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Building peace in the minds of men and women

General History of Africa

About the Project

In 1964, UNESCO launched the elaboration of the General History of Africa (GHA) with a view to remedy the general ignorance on Africa’s history. The challenge consisted of reconstructing Africa’s history, freeing it from racial prejudices ensuing from slave trade and colonization, and promoting an African perspective. UNESCO therefore called upon the then utmost African and non African experts. These experts’ work represented 35 years of cooperation between more than 230 historians and other specialists, and was overseen by an International Scientific Committee which comprised two-thirds of Africans.

The General History of Africa (GHA) is a pioneering corpus, unparalleled in its ambition to cover the history of the entire African continent, since the appearance of human beings to contemporary challenges faced by Africans and their Diasporas in the world. It is a history that no longer leaves the pre-colonial period in the shadows and that deeply integrates the destiny of Africa into that of humanity by highlighting its relations with the other continents and the contribution of African cultures to the general progress of humanity.

The complete collection is published in eight volumes. All volumes are richly illustrated with maps, charts, figures and diagrams and a selection of black and white photographs. The texts, for the most part, are fully annotated and there is an extensive bibliography and index.

In recent years, UNESCO has embarked on the preparation and drafting of three new volumes of the GHA (Volumes IX, X and XI).

Global Africa : an innovative concept

Until now, Africa and its diasporas have often been presented as distinct groups, separated by oceans, that have had only sporadic contact during brief historical moments. The writers of the new volumes of the General History of Africa wish to break with this binary and simplistic perspective of relations between Africa and its diasporas.

By introducing the concept of global Africa, the International Scientific Committee wishes to propose an innovative reinterpretation of these connections. This concept makes it possible to understand the history of relations between Africans and people of African descent as an interconnected and continuous process, comprising the circulation of people, knowledge, know-how, and cultural productions and whose matrix is the African heritage.

The concept also makes it possible to go beyond the issue of race and focus on Africa's multifaceted presence in different regions of the world and the diversity of its influences on other cultures. Thus, geographically, the African presence is no longer seen simply from the perspective of the Atlantic world (Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean) but in a truly globalized way, taking into account the diasporas of the Indian Ocean, the Near and Middle East and Asia.

Historically, this presence has been considered over time since ancient times, to illustrate the different waves of “outflows” from Africa (African explorations and expansions outside the continent, mass deportations of Africans to different regions of the world by trafficking, displacements caused by colonization, postcolonial migrations, etc.). In addition to its usefulness in reflecting the diversity of trajectories and the continuity of relationships, the concept of global Africa also provides a better understanding of the aspirations of new generations in Africa and its diasporas to contribute to the African Renaissance and the construction of a twenty-first century pan-Africanism.

See also


The Collection

Three New Volumes: IX - X - XI

In order to update and complete the collection, UNESCO has embarked on the preparation and drafting of three new volumes of the GHA. This work aims: to update the collection in the light of the latest social, political and archaeological developments, among others, on the continent (Volume IX); to map and analyse the various African diasporas and their contributions to modern societies and to Africa’s emancipation and development (Volume X); and to contribute to the analysis of new challenges Africa and its diasporas are currently facing, and new opportunities that are open to them (Volume XI).

The preparation and drafting of these three new volumes constitutes a pivotal scientific production by UNESCO for a better understanding of African history and historiography. In this respect, it represents a major contribution on the part of the Organization to the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly. It also responds to the initiatives taken by a number of Latin American and Caribbean governments to enhance and promote their African heritage.

Volume XI

This volume addresses contemporary challenges for Africa and its diasporas around the world. It thus presents a critical perspective, from the point of view of global Africa, which is presented as a player undergoing significant changes. The roles of women and young people, creativity, knowledge production and political changes are all themes central to the future of Africa and its diasporas and are at the very heart of the analysis of this volume.

The first section uses the epistemological forum as a space to explore the concept of global Africa.

The second section focuses on the current situation of globalized Africans, both on the continent and beyond its physical borders.

The third section focuses on Africa in motion and how it is participating in the challenges of the contemporary world.

Volume X

This volume provides critical observation of the dynamics of the relationship between Africa and its diasporas, the movements between Africa and the rest of the world, and the ways in which Africa connects with the rest of the world. It places the innovative concept of global Africa at the centre of its perspective. Beyond the simple Atlantic framework, contributions are based on new epistemologies and historiographical practices, such as the study of biographies in order to understand, from the inside, the history of the diasporas.

