Was Bantu expansion a form of settler colonialism?

The Bantu migration remains somewhat of a mystery

The greatest movement in the history of mankind occurred in Africa about 5,000 -3,000 years ago. Research has established that around that period, there was a massive migration of people who spoke a language now called Bantu. This movement is known as the Bantu expansion. Bantu-speaking communities moved from the borders of present-day Cameroon and Nigeria to spread to and settle in central, eastern, and southern Africa. Bantu settlers now cover areas that are equivalent to half the continent of Africa.

There is a need to ask questions about the nature of the Bantu migration and the effects it had on the indigenous communities that occupied the regions prior to the Bantu expansion. Whose lands did the Bantus settle on? What were the implications of the Bantu settlements on the culture, language, and lived realities of existing indigenous peoples such as the Pygmies, the Khoi San, and the Cushites? In other words, is there a possibility that the Bantu expansion was some form of settler colonialism where the indigenous peoples of central, east, and southern Africa suffered a similar, if not worse,  fate as did some African countries under European settler colonialism?

Origin of the Bantu Movement

Linguistic, archaeological, and genetic factors provide convincing evidence to researchers about the expansion of a Bantu-speaking group of people across Africa. For some reasons, yet to be fully supported by hard evidence, these Bantu-speaking peoples began to migrate from their present-day Cameroon and Nigeria homeland en masse. Reasons speculated for this movement include the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to the development of farming, pottery-making, and iron smelting, which demanded the exploration of new frontiers. Other reasons include famine, wars, epidemics, and the inclination to be adventurous, as well as over-population and the concomitant exhaustion of limited resources.

Displacement of Indigenous Peoples

Prior to the settlement of Bantu-speaking communities, central Africa was inhabited by Pygmy foragers, southern Africa was inhabited by Khoisan-speaking hunter-gatherers, while parts of southeast Africa were inhabited by Nilo-Saharan-speaking herders and Cushitic-speaking pastoralists. In Southern Africa, it appears the Bantu settlers had sometimes cordial, sometimes frosty relationships with the Khoisans. The radiocarbon dating of the thousands year old Cave wall carvings of the Khoisans shows some variations of relationships that might have existed between the Khoisan and the Bantu settling Agro-pastoralists. Peaceful interactions between Bantu-speaking agro-pastoralists and the San groups led to the adoption of elements of rites and beliefs, from each other’s cultures, but in many cases, the rites and beliefs of the two groups remained distinct. Evidence of trade and intermarriage between Bantu-speaking groups and Sans indigenous people has been asserted by archaeologists and through the human genome mapping of Sans and Bantu groups in South Africa. When the European invaders settled in areas across Southern Africa, it is on record that the San groups formed an alliance with some Bantu-speaking settlers to fight the European settlers.

The relationship between the Bantu settlers and the Pygmy population in parts of East and Central Africa appears to have taken on the form of a more oppressive kind of settler colonialism, where the Pygmies were discriminated against, and in many instances considered sub-human. Until recently, for instance, many Pygmies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were enslaved by Bantu masters. The Bantu masters consider their lifelong bond with their Pygmy slaves to be a sacred custom. One pointer to the nature of the relationship between early Bantu settlers and the Pygmy population is language retention. The Pygmies speak Bantu languages, although an appreciable percentage of their language is not of Bantu origin. This indicates that a power relationship in which the Pygmies were the oppressed might have existed between the Bantu and the Pygmies, leading to the loss of the latter’s language.

The San languages were retained for the most part until more recently – the past few centuries – when colonialism and other social factors led to the extinction or endangerment of many San languages. What this suggests is a more mutually respectful relationship between the Bantu settlers and the San people in Southern Africa.

More Research is Necessary

In all, further research is needed to advance knowledge on the Bantu migration. The reason for the migration and the nature of the various settlements across central, eastern, and southern Africa will be important in further scholarly and public conversations. Few Africans have done some serious anthropological work on the Bantu migration. Even fewer indigenous people such as the Pygmies, Khoi San, and Nilosians have explored their cultures, languages, and archaeology in order to throw more light on the nature of the Bantu migration into territories they formerly solely occupied. The Bantu migration remains somewhat of a mystery as a result of the absence of these key voices.

The Place of History in African Schools

There is a need to restore the dignity and place of the study of history across Africa’s schools, universities, and research institutes. History, when it is well studied, brings understanding to many aspects of a people’s existence. The Global North has achieved its current level of technological and other forms of advancement not by focusing on STEM education alone, as African countries presently do. For centuries, in North America and Europe, education placed history and the humanities squarely at the centre of learning.

Sadly, education in most of Africa today produces engineers, medical doctors, scientists, teachers, lawyers, and accountants who are not well-grounded in the understanding of human nature. Africa’s education needs a generous infusion of the human angle of life in the curriculum. The absence of knowledge about the cultures, history, and social psychology of communities results in professionals who are not properly equipped to become change agents. These supposedly educated citizens are without a holistic and community-minded approach to life. Their blind spots prevent them from engaging deeply outside of the narrowness of their careers and myopic interests.

Centring learning around history and humanities would allow us to determine if the Bantu peoples used the force of arms, as the Europeans later did to Africans, to oppress the indigenous populations they met as they migrated. If so, then the present generation of Bantu speakers will have a lot of work to do, as far as working with surviving indigenous populations to make restitution.



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