Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

This name, which is of Phoenician origin, was at first given by the Romans to the territory about the city of Carthage. It gradually came to be applied to the whole Libyan territory occupied by the Romans, and it was understood in this sense, as late as the eleventh century, by Pope St. Leo IX , who, when asked to decide as to the primacy of the bishops of ancient Numidia, wrote these words, now engraved in letters of gold on the modern basilica of Carthage, built by Cardinal Lavigerie : "Sine dubio, post Romanum pontificem, primus Nubiae episcopus et totius Africae maximus metropolitanus est Carthaginiensis episcopus" (There can be no doubt that after the Roman Pontiff the first Bishop of Nubia, and indeed the principal Metropolitan of Africa is the Bishop of Carthage ). In their turn the Arabs adopted the name; then the writers of the Middle Ages ; finally it has come to include the entire continent.

I. THE COUNTRY

Africa is, in extent, about 12,000,000 square miles, or about three times as large as Europe, and five times as large as the United States , without Alaska. It is joined to the Asiatic continent only by the Isthmus of Suez. Its general shape is that of an irregular triangle, which peculiarity of shape, with the scarcity of bays or harbours, seriously affected its historical development prior to the use of steam. It rests on a rocky foundation, which forms an immense plateau in the interior, whence, in isolated masses, branch off ranges like the Atlas, the mountains of Abyssinia, Cape Colony, the Orange River Colony, the Transvaal, the Kenya, Kilima-Njaro, the Mfumbiro, and the Kameruns. These mountains, which attain in some places a height of 20,000 feet, have the appearance of islets, where rise in stages belts of a wonderfully varied vegetation. This plateau is bounded by a coast depression, whence the land sinks gradually. The west coast, from Morocco to the Cape, is extremely rough and difficult, to approach. On the Equator the rains are frequent and torrential; at Gaboon, for instance, it rains every day for nine months, the atmosphere is heavy with humidity, and the heat is maintained at an almost unchanging temperature. An enormous quantity of water is gathered in aerial seas by the winds, which, meeting, neutralize each other. This water, drawn down by the daily thunder-storms, forms the vast reservoirs of the interior: the lakes of Timbuctu, Tchad, Victoria, Albert, Tanganyika, Bangweolo, Mweru, Nyassa, and others, whence flow the principal rivers: the Niger, the Benue, the Congo, the Zambesi, and the Nile, and others, less known, but of considerable importance. Most of them flow to the sea over rocky beds, forming rapids and waterfalls. These rivers have their sources at a much greater altitude than the rivers of other continents. The source of the Congo is at a height of 6,000 feet; of the Nile at 4,500; and of the Niger at 3,000; while that of the Amazon is not more than 700 feet, and the Mississippi only about 2,000 feet. It has been said that Africa has been less travelled than any other part of the world. It is there that are found, more than anywhere else, huge mountains, such as Kilima-Njaro, Kenya, etc., which rise suddenly from the level surface of great plains; vast lakes of uncertain outlines, which seem at one time to be drying up and at another to be making new inroads on the land; long rivers whose branches cover millions of square miles, and which, like the Nile, flow slowly through valleys as desolate as an unfinished world; solemn forests and the endless desert, vast and well suited to the peculiar nature of such great plants as the baobab, and of strange creatures like the ostrich, the giraffe, the elephant, the hippopotamus, and the gorilla; in very truth it is the primitive world. It is in the Equatorial zone, and especially towards the west, that the forests are largest, while in other parts they are somewhat irregularly scattered, with trees rising straight and mighty above a vigorous undergrowth. It is possible to travel for days, and even months, in these forests without so much as a glimpse of the sky, except in some chance clearing where the natives have cut down a few trees, to build their little village, or to till their fields. Silence reigns everywhere, broken only, in the daytime, by an occasional flapping of wings overhead; and at night by the shrill music of insects in a monotonous chorus. Storms echo in a frightful fashion; the rains cause an invariable humidity, rendering everything impervious to fire, and it is only during the short dry season of three or four months that it is safe to penetrate these forests. On both sides of the Equator, as far as 15 degrees north and 20 degrees south, stretches a zone that has two seasons, a rainy and a dry season. In this region, the great virgin forest and perpetual verdure are but seldom found save in the narrow spaces, stretching ribbonlike along the river banks, or crowding in the valleys, or climbing, in rows, along the mountain-sides. Elsewhere are found great prairies, over which the fire passes at the end of each dry season, and where roam great herds of antelope, giraffe, zebu, and buffalo. Beyond this double zone, which begins with Equatorial landscapes and ends in a semi-desert, stretches another zone of rocks, grass-lands, swamps, clay, and almost wholly barren sand. This, to the north, is the Sahara and the Libyan desert ; to the south, the Kalahari and the solitude that surrounds it. It is a land where the sky is without cloud, and the earth without shade. These deserts, which are not lacking in grandeur and attraction, mark, north and south, the true boundaries of Africa. Beyond them, north and south -- to the north, Mauretania, Algeria, Egypt ; to the south, the region of Cape Colony -- the soil, the climate, the fauna and flora, the inhabitants are no longer characteristically African, but European.

