Our knowledge and understanding of African civilization began to expand in the mid-fifteenth century, when Europeans first landed on the west coast of the continent. The Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, British, French, and others, established links between Africa and Europe. Although they had first come in search of gold and other precious trading commodities, Europeans quickly started developing the slave trade, which involved the export of captured Africans. The first shipment of humans was made in 1451 and by 1870, when the slave trade was abolished, more than ten million Africans had been transported to European colonies and new nations in the Americas. Arabs also exported slaves in the slave trade, but the Europeans had a much larger hand in the destructive trading practice that created one of the largest migrations in history. Much of our knowledge of early Africans comes from slave traders' contact with Africans from west and central Africa who began capturing other Africans to supply Europeans with slaves.
During the time that some western and central African tribes developed brutal systems to prey upon weaker tribes in order to round up slaves for sale to Europeans, peoples in eastern and southern Africa were developing societies of their own. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, when more white Europeans traveled to Africa as missionaries, explorers, colonizers, and tourists, these civilizations' traditions came to the attention of the rest of the world. But the arrival of Europeans to all of Africa brought new troubles.
During the last twenty years of the nineteenth century, almost the whole African continent was divided into colonies among seven European countries: Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Italy, and Belgium. These colonies divided established African communities, created political institutions to run the colonies, and imposed many new ways of living on Africans. In addition, Europeans built railways throughout the continent that quickly destroyed traditional trading routes. No longer able to follow their old ways of life, native Africans became laborers in European-run plantations and mines. Many Europeans considered colonization as a way to "civilize" African people. Traditional African cultures blended with European customs in the colonies to make new cultures. Although many fiercely resisted European domination, Africans were forced to adapt to colonial rule. Along with new jobs, schooling, and food, Africans also incorporated many European fashions into their daily
Clothing styles change over time for a variety of reasons. Although environmental changes can have drastic effects, trade causes the quickest shifts in a culture's clothing styles. Trade between the hundreds of different African groups throughout the continent had occured for years but the most dramatic effect of trade came from the West. Western style clothing, including shoes, pants, shirts, dresses, and business suits, became increasingly common in Africa in the twentieth century, especially in urban cities. Many Africans wear whole Western style outfits, while others combine traditional African styles with Western styles. Only Africans living in the most remote regions of the continent continue to wear clothes reflecting limited European contact.
The prevalence of Western styles throughout Africa indicates the dominance of European trade on the continent since the fifteenth century. The first Africans to trade with Europeans used European goods to create their own unique clothing styles. Intricate beaded clothing was created from imported glass beads, for example. But as Europeans tried to colonize the African continent, many Africans were forced to abandon their traditional ways of living. Without access to their old ways of making clothing, many began to wear ready-made clothes imported from Europe. Indeed, by the twenty-first century, Africans not only wore imported Western style clothing but also Western style clothing made in African factories. Today traditional African dress is most often worn for ceremonial purposes, much like the kimono in Japan or elements of traditional dress among Native Americans.
costumes. Only Ethiopia and Liberia remained independent states by 1914. However, small isolated groups of Africans living in remote areas of central Africa remained untouched by the influence of European colonialism and continued to practice their traditional ways of life.
By the 1950s many African colonies began seeking independence. Africans rebelled against colonial rule and soon won their freedom, either in swift battles or long, bloody wars. Most African colonies were independent by 1960. Freed from European rule, these newly formed nation states began to establish new, African-run countries. However, many retained the general lifestyles set up under colonial rule. Western influence continues to penetrate Africa through trade and charitable organizations. The clothing worn in these newly independent African nations is a blend of traditioanl African styles and patterns and Western clothing.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Halsall, Paul. Internet African History Sourcebook. http://www.fordham. edu/halsall/africa/africasbook.html (accessed on July 31, 2003).
Iliffe, John. Africans: The History of a Continent. New York: Cambridge,
Villiers, Marq, and Sheila Hirtle. Into Africa: A Journey through the Ancient Empires. Toronto, Canada: Key Porter, 1997.
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