Portsmouth Writers’ Season – Tom Sykes

On 13th March, jihadist militants killed 14 tourists in the beach resort of Grand-Bassam in the West African republic of Ivory Coast. This was of course a tragic incident, but it was also isolated and unprecedented. In the spirit of encouraging people to keep visiting this extraordinary country, S&C presents a brief extract from the first ever full-length English language guide to Ivory Coast published in July by Bradt, one of the world’s largest travel houses. Its author, Tom Sykes, and photographer, Alexander Sebley, are both local boys and regular Star & Crescent contributors.

History Before the Europeans

Ancient implements have been discovered all across Ivory Coast indicating significant human populations dating back to the Neolithic (4,500–2,000 BC) or even Upper Palaeolithic (15,000–10,000 BC) periods. Some of these settlements were in the southern rainforests, the opacity of which made contact with other civilisations tricky until well into the Iron Age. References to ‘little red men’ in the myths of certain Ivorian cultures have prompted some historians to claim that pygmies were the true aboriginals of the area.

Ivorian man likely first encountered outsiders around the 8th century BC, when Berber traders from the northwest of the continent started to cross the Sahara Desert to do business with cultures such as the Nok of what is now northern Nigeria. By the beginning of the Ghana Empire in c.300 AD, there were a number of busy trans-Saharan trade routes, many of which led directly to gold fields along the Niger River. The North Africans would bring caravans of salt and other commodities that were abundant in their homelands to trade for gold and slaves (both domestic staff and concubines) from the south.

Later on, kola nuts, dates, leather and ivory became key goods in this commercial relationship. The trading posts established on the greener southern reaches of the Sahara (in parts of modern Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) soon evolved into the advanced metropolises of Timbuktu, Gao and Djenné, which in turn prompted the development of the powerful Sudanic empires in a space extending from the coast of modern-day Senegal 5,000km east to South Sudan. In the 6th century AD, Akan people who would later grow influential in pre-colonial Ivory Coast and Ghana, began to migrate from the Sahara and Sahel regions to the arboreal coasts of the Gulf of Guinea.

After Mohammed’s death in 693 AD, Arabian missionaries crossed the Red Sea and spread the word of Islam from the Horn of Africa right across the north of the continent. The Sudanic empires were quick to embrace the new faith, and at some point in the 11th century AD the Mali Empire, arguably the most advanced of these civilisations, spread into the northwestern tip of what we know today as Ivory Coast. The Malians founded the city of Odienné – which still stands – as a centre of Islamic learning and culture.

During the same period, Malian merchants penetrated what is now northeastern Ivory Coast seeking to trade with settlements of the animist Senoufo people. The merchants set up the commercial hub of Kong and introduced Islam to the area, a move that alienated those Senoufos keen to retain their pagan beliefs. Some of these discontents relocated south, whilst others travelled west to establish the city of Korhogo under the auspices of the illustrious headman Nanagui. In the early medieval era, the Abron, a branch of the Akan, created the non-Muslim kingdom of Bonoman, which flourished through gold trading with the north. Its territory encompassed what are these days east-central Ivory Coast and the Brong-Ahafo region of Ghana.

When the Mali Empire began to disintegrate in the 14th century, the embryonic Songhai Kingdom conquered the important commercial city of Gao and annexed Odienné and the surrounding area. Over the next two centuries, the Songhai became the greatest of the sub-Saharan empires; at the zenith of its power and influence it stretched over more than 1.4 million square kilometres. After the death of Emperor Askia Daoud in 1582, a bitter war for Songhai succession broke out, followed by an invasion of the empire’s northern possessions by Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur of Morocco. The turmoil forced many Songhai citizens, including those in and around Odienné, to flee to the southern forests, creating the conditions for the emergence of Ivory Coast’s major pre-European states.

In the east, the Islamic Abron kingdom of Gyamaan superseded Bonoman in about 1450 and went on to subsume the smaller ethnic communities of Hwelas, Kulangos and Nafanas. Gyamaan was a centre of Koranic scholarship famed across West Africa and developed an advanced federal system of government comprising numerous local headmen answerable to four district chiefs and a single paramount chief or Gyamanhene, whose seat of power was Amanvi, now a town and commune 50km from the border with Ghana.

In the 17th century, the Gyamaans annexed the town of Bondoukou from the Dyula, a commercial caste within the Mali Empire with roots in the Niger Basin. Bondoukou swiftly became the new capital of Gyamaan. In the late 1800s, the west of the state was briefly occupied by the formidable Asante Empire, who went on to bravely resist the British while they tried to establish the Gold Coast colony (now Ghana).

In the early 1700s, the Dyula founded the Islamic Kong Empire, which rapidly prospered from the same north–south trade arrangement that had made the northerly civilisations great. Kong underwent a cultural renaissance that is still evident in the contemporary art and design that comes from this part of Ivory Coast. Around 1750, Queen Abraha Pokou of the Akan – or, as some historians contend, the Brong – royal family rejected an offer to join the Asantes, and fled with her people to modern-day central Ivory Coast to set up the Baoulé nation.

This last of the pre-colonial states became the largest, eventually occupying a V-shape of territory between the Bandama and N’Zi rivers. The Baoulés were also more politically and culturally sophisticated than any of their rivals or predecessors. Depending on its size, a Baoulé village was led by a chief, king or queen advised by a council of notables (elders). These ruling elites were obliged to consult the opinions of all their subjects, even slaves. Villages combined to form larger political units governed by a higher stratum of chiefs who worked together to form regional policy and resolve inter-village disputes. Such a political structure survives to the present day, although district- and national-level politicians have arrogated most of the senior chiefs’ executive powers.