The generosity of the ancient African Kings

Menkawre (Mykerinos) Source image : Fondation Berger
Menkawre (Mykerinos)
Source image : Fondation Berger

In view of the need to accuse Africans of selling their own to slavery, the image of the Black monarchs was grossly falsified. When it comes to them, people imagine bloodthirsty men, who do not respect their people, at the head of dictatorial states. There is nothing like this. As we will see, the rulers in ancient Africa – without being perfect – have distinguished themselves by their generosity and their deep concern for the welfare of their subjects.

As texts and testimonies prove, the African monarchs, driven by the Maât, were generally very human. First of all it is important to say slavery never existed in Egypt, either towards African natives nor towards foreigners [1]

It was written about Pharaoh Menkawre (Mykerinos) – for whom was built one of the three great pyramids of the plateau of Giza – in his tomb that ‘his majesty does not want any man to be under forced labor but, may each one work at his own convenience [2]

The legendary Ramesu Maryimana (Rameses II) said ‘Oh chosen and brave workers. Oh! You are the fighters who ignore tiredness, who accomplish tasks with rigour and efficiency. I will not spare my good deeds towards you, and food will be abundant. I will provide for you in all ways, so that you can work for me with a loving heart. I am the defender of your profession (…); your food will be copious because I know your work is very difficult and a man’s stomach must be full for it to the done. I also set up a large staff in order to provide you with everything you need. Fishers will bring you fish, others, gardeners, will grow vegetables, potters will work near in order to make lots of pitchers, so that water for you can be fresh during summer’. [2]

Under the rule of Ramesu Hekayunu (Rameses III), workers went on a strike and the king defended them openly. The judge priest Kai said ‘I’ve paid those workers with beer and bread and had them say they were satisfied’ [3]. As Cheikh Anta Diop said, the resolution of the strike shows the lukewarm nature of the demands, showing that workers were already relatively at ease.

the legendary Behanzin, last king of independant Danhome (present-day Benin)
The legendary Behanzin, last king of independant Danhome (present-day Benin)

During the imperial era, the land was nobody’s property. The land was a divinity, an aspect of the primordial Ancestor (God); it was therefore unacceptable to possess it. Everyone had therefore a small plot of land they could cultivate. This ensured abundant quantities of food and explains in part why Africa did not know starvation before the European slave trade. Also tax system shows that the rulers were very careful on how taxes were collected.

Tax collection almost didn’t exist in the empire of Mwene Mutapa, according to the explorer Oliver Dapper’s quotation ‘Nobody pays taxes in Monomotapa. But one never comes before the king or other important personality without something to offer’. [4]

In Danhome, taxes corresponded to 1/18 part of the citizen’s wealth, what is very low. The Tunkara (king of Ghana) used to offer 10 000 meals a day to the people. In other terms, as Cheikh Anta Diop said, the elites had the duty to give goods to the people of the lower social classes each time the latters asked, in order to hold their own.

In the empire of Mali, the lower class of dependants used to be given plots of land and had the duty to produce enough grass to feed the horses. If during the empire of Mali the tax rates were fixed and the dependents had additional collection if the quota required wasn’t fulfilled, during the empire of Songhai the collections would be more humane. After an evaluation of each family’s wealth, the king’s tax collector would take ten measures of wheat from those who could afford it, twenty measures from those who could afford more and thirty from the others even though they were able to give 1000 measures.

Thanks to low taxes and the generosity of the elites, the dependents wrongly called slaves – condemned to that condition for punishment after a wrongdoing or as war prisoners – could then get rich. The Italian navigator said in the fifteenth century the working class people eat with a cauldron full of meat in the middle of them…they return to get more food five or six times a day’.[5]

According to an anecdote, the Askia Ishaq II, the last emperor of Songhai, wanted everyone among the crowd gathered in Gao to break the fast, to receive a gift from him. Louise Marie Diop-Maes tells us that if this anecdote is not to be taken strictly, it therefore reflects a state of mind and a society of material plenitude.

Askia Mohammed Touré, dit Askia le grand Illsutration de Léo Dillon pour Anheuser Busch
Askia Muhammad Ture, Emperor of Songhai (Illustration by Leo Dillon for Anheuser Busch)

This general state of mind of material welfare and generosity used to ensure an exemplary safety in the ancient kingdoms and empires of Africa. This way, the famous Arab traveler Ibn Battuta told us in the fourteenth century ‘amongst the beautiful qualities of this people (Blacks from West Africa), we’ll cite these: the small number of unfair acts; for amongst every other people they are those who hates injustice the most. The Sultan (king) does not forgive whoever is guilty. There’s complete and general safety all over the country. The traveler as well as the settled does not have to fear brigands, nor thieves or kidnapers. Blacks do not seize the goods belonging to Whites dead in their country, though it is great treasures. On the contrary, they take it to trustful man among the Whites, so he can keep it until the beneficiaries show up and take it’.[6]

A bronze statue of a king of Benin (present-day Nigeria)
A bronze statue of a king of Benin (present-day Nigeria)

The same way, in the kingdom of Benin (Nigeria), the most rigorous civic spirit is observed. Olivier Dapper said ‘the king pays people so they can provide visitors with water. Those officers must have from a place to another, large pots of fresh and clean water with a conch to drink. But nobody would dare taking a drop without paying. And if the assistant wasn’t there, people would leave the money around before following their path’ [7]

This state of mind of the former African rulers is due to Maât, it is to say the African philosophic perception. Maât proscribes anyone to suffer. And even the Islamized kings kept this state of mind alive. Moreover, the power of the kings was sacred because they used to take oath in the name of the Ancestors.

To accede to the throne, in the tradition, the king must have been initiated to the traditional values. Africans used to swear only to their kings, who as we see, were generally endowed with a strong sense of moral. The contrast with the current African leaders is terrible. This distinctive feature of the former Africans also explains the exceptional longevity and the stability of the African states where the monarchy – unlike in Europe where rulers were great time tyrants and selfish – wasn’t questioned.


By: Lisapo ya Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbbiden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)

Notes :

  • [1] La traite négrière européenne : vérité et mensonge (The European slave trade: truth and lies) – Jean Philippe Omotunde, pages 40 to 43.
  • [2] Idem, page 41.
  • [3] Idem, page 45
  • [4] Afrique noire, sol, démographie et histoire (Black Africa, soil, demography and history) – Louise Marie Diop-Maes, page 188.
  • [5] Idem, page 191
  • [6] Idem, page 196
  • [7] Idem, page 197
  • Idem, page 189 & 190.
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