The African Diaspora In The Pre-Atlantic World: From Antiquity Until The 16th Century

By Isaac Samuel

From travellers to scholars, mercenaries to administrators – uncovering the history and legacy of the African diaspora in Asia and Europe up to the 16th century

The oldest of the African Kingdoms, south of the Sahara, was the Nubian Kingdom of Kerma, which, along with neighbouring Nubian chiefdoms like Yam1 and C-group culture2, was the origin of the earliest recorded Africans who came from outside the continent. Most of them were employed in the Egyptian armies as mercenaries due to their mastery of archery hence the name Ta-Seti (land of the bow). While these armies of archers fought as far as the Hittite Kingdoms in Turkey and were mentioned by Herodotus as having participated in Xerxes’s army that fought the Greeks in 480BC3, direct foreign relations began with the Kingdoms of Kush only in the 9th century. Following the invasion of Egypt in the 8th century BC, the monarchs of Kush were also the pharaohs of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt, until they were defeated by the Neo-Assyrian Empire under the rule of Ashurbanipal a century later and finally expelled from Egypt by Psamtik I.

Nubians were fond of their horses and this is demonstrated by the practice of the Twenty-fifth’s burials of chariot horses wherein a deceased was buried together with their chariot including their horse.

Their love for Kushite horses goes back the times before the re-emergence of the Kingdoms of Kush when they bred these large, long-legged high quality native Kushite horses. This interest was also shared by the Assyrians who were developing their cavalry as a newly powerful weapon of war – a process that involved importing foreign experts on chariotry from Nubia and Samaria4

The Kushite horse breed, (known as ‘kusaya’ to the Assyrians) was therefore a prized item, not just by Assyrian charioteers but also by other near-eastern civilizations including the Kingdoms of Israel which, in 701BC, was saved by a Kushite army from the Assyrian army of King Sennacherib, forcing the latter to end his siege of Jerusalem5

Kushite horse-experts were mentioned as early as the 8th century BC down to the 6th century BC and they lived near the capital and handled the Kushite horses imported by the Assyrians6

These connections between ancient Nubia and the near east continued into the meroitic era in the 1st century where one of the first Christian converts is an “Ethiopian eunuch and an officer at the court of the Kandake” in the Book of Acts who was at the time, visiting Jerusalem7

In the Christian Nubia era, Makurian and Alodia Kingdoms’ merchants, clergy and officials were found in the major cities of the Mediterranean – from Baghdad to Constantinople to Spain. In 573 a Makurian deputation visited Constantinople with gifts including elephant tusks and a giraffe as a token of friendship8

Many Nubian monks and pilgrims from both Christina Kingdoms of Makuria and Alodia resided in the cities of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the”holy land” from as early as the 7th century. They were mentioned by Theoderich in 11729 and by Burchard of Mount Sion in 1280AD where they had obtained possession of Adam’s Chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre10 In 1204, the Makurian King Moses George (1155-1190) travelled with a group of 60 men on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and later to Constantinople in 1203 where he was met by crusader and chronicler, Robert de clari in 120411 He then travelled to Rome and Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

The African diaspora from the horn of Africa

In the horn of Africa, relations between the Arabia peninsular, West-Asia and the eastern region of Africa date back to the 1st millennium BC when the kingdom of D’MT developed close trade relations with the Sabeans of Yemen12.

This relationship continued into the rise of the Aksumite empire when fragmented south Arabian states presented an opportunity for several successive Aksumite kings to exploit between the 200-295. The Aksumites dispatched their military to aid strategic allies among the fragmented south Arabian states13 reducing many of these to vassal states of the Aksumite emperor hence the emperor’s titles “king of Himyar and Saba”. Aksumite merchants and other elites were often present in these regions even before their emperor’s military expeditions.

The Aksumite port of Adulis was for much of the 1st millennium at the intersection of the red sea trade between Rome, Africa and Asia (Arabia to India) and the Aksumites had a vibrant ship building industry at the site and a significant proportion of the ships plying the red sea route in the 6th century were Aksumite. The Aksumites were a global trading powerhouse; their gold, copper and silver coinage has been found in far flung sites like Rome and India both of which were frequented by Aksumite merchants. In the 6th century Aksumite ships were recorded as far as Sri Lanka14

Aksum was Christianised during the reign of Ezana in the mid 4th century. He then established diplomatic contacts with the Byzantines. In 362 an Aksumite embassy arrived at Constantinople marking the beginning of formal political diplomacy between the two pre-eminent Christian empires of the time15 . Aksumite maintained an Ethiopian community in Jerusalem by the late 7th century and travellers from the kingdom are mentioned as far as the regions of Asia minor16.

