The History of Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa, Including the most notable literary works written by African authors about African history from from the 2nd century BC to the 19th century AD

By Isaac Samuel

This article covers African literary works from Chad to Tanzania and from Senegal to Ethiopia. The first among the scripts used in Africa below the Sahara was the ancient South-Arabian script with the oldest inscriptions dating back to between the 9th and 7th century BC, written in Sabaic that was used indigenously in the pre-Axumite Kingdoms of Ethiopia notably D‘mt. The script later evolved into proto-Ge’ez script between the 5th century BC and the first century CE. Ge’ez had become the liturgical and administrative language of Axum, and its script was commonly used in the Axumite Kingdom by the 4th century – about the time of king Ezana’s conversion to Christianity. It was later widely used in the Kingdom with Ezana’s epigraphs and the Hawulti obelisk – being one of the oldest inscriptions of the Ge’ez script before the 4th century. It would continue to be widely used during the Axumite <1st-7th> , Zagwe <8th -13th> and Solomonic <13th-20th > eras, becoming the primary writing script for all Ethiopian languages during the past three centuries.

The Axumites and Abyssinians wrote various books, poems, chronicles, philosophical and scientific works and other literature in the Ge’ez script, most notably; the “Garima gospels” composed in the 5th century AD, which hold the title for the oldest illuminated Christian manuscripts in the world; “Kebra Negast” (glory of the kings) composed in the 14th century – an account on the origins and history of the Solomonic dynasty (the latter introduced the royal biographical genre starting with Emperor Amda Seyon <1314–1344> often recounting diplomatic exchanges and military conflicts); “Fetha Nagast” – a legal code used in Ethiopia since 1450; philosophical works like “hatata” <1667> by philosopher Zera Yacob and whose reason-based philosophy (combined with gender equality and abolitionism contrary to his later European peers) has been referred to as Africa’s precursor to the age of enlightenment. Other notable works include St. Yared’s 6th century books on the Ethiopian chants “zema” and numerous authors’ prayer books such as Baselyos’s “Arganonä Maryam” (the organ of Mary) in the 17th century plus multiple other works not mentioned here.

The second oldest written language is Old Nubian, also belonging to the nilo-saharan language family – it was the civil and administrative language of the Christian Nubian Kingdoms of Nobadia, Makuria and Alodia between the 8th and 15th centuries. The oldest inscriptions appear about 3 centuries after these kingdoms were founded from the ruins of the then fallen Kingdom of Kush that had, between the 4th and 5th centuries, been overrun by the ‘Nobates’ and sacked by Axum’s Emperor Ezana thus ending the use of Meroitic. This resulted in the invention of the Old Nubian script from the Coptic, Greek and Meroitic scripts. Around the 10th century, Old Nubian had largely replaced both Coptic and Greek which had previously been the liturgical languages of the Nubian Christian Kingdoms (it also marks the time when Christian Nubia was at its height). Most of the documents written in the script were secular (while the majority of those in Coptic and Greek were religious) including several legal documents, financial accounts, private letters, theological commentary and epitaphs.The most notable secular manuscripts from this era are the land sales in the Kingdom of Makuria especially around Qasr Ibrim – one of its provincial cities. One is written by a lady named Kapopi in 1190AD selling the land she inherited from her mother to another lady named Neuesi, the daughter of viceroy of Nobadia named Adama (Nobadia was by then a district in Makuria). Included are the names of 24 witnesses (ancient Nubia since the Kingdom of Kerma in 2500BC was a matrilineal society and the high position women occupied in its society is attested to by such transactions).  The other notable document is the Epitaph of Damianos, a deceased eparch of Nobadia also found at Qasr Ibrim.



