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Dictionary of African Biography


Africa is the most continuous site of the evolution of the human species on our planet. The human lineage is 6 million years old. The first member of the genus Homo appeared about 2.6 million years ago; anatomically modern Homo sapiens emerged between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, and behaviorally modern humans emerged between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago. And during these millions of years of human prehistory, the main events unfolded on the African continent. The nameless subjects who created this common ancestry and history of the human community are our anonymous common ancestors, and we owe our existence to them. 

Despite their remarkably important significance to our shared heritage as human beings, we cannot memorialize these people as individuals, although we can, through DNA analysis, reconstruct our Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam, our most recent common matrilineal and patrilineal ancestors, who lived some 200,000 and 60,000 to 90,000 years ago, respectively. And thus, the oldest subject chronologically in the Dictionary of African Biography is the metaphorical mother of the human race, who appears as African Eve (all names in boldface in this introduction refer to an entry in the Dictionary).

We think that by sampling some of the more fascinating figures who thrived between 3100 BC and the twenty-first century, we might give readers an idea of the astonishing richness and variety of the lives of the women and men included in the six volumes of the Dictionary of African Biography. “Africa,” for us, is a vast continent that is the home of the most genetic diversity in the entire human community, not a signifier for the color of a people. Indeed, the “Africans” whose biographies are found in these pages are black, white, and several shades of color in between. Fortunately, early African history is rich in detail about some of the more colorful men and women who, as we say, made a name for themselves between 3100 BC and 641 AD, the first historical era that we cover in the Dictionary.

A man named Narmer is generally thought to be the earliest pharaoh, the first king of a united Egypt, who ruled between the Predynastic Age and the First Dynasty. Narmer’s kingdom is assigned Dynasty 0, and although we don’t know much about him, his is the oldest entry in our dictionary of a human being we know by name.

The earliest nonruler in this volume is the well-known architect and administrator Imhotep, who lived during the earlier part of Egypt’s Third Dynasty (c. 2686–2613 BC). Imhotep was a high-ranking courtier who held many important positions. But he is best known, without a doubt, as the architect of Egypt’s first stone building, the Sakkara Step Pyramid, built for King Djoser (Netjerikhet). Upon his death, Imhotep became one of the few nonroyal Egyptians to be deified.

We remember an adventurous man named Kharkhuf, a provincial nobleman in Upper Egypt who lived between 2315 BC and 2190 BC, for his writings about his explorations through sub-Saharan Africa. Kharkhuf led several expeditions to Kush (or Nubia), south of the second cataract of the Nile. He documented the early ethnic topography of what today is northern Sudan. Kharkhuf, who apparently had a healthy sense of himself, identified himself as “him who brings royal luxury products from all the foreign lands” and lists such items as incense, ebony, oil, wheat, panther skins, ivory tusks, throw sticks, and cattle.

Much of late has been speculated about the color of the ancient Egyptians, and indeed arguments about their “blackness” have become something of a passionate spectator sport. But there is no doubt that the Twenty-fifth Dynasty—also known as the Nubian or Ethiopian or Black Dynasty (760 BC to 656 BC)—was ruled by black pharaohs from the Kingdom of Kush. Two of the most colorful of these were Piankhy and Taharqa. Piankhy, sometimes known as Piye, ruled between 752 BC and 721 BC. His conquest of Egypt established the period of the Kushite supremacy in the Nile River valley. Piankhy is depicted as quite chivalrous, instructing his army not to attack at night or to attack unexpectedly, but to fight the enemy only “when he says [he is ready].” He always offers a town he is about to besiege a proposal to surrender. He is firm, but he is merciful as well, seeking to avoid death when possible. He is also impressively pious; after the fall of Memphis, he sent his guards to the temples to prevent pillage. Taharqa is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as Tirhakah in two places: 2 Kings 19:9 and Isaiah 37:9. During the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah, Taharqa prevented Sennacherib from destroying Jerusalem and dispersing its inhabitants, an intervention pivotal to the history of Israel. He reigned between 690 BC and 664 BC. His father was Piankhy, the king of Napata, who first conquered his northern neighbors in Egypt.

We tend to think of Henry the Navigator when we think of early explorers down the West African coast. But Hanno the Navigator got there first, some two thousand years before Henry’s intrepid sailors did. Hanno was a Carthaginian explorer who traveled down the coast of Africa, perhaps as far as Cameroon, around 500 BC. His journey marked a high point in the Phoenician-Punic exploration of Africa. The written account of Hanno’s journey was rediscovered in the Renaissance and inspired European explorers between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries. One of the scholars who wrote about Hanno was Juba II, the king of Mauretania.

Juba II was a great scholar, whose earliest works of scholarship focused on Roman history, the history of the theater, and linguistics. In 25 BC, the Emperor Augustus placed Juba on the throne of Mauretania (essentially modern Algeria and Morocco), which he ruled with his wife, Cleopatra Selene, the last surviving child of Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony. He wrote a lengthy treatise, entitled Libyka, about the history, geography, and ethnography of northwest Africa, including the Canary Islands. He also wrote about the source of the Nile and the now-extinct North African elephant. His final treatise, On Arabia, included the first detailed discussion of the Arabian peninsula and summarized the most accurate knowledge of the routes to India. In fact, when taken together, Libyka and On Arabia provided the first seamless discussion of the southern portion of the known world, from the Atlantic coast of Africa to India.