After Aksum was Christianised, Yemenite Christians led by Bishop Thomas requested military protection against Dhu Nuwas, a Yemenite-Jewish king who was persecuting them. Aksum dispatched an army and Nuwas signed a treaty but he later betrayed the Aksumites, killing  a small section of the Aksumite army left to protect the Christians at Zafar in yemen17 The Aksumite emperor Kaleb retaliated and defeated Nuwas with an army of 30,000 men in 525 AD. He then installed an Aksumite puppet named Sumyafa’ Ashwa who was as a result, protected by 10,000 Aksumite soldiers under general Abreha. 

Ashwa was soon deposed in 529/530 by the Aksumite general Abreha who claimed semi-autonomy from Aksum staying with half of Kaleb’s army. Abreha built many churches and conducted expeditions into Arabia around 547. His  sons would continue to rule Yemen until the Persian conquest of Yemen in 570.

bas relief of Sumuyafa Ashwa

Bas-relief of Sumuyafa Ashwa, the Aksumite viceroy of Yemen18

Ethiopian colonisation of Yemen would resume when the Ethiopian mamluk Najah seized the throne of Zabid – Yemen in 1050AD founding the Najahid dynasty. He was succeeded by his his sons until 1158AD when the “sultans” retreated back to Dahlak Kebbir island founding the sultanate of Dahlak -an Aksumite offshoot. Throughout those centuries, Yemen had a significant population of Ethiopian merchants especially after the 9th century, one of Najah’s sons, Jayyāsh, had fled to India19

By that time, Ghana already had a vibrant scholarly culture with cities like Dia, Jenne predating Timbuktu’s scholarly pre-eminence by centuries.  and others like Ngazargamu of the Kanem that were contemporary with the latter. Locally educated literate courtiers were present at the courts of the kings of Gao, Ghana,Takrur and Kanem in the 10th century and by the early 12th century, these schools produced highly literate scholars that travelled across the wider Muslim world. The West African scholar, Ibrahim Ya’qub al-Kanemi, a Kanuri born in Bilma, studied in Ghana’s schools and was fluent in the Maqamat – a prosimentric work that was written just a few decades earlier. He travelled to Marrakesh, Morocco in 1197AD becoming the most prominent poet of the Almohad Kingdom. He was recognised as a grammarian, taught literature, and got married there before moving to Spain where he later died.

At the beginning in the 11th century, West African Muslim kings embarked on lavish pilgrimages to Mecca to elevate the prestige of their kingdoms. They established new political and trade relations and legitimise dtheir leadership in the wider Muslim world.

Leading the way in this new era was Mai Hume of the Kanem Empire. He made three pilgrimages to Mecca in the late 11th century.

Mai Dunama Dabelemi (1210-1248AD) even built a hostel in Cairo for Kanem students and pilgrims after his hajji.

West African groups that arrived in Arabia were called Takrur after the kingdom which had been sending a stream of Muslim converts on hajji24 since the 12th century.

By the turn of the 20th Century, pilgrim traffic had increased to such an extent that 15,000 West African Muslims were travelling to Mecca annually, a significant proportion of whom stayed in Arabia for considerable times25.

The most notable pilgrimages were those of Mali’s emperors beginning in the late 13th century, the first known being Mansa Sakura before 1295AD26 and more famously by Mansa Musa in July 1324AD,  who travelled with 60,000 people carrying over 18 tonnes of gold, projecting Mali’s image as a growing power27 

Other West African kings and emperors followed including Askia Muhammed of the Songhai empire, in 1496AD. He also spent lavishly in Mecca and Medina – close to half a tonne of gold – part of which was spent on purchasing “gardens” in Medina that he converted into properties for the West African pilgrims to the ‘holy lands28. The latter’s establishment of an African quarter for pilgrims was practice that other West African leaders had done in North Africa but the Askia was the first to establish one for Africans in Arabia.

The African diaspora from the East African coast

On the East African coast, the Somali and (the bantu-speaking) Swahili settlements had grown into important city states by the 12th century, largely due to the Indian ocean trade.  They primarily exported gold from great Zimbabwe through the port at Sofala that was established by Mogadishu merchants in the 10th century but was seized by the Kilwa Swahili leaders by the 13th century29 

The Swahili became maritime after the 11th century. In the 13th century, Somali ships from Mogadishu made annual trips from the port-city to Arabia, especially Aden in Yemen. The 14th century Aden resident Qadi Masud, mentions that ships from “each small city of the Swahili” brought goods to Yemen, which were then shipped to Aden and the Hadramawt30

In the early 14th century, the Swahili sultan of Kilwa Ibn Sulaiman (1310-1333AD) travelled to Mecca, having earlier studied at the city of Aden like many Muslim scholars on the east African coast.Sulaiman was later met by Ibn Battuta on the latter’s visit to Kilwa in 1332AD31The Sultan, unlike other Swahili leaders and his predecessors who had only issued copper and silver coins, also issued gold coins due to increasing prosperity from trade in great Zimbabwe’s gold32 Some of these coins have been found as far afield as Australia and Oman33