II. THE INHABITANTS

The most recent statistics give the population of Africa as from 160,000,000 to 200,000,000 souls. Of these, 128,000,000 represent the black element very unevenly distributed over the 12,000,000 square miles of surface. In some parts it is very dense, as in the valleys of the Nile and of the Niger; in Algeria, Morocco, and Abyssinia ; in certain States of the Sudan ; near the lakes of the interior, and in the region of Cape Colony; while it is very sparse in great spaces like the Sahara and the Kalahari desert, or the swamps where the tributaries of the Nile and of the Zambesi pour their sluggish currents.

The occupation of the continent by the European nations, which put an end to local wars, slave-raids, and, to some extent, to poisonings, infanticide, and human sacrifices, might well lead men to hope for the repeopling of Africa. These advantages, however, seem, in modern times, sadly outweighed by the spread of the dread sleepingsickness and other contagious diseases, drunkenness, and the breaking up of native family life, due to contact with our civilization.

African ethnography presents a very complicated problem. Five thousand years before Christ the valley of the Nile was inhabited by a population already possessing a remarkable civilization. Traces of its occupation even prior to that period, during the Age of Stone, have been found from the Atlas to the Cape, from Somaliland to the Guinea Coast. The question, then, arises, whether these primitive populations may not now be represented by the Negritos, or Pygmies, of Africa, mentioned by ancient authors and once more discovered in modern times. Under the various names of "Akka", "Ba-twa", "A-kwa", "Be-kü", etc., they are met with in scanty groups throughout Equatorial Africa, from the banks of the Tuba to the valley of the Ogowai (French Congo) and that of the Congo. Near the Cunene they come in contact with another population of similar stature (4 ft. to 4 ft. 2 in.), manners, and physical qualities: the "Sân", called "Bosjesmannen" by the Dutch, and "Bushmen" in English. There are two types: one black, the other yellowish; but they undoubtedly constitute distinct races, with well marked ethnic characteristics. There are valid reasons for thinking that these tribes formerly lived in Ethiopia and in the Nile basin. Traces of similar populations are found in Europe ; and, at the present day a parallel race represented by the Negritos of the Andamans, Moluccas, and the islands in the vicinity of IndoChina. These little men would therefore seem to have occupied the whole of the ancient continent, scattering from a central point, which, if we may trust certain indications, was the valley of the Euphrates. That which is certain, however, is that the Negritos appear in Africa as a primitive population, which was scattered by the stronger and better organized tribes who came after them. This, moreover, is exactly the notion they have formed concerning themselves, and which has been formed of them by the blacks; they look on themselves, and are looked on by their neighbours, as the first owners of the Earth. It is to them that the forest belongs, with all that it contains, animals and fruits; and it is they who possess the secrets of African nature. Their life is everywhere the same; they are nomads, who make no settled encampments, have no trade, commerce, or farming, neither flocks nor domestic animals of any kind, except a small dog, also found all over Africa, whose life is on a level with the wretched life of his master. These people live by hunting, by what they can pick up or beg from the agricultural or pastoral tribes among whom they live, and whom they supply with meat, ivory, and rubber. Their language as a rule resembles that of the people among whom they have stayed longest.

It is, however, among the Sân (Bushmen) that we must look for the race which, it would seem, grew up shortly afterwards by mingling their blood, and possibly their speech, with that of the Negritos (dwarfs). These are the Namas, Nama-kwa, Grikwa (Griqua), etc., known to Europeans by the generic name of Hottentots (a name derived from a Dutch word meaning "brute"). Somewhat taller, of a darker colour, with longer hair, equally prone to obesity, they have fixed villages and lead a pastoral life. Their language, which is agglutinative, with pronominal suffixes, is characterized by the use of four different kinds of "clicks", also used by the San, and which have no equivalent in our alphabet. In the opinion of many scholars -- among them, Deniker -- the primitive Hottentots before their fusion with the San were the original Bantu. This word (from mu-ntu , "man", "a being endowed with reason ", plural, ba-ntu ) has been used to designate an important family of languages which stretches from one ocean to the other, from the basin of the Congo and the Victoria Nyanza in the north, to the Orange River and the Limpopo, deducting the Hottentot tribes.

