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African Empires

Popular culture's depiction of the pre-colonial peoples of the non-European world is a shameful thing, and the prevailing view of Africa is an excellent example of this. For whatever reason, the most common viewpoint seems to be that the peoples of Africa were a race of "noble savages" who lived, child-like, in an idyllic but abysmally primitive world virtually waiting around for the big bag European bogeyman to show up and carry them off into slavery. In those rare instances when the peoples of Africa are given any credit of active agency, it is in the form of the Zulus (who are in turn belittled as a violent people whose victory over the British at Isandlwana was due only to their superior weight of numbers). If one were to listen to popular imagination, one might think that Africa was already colonized and subjugated by the Europeans by the dawning of the steam age. In fact, the majority of the continent remained firmly in African hands until almost the turn of the 20th century, and the European powers only began negotiating the colonial boundaries of Africa (with each other, of course, and not the Africans themselves: why bring rightful landowners into these things?) at the Berlin Conference of 1884. As with the Native Americans and the peoples of Asia, Africans were not passive recipients of European conquest: they were intelligent, active players in the process who attempted to capitalize upon the situation as best they could.

In fact, Africa has a long history of native imperialism. Numerous African cultures throughout history have developed powerful empires that oversaw complicated social structures, ruled groups of people with different cultural and religious backgrounds, developed large-scale commerce, engaged in slavery and the slave trade, utilized large and disciplined armies, and were effectively just as "imperial" as the would-be European empires expanding across the globe at the time (not that the Europeans were prepared to give them any such credit). Ultimately almost all of these large-scale African societies would be defeated and conquered by foreign powers (Ethiopia being the key exception: it was not "colonized" until the Italian invasion in 1936). This was largely due to advantages in military technology and infrastructure developed by the Europeans in the 19th century. However, this is not to say that the African powers were technophobic or militarily backward. Many of them utilized sizable and highly disciplined military forces armed with metal weaponry and firearms. Although the African powers did not historically have the advantage of Europe's industrial technology, there is no reason to suppose that they would have failed to take advantage of it had it become available. Historically, African military systems changed in the 19th century to adapt to the greater volume of firearms being introduced by foreign trade. It is only a short step toward envisioning an indigenously industrialized Africa in an alternate history.

Certainly, there were small-scale tribal groups who never became imperial powers (the Maasai are an excellent example), but even these were far from passive recipients of foreign invasion. In addition, the nation of Liberia deserves a special mention. Liberia was a colony founded by the United States in the early 19th century as a place for freed slaves to be relocated to. While on the surface this might seem to have been a fantastic idea (both the American Colonization Society and the emigres themselves seemed to think so), in fact it represented yet another example of foreign conquest of African territory. Though of African descent, the Liberian colonists had far more in common with white Americans than they did with the indigenous Africans living in inland Liberia.

To conclude, there is a wellspring of available fashion inspiration to be found in 19th century Africa. In addition to using European-style garments and uniforms as the base for colonial African steampunk costumes, clothing styles drawn from pre-colonial 19th century civilizations are perfectly viable sources for inspiration. As with all forms of steampunk fashion, a steampunk adaptation here can be as simple as adding small technological conveniences (perhaps vintage sunglasses or a timepiece) or as complex as a full-scale mixture of cultures and technologies (consider an African garment incorporating Japanese silks obtained through trade).

My apologies for slacking off on doing these posts. I'm afraid I'm in the middle of writing a novel, and if I go much slower my agent will kill me.
Regards, etc.,
-G. D. Falksen

An Algerian man.

The Oba (political and spiritual leader) of Benin, Ovonramwen, in 1897. Alas, in this image he is seen being transported into exile.

Yohannes IV, 19th century emperor of Ethiopia.

A South African witchdoctor taking snuff.

A young woman and child.

Riflemen serving under Samori Ture.

Samori himself.

African soldiers with a mix of firearms and melee weaponry.

A king of Sennar, 1821.

Maasai warriors.

Zulu warriors. Though they did not utilize firearms, the Zulu had an extremely advanced system of tactical organization, including flanking maneuvers, line-breaking maneuvers, and supply maintenance.

J. J. Roberts, first president of the Independent Republic of Liberia.

E. J. Roye, president of Liberia from 1870-1871.

African soldiers in European uniform.