The third oldest script is Meroitic, a nilo-saharan language. It was the civil and administrative language of the Kingdom of Kush, then centred at Meroe after the 4th century BC. While the Nubian Kingdom itself begun around 2500BC as the Kingdom of Kerma, the oldest inscriptions are dated back to the 2nd century BC. The script was written in the form of two scripts; hieroglyphic and cursive – the former was used in royals and temples texts offering tables and on votive objects, while the longer royal documents were inscribed in the cursive script which made up over 90% of the Meroitic documents discovered to date. It was often written on private funerary inscriptions (constituting over half of the recovered texts), temple walls, ostraca, wood and papyrus.The creation of Meroitic literacy was motivated by the necessity of an easily accessible monumental royal communication and display. The documents contain narrations often starting with religious phrases followed by reports of their military campaigns. One of the best preserved of these is the 1.6m tall stela of King Taneyidamani’s written in the 2nd century BC detailing temple donations and military campaigns during his reign and a 2nd century AD funerary stela of the Lady Ataqelula – a wealthy woman, one of many similar artefacts from the Sedeinga necropolis.

Lady Ataquela’s Funerary Stela from Sedeinga written in the 2nd century BC

The fourth and most extensive region of African literary culture was West-Africa, encompassing all modern countries west of Sudan and Cameroon to the Atlantic ocean including the coastal countries.The oldest Arabic inscriptions here come from the cities of Gao and Tadmekka between the 11th and 12th centuries like the epitaph of Yama b. Kima (reigned 1110-1120) a Soninke king of the Zaghe dynasty of Gao. Sometime in the 15th Century, the Arabic script was modified to create the Ajami scripts for writing African languages like Fulfude, Songhay and Hausa.

The beginnings of chronicling West-Africa’s history, discovered thus far, started in the 15th century.  The first was the Soninke scholar Mahmud Ka’ti, the first sections of the “Tariq-Al-Fattash” (chronicle of the researcher) in 1519. Ka’ti was closely associated with Songhai Emperor Askiya Muhammed – who as Michael Gomez explains in his book African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa – needed to legitimise his claim on the throne since the Aksiya was neither of royal blood nor ethnically Songhay, but likely Malinke.

The second oldest is the Wangara chronicle of Kano titled “Asl al-Wangariyin” about the history of the Wangara (Soninke) trading diaspora in the Hausalands. It was written in 1651 by an anonymous author. The Soninke were by then a large trading diaspora thought in West-Africa, originating from the ancient Ghana. They contributed greatly to West-Africa’s literary culture.

The third oldest were the Kanem-Bornu chronicles written by Ahmad furtuwami (Ibn Furtu) a Kanuri scholar – about the history of the empire and Mai Alamwa’s wars of expansion; “Ghazawat Barnu” (The Book of the Bornu Wars) was written in 1576 and “Ghazawat Kanei” (The Book of the Kanem Wars) was written in 1578. Both had been inspired by a similar now-lost chronicle written by another Bornuese scholar, Masfarma Umar Uthman before 1519. Another Kanem chronicle was written in 1658 by a scholar named Muhammad Salih Ishaq.

The fourth oldest was written by Sanhaja scholar Al-sadi titled “Tarikh al-Sudan” (Chronicle of the Sudan) in 1656. Al-sadi was tutored by Soninke scholar Muhammad Baghayogho (who founded one of the oldest libraries in Timbuktu currently containing over 1500 manuscripts). The chronicle mostly covers the Songhai empire and the succeeding Arma Kingdom giving brief accounts on the Mali empire.

The fifth oldest is the “Tarikh-al fattash” (Chronicle of the Researcher) in 1665 by Ibn Al-Mukhtar, a Soninke scholar who wrote the bulk of the chronicle and was the grandson to Mahmud ka’ti who composed the earlier section. The chronicle covers the Songhay empire and parts of the Mali and Ghana empires.

The sixth oldest is an anonymously written chronicle written in 1669 and now known by its French-translated title “Notice Historique” mostly about the Songhai empire.

The seventh oldest is the Gonja chronicle “Kitab al-ghunja” on the history of the Kingdom of Gonja. It’s written by the Soninke-Gonja scholar, Sidi Umar Suma in 1751. It draws heavily from Gonja’s earlier written works. It was edited in 1764 and widely circulated in Gonja (modern northern-Ghana) including handwritten copies such as traditions spread to the non-muslim Asante Kingdom whose King Osei tutu Kwame commissioned the now-lost “History of Asante”. The eighth oldest chronicle on our list –  in the early 1800s (likely lost when the British destroyed the Royal’s private library).

