In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Precolonial Warfare in Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of Precolonial African Military History
  • Short General Overviews (Chapters, Articles, and Encyclopedia Entries)
  • General Overviews of Precolonial Africa
  • General Reference Works on Precolonial History
  • Bibliographies
  • Slavery, the Atlantic World, and African Warfare
  • Technology and Weaponry

Military History Precolonial Warfare in Africa
Mark Grotelueschen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0149


As John Lamphear writes in the introduction to his fine edited volume of journal articles in African military history, many historians have tended “to downplay the importance of military history and the role of conflict in the African historical experience.” He then claims that this “has been especially true for pre-colonial military history” (p. xi). While this has too often been the case, this bibliography shows that other historians have been busy creating a surprising quantity of scholarship on precolonial African history that covers all significant periods of time and all major regions, though not necessarily evenly. At least three terms need to be defined to establish the boundaries of this bibliographic article—at what point do we end the period of “precolonial” warfare, how narrowly will we define “warfare,” and how much of “Africa” will be included. This article defines precolonial warfare as any military activity occurring within and between African societies and peoples before the onset of European political and military control. In keeping with the now-well-understood definition of military history, this article will include pieces that discuss the broad range of political, economic, social, and cultural influences that military organizations, ideas, and activities have on societies. This approach includes the detailed study of wars and warfare, but it goes far beyond it. Finally, this article will include works that cover all of Africa except those parts of North Africa that are more properly considered to be part of the Mediterranean or Arab worlds, i.e., modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt. Even within these more narrow parameters, scholarship in the field of precolonial African warfare is not as sparse as is often supposed and recently has been growing substantially in both quantity and quality.

General Overviews of Precolonial African Military History

Perhaps the smallest category of work on precolonial African warfare is that of the general survey and overview. In fact, while we now have at least one good survey covering all of African military history, a few covering the period of “colonial warfare,” and a handful focused on the postcolonial period, only one book-length general survey of precolonial African warfare exists at this time—the first book in Timothy Stapleton’s three-volume work A Military History of Africa. Stapleton 2013 discusses military history in each of five geographic regions (North, West, East, Central, and Southern) in turn. For those looking for a full monograph dedicated to precolonial military history, this is the essential work. However, a few superb works on broader or adjacent periods include general overviews of the precolonial period, and Lamphear 2007 is a superb edited volume of previously published articles discussing a wide variety of specific subjects covering various regions, time periods, and topics. Reid 2012 quickly covers all of African military history in one thin volume but discusses the precolonial period extensively. Those looking for a very short, clear overview of precolonial military forces, with good comparisons between some of the more significant military organizations of the mid-19th century (Asante, Zulu, Sokoto, and Ethiopia), should examine Vandervort 1998, and especially the introduction and first chapter to that excellent work on imperial warfare in Africa. Mazrui 1977 includes repeated references to the precolonial era and its legacies. For an understanding of the ways precolonial African warfare and military systems compared to others around the globe, see Gat 2006.

  • Gat, Azar. War in Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Gat incorporates repeated references to and descriptions of African precolonial warfare in his massive historical survey of warfare, and does so in a way that integrates African military history into the rest of the story of global military history. See especially his chapter “Tribal Warfare in Agraria and Pastoralia.”

  • Lamphear, John, ed. African Military History. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007.

    Part of Ashgate’s International Library of Essays on Military History series, this excellent collection of previously published articles includes a variety of chapters on a wide range of topics. Citations and annotations for the individual chapters are listed in the appropriate section of this article.

  • Mazrui, Ali A., ed. The Warrior Tradition in Modern Africa. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1977.

    A collection of essays on the intersection of war, culture, and politics in modern Africa. Although a few essays deal exclusively with modern events such as civil wars in Nigeria and Sudan, most incorporate the precolonial legacy into their topical discussions, and some authors focus on precolonial subjects.

  • Reid, Richard J. Warfare in African History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139043090

    Although this superb overview covers the full sweep of African history from Antiquity to the present in just 183 pages, over half the book deals almost exclusively with the precolonial period. Reid gives an excellent survey of military systems and warfare throughout the precolonial period and across the entire continent.

  • Stapleton, Timothy J. A Military History of Africa. Vol. 1, The Precolonial Period: From Ancient Egypt to the Zulu Kingdom (Earliest Times to cs. 1870). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2013.

    For anyone looking for a single monograph on the general subject of precolonial African military history, this is the place to begin. Stapleton has neatly organized the work into five regional chapters, with one each on North Africa, West Africa, East Africa, Central Africa, and Southern Africa.

  • Vandervort, Bruce. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830–1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

    Although this book focuses on colonial warfare, Vandervort does an excellent job in his introductory chapters of providing good general summaries of precolonial African military organizations on the eve of significant contact with hostile European forces. Pays special attention to the Asante, the Zulu, the Sokoto Caliphate, and 19th-century Ethiopia.

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