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Cameroon - Pre-Colonial History

Although archaeological evidence indicates the early presence of humans in the Cameroonian area, little is known concerning the origins of the peoples who compose the population. Attempts to learn of their beginnings have been complicated by a general lack of written history and countless migrations as a result of wars, famines, and general population pressures.

Most authorities, however, agree that these early migrations began from a point along the present border with Chad. Over the centuries the direction and intensity of these migrations which lasted into the nineteenth century varied. Along with other dislocations in the twentieth century some of which were caused by population pressure they resulted in the splitting of some groups and the absorption of others. Conquered peoples sometimes lived side by side with the victors but held socially and politically restricted roles. Although some people generally developed harmonious relationships, centuries of conflict created traditions of hostility between others.

Written history was first recorded in the north in the eighth century and increased after the arrival of arabized peoples in the late 1200s. Written records of developments in the south, however, did not begin until the end of the fifteenth century and the arrival of the first Europeans.

The area of Cameroon has been the scene of countless human migrations. Very little is known about these movements, but the general concensus based on linguistic studies is that they started in the region of the border between Chad and Cameroon and from there spread in various directions in the course of the last several hundred years. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries further migratory movements resulted from Islamic holy wars waged by the Fulani. People were driven out of their homelands, causing others who were in their path to move, willingly or unwillingly. The resultant intermingling, assimilation, and absorption of groups make classification of the country's approximately 200 ethnic groups extremely difficult. Moreover, some peoples are known by several different names, and even for numerically large groups information is often unavailable.

Early Political Institutions

The organized states that developed in the Sudanic belt a region running across Africa south of the Sahara and north of Lake Chad had a direct influence only on the northern half of the country. The most important of these were the empires of the Kanem (later Kanem- Bornu) and Fulani peoples. Kanem was organized around a confed- eracy of clans, which was dominated by the Magumi and this group's senior lineage, the Sefuwa. The Sefuwa mai (king) moved from clan to clan on a rotating basis rather than dwell in one fixed capital city. By the early 1200s the Bornu, living west of Lake Chad, had fallen under the hegemony of the Kanem empire east of the lake. In 1386 attacks from the east forced the mai to relocate west of Lake Chad, and by bringing some of his more loyal followers with him he was able to transfer the dynasty and the basic socio-political order associated with it to the new geographic base.

The Sefuwa dynasty maintained its dominant position by means of a feudalistic hierarchy, which by the end of the eighteenth century had been transformed into a centralized bureaucracy. A century later, however, the political system had begun to disintegrate under the attacks of the Fulani. Kanem-Bornu was saved from total destruction by Muhammad al-Amin, a religious scholar and warrior who set himself up as a de facto ruler.

The Fulani were a cattle-herding people who entered the Chad Basin a portion of which lies in Cameroon as early as the thirteenth century; they played no major political role until the nineteenth century. Then, undertaking a holy war led by a devout Muslim, Othman dan Fodio, they sought to convert others forcibly to their strict form of Islam. They conquered the Hausa kingdoms of northern Nigeria and came to dominate the northern grasslands of what later became Cameroon. Their superior organization, religious zeal, and skill as mounted warriors enabled them to establish a state, which after the early 1800s and until defeat by the Europeans at the end of the nineteenth century, controlled the region running from the east of Nigeria to the Chad Basin.

The Fulani campaign of the early nineteenth century in the north of present-day Cameroon was led by a native-born Fulani leader, Mobido Adama. For his allegiance to the Fulani cause and for aiding the spread of the empire as far south as the seventh parallel, he was granted the title of Emir of Adamaoua, an emirate at the southern periphery of the empire. The emirate was subdivided into smaller units, each of which was ruled by a governor who had varying degrees of local autonomy.

Fulani attempts to expand their authority in the nineteenth century into the small sultanates and kingdoms of the western highlands were resisted by both the Bamoun and the Bamileke. The Bamoun were able to withstand the initial Fulani attacks but were ultimately conquered. The Bamileke, on the other hand, were able to withstand Fulani attacks. Each Bamileke kingdom possessed a highly complex social organization, marked by a ruling fon (chief) who shared authority with an advisory council, and various intergroup associations and secret societies.

Political evolution in the coastal zone led to the establishment of a multiplicity of small chiefdoms. During the last half of the eighteenth century, however, the Douala were united in a small coastal kingdom. At the turn of the century, competition for European trade led various members of the ruling dynasty to break away from the king and to form their own chiefdoms. Chiefdoms formed in this manner included those of the Akwa, Dido, Joss, and Bonaberi. Although later in the nineteenth century a semblance of unity was achieved with the establishment of the ngondo, a council in which various chiefs conferred, political unity among the Douala was never again wholly achieved.

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Page last modified: 07-05-2017 19:07:17 ZULU