The first section discusses the historical contexts in which the concept of race emerged in order to understand how Africans and Afro-descendants perceive and refer to themselves and others.

The second section, a mapping of the African diaspora, examines three aspects based on the geography of the diaspora. Slavery in Africa, no matter where, has been marked by the struggle for freedom. This section also describes cultural identities and how they have been recreated in African diasporas and technological knowledge systems.

The last section of the book addresses the walks of life and biographies of Africans. These biographies of men and women are certainly the most humanized and representative vision of the diaspora.

Volume IX

The purpose of this volume is to update the knowledge of previous volumes of the General History of Africa in the light of new developments in research. Questioning the practices and theoretical postures of the writing of African history, this publication aims to give a fresh look at the long history of Africa, by introducing new categories such as early history.

The first section explores the epistemological, methodological and theoretical foundations of writing on the history of Africa and people of African descent in the twenty-first century.

The second section reviews the content of the first eight published volumes of the General History of Africa.

The third section concerns the updating of the early history – formerly known as prehistory – of the continent.

Finally, the fourth section explores new developments in historical studies (continent-wide social, economic and political developments) over the past 2,000 years.

Volume VIII - Africa since 1935

 The eighth volume examines the period from 1935 to the present day. As liberation from colonial rule progresses, the political, economic and cultural dimensions of the continent are analyzed.

For Africa, 1935 marked the beginning of the Second World War, with Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. International conflict dominates the first section of this volume, which describes crises in the Horn and North Africa, and other regions under the domination of the European powers. The next three sections cover the ensuing Africa-wide struggles for political sovereignty, from 1945 to independence; under development and the fight for economic independence, looking at nation-building and changing political structures and values.

Section five deals with socio-cultural change since 1935, from religion to literature, language to philosophy, science and education. The last two sections address the development of pan-Africanism and the role of independent Africa in world affairs. Acknowledging the original irony that it was the imposition of European imperialism that awakened African consciousness, the volume points up the vital and growing interrelation of Africa and the rest of the globe.

Available in English, Arabic, French and Portuguese

Volume VII - Africa under Colonial Domination 1880-1935

Volume VII examines the period of partition, conquest and occupation from the beginning of the ‘European Scramble for Africa’ to the Italian fascist invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Throughout the volume, the focus is directed towards the responses of Africans themselves to the challenge of colonialism.

The first two chapters survey African attitudes and readiness on the eye of the colonial era, and the background to European imperial ambitions. The next seven chapters discuss African initiatives and reactions in the face of partition and conquest up to the First World War. A general overview is followed by more detailed regional analyses.

Chapters 13 to 21 concern the impact of economic and social aspects of colonial systems in Africa from 1919 until 1935: the operation of the colonial economy in the former French, Belgian, Portuguese and British zones and North Africa; the emergence of new social structures and demographic patterns and the role of religion and the arts in Africa during the colonial period. The final section traces the growth of anti-colonial movements, the strengthening of African political nationalism and the interaction between sub-Saharan Africa and peoples of African descent of the “New World”. Liberia and Ethiopia are discussed in special chapters.

Available in English, Arabic, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Abridged version available in English, French and Swahili

Volume VI - Africa in the Nineteenth Century until the 1880s

Volume VI covers the history of Africa from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the onset of the European ’scramble” for colonial territory in the 1880s.

In spite of growing European commercial, religious and political presence during the century, outside influences were felt indirectly most African societies, and they made a variety of culturally distinctive attempts to modernize, expand and develop. Two influential sequences of events – The Mfecane in Southern Africa with its ramification in Central and East Africa, and the movements of Muslim reformers in West Africa-owed little or nothing to foreign influences and figure prominently in eight of the chapters.

The book opens with four thematic chapters examining the major forces at work in African society at the beginning of the century; Africa’s changing role in the world-economy; new trends and processes; and the effects of the abolition of the slave trade. Twenty-three chapters detailing developments in the various regions follow these chapters. Two concluding chapters trace the African diaspora and assess the state of the Continent’s political, economic and cultural development on the eve of the European conquest.

Available in English, Arabic, French and Portuguese

Abridged version available in English, French and Swahili

Volume V - Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century

Volume V covers the history of Africa from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the close of the eighteenth century. Two major themes emerge: first, the continuing internal evolution of the states and cultures of Africa during this period; second, the increasing involvement of Africa in external trade- with major but then unforeseen consequences for the whole world.