The ninth oldest chronicle was “Dhikr al-wafayat wa-ma hadath min al’umur al-izam” (Brief History of Timbuktu from 1747-1815) written by Mulay Sulayman before 1820.

It has recently been proposed that the last chapter of the Tarikh al-fattashi (titled MS. C) should be considered separate from the older chronicle as it was written by the Massinia Empire Fulani scholar Nuh Al-tahir who added an 1850s manuscript of the history of the Massinia empire – making it the tenth oldest chronicle. 

Other chronicles from the region include; the “Taqyid akhbar” on the history of the Sokoto Empire written by the Hausa-Fulani scholar Muhammad Zangi in 1868, the “Kano chronicle” written by Malam Barka in the 1880s, etc. 

I have chosen to only list the chronicles above to highlight the part of West-Africa’s literary culture that deals with Africans writing their own history. I have also indicated each authors’ ethnicity since historians often misattributed these writings to Arabs or Berbers rather than their (black) African authors.

Other chronicles from around Africa include the “Funj chronicle” written by Katib al-Shuna before 182, about the history of the Funj Kingdom (the so-called “black sultanate” that succeeded the Christian Nubian Kingdoms), the “Kilwa chronicle” written before the 16th century about the history of the Swahili city state of Kilwa in Tanzania, the 19th century “Pate Chonicle” about the history of the Nabahani dynasty of Pate – a Swahili clan that ruled the city-state in Kenya.

Epitaph of ‘Mwana wa Bwana Binti Mwidani’ from the Swahili city of Mombasa, Kenya written in 1462

The other topics of African literature that wont be discussed in detail include astronomy and other sciences, mathematics, medicine, statecraft, poetry, and religion. Some notable scholars include; Nana Asmau (1793-1865) – she chronicled history and expanded the use of Ajami writing by translating earlier works into Hausa. She also wrote many poems and started several schools for women in the Sokoto empire. Others studied astronomy like Nasir Al-Ghalawi whose famous manuscript written in 1733 “Kashf al-Ghummah fi Nafa al-Ummah” (The Important Stars Among the Multitude of the Heavens) is often prominently displayed among the manuscripts of Timbuktu. Works about statecraft and politics include those written by Fulani scholar Abdullahi Dan Fodio born in 1764 most notably “Diya Al-Hukkam” (The light for Governors) in 1806 – a widely read manuscript then, and “Diya al-Siyasat” written in 1820 (Illumination on Legislative politics). 

Swahili poets include Pate resident Bwana Mwengo Athmani who in 1728 wrote “Utendi wa Tambuka” (The Story of Tambuka). One of the oldest Swahili poems on medicine was written by “Masalih al-Insan al-Muta’alliqa bil Adyan wal ‘Abdan” (An important consideration of man relating to religion and health) was written by Abdullahi dan Fodio in 1809 and many other examples not listed due to limited space.

The fifth literary culture was the independently invented Nsibidi, an ancient system of writing found among a number of south east Nigerian ethnic groups and secret societies. The oldest symbols appear on the Calabar ceramics (5th-15th century), others appear on the Ikom monoliths like the 15th century Ankwanshi stone sculpture (currently at the New Orleans Museum of Art). There are at least two objects at the British museum inventoried in the 1900s, probably made in the last decades of the 19th century, that are inscribed with Nsibidi symbols. Documented reference begins with J. K. Macgregor in 1909, the primary medium for writing Nsibidi seems to have been textiles. The more than 500 symbols that make up the script were also engraved on buildings, sculptures, and brass ware. The script was occasionally used ordinarily in settings such as court cases but it was mostly reserved for secret societies like the Ekpe, in sacred rites and communication.

Others are the VaiBamum and Masaba scripts these were invented by combining indigenous systems of graphic communication, annotation and rituals (like the geometric patterns they used on their textiles, ceramic, art and architectural patternswith the Ajami, Arabic and Latin scripts to create their own forms of writing. So far, the Bamum script has over 7,000 manuscripts and objects in the Bamum palace archives – these pictographic scripts were common forms of communication in parts of coast west and west-central Africa like the Adinkra symbols of the Asante and the Kuba patterns in D.R. Congo.