Just as the various queens named Cleopatra did, other women played signal roles in the early history of Africa. Elissa or Dido, a mythical figure, was the legendary founder of Carthage in the late ninth century BC. Nehanda is known as the founding mother of the southern African kingdom of Mutapa, which flourished from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century AD. And perhaps the best known, along with Cleopatra, was Makedda, better known in the West as the Queen of Sheba, who Ethiopians believe hailed from that country in the tenth century BC, and whose son Menelik, putatively fathered by King Solomon, founded the Ethiopian monarchy that Ethiopian tradition says culminated with Ras Tafari, who became the emperor Haile Selassie I.

Just as fascinating as Makedda and Cleopatra was Ameniras, another great female historical figure, who flourished in the first century BC and was the Meroitic queen of the ancient empire of Kush. By then the southern city of Meroe had become the capital of Kush, after the Egyptians had pushed the Kushites from Piankhy’s northern heartland at Napata. Because of Ameniras’s brave and effective defense of Kushite sovereignty against the Romans, the Meroitic title for queen mother—kdke, translated as “Candace”—became popular during the Roman era. It is mentioned in the Book of Acts, in fact. The Greek geographer Strabo writes of the “one-eyed” Candace, queen of Kush, who resisted Roman attempts to subjugate and annex Kush. After the Kushite and Roman armies fought to a stalemate, Ameniras’s ambassadors established peace with Augustus. Augustus subsequently abandoned the idea of making Kush a vassal state and therefore relinquished the tribute he had initially imposed and retreated from northern Nubia. Ameniras’s historical significance is that she protected the territorial integrity and independence of the Kushite state and inaugurated a period of economic prosperity that encouraged the flourishing of trade, commerce, and intercultural exchange between Kush and the Mediterranean world. This era is often called the Golden Age of Meroe, and it lasted until the middle of the fourth century AD.

Africa and Africans played key roles in the early history of the Christian church. Tertullian (Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus), who lived between 160 and 240, was the earliest Christian apologist and theologian to write in Latin. His Apologeticum is a bitingly sarcastic and yet unassailably logical indictment against the imperial policy of arresting and trying Christians. His Adversus Praxean, a response to a heretic, articulates the theology of the Trinity for the first time. Tertullian’s theology tended toward the enthusiastic, hardline brand of African Christianity most famously characterized by martyrs such as Perpetua and Felicity. He was a major influence on both Cyprian of Carthage and Augustine of Hippo.

Perpetua was that rarest of beings, an educated woman in third-century North Africa. Along with her slave, Felicity, she was imprisoned and sentenced to death by the Romans for her faith in about 200. While imprisoned and awaiting her execution, she kept a diary of her experiences and her dreams. She gave the diary to a friend, who added a description of the women’s fate in the arena: they were mauled by a wild cow, while others in the group of martyrs were attacked by other beasts. When the cow did not succeed in killing Perpetua, a gladiator was summoned to complete her execution. He struck her with his sword, but accidentally hit her shoulder. Perpetua guided his hand to cut her throat. Her diary was preserved and venerated by early Christians, ensuring her influence within the early church.

The first female scholar of whom we have reasonably detailed and firm knowledge on the African continent was Hypatia of Alexandria. As glorious as was her public career, Hypatia’s tragic death is the stuff of legend, revealing the complexity of Christian belief and behavior in the early centuries of the church’s history. Hypatia lived between about 355 and 415, and she was an astronomer, mathematician, and a philosopher. She was quite active as a public figure and took a leading role in the civic affairs of Alexandria, delivering public lectures on philosophy. Hers was a Neoplatonist philosophy heavily influenced by mathematics. She taught students the intricacies of technical mathematics and astronomy. While her career alone was sufficient to accord her a pioneering role in African history, the lurid nature of her death would have done so as well. She died in 415, murdered by a crowd of Christian zealots who declared her a heretic, seized her, stripped her, and proceeded to dismember her and then burned her mangled corpse. Christians were not the only martyrs in the early centuries after Christ.

Black Africans also played key roles in the early history of the Muslim religion. Bilal ibn Rabah, who lived from the late sixth century to 641, is universally known in the Muslim world as the first muezzin (mu’addin) in the history of Islam. Originally a slave born in Mecca, he had an “Ethiopian” (or more precisely, a black Sub-Saharan) ancestry, which explains his nickname “al-Habashi,” which means “the Abyssinian,” the name by which Ethiopia was known. Bilal came to know Islam at its first inception and was one of the earliest converts to the new faith. In 630, when Mecca was eventually reconquered by Islamic forces, Bilal had the honor of calling the Muslim faithful to prayer, launching the adhan from the roof of the holy Kaaba.