5 Great Empires in Africa Before the Colonial Era.



Throughout the expanse of history, Africa has been home to an array of magnificent empires that rose to greatness long before the advent of colonial rule. These ancient civilizations, characterized by their vast territories, advanced societies, and significant contributions to art, culture, and trade, continue to leave an unfading mark on the continent’s rich tapestry.

Journey with us through time as we explore some of the most remarkable and awe-inspiring African empires that once flourished in all their grandeur before the Colonial era.

1. Carthage.

Picture Source-Gettys Image.

Carthage, was an awe-inspiring empire of the ancient era that thrived as a North African commercial hub for over five centuries. Originally established as a Phoenician settlement in what we now know as Tunisia during the 8th or 9th century B.C., this city-state evolved into a vast maritime empire, commanding the trade of valuable commodities like textiles, gold, silver, and copper.

The pinnacle of its grandeur was marked by a magnificent capital city teeming with nearly half a million inhabitants, boasting a protected harbor adorned with docking bays accommodating an impressive fleet of 220 ships.

Carthage’s influence extended far and wide, stretching from North Africa to the shores of Spain and encompassing significant portions of the Mediterranean.

However, as the empire sought expansion, tensions grew between them and the emerging Roman Republic. The clash between these ancient superpowers erupted into three momentous conflicts known as the Punic Wars, with the final confrontation in 146 B.C. resulting in the near-complete annihilation of Carthage.

Today, the remnants of this once-mighty empire can be glimpsed in a series of mesmerizing ruins nestled within the city of Tunis.

2. Oyo Empire. 

Ancient Oyo Empire. Picture Source- African facts zone.

Oyo Empire, was a West African powerhouse that emerged in what is now western Nigeria during the 15th century. This empire, founded by the Yoruba people, swiftly rose to become one of the largest and most influential states in West Africa. Its ascent to greatness was fueled by prosperous trade and the possession of a formidable cavalry, cementing its status as a force to be reckoned with.

From the mid-17th century to the late 18th century, the Oyo Empire reigned as the preeminent political entity in the region, exercising dominion not only over fellow Yoruba states but also over the esteemed Fon kingdom of Dahomey, located in what is now the Republic of Benin. By the end of the 14th century, Oyo had transformed into a formidable inland power, steadily expanding its territories at the expense of neighboring states. However, during the reign of Onigbogi, Oyo faced military setbacks at the hands of the Nupe, led by Tsoede.

Enduring an arduous 80-year interregnum as an exiled dynasty after its defeat by the Nupe, the Yoruba of Oyo regrouped and emerged even stronger, reestablishing a more centralized and expansive Oyo Empire. They devised a highly organized government that exerted its authority over a vast and diverse territory. The 17th century witnessed the commencement of Oyo’s remarkable growth, propelling it into the ranks of major empires.

Although the Oyo Empire did not encompass all Yoruba people, it stood as the most populous kingdom in Yoruba history, wielding significant influence and power.

However, the empire’s ultimate downfall can be attributed to the invasion of the Fulani Jihadists. Ambitious Aare Ona Kakanfo, Afonja, invited the Jihadists to aid him in conquering the Ilorin region of the empire for personal gain. Yet, his supposed allies betrayed him, resulting in his demise.

They incorporated Ilorin into the Sokoto Caliphate, which subsequently launched southward advances, culminating in the capture of the entire Oyo Empire in 1937.

3. The Mali Empire.

Picture Source-Wikicommons

Mali Empire was founded by the visionary ruler in the 12th century, Sundiata Keita, often revered as the “Lion King.” In a momentous revolt against a Sosso king, Sundiata Keita unified his people, birthing a new state that would leave an indelible mark on West Africa.

Under the wise leadership of Keita and his successors, the Mali Empire gradually expanded its dominion, tightly clutching a substantial portion of West Africa and reaping abundant wealth through flourishing trade routes.

