Warfare and the Military in Precolonial Africa

Key information

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Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of History

Module overview

This course will explore the role of warfare and the military in the course of Africa’s history, from antiquity to the late nineteenth century. It aims to place the organisation of armed conflict and the evolution of military culture at the centre of the analysis, and posits the need for a long-term understanding of both: the course will culminate with a discussion of the extent to which modern violence in Africa has deep historical roots, contrary to much popular interpretation. Students will therefore be encouraged to place modern political crises in historical context, to consider the key drivers of Africa’s developmental trajectory, and to think of warfare in constructive as well as destructive terms. The course will combine broad themes as well as specific case studies from across the continent. It will explore the manner in which warfare has shaped Africa in socio-economic, political and cultural terms, and specifically the role which warfare has played in the emergence of a range of state and non-state systems, and in the development of military cultures, across the continent. Key topics for study will include changing social formations; the growth of identities based on violence and militarism; the relationship between military and political administration; the economics of African war; and the range of technologies developed and employed across the continent. In this course, there will be a focus on: enduring imagery and stereotyping around African warfare in the West; War in Africa’s antiquity; Economic and environmental drivers of military organisation; The role of the slave trades; and the nineteenth-century military revolution in Africa and its long-term implications.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

  • An understanding of the role of African warfare in African social, political and economic development over the long term, and appreciate the diversity as well as the commonality between conflicts across time and space;
  • An understanding of the continuity between the pre-colonial and the modern eras, as well as the ruptures which take place;
  • An appreciation of the mechanisms by which African communities both instigated and resolved conflict;
  • Knowledge of the relationship between violence, culture and identity in African history;
  • An awareness of the constructive as well as destructive elements in organised violence and militarism;
  • An appreciation of the diverse economic and technological contexts within which warfare occurred, and the material consequences flowing from conflict;
  • An ability to critically evaluate both primary and scholarly sources relating to the study of African warfare, and use these skills in writing coursework essays, preparing seminar presentations, and answering questions in the unseen examination.

Scope and syllabus

1. Introduction and general discussion
2. Imagery, historiography, contours
3. Warrior empires of the savannah
4. Faith and arms: Ethiopian violence
5. Foundations of militarism in sub-Saharan Africa
6. Warfare and militarism in the era of the slave trade
7. New forms of violence in West and East Africa
8. Zulu: the mfecane and its aftermath
9. Jihad: Islam and violence in the 19 th century
10. Old states, new wars in the nineteenth century

Method of assessment

Essay of 3,000 words worth 80% of the final mark, Reaction paper/book review of 1,000 words worth 20% of the final mark

Suggested reading

  • Ajayi, J.F.Ade & R.Smith.Yoruba Warfare in the Nineteenth Century (Ibadan & Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971) [R]
  • Falola, T. & R.Law (eds.) Warfare and Diplomacy in Pre-Colonial Nigeria (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1992) [R]
  • Lamphear, J. (ed.) African Military History (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007) [R]
  • Reid, R.J. War in Pre-Colonial Eastern Africa: the patterns and meanings of state-level conflict in the nineteenth century (Oxford: James Currey, 2007) [E]
  • Reid, R.J. Warfare in African History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012) [E]
  • Smith, R.S. Warfare and Diplomacy in Pre-Colonial West Africa (London: James Currey, 2nd ed., 1989) [E]
  • Thornton, J. Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500-1800 (London: UCL Press, 1999) [E]


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