Although every tribe in this vast region has its own language, the basis of vocabulary and grammar is common to them all. They are agglutinative in structure, and characterized by pronominal prefixes which not only determine the number and category of the noun, but extend to the adjective and the verb by very rational rules, which are always applied.

The Bantu, who include, among other better known tribes, the Zulus, Basutos, Matabele, Makua, Wa-swahili, Wa-nyamwezi, Ba-ganda, Ba-congo, Uepongwe, Fang, etc., present a great variety of types, due, no doubt, to divers mixtures of race, which, as a rule, it is difficult to trace very far back. Their manner of life seems to depend chiefly on the country they live in; they are farmers, shepherds, and fishermen. Certain tribes, such as the Ba-ganda, have formed, and still form, large communities with regular institutions, generally in the form of an autocratic government. Most of them, however, have maintained their patriarchal life, and are scattered in little villages, practically independent of each other. Moreover, litigation and war, slavery, polygamy, the practice of a degrading fetishism, with their train of legal infanticide, trials by poison and by fire, arbitrary condemnations, poisonings, human sacrifices, and even cannibalism, prevail more or less extensively, and to a greater or less degree among all these interesting peoples.

Besides the lands occupied by the Bantu, there are to be found in the valleys of Senegal, Gambia, of the Niger, Lake Tchad, and Benue, strong and numerous tribes of a more markedly negro type, of great stature, strongly dolichocephalous, with very black skins, rounded foreheads, thick lips, and frequent prognathism. These tribes, sufficiently varied in appearance, are often known under the generic name of Nigritians, and are divided into four principal groups: the Nilotic negroes, such as the Mittu, the Bari, the Bongo, the Sandé, etc.; the negroes of the central Sudan, such as the natives of Bornu, Baghirmi, Wadaï, Darfur, Kordofan, etc.; the negroes of the western Sudan, such as the Sonrhaï, the Mossi, the Mandinké, and their kinsmen (Malinké, Bambara, Soninké); and, finally, the coast, or Guinea, negroes, such as the Volof, the Sener, the Susu, the Aku, the Ashanti, the Fanti, the people of Dahomey, the Egbas, the Yoruba, the Mina, the Ibo, etc. These tribes are, as a rule, stronger than the Bantu, more industrious, better organized for fighting, and for resistance to invasion. Many, indeed, have known real epochs of prosperity and greatness.

Moreover, this superiority is most clearly marked in proportion to the "crossing" of races. This is true of the "All-colours", belonging to a different ethnic type, represented by the Hamites (Chamites), also known as Kushites, Ethiopians, or Nubians. To this group should be joined the Bedja of Nubia, the Abyssinians, the Oromo, or Gallas, the Afora, or Danakil, the Somalis, the Masai, and, in the west, the Fula and the Fulbé. All these tribes, whose skin is black, bronze, or reddish -- the result, no doubt of a considerable mingling with the tribes they first met with -- are, as a rule, of a regular type, often handsome, with shapely limbs, oval faces, long noses, and hair long and curly; all with an air that appears to greater advantage from their skill in draping themselves in the fashion of antique statues. They are no longer negroes. Most of them lead a pastoral life and, divided into something like clans, tend their flocks on the wide strip of half-desert pasture-land which stretches from Cape Gardafui to Cape Verde. They are intelligent, warlike, independent, given to pillage, and full of scorn for inferior races; they are bad neighbours, but have great influence wherever they may be.

From the Hamites we pass, by a natural transition, to the Berbers, who have held northern Africa for many centuries. While the other tribes are of Asiatic origin, the Berbers came from Europe at an unknown period, and belong to two types, the brown and the fair. About A.D. 1100, they founded Timbuctoo, and spread as far as the Canary Islands ; then, roused by Islam, they made their way into Spain, and threatened the south of France. They are represented by the Barabra, the Kabyles of the Atlas, the Tuareg of the Sahara, and the Moors of the western coast, and have had a considerable part in the formation of the so-called "Arab" populations of the "Barbary States".

In addition to these various elements, yet another, the Semitic, has settled among, and to some extent mingled with, the people of Africa. This element is to be found chiefly in Egypt, in Abyssinia, and on the East Coast. In more recent times there has been an influx of modern Europeans -- the Portuguese in Guinea, Angola, and Mozambique ; the Dutch on the Gold Coast, at the Cape, and in the valleys of the Orange and the Limpopo; the English, Germans, Belgians, and French in their recent colonies. Thus, at periods which it is impossible to determine, men evidently of the same species, but not of the same race, settled on this primitive soil, mingling some of their qualities, changing their hues, confounding their customs and their speech, yet, nevertheless, often retaining clear traces of their original descent.

III. RELIGION

A. Native Religion

There is no doubt that there is to be found among the nations of Africa, apart from Christianity and Mohammedanism, a religion, a belief in a higher, living, and personal principle, implying on man's part the duty of recognizing it by means of some kind of worship.

