Africa’s history is as rich and diverse as that of any other continent, but little of that richness emerges in the context of its relations with Europe. Although this chapter concludes with Europeans ruling Africa and exploiting its human and material resources, it would be a spurious teleology that viewed African history as culminating in this ‘end’. During the four centuries or so that separated Europeans’ initial contacts with sub-Saharan Africa and the ‘scramble’, Africans were colonising the continent, adapting their agricultural techniques to its hostile environment, adopting new crops, founding towns, and developing complex political institutions. In the Sudan and along the east coast, the most important external influence on African societies remained — as it had been since the eighth century — the expansion of Islam, compared with which the impact of Christian Europe was slight. Admittedly, the Portuguese had opened regular commercial and diplomatic relations with the ‘Guinea’ states by the 1490s, and won important Catholic converts in the kings of the Kongo, who were valued allies and trading partners. Yet, except in Algeria and the south, there were to be neither dramatic conquests nor substantial settlements before 1870, when much of the continent was still unexplored by Europeans. Portugal’s one attempt to found a settlement colony, in Luanda during the 1570s, failed disastrously in the terms in which it was conceived.
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