The Arabian expression “Bilad es Sudan” (Land of the Blacks) was applied to the whole region south of the Sahara, from the Atlantic to the Nile. It is a territory some thirty-five hundred miles by six hundred miles, containing two million square miles, and has to-day a population of perhaps eighty million. It is thus two-thirds the size of the United States and quite as thickly settled. In the western Sudan the Niger plays the same role as the Nile in the east. In this chapter we follow the history of the Niger.
The history of this part of Africa was probably something as follows: primitive man, entering Africa from Arabia, found the Great Lakes, spread in the Nile valley, and wandered westward to the Niger. Herodotus tells of certain youths who penetrated the desert to the Niger and found there a city of black dwarfs. Succeeding migrations of Negroes and Negroids pushed the dwarfs gradually into the inhospitable forests and occupied the Sudan, pushing on to the Atlantic. Here the newcomers, curling northward, met the Mediterranean race coming down across the western desert, while to the southward the Negro came to the Gulf of Guinea and the thick forests of the Congo valley. Indigenous civilizations arose on the west coast in Yoruba and Benin, and contact of these with the Mediterranean race in the desert, and with Egyptian and Arab from the east, gave rise to centers of Negro culture in the Sudan at Ghana and Melle and in Songhay, Nupe, the Hausa states, and Bornu.
The history of the Sudan thus leads us back again to Ethiopia, that strange and ancient center of world civilization whose inhabitants in the ancient world were considered to be the most pious and the oldest of men. From this center the black originators of African culture, and to a large degree of world culture, wandered not simply down the Nile, but also westward. These Negroes developed the original substratum of culture which later influences modified but never displaced.
We know that Egyptian Pharaohs in several cases ventured into the western Sudan and that Egyptian influences are distinctly traceable. Greek and Byzantine culture and Phoenician and Carthaginian trade also penetrated, while Islam finally made this whole land her own. Behind all these influences, however, stood from the first an indigenous Negro culture. The stone figures of Sherbro, the megaliths of Gambia, the art and industry of the west coast are all too deep and original evidences of civilization to be merely importations from abroad.
Nor was the Sudan the inert recipient of foreign influence when it came. According to credible legend, the “Great King” at Byzantium imported glass, tin, silver, bronze, cut stones, and other treasure from the Sudan. Embassies were sent and states like Nupe recognized the suzerainty of the Byzantine emperor. The people of Nupe especially were filled with pride when the Byzantine people learned certain kinds of work in bronze and glass from them, and this intercourse was only interrupted by the Mohammedan conquest.