Individuals, families, and even communities may doubtless be found in Africa, as elsewhere, utterly, or almost, devoid of all notion of religion and morality. This fact has led certain travellers, who, it is certain, were not familiar with the native languages, who had not penetrated into the inner secrets of the peoples they professed to have studied, and who, in addition, were often wrongly informed by chance interpreters, into the belief that tribes without a religion exist in Africa. A more careful study, however, makes it possible to assert that in Africa religion is everywhere, as M. Robert H. Nassau says, "closely bound up with the different matters which concern the family, the rights of property, authority, the organization of the tribe -- with judicial trials, punishments, foreign relations, and with trade". Religious beliefs and practices, characterized by the two principal elements of prayer and sacrifice, form part of the daily life of the blacks.

What is also true, however, is that no body of doctrine, properly so called, exists anywhere with interpreters bound to ensure its integrity, to explain and to hand it down to others. There is, therefore, no distinct religious code, no official teaching, no books, no schools, as in Islam, Buddhism, and other positive religions. What is known concerning supernatural matters is a sort of common deposit, guarded by everybody, and handed down without any intervention on the part of an authority; fuller in one place, scantier in another, or, again, more loaded with external symbols according to the intelligence, the temperament, the organization, the habits, and the manner of the people's life. Certain specialists, however, exist, known to us as sorcerers, witch-doctors, etc., who are familiar with the mysterious secrets of things, who make use of them on behalf of those interested, and hand them down to chosen disciples. There are also secret societies which guard what may be called the preternatural tradition of the tribe, and deduce therefrom the decisions to be arrived at.

Finally, it is understood that certain things are forbidden; there are prohibitions which cannot be defied save at the risk of misfortune. Nevertheless, that which ethnologists call Naturism, Animism, or Fetishism nowhere constitutes in primitive Africa a body of doctrine, with correlative precepts and settled practice which may be reduced to a system.

The idea of a Being higher than man, invisible, inaccessible, master of life and death, orderer of all things, seems to exist everywhere; among the Negritos, the Hottentots, the Bantu, the Nigritians, the Hamites; for everywhere this Being has a name. He is the "Great", the "Ancient One", the "Heavenly One", the "Bright One", the "Master", sometimes the "Author", or "Creator". The notion, however, concerning Him is clear, obliterated, or vague according to the tribe; nowhere, at least, is He represented under any image, for He is incapable of representation.

What does He require of us? What are His relations with man ? Has life any aim? -- All this is unknown; it is unasked. Man finds himself a being on the earth, like the plants and animals. That fact he is conscious of. He eats, he reproduces himself, he does what he can; he dies also, as a rule, though death is looked on as an accident, the causes of which must always be inquired into. In the hereafter, the spirits or shadows of kings, chiefs, witch-doctors, of great men, rich and powerful, being set free from the bodies to which they were united, wander through space until they find another body into which to enter. They keep after this life the power, often intensified, which they had before; they can injure or give help; they can influence the elements. More, they often bring news of themselves; they cause most of the sicknesses of children; they are seen in dreams ; they cause nightmares; they are heard at night; they show themselves in many inexplicable phenomena. The shades of ordinary persons have less power; of no importance after death, as in life, they disappear.

It is important, however, to give all these shades a fixed abode. This is done by means of certain complicated ceremonies : by calling them into caves, into sacred groves, to the foot of certain trees, sometimes into living animals, but more often into statuettes of earth, wood, or metal, placed on the skull of the ancestor, or containing some part of his remains -- nails, hair, eyebrows, or skin. There are some rebellious shades, however, who are difficult to keep in one spot; they are called back by means of fresh ceremonies. Moreover, on all necessary occasions -- for the success of a journey, of a hunt, of a trade, or war, to ward off a plague, to turn aside misfortune -- recourse is had to the sacred object; prayers are said to it, and offerings made (glass beads, rice, maize, milk, beer); victims are sacrificed to it, birds, kids, sheep, oxen, men; for the more the shade is to be honoured the more worthy must be the sacrifice.

Nor is this all. The offering must, of necessity, be eaten in common; it is by drinking the blood, and by eating the flesh of the animal or man sacrificed, in company with the manes of the ancestors vanished, yet present, that their favours are obtained, and they are satisfied. This satisfaction is most esteemed when it is possible to sacrifice their enemies, those who have caused their death, and on whom they thus wreak the sweetest revenge that can be dreamed of. This is the origin of cannibalism, which in some parts of Africa has taken on peculiarly disgusting forms.