Among its renowned cities were Djenné and Timbuktu, both celebrated for their awe-inspiring adobe mosques and esteemed Islamic schools of learning. The crown jewel of knowledge was Timbuktu’s illustrious Sankore University, boasting a treasure trove of knowledge with an estimated 700,000 priceless manuscripts.

Basking in its zenith, the Mali Empire shone as one of Africa’s most precious gems, renowned across the globe for its opulence and grandeur. A legendary account of the kingdom’s prosperity revolves around the legendary ruler, Mansa Musa, whose 14th-century pilgrimage to Mecca included a stopover in Egypt.

During this extraordinary visit, Musa bestowed such an immense amount of gold upon the land that its value plummeted in Egyptian markets for several years, leaving an unforgettable mark in history.

Though the Mali Empire eventually dissolved in the 16th century, its legacy continues to reverberate as a testament to the rich tapestry of Africa’s history—an empire that once graced the world stage with its magnificence and left an indomitable mark on the course of time.

4. Benin Empire.

The Ancient kingdom of Benin, nestled in the lush forests of West Africa and established in the 1200s C.E. According to legend, the Edo people of southern Nigeria sought a new form of governance, relinquishing their rule under the ogisos, their traditional kings. Turning to a prince from the illustrious West African kingdom of Ife, they invited him to assume control, marking the birth of the first oba, or king, in Benin—Eweka, the son of the Ife prince.

Oba Ewuare the Great, a visionary ruler, led the Benin empire to the pinnacle of power and territorial expansion. During his reign, the empire underwent significant improvements, guarded by imposing walls that defined its majesty. This period witnessed the zenith of Benin’s monarchs, celebrated through various rituals expressing the people’s unwavering devotion and loyalty, albeit including the contentious practice of human sacrifices.

The artists of the Benin Kingdom earned widespread acclaim for their mastery in diverse materials, showcasing their talent in brass, wood, and ivory. Fueling its prosperity was a flourishing trade network that blossomed between Benin and the Portuguese.

The kingdom’s art, gold, ivory, and pepper were highly sought after by these European traders. Additionally, Benin played a significant role in the West African slave trade, capturing individuals from rival communities and selling them to European and American buyers, a practice that bolstered the kingdom’s wealth.

As the 1800s unfolded, the Benin empire faced internal strife as royal family members vied for power and control of the throne, leading to devastating civil wars that left scars on both the administration and economy. In its weakened state, Benin struggled to resist foreign intervention, particularly by the British, who sought to assert control over West African trade and territory through colonial rule. The culmination of these tensions resulted in a British invasion of Benin in 1897, marking a transformative and tumultuous period in the kingdom’s history under colonial rule.

5.The Songhai Empire.

Tomb of a Songhai Emperor. Picture Credit-Luis Dafos.

The Songhai Empire was a formidable African state that stood unparalleled in size within the annals of history. Emerging in the 15th century from territories that once belonged to the Mali Empire, this West African kingdom surpassed the expanse of Western Europe and extended its influence across regions within a dozen of today’s modern nations.

The Songhai Empire’s prosperity soared to remarkable heights, fueled by robust trade policies and an intricate bureaucratic system that effectively managed its vast domains. The empire’s territories were divided into distinct provinces, each governed by its own skilled leader.

It was during the early 16th century that the empire reached its zenith, led by the devout King Muhammad I Askia. Under his rule, the empire’s expanded its borders through conquests, forging a significant alliance with Egypt’s Muslim Caliph, and elevating the status of knowledge and learning by establishing numerous Islamic schools in the renowned city of Timbuktu.

Once revered as one of the most powerful states globally, the Songhai Empire later faced turmoil and internal strife in the late 1500s, ultimately leaving it vulnerable to an invasion by the Sultan of Morocco. This pivotal event marked the fall of this grand empire, a turning point that shaped the course of African history during the era of colonial rule.


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