A sketch of an African soldier in service to a European power.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 30th, 2009 09:26 pm (UTC)
Thank you, I'm glad you like it.
Jun. 30th, 2009 09:06 pm (UTC)
Very informative and inspiring. Thanks for highlighting other cultures on this forum.
Jun. 30th, 2009 09:34 pm (UTC)
Thank you sir. I'm very much in favor of giving everyone due credit, and given the possibility for diversity that's inherent in a steampunk world it's only right that we look at all available cultures. After doing a general piece on Asia and a specific one on East Asia, I thought it was only right I take a look at some other continents. I'll probably do a piece on the Native Americans next, when time permits, then maybe the Pacific, Southeast Asia, North Asia or the Middle East following that. I might even take a look at some of non-Anglo/Franco/Germano Europeans of the time, who also keep getting overlooked in favor of the major powers. The list is sizable, but well worth the climb.
Jul. 1st, 2009 04:50 pm (UTC)
do you take requests
I'm very interested in the Gurkhas. I suppose I have just volunteered myself to do a writeup, but if you'd like it, go for it.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 30th, 2009 09:35 pm (UTC)
Thank you, thank you.
Jun. 30th, 2009 09:31 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the info. :]
Jun. 30th, 2009 09:35 pm (UTC)
I am very glad to have contributed.
Jun. 30th, 2009 09:46 pm (UTC)
Sad to say, the Zulus only won at Isandlwana because of gross mismanagement of the British ammunition supply at the level of the quartermasters; the Zulus were pinned down early on, and only able to move forward when the British rifle fire slackened. Even then, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Rorke's Drift, shortly after, showed what could/should have happened: the survivors from Isandlwana had arrived before the battle started; and based on their experiences, all the ammunition boxes were broken open at the start for easy access.

OTOH, the Ethiopians were the only "tribal" power I know of to beat a firearm-equipped European power (Italy) outright. Isandlwana was only a temporary reverse for the British, and even then it was a defeat snatched out of the jaws of a close-run thing. Adowa was a deciding contest - the Italians didn't come back for a rematch.
Jun. 30th, 2009 11:26 pm (UTC)
Thank you for taking the time to share some brushstrokes of late 19th/early 20th African history; unfortunately most people are underinformed about African cultures. The only point I'd like to emphasize (which you expressed nicely) is the great diversity of peoples and cultures on the African continent; there is a widespread tendency to think of Africa as one conglomerated nation.
Jun. 30th, 2009 11:31 pm (UTC)
That is a really sad commentary on the neglect of such wonderful and diverse cultures in Africa at the time. Africa has such beautiful history.
Jul. 1st, 2009 12:56 am (UTC)
Not to mention a seriously long one. Egypt was, and remained, a world superpower for more time than Christendom has been around, and modern African Studies show an amazing, diverse, and complex sophistication in social thinking originating (and enduring) throughout African cultures.

This is a wonderful article. Thanks to GD for posting it, and the eye candy, especially the hats!
Jul. 1st, 2009 05:00 am (UTC)
Very well done, sir! My ancestors, well some of them, would be proud!
Jul. 1st, 2009 08:43 am (UTC)
The second-to-last photo is of some importance as a visual record for the military minutae contained within.
The troops are askari of the Imperial German schutztruppe (roughly translated as "defence force") the final picutre is also of an askari in German employ distinguished by the blue puttees.
Back to the pic training at the machine gun, the nearest askari has slung a Rifle Commission model 1888. Virtually NONE of the histories of the East African campaigns of WWI state that this arm was issued to these troops in this theater. Always mentioned are the single-shot Mauser model of 1871 and the 8-shot tubular magazine model 1871/84 as well as the better known Mauser model 1898. The '71 and 71/84 where used at the outbreak of war and both used smokey black powder charges that gave away the rifleman's position.
The M1888 was a step up in that it fired smokless rounds. And despite it's lack of mention in the major sources here we have visual evidence that at least one unit carried them.
Also noteworthy in this photo is the machinegun tripod with it's single large wheel. It was found in Africa that older-style machine gun mounts, standing taller with shields fitted were of greater use than in Europe. The higher mounting was needed to sight over vegitation and the shield was retained as combat tended to be at closer ranges (again thanks to the density of the local flora).
Jul. 1st, 2009 12:38 pm (UTC)
Somewhat off topic, but I just wanted to express how much I enjoy the intelligent and polite discussion/contribution I so often see in this group; it's truly a wonderful thing. I've learned much here. If only this could be the norm...
Jul. 2nd, 2009 01:56 pm (UTC)
I too have had an issue of non european history
I am actually working on a pan Polynesian late seam/early diesel persona. Many of the islands of Polynesia were of course european colonial territories. What many did not know is that Hawaii's Kalakaua actually had some hope of building a Polynesian confederation. So in my little neck of the universe, what happens in costume, weaponry, and culture when a polynesian confederacy, with the backing of vernsian technology (because it WOULD be something Nemo would support) begins a war to gain its independence?
Sep. 17th, 2010 07:33 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much for this information.
Greetings and Salutations, I would like to thank you for this very informative essay dealing with the Alt-history with regards to the Steampunk genre. As a African-American who is just starting to get into steampunk I find it nice that someone has given me a model to work with in order to make my outfit come alive. At Dragon*Con in Atlanta this year there was so many outfits that showcased different steampunk styles but it only dealt with american or british victorian (ie corsets,vest). With this information I hope to put together a outfit that will mesh both the rich culture of africa and the tech of steampunk again thank you.

N'Gai Alexander Spaulding -Atlanta,Ga.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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