced from the preceding, they could not lower themselves so far as to form an alliance with the malcontent slaves, especially since the latter were disorganized and had no chance of success. If such an alliance had come to be in the course of African history, it would have led to a peasants' and slaves' revolt, a jacquerie, of the kind Egypt experienced toward the close of the Middle Kingdom, or the sort common to Western history ever since the Middle Ages — none of which was ever successful. It would have been a revolt and not a revolution such as the French (bourgeois) Revolution. But we shall see that, in precolonial Africa, the length of the periods of prosperity had nothing in common with that of the periods of dearth, which were rather exceptional and ephemeral, and that the general abundance of economic resources and the extraordinary, legendary wealth of the continent in fact foreclosed the birth and growth of any revolutionary spirit in African consciousness.


The caste system arose from a division of labor, but under an advanced political regime, which was monarchic (for one never finds castes where there are no nobles). However, it is very probable that the specialization of labor, which led to the hereditary transmission of trades in the caste system, on a family or individual scale, evolved out of the clanic organization. If one looks at the totemic names, all those who practice the same trade, all those who belong to the same caste, are of the same totemic clan. For example, in spite of all the exogamic marriages that may have taken place after detribaliza-tion, all Mârs are shoemakers, belong to the same clan, and have the same totem, no matter how territorially separated they may have become. Thus, two Mârs who meet for the first time understand that they have a common clan origin.

Be that as it may, at the time of the empires of Ghana and Mali, as evidenced by the testimony of Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Battuta, and the Tarikh es Sudan, detribalization had already taken place throughout these great empires.

At the time of the conquest of Northern Africa [by the Muslims], some merchants penetrated into the western part of the land of the Blacks and found among them no king more powerful than the king of Ghana. His states extended westward to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Ghana, the capital of this strong, populous nation, was made up of two towns separated by the Niger River, and formed one of the greatest and best populated cities of the world. The author of the Book of Roger [Al Bakri] makes special mention of it, as does the author of Roads and Kingdoms.

One may suppose that in a city such as Ghana, which in the tenth century was already one of the largest in the world, tribal organization had completely given way to the demands of urban life. At any rate, transmission of the individual name and inheritance, as it was practiced in the empire of Mali, according to Ibn Battuta, leaves us in no doubt about the disappearance of the tribal system in this region in 1352.

They [the Blacks] are named after their maternal uncles, and not after their fathers; it is not the sons who inherit from their fathers, but the nephews, the sons of the father's sister. I have never met with this last custom anywhere else, except among the infidels of Malabar in India.

One fact that has not been sufficiently stressed is that the individual had a first, or given, name but not a family name before the dislocation of the clan. Theretofore, a person bore the name of the clan, but only collectively, so that when asked his name, he would always reply that he was of the clan of the Ba-Pende, Ba-Oulé, Ba-Kongo, etc. He was a member of the community, and only the dispersal of it could afford him individual existence as well as a family name, which remained then, as a sort of recall, the name of the clan. This is therefore one of the reasons we always speak of totemic names. And according to the passage cited from Ibn Battuta, we see that the individual already bore a personal family name, the name of his mother, due to the matriarchal system. This is confirmed by all the family names of important personages transmitted to us by the Tarikh es Sudan. This work was written by a learned Black of the sixteenth century, A.D., but relates events the most ancient of which date back to the first centuries after the birth of Christ. The same could be said of the Tarikh el Fettach, written in the same period, by another Black from Timbuktu [Kâti].

The stability of the caste system was assured by the hereditary transmission of social occupations, which corresponded, in a certain measure, to a monopoly disguised by a religious prohibition in order to eliminate professional competition. Indeed, religious significance was attached to the inheritance of the trade. According to the current beliefs, a subject from outside a trade, even if he acquired all the skill and science of a calling which was not that of his family, would not be able to practice it efficiently, in the mystical sense, because it was not his ancestors who concluded the initial contract with the spirit who had originally taught it to humanity. Due to an understandable tendency toward generalization, even scientific specializations to which no notions of caste are attached — e.g., eye or ear medicine, etc. — are dominated by this idea. Up to this point in Africa, in the villages, a given family was specialized in the treatment of one particular part of the body only; it is interesting to note that this was also the case in ancient Egypt where, in all probability, there was originally a caste system.


There are seven classes of Egyptians, and of these some are called priests, others warriors, others herdsmen, others swineherds, others trademen, others interpreters, and, lastly, pilots; such are the classes of Egyptians; they take their names from the employments they exercise. Their warriors are called Calasiries or Hermotybies, and they are of the following districts, for all Egypt is divided into districts. The following are the districts of the Hermotybies: Busiris, Sais, Chemmis, Papremis, the island called Prosopitis, and the half of Natho. From these districts are the Hermotybies, being in number, when they are most numerous, a hundred and sixty thousand. None of these learn any mechanical art, but apply themselves wholly to military affairs. These next are the districts of the Calasiries: Thebes, Bubastis, Aphthis, Tanis, Mendes, Sebennys, Athribis, Pharbaethis, Thmuis, Onuphis, Anysis, Mycephoris; this district is situated in an island opposite the city Bubastis. These are the districts of the Calasiries, being in number, when they are most numerous, two hundred and fifty thousand men; neither are these allowed to practise any art, but they devote themselves to military pursuits alone, the son succeeding to his father.

Excerpted from "Precolonial Black Africa" by Cheikh Anta Diop. Copyright © 2013 by Cheikh Anta Diop. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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