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Decolonizing the Curriculum, Episode 1: Understanding the fabric of Africa and Florida

This is an abridged version of Episode 1 of our Decolonizing the Curriculum podcast. For the full story, listen to the audio above.

Take a moment and picture the continent of Africa before the 15th century — precolonial Africa. What images come to mind? 

Perhaps you picture the Nile River, the sands of the Sahara Desert or maybe wildebeests and lions roaming the Serengeti.

What sounds do you hear? The heartbeat of African drums, perhaps? The languages of Yoruba or Fula rolling off the tongues of native speakers? 

What about cities? Are there libraries? Centers of immense wealth and learning? 

How do you picture precolonial Africa?

In an effort to evoke the complexity of Black lives in Florida, the Florida Humanities Broadcasting Hope Grant provided funding to uncover the under-told stories of African influence — from ancient civilizations on the African continent to acts of resistance during the Middle Passage transatlantic slave trade.

Precolonial West Africa

In West Africa, more than 2,000 miles inland from the coast, on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, lies Timbuktu. 

The ancient city was a major center for learning, said Robin Poynor, a retired emeritus professor at the University of Florida’s department of art history. He has studied African art, history and culture for more than 50 years. 

“One of the oldest universities in the world was at Timbuktu,” he said. “Some of the oldest libraries in the world that still exist are in Timbuktu. There are books that are centuries and centuries old, that are stored in libraries in Timbuktu.”

The centers of learning established in precolonial West Africa were some of the largest in the world, he added. This goes against some popular notions that people in Africa urbanized only after contact with Arab nations, or later, Europeans. 

But when the Europeans first visited the kingdom of Benin and the Congo, they were taken aback, said Turbado Marabou, a former Alachua County teacher who is now a storyteller, musician and doctoral student focused on the Black aesthetic. Streets spanned as far as the eye can see and the architecture was incredibly intricate. It was a society: there were teachers, doctors, architects and engineers. African empires also established trade routes and experienced great wealth dating back to 250 B.C.

The ancient African civilization of Djenne — in present-day Mali — is one of few urban ancient civilizations in human history. The city traded fish, grains, copper and metals with the nearby cities of Timbuktu and Gao. 

Centuries later, Djenne would become a major tradepost in the trans-Saharan gold trade.

It was this abundance of trade, especially gold in the kingdom of Ghana, and later, the Mali Empire, that spurred a new chapter in global exploration — both by attracting European explorers to the African continent and by financing legendary excursions by wealthy African rulers.

Africa and the Age of Discovery

At the turn of the 13th century, the kingdom of Ghana was succeeded by the Mali Empire, giving the present-day country its name. 

Now, its most famous sultan was Mansa Musa, who took power in 1312 after his brother, Abu Bakr II, gave up the throne to explore the limits of the Atlantic Ocean. But in the Middle East, unlike in Europe, explorers understood the Earth was round, thanks to the work of Arab geographers.

The details of his voyage are still debated by scholars. Some historians believe Abu Bakr II may have landed in the Americas, more than a century before Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492.  

But unlike colonial explorations, Wealthy African rulers did not explore for conquest,

Turbado Marabou, an artist and educator in Alachua County, said.

“It wasn’t military expansion — it was like Africa Star Trek — we’re not here to exploit you, we’re just here to explore, exchange ideas, exchange culture,” he said.

It is important to recognize the beginnings of the African migration history with this exploration, rather than with slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, Amanda Concha-Holmes, an anthropologist and humanities scholar at the University of Florida, said. The first African migrants should be conceptualized as wealthy and highly advanced, rather than as enslaved individuals, she added.

The Age of Discovery was actually a race for European nations to establish ties with famously rich African empires, said author Howard French.

The Middle Passage

The Middle Passage is taught to younger students as just a trip, said Rik Stevenson, a professor of African American studies at the University of Florida specializing in resistance during the Middle Passage, a leg of the transatlantic slave trade during which millions of Africans were transported to the Americas.

“We don't realize that out of about 35,000 voyages, there are about 5,000 ships at the bottom of the ocean,” he said. “We don't take into account how many people literally died at sea. So those numbers are important.”

Detailed documentation exists from the slave ships.

After the mid-1700s, surgeons were on the ships. They were the ones who dictated and documented how people lived or died at sea becuse of insurance, Stevenson said. Companies sold insurance policies on enslaved persons’ lives. 

“They created a clause called the ‘perils at sea,’” he added. “If a person died because of one of the perils, i.e. insurrection, self murder, then the merchant could collect the insurance.”

The perils at sea clause was employed most notably on the Zong, a slaving vessel from Liverpool.

Captain Luke Collingwood had 440 slaves on board when he took a wrong turn. He was running low on food and water and did not think he could make it to his destination with his cargo….

“Collingsworth figured… ‘I have 130, 132 Africans that are not marketable,” Stevenson explained. “I can't sell them; they're probably not going to make it. I'll just throw them overboard. If i get back to England and say they were part of the perils at sea, I collect insurance.’” 

He went to court, where the judges realized that is not at all what happened. The massacre fueled conversations about abolishing slavery in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Stevenson also noted the psychosis of the enslaved people.Of the nearly 35,000 voyages that departed from the west coast of Africa, a number of different ethnic groups were represented. Most times, people could not even speak to one another. The surgeon’s notes reflected depression, he said.

Funding for this program was provided through a Broadcasting Hope Public Media grant from Florida Humanities with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent those of Florida Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Sky is a multimedia producer for WUFT News who can be reached by emailing slebron30@ufl.edu or calling 352-392-6397.