Ancestor worship, in one form or other, is thus the chief expression of African religion. But besides shades, there are a number of spirits, whose origin is unknown, who reveal themselves in various ways. Most of these are wicked, some terrible, but others are mischievous, capricious, fanciful; while some, again, are more or less indifferent, and sometimes well-disposed. It is the darksome activity of these spirits which must be held accountable for the epidemics, storms, droughts, floods, and fires -- all the ills that seem to have no apparent cause. The same holds true of possession, so common everywhere.

To offset these ills it is necessary to consult the "seers", who, after the necessary ceremonies, will find the name and character of the spirit who is at fault, will indicate the specialist (witch-doctor) to whom recourse must be had, and who will obtain the desired result, a cessation of the trial, a cure of the sickness, an end to the possession, by means of the practices or sacrifices demanded by the spirit.

In a word, from the point of view of the black man, the world was formed to progress regularly, and might possibly have attained its end, had its Creator so willed it. But, for unknown reasons, God had left His work exposed to many harmful influences of elements, of animals, of men, of sorcerers, of ghosts, of spirits. And, since He is beyond man's reach, since man cannot get to where He is, and can do nothing against His action or His inactivity, he is led to placate or to neutralize such influences as can be reached among the thousands that everywhere reveal themselves.

It is to the general scheme of these mysterious things that we must reduce the almost universal belief that there exists for each individual, for each family, something sacred or forbidden, the taboo of the Maoris, which cannot be touched without misfortune: a fruit, a tree, a fish, an animal, whose name one bears. It is to this scheme, again, that the use of amulets must be referred, made, as they are, of rare and outlandish things; of mysterious remedies, of protective fetishes for everything and against everything. Moreover, divination, second-sight, philtres, enchantments, horoscopes, forecasts, are equally well known. Judicial trials, held to make known the guilty, are of daily occurrence.

But, just as it is possible for man to use to his advantage or to neutralize, these mysterious influences, these secret virtues in things, so he can make use of them to effect his revenge, to do harm to those about him, as do sorcerers, conjurers, or wizards. In league with hidden powers, these practitioners send sicknesses, cause death, bewitch their enemies, and roam at night in the form of a ball of fire, of some bird or animal, to spread their witcheries. They are, consequently, feared and hated. Many have recourse to them, if they can get to know them, in order to join them, or to follow them with their hatred. If they are discovered, they are made to do penance, are sold, killed, or burned, as local justice shall decide. It is curious to meet, in the heart of Africa, with facts of sorcery absolutely identical with those known among us in the Middle Ages, and even at the present day. And, if these wizards and witches practice their arts at the risk of their lives, it may be well to add that they have not seldom merited their fate, for many of them, in addition to and aside from their relations to the supernatural, are undeniably very skilful poisoners.

Certain anthropologists and ethnologists, anxious to find in Africa a territory propitious to their theories, endeavour to prove that the religious evolution of man starts from simple Naturism, whence it proceeds to Animism, and thence to Fetishism, to attain at length to a more or less pure Theism. This upward march, which supposes man to have set out from the lowest stage towards an indefinite progress, appears reasonable. But it is reasoning a priori , based on an untenable hypothesis. The actual facts are found on examination to be far from agreement with this theory.

(1) Naturism is the worship paid to personified natural objects: the sky, the sun, the moon, the mountains, the thunder, etc. The Hottentots have been said to adore the moon, in whose honour they perform long dances. This statement, however, is now known to be erroneous. The Hottentots, like all Africans, are fond of dancing by moonlight; they hail the moon's reappearance and follow her course closely, since it is she who measures time, but this is very far from being worship. The true objects of Hottentot worship are the spirits of their dead. They recognize, moreover, a Power higher than these shades, "Tsu Goab", an expression which the missionaries have made use of to translate the word "God". Again, other Bantu tribes use terms which mean either "Sky" or "God", "Sun" or "God", etc., but make a clear distinction as to the meaning conveyed by these words. Not one, in fact, imagines that a material identity exists between the planet that gives us light, or the firmament wherein it moves, and the Supreme Being who inhabits or makes use of them. The same may be said concerning the thunder. The blacks, indeed, sometimes say that it is God, who by this sign, foretells the rain, but this is not worship. Naturism, in the strict sense given to the word, does not exist in Africa.

(2) Animism , based on the distinction between matter and spirit, is the belief in beings which have no affinity to any special thing in nature, but are endowed with a higher power; to whom a certain worship is paid, yet who are incapable of being represented in a visible form. Taken in this very vague and general sense, it may be said that Animism is the religion of a great part of Africa: the Negritos, Hottentots, Bantus of the south and east, many of the Nigritians, and most of the Hamites, have practically neither fetishes, idols, nor material images, honoured with any kind of worship. They believe, as we have said, in the survival of the spirits of the departed (under an ill-defined form which they liken, as a rule, to a shadow), in their possession of more or less power, in the need of honouring them, placating them, and settling them in fixed localities. They believe, also, in the existence of spirits differing from these shades; in mysterious influences; lastly, in a Higher Power which they more or less clearly distinguish from visible creation, from the earth, the firmament, etc. However, the want of a true idea of a supreme Deity, and scientific ignorance, are the causes of a great mass of superstition of all kinds among the blacks, even among those who are animists.