Evidence of voyages from Kilwa to Arabia appear in 1336AD when a ship “from Kilwa,” loaded with rice, reached Aden34

In the year 1331AD, while in Mogadishu, Ibn Battuta met a Somali traveller named Sa’id who had been to India, China and had studied for 28years in Arabia35

By the 15th century, Swahili merchants were travelling as far as Malacca in Malaysia where Portuguese trader Tome Pires reported of African merchants in the city, among whom were representatives from the East African city states of Kilwa, Malindi, Mombasa and Mogadishu36

Illustration of a Mtepe -Swahili ship sailing in the Indian Ocean in 1277AD from the Maqamat al-Hariri

The African diaspora in South Asia from the Horn and East-African Coast

From the 7th century there was a gradual influx of Africans on the Indian subcontinent and grew exponentially after the 11th century. Many originated from the horn of Africa but some from the east African coast. They were collectively referred to as ‘sidis’, a title of honour given in western India to Africans of high positions in the Deccan region of India and they were all presumed to be of habshi (Habesha)/ Ethiopian origin38 Most came as military officers and administrators of the Muslim armies, a few as merchants, some as slaves and several of them became powerful political figures in India. One such figure was Jamal Yaqut, a powerful nobleman during the reign of Delhi Sultan Iltutmish;Yakut rose to become a close confidante of Razia Sultana(1236-1240AD) – India’s first female sovereign, thus making him the second most powerful person in the Delhi sultanate.Their close relationship was among several reasons why the Turkish slave elite deposed her after 1240AD39. Other powerful Arican political figures in India were the habashi dynasty of Benghal (1486-1493AD), another prominent figure was Ikhlas Khan;he became the second most powerful political figure of the Bijapur sultanate under Adil Shah II (1627-1656AD), Ikhlas successfully defended Bijapur from Mughal incursions. However, the most notable African polical figure in India was Malik Ambar.

Malik Ambar was born in Harar, Ethiopia in 1550AD and after the social upheaval of the Abyssinian-adal wars (1529–1543AD) where he was enslaved and taken to Arabia40.He served in a number of elite positions where he learnt finance, administration and gained military training and rose to become an important power player in Deccan states of India. He became military commander in the Bijapur and Ahmadnagar Kingdoms and defeated the powerful Mughalian empire’s incursions several times. He became defacto ruler of Ahmadnagar in 1601. A prolific builder, he founded the city of Khadki in 1612AD (now called Aurangabad). In the late 16th century he extended the Janjira fort on the sidi dominated Janjira island and appointed commanders of the fort between 1618 and 1620s41

After his death in 1626AD, chronicler Mu’tamad Khan honored him, writing that; “In warfare, in command, in sound judgment and in administration, he had no rival or equal”42

Janjira later became an autonomous state with a Habshi dynasty that ruled from 1667AD into the 19th century and became a tributary princely state under the British and was later merged into the present day India in 1947.

The African diaspora in Europe at the beginning of the Atlantic era

Diplomatic and economic relations between Africans and Europeans grew into the 15th century. They were initially driven by the search for the mythical Prester John – an African king of a powerful kingdom told in European legends since 1335AD. He had been identified as being an Ethiopian emperor following the visit of a group of 30 Ethiopian monks to Genoa in 1302AD43 thus beginning a series of diplomatic exchanges involving several Ethiopian envois who often stayed in Europe and at one point included a proposal for a double marriage between the royal families of Ethiopian emperor Yeshaq (1414-1429AD) and Portuguese king Alfonso V44 and a military alliance from 1541-1543AD against the Adal sultanate.

The other was the Kingdom of Kongo which, after the 15th century involved close diplomatic relations including exchanges of envoys and clergy between Kongo and Portugal. Most notably are the letters between Alfonso I of kongo (1506-1543AD) and Portuguese Kings Manuel I and João III.  In addition, Kongo sent royals and elite families to live and study in Portugal especially in the capital city Lisbon, and handle diplomatic and economic relations between the two states. One of these noblemen was Antonio Vereira who handled the Kongo king’s finances in 1550s and eventually married into the Portuguese royal family45.

The Benin-Portuguese relations which began in the 15th century also involved exchanges of envoys. Benin diplomats were dispatched to Lisbon and an official ambassador, Ohen-Okun, was appointed by the Oba in 1486AD. Some of Benin’s elite briefly lived and studied in Lisbon46

Throughout African history, the picture that emerges is one of an influential African diaspora created through interactions between African states and the wider ancient world and from this diaspora rose powerful political figures that left their illustrious legacy during the pre-Atlantic era that has unfortunately been obscured by the latter.