In North Africa, we see the Ottomans conquer Egypt and establish Regencies in Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers. South of the Sahara, some of the larger, older states collapse (Songhay, Western Sudan, Christian Ethiopia), and new power bases emerge (Asante, Dahomey, Sakalava). Highly centralized political and administrative structures develop and societies with distinct social classes and, often, a strongly feudal character. Traditional religions continue to coexist with both Christianity (suffering setbacks) and Islam (in the ascendancy).

Along the coast, particularly of West Africa, Europeans establish a trading network, which, with the development of New-World plantation agriculture, becomes the focus of the international slave trade. The immediate consequences of this trade for Africa are explored, and it is argued that the long-term global consequence include the foundation of the present world-economy with all its inbuilt inequalities.

Available in English, Arabic, French and Portuguese

Abridged version available in English, French and Swahili

Volume IV - Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century

Volume IV covers the history of Africa from the twelfth to the sixteenth century.

This period constitutes a crucial phase in the continent’s history in which Africa developed its own culture and written records became more common. There were several major characteristic themes: the triumph of Islam; the extension of trading relations, cultural exchanges and human contacts; the development of kingdoms and empires.

The book first describes the Almohads. There follow chapters on the various civilizations of West Africa – Mali, Songhay, the Niger Bend, the Volta Basin, Chad, the Hausa and the coastal peoples from the Casamance to modern Cameroon.

It then covers (Chapters 15 onwards) North-east and East Africa, starting with Egypt and going on to Nubia, Ethiopia and the States of the Horn of Africa, including material on the development of the Swahili civilization. Central Africa is represented by chapters on the area between the coast and the great lakes, the inter-lacustrine region and the basins of the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. There are chapters on Equatorial Africa and Angola, southern Africa and Madagascar and neighboring islands.

Available in English, Arabic, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Abridged version available in English, French and Swahili

Volume III - Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century

Volume III covers the history of Africa from the seventh to the eleventh century.

Two movements to have major and lasting cultural, political and economic significance on the Continent’s history are covered by this period: the increasing influence of Islam and its dissemination and interaction with traditional African culture in northern and western regions, and the Bantu expansion in the south.

The book first places Africa in the context of world history at the opening of the seventh century before examining the general impact of Islamic penetration; the continuing expansion of the Bantu-speaking peoples; and the growth of civilizations in the Sudanic zones of West Africa.

Detailed chapters follow discussing the successive Islamic dynasties of North Africa and their wider contacts; the Horn of Africa; the East African coast and interior; Central Africa; Southern Africa; and Madagascar’s internal development and international contacts. Three concluding chapters trace the African Diaspora in Asia; examine international relations and the spread of technology and ideas within Africa; and assess the overall impact of the period on African history.

Available in English, Arabic, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Abridged version available in English, French and Swahili

Volume II - Ancient civilizations of Africa

Volume II deals with that long period of Africa’s history that covers some nine thousands years, extending from the end of the Neolithic era, that is, from around the eighth millennium before our era, to the beginning of the seventh century of our era. The different chapters deal with the civilizations of the major geographical zones, following the pattern of African historical research, namely: the corridor of the Nile, Egypt and Nubia; the Ethiopian highlands; the part of Africa later called the Maghrib and its Saharan hinterland; and, the rest of Africa as well as some of the islands in the Indian Ocean.

By far the largest proportion of Volume II is devoted to the ancient civilization of Egypt because of its pre-eminent place in the early history of Africa.

Available in English, Arabic, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Abridged version available in English, French, Fulfulde, Hausa and Swahili

Volume I - Methodology and African Prehistory

Volume I deals with the African prehistory and its methodology. The early part of the volume assesses the importance attached by African societies to their past and the growth and development in African historiography, together with a general outline of sources and techniques.

This is followed by accounts of the primary literary sources, the oral and living traditions and African archaeology and its techniques. Chapters cover linguistics and migrations, historical geography and a discussion of the chronological framework that has been adopted.

The second half of the volume deals specifically with the earliest man and the prehistory of Africa according to geographical areas: North, South, East, West and Central with the Nile Valley singled out in particular. Chapters are devoted to prehistoric art, agricultural techniques and the development of metallurgy.

Available in English, Arabic, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish

Abridged version available in English, French, Fulfulde, Hausa and Swahili