What did Africa look like before colonialism?

This British map is from 1885, just prior to the Scramble for Africa. Most native African countries are colourless (colours are reserved for regions and colonies), so look closely for most of the information.


That depends on when the map was made.

If you want to limit our search to the mid-nineteenth century, which was right before the colonial era, here is what we know:

Ethiopia under Menelik II was a Medieval kingdom that was about to take the Ogaden from Somalia. At this state, Somalia was not a nation, but Harar was an independent city-state.

There were three kingdoms around Lake Victoria: from north to south, Bunyoro, Buganda, and Karagwe. Nearby were the kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi.

To the south, the Xhosa and Zulu were already at war with the Afrikaners, who were settlers and not colonists. Tshaka's nation had already split and the Ndebele had already settled in modern-day Zimbabwe.

In West Africa, there were kingdoms such as Dahomey and Ashante.

These are snapshots. Africa was a very diverse continent at the time under discussion. There were too many societies to discuss without this answer becoming long-winded.

But one thing that united much of the continent was the slave trade. Slavery and colonialism are two separate historical events. There was the western slave trade for the Americas and Europe, and the eastern slave trade for Asia and Arabia.

By the time in question, Africa had already suffered from the slave trade. David Livingstone reported that many people were literally up in arms, and ready to fight to the death, because they had been hunted by slavers.

It is impossible to understate how terrible slaving was. The devastation is comparable to the Holocaust. That is not an exaggeration.

In short: it would list a patchwork of societies with a few recognizeable nations here and there. But much of the continent was laid bare. Whole tribes were wiped out. And a map made in the middle of the nineteenth century would have shown that.


We know less of Africa before the middle of the nineteenth century. Previous maps would have shown kingdoms such as Kongo and Ndongo, or Songay and Ghana (which was different from modern-day Ghana). But at the time, much was known about West Africa along the coast. Much of the interior was unknown.

All we could do then would be to list a few kingdoms on or near the West African coast, and leave the interior blank.

To the best of our knowledge, no African society ever produced a map of the continent. All we can do is assume that the political history of Africa was constantly changing.


I'm not an expert here. But the BBC has some great resources concerning the history of Africa.

The Story of Africa

Lost Kingdoms of Africa - BBC Four


Nikolaj Cyon did some research and created a lovely, detailed map to show what Africa looked like politically in the mid-1840s - if 99% of Europeans, not 40%, had died in the Black Death.


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