In the early decades of the 17th century, Ethiopian emperors began to reconsolidate their power and developed a permanent royal residence at Gondar. Emperor Faslides (1603-1667) expelled all Jesuits by 1633, put down the Muslims of Adal, and closed the country to foreigners. Later local wars against both the neighboring Muslims and the Galla, farming people of central and south Ethiopia, resumed and lasted almost two centuries. Galla groups continued to move into Somali, some intermarrying with Arabs, and developing a passionate devotion to Islam. In Egypt, the Ottomans remained in control.


Faslides’ Castle in Gondar (Source: Wikimedia)


This area continued to decline economically and intellectually. Murad Bey made himself hereditary Bey (governor) of Tunis and founded the Muradid dynasty. He reigned from 1613 until his death in 1631. Algiers and Tripoli became independent states. Politics was violent, with riots, plots, counterplots, and massacres. The Barbary pirates continued to work the Algiers and Oran areas throughout the 17th century, using renegade Europeans from Calabria or Sicily as captains.


In what is now modern-day Ghana, the state of Ashanti was formed and rapidly expanded to absorb approximately 30 independent neighboring kingdoms. The Ashanti were efficient traders who worked with Europeans in the development of the African slave trade. Between the Ashanti and the Niger delta, the states of Dahomey and Oyo were also established in the 17th century and the entire region was sometimes called the “slave coast.”


A map of the Ashanti Kingdom (Source: Wikimedia)

Deteriorating environmental conditions and wide-ranging, protracted violence as rival kingdoms competed for natural resources and political dominance led to the downfall of the Kingdom of Kongo in west Africa. In the political void created by its absence, three important kingdoms emerged: the Kuba, Luba, and Lunda. These multi-ethnic states had both advanced political systems and rich courtly cultures. The Kuba Kingdom (also known as the Kingdom of the Bakuba or Bushongo) consolidated a group of chiefdoms at the south edge of the rain forest. This kingdom developed a relatively high standard of living. Population growth increased as new crops and agricultural techniques were received from the Americas, both brought by the Portuguese. The Luba kingdom was geographically isolated and thus did not have direct contact with European merchants at this time. However, the rulers of Lunda (in present day Congo) actively encouraged trade by opening routes to the coast. Territorial expansion southward to the African Copperbelt in present-day Zambia and east toward Lake Tanganyika extended Lunda commercial control over goods and materials from the East African coast and southern interior. To the north, Luba kings consolidated their political and economic control over neighboring peoples.

One of the more interesting events to occur in the 17th century was the rise to power of Queen Nzinga (modern-day Angola). After a fierce civil war left the kingdom leaderless, Queen Nzinga inherited the position of ruler of the kingdom of Ndongo, in what is now Angola, in 1624 following the death of her brother. She had served as emissary from her brother to the Portuguese and helped end the hostilities between them and her brother’s military forces. In 1621, she negotiated an agreement whereby the Portuguese were allowed to engage in the slave trade within Ndongo territory but not to establish forts there. Nzinga was also adamant that Ndongo would not pay tribute to the Portuguese king. Following Nzinga’s ascension to the throne, however, Portugal began to renege on the terms of the treaty and to insist that the nobles of Ndongo become vassals of the king of Portugal. This would mean sending the Portuguese king the soldiers, enslaved people, and supplies they otherwise owed to Nzinga. In retaliation, Nzinga encouraged enslaved people to escape from the Portuguese. In 1626, Portugal declared war on her.

The common people of Ndongo and some of the lesser members of the nobility supported Nzinga, while more powerful nobles, who hoped to benefit from engaging in the slave trade with Portugal, supported the Europeans. Nzinga found allies in the kingdom of Kongo. She was also assisted by Dutch slave traders, with whom she did business. Following the conclusion of a peace treaty between the Dutch and the Portuguese, Nzinga found herself unable to force the Portuguese out of Ndongo territory and dedicated her efforts to preventing them from moving deeper into the African interior. Finally, in 1656, Nzinga concluded a peace treaty with Portugal and hostilities ceased.


A hand-colored lithograph of Queen Nzinga of Ndongo (Source: Wikimedia)

Queen Nzinga is an important example of several themes in early modern African history. First, she highlights the leadership of African women in their communities. Even though questions were raised about the legitimacy of her leadership as a woman, Nzinga skillfully held onto power and demonstrated great skill as a military strategist and diplomat in combating the Portuguese threat to her people. As part of her diplomatic efforts to stop the incursions of slave-raiders into her territory, Nzinga agreed to play a limited role in providing captured prisoners of war and criminals to the Portuguese who then shipped these men as slaves to the Americas. Nzinga ultimately established the kingdom of Matamba which became a major trading power by virtue of its position as the gateway to the Central African interior. By the time of her death in 1663, under her leadership, Matamba was a formidable commercial state that dealt with the Portuguese colony on an equal footing.

Secondly, Queen Nzinga illustrates the complex manner in which African leaders struggled to maintain the freedom and dignity of their communities in the face of the violent threat posted by European nations. The European insatiable thirst for labor fueled the involvement of Africans in the slave trade. Sugar and tobacco plantations in the Americas required many workers, and for reasons to be discussed later in this chapter, Europeans increasingly looked to Africa to meet the demand. Several African states, like Matamba, participated in the slave trade by providing enslaved people.

Many African societies had practiced a form of human servitude for centuries before the Europeans arrived. Forced servitude was used as a punishment for certain heinous crimes and as a way for people to pay off family debts. Prisoners of war were also forced into bondage. There is debate among historians about whether it is proper to use the word “slavery” when referring to these practices. This is because the African practice differed in significant ways from the slavery that developed in the Americas. The practices were similar in that people lost their freedom and were controlled by others. But they were different because, in the traditional African context, those who were enslaved possessed some rights, could work their way out of slavery, and (most importantly) did not pass along the condition of slavery to their children.

As sugar, cotton, and tobacco plantations developed in the Americas, the slave trade from Africa reached substantial proportions. Initially handled by the Portuguese, the trade was progressively taken over by British, Dutch, and French. In 450 years, more than ten million enslaved people were brought to the Americas.

Watch and Learn

Learn more about African involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade by reading “Willful Amnesia” at the Public Radio International (PRI) website.



Not all African peoples participated in the European slave trade. The following letter, written by King Nzinga Mbemba (also known as King Alfonso) of the Kongo Kingdom, to the King of Portugal illustrates the unease many Africans felt about working with Europeans in the enslavement of people:

We cannot reckon how great the damage is, since the mentioned merchants are taking every day our natives, sons of the land and the sons of our noblemen and vassals and our relatives, because the thieves and men of bad conscience grab them wishing to have the things and wares of this Kingdom which they are ambitious of; they grab them and get them to be sold; and so great, Sir, is the corruption and licentiousness that our country is being depopulated …

Read a longer excerpt of King Nzinga’s letter.

By 1700, the Bunyoro Kingdom in what is present-day Uganda had become the most powerful of the Bantu-speaking kingdoms. Accomplished artisans, artists among the Bantu people carved wooden sculptures and built artistic palaces, shrines, and houses. Large drums, some as large as 12 feet across, were used as ritual objects to communicate with ancestors.

In parts of southern Africa, the San (or Saan) peoples, also known as Bushmen, created rock-paintings and engravings of polychrome animals. The best examples are in the Drakensberg Mountains.


San rock painting in the Drakensberg Mountains. (Source: Wikimedia


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