(3) Fetishism . The question has been raised whether Animism gave birth to Fetishism, or sprang from a purified Fetishism ; but the discussion would be futile. These two forms of religion, if one may call them so, seem to correspond more closely with two divergent subjective dispositions than with two principles, two doctrines, or two traditions. We find, in fact, individuals and families, in the midst of animist populations, who materialize the expression of their worship by making images, into which they summon the souls of their dead; and similarly, in the midst of fetishist populations, a number of individuals and families who have no fetishes. The word "fetish", derived from the Portuguese feitigo ( Latin facticius ), signifies a material object to which is attributed a mysterious influence, in consequence of the presence or action of an invisible power in this sacred thing. Fetishism is the sum of beliefs and practices existing in connection with this idea. It is therefore a mistake to fancy that the negro adores the material of which his fetish is made, or attributes to it a supernatural power. On the contrary, the fetish only possesses influence by means of the particular virtue which the fetishist has fixed in it. But, subject to this reservation, anything may become a fetish: images, bones of men or animals, figures more or less grotesque, stones, trees, huts, etc., according to circumstances or to personal predilection. As to the diffusion of Fetishism, Livingstone called attention to the proofs that the blacks seem to be more superstitious and more idolatrous in proportion as the traveller penetrates into the forest country; an observation that was well founded. And, since western Africa is far more thickly wooded than the eastern part, it is chiefly in the west that we find classic Fetishism, with its material images and its coarse practices. It is practically non-existent among the Hottentots, the Bantus of the east, the Nigritians, the Hamites, and the Negritos. We are thus led to conclude that these peoples, being more given to wandering than the others, often living a pastoral life in a more open country, have been less prone than were the sedentary tribes to materialize their worship in objects difficult to carry about with them. This, possibly, is the explanation of the phenomenon which attracted Livingstone's attention. However this may be, an impartial study of African religion makes it impossible for anyone, in the present state of acquaintance with the subject, to assert that man began on this great continent by having no religious ideas ; that from such a state he passed to Naturism, to rise, by degrees, to Animism, Fetishism, and Theism. Indeed, we find as many, or more, facts indicating that the black man, from a religious standpoint, has degenerated. In fact, from one end of Africa to the other we meet, overgrown by a more or less confused mass of strange superstitions, the essential ideas of that which everywhere has been looked upon as the primitive religion: an unseen God, Master of all things, and Organizer of the world; the survival of the human soul, under a form not clearly defined; at times, the idea of reward and punishment in the other world; the existence and activity of spirits, some of whom help men while others deceive them; prayer, sacrifice, the need of a worship; the sacred nature of a fruit, a tree, or an animal; the duty of abstaining from certain actions, of practising self-restraint; the idea of sin, of the power left in man to wipe out its stain, etc. The sum total of this evidence -- and the list might be prolonged -- more or less clear, distinct, or scattered, collected from tribes of different origin which cannot possibly have met for centuries, leaves us convinced that at the beginning of the formation of the black race there were common beliefs and practices, such as are found at the beginnings of every human race, and on which Christianity itself rests, as we have it today.

