African monarchs & rulers

This timeline demonstrates part of the dynamic history of Africa before the transatlantic trafficking of enslaved Africans.

Long before the Europeans went there, Africa was made up of powerful kingdoms made rich through established trade routes. From the 9th century, for example, gold from present-day Ghana and Ivory Coast was exported across trade networks and by the 11th century the trans-Saharan route from West Africa had reached Al-Andalus in Spain.

Africa is a vast continent with many different kingdoms, dynasties, and cultures but it was connected to Europe and the rest of the world through exchanges of goods, gold, and religion in much the same way as everywhere else. Below are some examples of this.

Kingdom of Ife (in present-day Nigeria), c.1000 - 1400

A Yoruba settlement, Ife was different from others, such as Benin, as it did not try to expand its territory either physically or politically. Instead, it influenced other communities in the 13th and 14th centuries through migration, art, and social networks.

It is well known for its beads, terracotta, brass and bronze sculptures, and the religious rituals that went with them. The terracotta figures generally represent ordinary people, animals and things, while the better known brass and bronze ones are usually portraits of the Ooni, the kings and queens of Ife.

c.14th - 15th century bronze Ife head representing the Ooni. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Museum number: Af1939,34.1

Great Zimbabwe, city of the Shona people, 1100 - 1450

The remains of the city of Great Zimbabwe are made up of hill ruins, a great enclosure, and a valley. They are now thought to have been built by different Shona rulers over time, with the great enclosure built during the most prosperous period. Zimbabwe is a Shona word meaning ‘house in stone’ and much of the city was made from granite. The soapstone birds on the site are probably evidence of its religious use.

Excavation finds of glass beads and porcelain show that the city had trading links with China, Persia, and the islands of the Indian Ocean. Built near quantities of gold deposits, Great Zimbabwe traded gold in exchange for copper to use as money, jewellery, and for spiritual rituals.

Once home to over 10,000 people, the site was abandoned after 1450 as the surrounding area could no longer provide enough food for its inhabitants.

Great Zimbabwe, view of ruined stone walls and conical tower. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Mansā Mūsā, ruler of the Mali empire 1312 - 1335

The Mali empire at this time expanded to include the river valleys of Senegal, Gambia and the Niger and the edges of the Sahara. It was a prosperous and powerful kingdom due to its trade in gold and salt, much of it through the city of Timbuktu where the Sankoré mosque was built.

Like some Mali emperors before him, Mansā Mūsā also adopted the Islamic religion. In 1324 – 25 he went on a hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca during which he distributed gold so lavishly in Cairo that it decreased in value for several years afterwards. Mansā Mūsā was richer than anyone else at the time, and in some estimates he remains the richest person throughout history.

Both the Islamic world and Europeans took notice of Mansā Mūsā’s wealth. The Catalan map created by Abraham Cresques shows a picture of Mansā Mūsā with a golden crown and orb, surrounded by the criss-crossing trade routes reaching to other lands. The text next to him translates as:

“This black Lord is called Musse Melly and is the sovereign of the land of the negroes of Gineva [Ghana]. This king is the richest and noblest of all these lands due to the abundance of gold that is extracted from his lands.”

After Mansā Mūsā’s death, the Mali empire declined, reverting to its original size by 1645.

‘Catlan Atlas’ by Abraham Cresques showing Mansā Mūsā with a golden crown and orb. With thanks to

Kingdom of Kongo, c. 1380 - 1857

Kongo, now a part of present-day Angola, made a variety of crafts from metal, ceramics and raffia which they exchanged within a large trade network which crossed the Sahara. In the early 17th century, raffia cloth, known as ‘cundis’, was the main export product and by the 1630s was used as currency in Ndongo.

While by this time Kongo generally traded in cloth rather than captives, as it had done in the 16th century, it still had links to the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans. In the 1610s, the Portuguese bought the ‘cundis’ in great quantities in order to exchange them for enslaved people in Luanda at a rate of about 90,000 pieces of cloth per year.

Kongo gradually declined after the 17th century when its Dutch allies left Luanda in 1648 and as a result of the harsh terms of a Portuguese peace treaty in 1665.

Cloth made of woven raffia. Possibly used as currency in the Kingdom of Kongo. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Museum number 505712001

Ewuare the Great, Benin, c.1440 - 1473

As the Oba of Benin (part of present-day Nigeria), Ewuare ruled over an expansion of the empire across the western coast of Africa. He instituted strong political structures across the region, with a police force and a large army. The production of, and trade in, high quality works of art and textiles was also regulated with a guild system.

The production of art works was an important means of recording historical and courtly events. The copper and bronze they received from Portuguese traders was used to create plaques and statues of their own people and Europeans. A little after Ewuare’s reign, these artworks often depicted Portuguese people in a similar way to how European artists later depicted Africans: exaggerating details like their noses and hair.

When the Portuguese first arrived in Benin, they bought the local pepper to trade in Flanders, Belgium. This was soon supplemented by the trade in enslaved people as Benin had a supply from its wars with neighbouring communities.

The British Museum explains how it acquired its pieces from Benin in the following way:

“During the British Expedition to Benin City (Edo) in 1897 objects made of brass, ivory, coral and wood were looted by British soldiers from the royal palace, its storerooms and compounds.

Some of these objects were sold or exchanged on the coast. However, many were brought to the UK where they were sold through private auction, donated to museums, or retained by soldiers of the expedition.”

There are ongoing talks with several countries about returning these artefacts which were stolen during the British Punitive Expedition of 1897. They are collectively known as the Benin Bronzes. Germany returned 21 bronzes to Nigeria in 2022. The Horniman Museum in London agreed to return 72 Benin Bronzes in November 2022.  The  Pitt Rivers Museum and University of Oxford are currently negotiating with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Nigeria for the return of 97 Benin objects.

Kingdom of Ashante/Asante, 1700 - 1900

Ashante is made up of Akan speaking clans in central Ghana which joined forces against the neighbouring Denkyira empire. The word Ashante means because of war, and they fought against many more enemies. In 1701, Osei Tutu (1660 – 1717) was the first King of the Ashanti Confederacy to establish the Golden Stool as a symbol of power and monarchy.

Rich in gold mines, by the 1750s the Ashante kingdom controlled the trade in gold along the Gold Coast of West Africa and also became a dominant trader in enslaved Africans in exchange for cloth and European weapons.

Ashante tried to reverse this position by keeping their own gold and importing more from Brazil so that they were not dependent on Europeans but continued to be part of the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans.

By the 19th century, the kingdom had waged a total of six wars with the British who were intent on adding the Gold Coast to their own empire. In 1896 the British exiled King Prempeh I to Sierra Leone when he refused to surrender. After four years of negotiation, the British again wanted the Golden Stool as a sign of their own sovereignty over the Ashanti people.

In March 1901 Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa finally surrendered to the British after learning that her daughter and some of her grandchildren had been captured. She was exiled to the Seychelles where she later died.  She is a national hero in Ghana today.

Ashante is also known for the creation of funeral cloth decorated with printed adinkra symbols. The word adinkra means farewell and each symbol indicates an aspect of the dead person. They are a way of communicating sophisticated ideas without words and are now used to adorn everyday clothing and other items.

Further reading