Take a deep dive into the history of Africa, which is the continent of origin for humanity as well as the location of one of the first great civilizations: the Ancient Egyptian Civilization (2675–332 BCE). Other important early empires include several notable empires in West Africa (the Songhai Empire between the sixth and sixteenth centuries CE, the Mali and Benin empires starting in the thirteenth century CE, and the Ashanti Empire starting in the seventeenth century) and the various Islamic caliphates that ruled northern Africa (known as the Maghreb) after Arabs invaded in the seventh century CE.
Starting in the fifteenth century, Africa came increasingly under the influence of European explorers and traders, particularly the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French. The slave trade was a major draw for Europeans, who negotiated with representatives from African kingdoms, such as the Oyo and Dahomey, to take millions of enslaved Africans overseas to work on plantations and in the mines of the New World.
Even after the slave trade was abolished in the early nineteenth century, European desire to exploit the natural resources and economic markets available in Africa fueled even more ambitious colonial efforts. At the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, European powers met to determine how to divide Africa between themselves, during a period known as the “Scramble for Africa.” By 1914, all but two African countries were under European control.
World War II (1939–1945) weakened Europe’s hold on Africa, and the latter half of the twentieth century saw most indigenous people throw off foreign overlords and establish African nations ruled by Africans. Many of these revolutions were bloody conflicts, and the postcolonial period was often marked by bloodshed as competing factions struggled to attain power. Civil wars, such as the one fought in Nigeria between 1967 and 1970, were widespread, and military rulers often held power via ruthless dictatorships.
Other conflicts pitted minority white rulers against the majority Black population, as was the case in Rhodesia and South Africa. The system of apartheid formalized segregation and discrimination against South Africa’s Black population until mass protests, international condemnation, and the anti-apartheid and human rights activism of leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, finally forced it to end in the 1990s.
In the twenty-first century, continued agitation against oppressive governments throughout the continent often met with success, as occurred during the events of the Arab Spring, starting in 2010, which led to the ousting of leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Yet despite some political success, Africa as a whole continued to struggle with the lack of economic development as well as the effects of AIDS, bearing the highest infection rate in the world.