Sub-saharan Africa has one of the world’s oldest literary cultures, yet despite evidence to the contrary, the myth of non-literate African societies persists. Part of the blame rests on colonial racial anthropologists who created that image. The other factor are the European armies that destroyed the libraries that held these manuscripts starting with the Portuguese in Kilwa and the Swahili coast, the French in Segu and the British in Asante. The other group that shoulders much of the blame are historians who chose to exclude these manuscripts and instead preferred non-African sources. There’s an almost century-long gap between Richmond Palmer’s translation of West Africa’s manuscripts to John Hunwick’s groundbreaking “Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire” that was written primarily using Al-Sadi’s “Tarikh al-sudan”. In recent times however, this phenomenon has been changing with more historians including these African writers in their books and the digitisation of many of these manuscripts will hopefully see a paradigm shift in how African history is written and interpreted.


Relations between southern Arabia and the northern Horn of Africa during the last millennium BC

David W. Phillipson

Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity

Stuart C. Munro-Hay

Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia

Paul B. Henze


The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meroitic Civilization,

The Image of the Ordered World in Ancient Nubian Art

László Török

The Meroitic Language and Writing System,

Recent Research on Meroitic, the Ancient Language of Sudan

Claude RILLY

Ancient Nubia (present-day Sudan): In the footsteps of the Napata and Meroe kingdoms

Vincent Francigny


Multilingualism in Christian Nubia: A case study of the monastery of Ghazali

Grzegorz Ochała

Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History

Giovanni Ruffini


Bartosz Wojciechowski

Qasr Ibrim’s Old Nubian Burial-Shroud

Giovanni Ruffini

Introduction to Old Nubian

Gerald M. Browne

Dotawo: A Journal of Nubian Studies: Vol. 1: 2014

Angelika Jakobi, Giovanni Ruffini, Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei


Ancient Kingdoms of West Africa: African-centred and Canaanite-Israelite …

Dierk Lange

The Oldest extant writing of West Africa : Medieval epigraphs from Issuk, Saney and Egef-n-Tawaqqast (Mali) Paulo F. de Moraes Farias

African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa

Michael Gomez

Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire:

John O. Hunwick

Social History of Timbuktu: The Role of Muslim Scholars and Notables 1400-1900

Elias N. Saad

Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History

J. F. P. Hopkins, Nehemia Levtzion

Imagining Architecture II:“treasure store houses” and constructions of asante regional hegemony

Janet Berry Hess

Landscapes, Sources and Intellectual Projects of the West African Past: Essays in Honour of Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias


The Sudan of the Three Niles: The Funj Chronicle, 910-1288/1504-1871

Peter Malcolm Holt

The Swahili World

Stephanie Wynne-Jones, Adria LaViolette

Reflections on Historiography and Pre-Nineteenth-Century History from the Pate “Chronicles”

Randall L. Pouwels

The Arts and Crafts of Literacy: Islamic Manuscript Cultures in Sub-Saharan …

Andrea Brigaglia, Mauro Nobili


The invention, transmission and evolution of writing: Insights from the new scripts of West Africa

Piers Kelly

Early Ceramics from Calabar, Nigeria: Towards a History of Nsibidi

Christopher Slogar

Into Indigo: African Textiles and Dyeing Techniques

Claire Polakoff

Further Notes on ‘Nsibidi Signs with Their Meanings from the Ikom District, Southern Nigeria.

Elphinstone Dayrell.

Show More


  1. Key historic facts about Africa

    1) East Africa and West Africa share the huge responsibility of inter-continental enslavement of Africans.

    2) The whole of Africa including the African Union (AU) use:
    (2.1) Latin/Roman alphabet; and
    (2.2) Indian/Arabic numerals.

    Question 1: How this came about and who did introduce the Roman script and Indian numerals to Africa?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button
%d bloggers like this: