West African geographical background
The History of West Africa has to do with that region of Africa which is bounded on the west and south by the Atlantic Ocean
on the north by the sahara desert, and on the east by the eastern frontier of Nigeria. This region may be described as being roughly enclosed in the north by a line running from the senegal river to Lake Chad
in the east by a line running from Lake Chad to the Cameroon mountains, and in the south and west by the Atlantic coastline.
It can be seen from the map that while its boundaries in the south and west are clearly defined by sea, the eastern and northern boundaries are not so clearly defined owing to the absence of natural geographical barriers separating it from the rest of the continent.
The region comprises the modern states of West Africa: Senegal, Chad, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Dahomey, Nigeria, Sudan, Mali, Volta, Togo and Niger.
Highlands: Generally speaking, West Africa is a region of level land. The Cameroon mountains in the extreme south east the only highlands with a height above 1 000 meters.
The other raised lands just above 650 meters are the Bauchi Plateau in northern Nigeria and the Futa Jallon Plateau.
The Cosatline: The Atlantic coast of West Africa has Only three good natural harbours _ Dakar, Freetown and Lagos.
For the most part, the coast is characterised by muddy inlets, sandbars, deltas, heavy surf and mangrove swamps which make access from the sea to the interior very difficult indeed.
Rivers: West Africa’s three largest rivers are the Niger, the Senegal and the Gambia, all of which rise in the Futa Jallon Plateau.
The other rivers of some importance are the Benue, which is tributary of the Niger, and the Volta in modern Ghana.
With the exception of the Volta in Modern navigable for long distances especially during the rainy season, But none of West Africa’s rivers is navigable all through its length owing to the presence of shallow and rapids.
VEGETATION AND CLIMATE
West Africa is in the tropical zone and so is hot all the year round. The rain-bringing clouds come from the atlantic Ocean.
Consequently, the amount of rainfall decreases with distance from the coast. Differences in vegetation resulting from rainfall variations have given West Africa its geographical divisions.
The thick forest belt along the coast receives the largest amount of rainfall. Moving northwards, the forest gradually thins into grass woodlands followed by a belt of open savannah or grassland.
Then comes the belt thorn bush which gradually thin into desert. The country may conveniently be divided into forestland, grassland and desert.
Since few people have ever lived in the Sahara desert, the history of West Africa is mainly concerned with peoples of the forestland and the grassland, though we shall have occasion to refer often to the great Sahara desert.
INFLUENCE OF GEOGRAPHY ON WEST AFRICA’S HISTORY
ABSENCE OF NATURAL BARRIERS
The chief characteristics feature of the north of West Africa is the absence of natural barriers. Until the nineteenth century, the Sahara desert was not a barrier but a route of communication between North Africa and the Sudan.
With the introduction of the camel about the forth century AD, trans-Saharan trade and travel became much easier.
This trade became very important and attracted the merchants of Europe. The desire to seize control of this trade from its Arab middlemen was to lead to the discovery of the coasts of West Africa by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century.
Geographical factors played an important role in the rise of the Sudanese empires and states- Bornu, Mali, Songhai, Ghana and the Hausa state.
The grassland area of West Africa is a rich agricultural region producing many varieties of crops and providing enough food for large populations.
This made possible the growth of the populous Sudanese cities and empires. Rich pasture for livestock was available.
The open grassland made communication and trade within the Sudan easy. It also facilitated the military expansion of the empires for the movement of soldiers and horsemen was equally easy.
But these advantages which the grassland provided proved a bane in the end. The Moroccans took advantage of these facilities, invaded the Sudan in the sixteenth century and destroyed the civilization of the Songhai empire.
FOREIGN INFLUENCES FROM THE NORTH
The northern part of West Africa was, until the nineteenth century, the only gateway through which foreign influences penetrated West Africa.
The absence of natural barriers in the north made possible the penetration of Berber, Arab and Jewish immigrants into West Africa. They settled among the Negro peoples and this was responsible for emergence of the Mixed Negro races like the Hausa, Kanuri and Fulani.
But the greatest foreign influence from this direction was islam and its culture. It is the region of the savannah lands of West Africa.
THE CLIMATE FACTOR
Penetration by Europeans into the interior of West Africa, after the discovery of its coast in the fifteenth century, did not begin until about the nineteenth century.
The tropical forest was not the only obstructing factor. The tropical climate was equally responsible. The hot and humid climate and tropical diseases like malaria and typhoid proved so fatal to Europeans that the coast was called the “White Man’s Grave”.
Thanks to the mosquito, West Africa would have been colonised by the Europeans long before South Africa and East Africa. However, modern medical science and technology have now made West Africa the “White Man”s Paradise”.
BARRIERS TO COASTAL PENETRATION
In the contrast with the north, the forest lands of West Africa remained inaccessible from the sea until the nineteenth century.
Penetration into the interior from this direction was made difficult by the nature of the coastline and the thick tropical forest.
Consequently, there was little foreign influence in this region, and its peoples remained comparatively less civilised than the people of Sudan.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE RIVER NIGER
What the Nile was to Egypt, the Niger was to the Sudan. It was the cradle of the great empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai.
Its fertile banks provided agricultural wealth for the people. Its water provided easy means of transport and communication between cities, and helped the military expansion of the above Empires.
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