B. Judaism

The first historical record of the settlement of the Jews in Africa is the story of Joseph; but it is probable that there had been others there before him. Under Meses, who had been educated at the court of the Pharaoh Rameses "in all the wisdom of the Egyptians " ( Acts 7:22 ), the Children of Israel once more crossed the Red Sea. Alexander of Macedon however, recalled many of them, in 332 B.C., to take part in the foundation of Alexandria. Alexandrian Jews, merchant princes and good soldiers, have also produced historians such as Alexander of Miletus, surnamed Polyhistor (though modern critics pronounce him a pagan to whom some fragments of a Jewish tendency have been falsely attributed); moralists and philosophers, such as Aristobulus and Philo; elegant writers of Greek verse, such as the tragic poet Ezechiel (c. 200 -- 150 B.C.). It was at Alexandria that the "Seventy" ( Septuagint ) translated (third century B.C.) the Law and the Prophets into Greek. Thence, the Jews spread over the Cyrenaica, and made their way to Carthage. A second wave of Jewish emigrants, moreover, left Italy on the conquest of the Carthaginian State by the Romans (146 B.C.), and founded trade-exchanges in most of the seaports of northern Africa. Hence, St. Jerome, writing to Dardanus, could say that the Jewish colonies formed in his time an unbroken chain across Africa, "from Mauretania to India ". Yet another scattering of the Children of Israel followed the taking of Jerusalem by Titus (A.D. 70) and the destruction of the Temple, bringing a third wave of Jewish emigrants into Roman Africa. The triumph of Mohammed at Mecca (A.D. 630), and the rapid spread of his religion, obliged a large number of Jews to leave Arabia. Of those who crossed the Red Sea some took refuge in Abyssinia, a country with which they had long had intercourse, and where they doubtless found some of their older colonies. It is from these, probably, that the Falashes and Gondas are descended, although these tribes trace their ancestry to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Others took the well-known route to Egypt, and, following the Mediterranean coast, set out to rejoin their co-religionists in the territories of Tripoli and Tunis. Some, by pursuing the caravan route of Dar-Fur, across the Wadaï, Bornü, and Sokoto, arrived, about the middle of the eleventh century, at the valley of the Niger. Finally, when, in 1492, they were driven from Spain, many of them went to Morocco, and others to Tunis. Such varied origins have caused diversities of type, manners, and speech, among the Jews of Africa, but all have kept that peculiar, personal imprint which distinguishes everywhere the Children of Israel. It is estimated that the approximate number of Jews in Africa may be divided thus: 50,000 in Abyssinia ; 30,000 in Egypt ; 60,000 in Tunis ; 57,000 in Algeria; 100,000 in Morocco ; more than 10,000 along the border of the Sahara, and 1,800 at the Cape; giving a total of about 300,000. The study of their history in Africa leads to the conclusion that their monotheistic influence was real in Egypt and Numidia, and even in the Sudan. At the present day, however, they carry on no religious propaganda, but are satisfied with keeping their Israelitish worship intact, in communities more or less numerous and faithful, under the guidance of rabbis of various classes -- officiating rabbis, sacrificing rabbis, who attend to circumcision, rabbi notaries, and grand rabbis.

