Top 10 Battles in African History

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Africa is often depicted in the Western and Eastern press as a continent that is isolated, exotic, mysterious, and tragic. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Africa has a long and storied tradition when it comes to globalization. Africa has played a part in all of the world’s major trade routes, in all of the modern world’s major exchanges (from agricultural crops to forms of art), and in all of the modern world’s major wars.

Below are 10 battles that prove it.

1. Battle of Zama - 202 BC: Let’s start off with an old school battle, Carthage vs. Rome during the Second Punic War. The Battle of Zama was fought on North African soil after Hannibal’s successful victories in Europe prompted Rome’s strategists to adopt a new strategy: take the fight to Carthage itself. The Romans were outnumbered and the Carthaginians were led by Hannibal himself, yet the Romans managed to win the war and force Carthage to beg for peace. The battle is widely credited for ending the Second Punic War.

2. Battle of Adwa - March 1, 1896: This is the famous battle where a modern European military, representing Italy, lost to an African kingdom, Ethiopia. The myth surrounding this battle suggests Africans beat Italians with spears and swords and courage, but the historical reality is much more interesting. Italy had just been formed, so was very new to whole imperial game being played by European countries at the time, and the Ethiopians were well armed by Russia, who shared an Orthodox faith with the monarch of Ethiopia.

3. Battle of Nsamankow - January 21, 1824: In the early 19th century, the United Kingdom fought three major wars against West Africa’s pre-eminent power, the Ashanti Empire, which had gained much of its wealth and prominence through the slave trade. The Battle of Nsamankow was fought during the first Anglo-Ashanti War, and resulted in a British loss. The British fought the first Anglo-Ashanti War because one of its local allies, the Fante Confederacy, persuaded London to do so.

4. Battle of Cuito Cuanavale - January through March 1988: Fought during the decades-long Angolan civil war, the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale is considered by most to be the second largest battle in Africa ever. This battle involved at least three different Angolan factions, Cuban soldiers, South African soldiers, Soviet and American technology, and plenty of border crossings on all sides. Known for finally bringing negotiators of all sides to the table, the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale helps show just how connected Africa has been to the rest of the world, the Cold War being no different from other eras.

5. Battle of Isandlwana - January 22, 1879: In early January of 1879, the British Empire declared war on the Zulu monarchy, believing it to be an obstacle to British efforts at establishing a federation in southern Africa based on the successful Canadian model. The Zulu monarchy, along with two independent Boer Republics, were the last three polities in the region not under London’s thumb in some way or form. Eleven days after the UK declared war on the Zulu kingdom, 20,000 foot soldiers completely overwhelmed the British forces at Isandlwana. As a result of such a stark defeat, London decided to get much more aggressive with the Zulu polity and by July of 1879, the monarchy had been conquered and annexed by London.

6. Battle of Magersfontein - December 11, 1889: Speaking of the British in southern Africa, the Boer Republics also succumbed to British technology, but not without a fight. (The Boers were Dutch dialect-speaking whites who didn’t like British rule and so established republics further inland.) The Battle of Magersfontein was a rare Boer victory, one that pinned the British down and helped typhoid fever spread among London’s troops. The defeat lowered morale among the troops and forced the UK to drastically increase the amount of troops in South Africa.

7. Second Battle of El Alamein - October and November 1942: Considered by most to be the turning point of the North African campaign of World War II, El Alamein’s second battle is the bloodiest recorded fight in African history. I can’t add anything to the scholarly and popular literature based on this battle. The British, with air support from the United States, fought the Italians and the Germans on the soil of the Arabs.

8. Battle of Woyowayanko - 1882: Fought between France and the Wassoulou Empire, which was led by a soldier-king who sought to legitimize his kingdom with Islamist political theories of the time. This battle is worth mentioning because both sides were pretty evenly matched, technologically, militarily, and economically, throughout the war. At Woyowayanko, however, Wassoulou’s light expeditionary force was caught off-guard by French forces backed with heavy artillery. The African cavalry units, however, were able to outmaneuver the French and ended up routing the French force. The battle contributed to France’s decision to support further incursions into Saharan West Africa.

9. Battle of Mombasa - late 16th century: Fought between the Ottoman Empire, an unknown indigenous polity, and the Portuguese, the battle is included here because it can help shed light on the fact that there is plenty of research to be done both on the Ottoman presence in East Africa and on the world of the early modern regions of the Indian Ocean. According to sketchy Portuguese accounts, the Ottomans, who had captured Mombasa from them two years prior, were found under siege by a large, land-based indigenous force. The Portuguese added fuel to the fire by attacking Mombasa from the sea, thus trapping the Ottomans in a nasty crossfire.

10. Battle of Ségou - March 10, 1861: This was a battle fought in the middle of what was to become French West Africa (present-day Mali) between two indigenous kingdoms struggling to gain hegemony in the region, the up-and-coming Toucouleur Empire - led by an Islamist fresh off his hajj to Mecca - and the crumbling Bamana Empire. This battle was fought with French and British weapons, Arab tactics, and indigenous cursing, so even though both sides were homegrown, the Battle of Ségou was very much an international affair.


Hopefully you can now see Africa’s long and storied tradition in the history of the world.

There is still much scholarship being done on African history, and on tying Africa into global currents in a way that highlights African agency (rather than African misery), but there is still a long way to go.

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