 1The role of foreigners in Ancient Egypt: a study of non-stereotypical artistic representations by Charlotte Booth pg 46

2Herodotus in Nubia by László Török pg 38

3The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meroitic Civilization Book by László Török pg 157

4The Horses of Kush by LA Heidorn

5The Rescue of Jerusalem: The Alliance of Hebrews and Africans in 701 B.C. by Henry T. Aubin

6The Horses of Kush by LA Heidorn

7Medieval Kingdoms of Nubia: Pagans, Christians and Muslims in the Middle Nile by Derek A. Welsby pg 37

8Medieval Kingdoms of Nubia: Pagans, Christians and Muslims in the Middle Nile by Derek A. Welsby 33

9New discoveries in Nubia: proceedings of the Colloquium on Nubian studies, The Hague, 1979 by Paul van Moorsel pg 144

10Medieval Kingdoms of Nubia: Pagans, Christians and Muslims in the Middle Nile by Derek A. Welsby pg 77

11New discoveries in Nubia: proceedings of the Colloquium on Nubian studies, The Hague, 1979 by Paul van Moorsel pg 133

12The northern Horn of Africa in the first millennium BC by R Fattovich

13archaeology of ethiopia niall finneran pg 157

14Foundations of an African Civilisation: Aksum & the Northern Horn, 1000 BC – AD 1300 David W. Phillipson pg 200

15Foundations of an African Civilisation: Aksum & the Northern Horn, 1000 BC – AD 1300 David W. Phillipson pg 201

16Foundations of an African Civilisation: Aksum & the Northern Horn, 1000 BC – AD 1300 David W. Phillipson pg 238

17Ancient Civilizations of Africa by G. Mokhtar pg 413

18A Late Antique Christian king from Ẓafār, southern Arabia P. Yule

19Yemen: 3000 Years of Art and Civilisation in Arabia by Felix pg 144

20Medieval West Africa : views from Arab scholars and merchants. By Nehemia Levtzion; Jay Spaulding pg 25

21Arabic Literature of Africa: The writings of central Sudanic Africa Vol.2 by John O. Hunwick, Rex Séan O’Fahey pg 18

22Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa by Ousmane Oumar Kane pg 51

23manuscript cultures mapping the fieldManuscript Cultures: Mapping the Field by Jörg Quenzer, Dmitry Bondarev, Jan-Ulrich Sobisch pg 150

24 The Pilgrimage Tradition in West Africa: A Historical Study with Special Reference to the 19th Century. by ‘Umar al- Nagar pg 92

25The Mecca Pilgrimage by West African Pastoral Nomads J. S. Birks

26African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa by Michael A. Gomez pg 99

27African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa by Michael A. Gomez pg 104

28African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa by Michael A. Gomez pg 234

29The Swahili World by Stephanie Wynne-Jones, Adria Jean LaViolette pg 374

30When Did the Swahili Become Maritime? By Fleisher, Lane, LaViolette ,Horton, Pollard, Quintana Morales , Vernet , Christie , Wynne-Jones .

31The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa by Timothy Insoll pg 186

32The Swahili World by Stephanie Wynne-Jones, Adria Jean LaViolette pg 66

33The Indian Ocean and Swahili Coast coins, international networks and local developments by John Perkins

34When Did the Swahili Become Maritime? By Fleisher, Lane, LaViolette ,Horton, Pollard, Quintana Morales , Vernet , Christie , Wynne-Jones .

35Between the Middle Ages and Modernity: Individual and Community in the Early Modern World by Charles H. Parker, Jerry H. Bentley. Rowman pg 160

36The Suma oriental of Tome Pires, books 1-5 – Page 46

37Trade in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond by D. J. Mattingly, F. Cole pg 147

38from africans in india to african indians by R Czekalska

39The Unforgettable Queens of Islam: Succession, Authority, Gender by Shahla Haeri pg 127

40India in Africa, Africa in India: Indian Ocean Cosmopolitanisms by John C. Hawley pg 255

41Slavery & South Asian History by Indrani Chatterjee,, Richard Maxwell Eaton pg 127

43Seven Myths of Africa in World History by David Northrup pg 31

44The African Prester John and the Birth of Ethiopian-European Relations, 1402-1555 by Matteo Salvadore pg 40

 45Early Kongo-Portuguese Relations: A New Interpretation John Thornton

46Great Benin On The World Stage: Re-Assessing Portugal-Benin. Diplomacy In The 15 th. And 16 th. Centuries. By Ebiuwa Aisien (Mrs), Felix O.U. Oriakhi.

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  1. The content is great but this website really needs fixing on mobile. Show more to read does not work so articles are unreadable.

    1. We hear you. We rely on donations and to fix some of the technical problems cost us a lot of money which sadly, our readers do not contribute towards.
      Desktop will have to be the only way for now.
      Thanks for reading

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