C. Islamism

Islamism has found in Africa a boundless sphere of conquest, and its uninterrupted spread, from the seventh century down to the present time, among all the races of the continent is one of the most remarkable facts of history. Today a Mussulman may travel from Monrovia to Mecca, and thence to Batavia without once setting foot on "infidel" soil. Three phases in this movement of expansion may be distinguished. In the first (638 -- 1050) the Arabs, in a rapid advance, propagated Islam along the whole Mediterranean coast, from Egypt to Morocco, a conquest greatly aided by the exploitation of the country by the Byzantine governors, the divisions among the Christians, and political disorganization. In the ninth and tenth centuries, however, the opposition of the Berbers and the too tardy resistance of the Byzantines, assisted by the Normans, but chiefly the mutual strife of the Mussulman emirs, arrested its advance; there were still bishops at Carthage, Hippo, and Constantine in the eleventh century. The second period (1050-1750) is connected with the invasion of the Himyarite (Arabian) Bedouins, sent by El Mestune, Caliph of Cairo, to chastise the Magreb, or country stretching from Tripoli to Morocco. It was then that Mauretania became definitely Islamized, and in its turn the centre of a propaganda carried on among the Berber tribes of the Atlas, and of the Sahara, and among the negroes of the Sudan. This conquest, however, was not unresisted. We learn from an Arab historian, Ibn Khaldun, that the population of northern Africa was forced fourteen times, at the point of the sword, to embrace Islamism, and that it returned fourteen times to its own religion. Traces, moreover, of Christianity are still found among the Kabyles of Algeria, among the Tuaregs, and the Mzabetes of the Sahara. The name Tuareg (singular, Targui ) was given by the Arabs to the Berbers of the desert, and means "those forsaken of God ". They were the founders of Timbuctoo (A.D. 1077), Djenné, and of the principal centres of influence in northwest Africa. While this part of the continent was being converted, willingly or by force, to Islam, eastern Africa was invaded in its turn by colonies of merchants, who, however, readily became warriors, and never failed to be apostles. It was thus that Islam gained the shores of the Red Sea, Somaliland, the Zanzibar coast as far as Kiloa, and the islands as far as the Comoto Islands and Madagascar. One nation alone, Ethiopia, entrenched in its huge, mountainous citadel, held out against them. Unfortunately, however, since the sixth century, it has held the Monophysite heresy. It was on these unconquered Christians that the Arabs bestowed the scornful name of Habesh , meaning, "sweepings of the nations", whence the name Abyssinia is derived. The last period of the Mohammedan expansion extends to the present time. It is due to a veritable recrudescence of fanaticism, zealously fostered by a number of religious societies, whose members, or Khuans, are to be found everywhere, and possess unbounded influence. Daily, one may say, Islam spreads over the great African continent, creeping down from Morocco to Senegal, making inroads on the valley of the Niger and the shores of Lake Tchad, passing from Kordofan into Uganda, and from Zanzibar to the Congo. Bitterly hostile to Europeans by its very nature, it is yet very skilful in adapting itself to circumstances. This is, doubtless, why so many governors, functionaries, travellers and writers, duped by this deep hypocrisy, favour this expansion of Mohammedanism, and are even guilty of flagrant injustice and abuse of power in imposing it on fetishist populations who have no wish to embrace it. As there are no Mohammedan statistics, it is impossible to make an accurate census. The following figures may, however, be quoted: 4,070,000 in Algeria; 1,500,000 in Tunis ; 10,000,000 in Morocco ; 6,800,000 in French Western Africa; 3,000,000 in the Wadaï and the Sudan, besides those in Egypt, Somaliland, Zanzibar, and the interior. The total numbers of Islam in Africa approximately amount to between thirty and forty millions. Its marvellous spread is due to various causes. In Egypt, to begin with, and throughout northern Africa, it was a forcible conquest of countries and peoples in a state of utter social, political, and religious disorganization. These remnants of peoples were intoxicated by a doctrine of great power, covering all that relates to the interests and concerns of man. From the new groups thus remoulded issued successively other conquerors, down to the recent uprisings of the Samory and the Rabah tribes in the Sudan. Moreover, since Islam is at once a religious doctrine, a social system, a political principle, a commercial interest, a civilization that arrogates to itself all manner of rights against the "infidel", it follows that each Mussulman is intimately possessed by the spirit of proselytism. To this end he may, and does, make use of every means; all is permissible against the "unbeliever". Islam, therefore, imposes itself by force, by persuasion, by interest, by alliances, by the spirit of imitation, by fashion. It should be added that there is a real affinity between the manners and customs of the Moors and Arabs and those of the more or less mixed populations of northern Africa; and between these and the negro tribes. Moreover, Mussulman exclusiveness becomes not a little modified by contact with Fetishism, and if Islam imposes certain beliefs and practices on its black disciples, they, in turn, bring into it a number of their superstitions and usages. Finally, the extreme simplicity of its doctrine, the easy yoke of its liturgical discipline, its liberal indulgence in respect of morality, all sustained by the hope of a Paradise made up of well-defined and attractive pleasures, combine to make Islam an ideal religion for the childish intelligence and sensual nature of the African peoples among which it labours. These causes, of themselves, suffice to explain the slight hold that Christianity has gained on the Mohammedan social system. The Mussulman who becomes a Christian must renounce, not only his faith, but also his family, his social standing, his interests, all that binds him to the world. Hence it is evident how utterly mistaken those are who may have held that Islam is a kind of useful, possibly necessary, transition, between Fetishism and Christianity. On the contrary, Islam as it were crystallizes the heart and mind of man. It is not a step taken upward, but a wall that arrests all progress. From a philosophical and religious standpoint, however, Islam is undoubtedly superior to the Fetishism of the negro. It acknowledges but One God Almighty, who rewards good and punishes evil in a future life; it teaches the need of prayer, penance, and almsgiving ; of a public worship; of abstaining from the use of fermented liquors, etc. But the absolute freedom with which it preys on the "infidel" by means of polygamy, slavery, thefts, and all kinds of injustice, the utter corruption and the spread of venereal diseases to which it gives rise, the pride, hypocrisy, and laziness which it engenders in its disciples, the formidable cohesion which it gives them, make the expansion of " Mussulman civilization" among fetishist peoples anything but desirable. From the standpoint of their proximate evolution they have more to lose from it than to gain. As fetishists they constitute a reserve for Christian civilization; as Mussulmans, they are lost to it.

D. Parseeism; Buddhism; Brahminism

To be complete, this account should include certain Parsee colonies at Zanzibar, Mombasa, Natal, and the Cape; Chinese and Indian Buddhists in the Transvaal, and the Island of Mauritius; and the Brahminist Banyans, natives of Kurachi, Kach, and Bombay, who trade with intelligence and success in most of the centres of Eastern Africa, from Port Said to the Cape. None of these, however, make any proselytes, and all will receive due treatment under their respective titles.

E. Christianity

Christianity penetrated into Africa through two principal channels. It was first brought by the


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, First Corinthians 12:31--13:13
31 Set your mind on the higher gifts. And now I am ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 33:2-3, 4-5, 12, 22
2 Give thanks to Yahweh on the lyre, play for him on ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 7:31-35
31 'What comparison, then, can I find for the people ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for September 17th, 2014 Image

St. Robert Bellarmine
September 17: Born at Montepulciano, Italy, October 4, 1542, St. Robert ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter