The great pyramids at Giza, EgyptElephants crossing the Zambezi river in Mana Pools National Park world heritage site, ZimbabweThe great mosque in the Old Towns of Djenne world heritage site, MaliBlack and white ruffed lemur, Rainforests of the Atsinanana world heritage site, Madagascar

European colonial influences

Map showing the locations of the nine UNESCO world heritage sites relating to the European colonisation of Africa

The era of European influence in Africa began in the middle of the 15th century with the arrival of the Portuguese.  They first reached the Island of Goree (Senegal) in 1444, and were trading gold at Elmina (one of the many forts and castles in Ghana) as early as 1471.  Here they established the Castle of St George, as they pushed southwards in the search for a shipping route to India.  By 1498, the Portuguese seafarer Vasco da Gama had arrived on the other side of the continent at the Island of Mozambique where a fort was established in 1507.   As the shipping routes and trade grew, so did the size and importance of the various Portuguese settlements around Africa’s coast. Their first citadel was built at Mazagan (Morocco) in 1514, and its fortifications were enhanced and strengthened between 1541 and 1548; while work on a major new fortress (St Sebastian) at Mozambique Island began in 1558; and a little further north along the coast, Fort Jesus was built at Mombasa (1593-96). 

While it was the Portuguese who pioneered the earliest ventures of Europeans into Africa, they were soon followed by others. Most of the European outposts along the coast changed hands from time to time as the relative power and influence of different players waxed and waned.  The French, British, and Dutch were all major players, and much of the most lucrative trade was based on the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  European ships established a ‘triangular’ trading route, bringing goods for trade from Europe to the West coast of Africa, then taking slaves across to the New World, and returning to Europe with agricultural commodities from there.  The Island of Goree was the most prominent slaving centre (with an estimated 20 million Africans shipped through the Island between the mid-1500s and the mid-1800s), but most of the Forts and Castles of Ghana were also heavily involved, as was Kunta Kinteh Island in Gambia (made famous by Alex Haley’s historical novel ‘Roots’).

All the world heritage sites concerned with European influences in Africa lie along the coast, and most of them include points of interest spanning several centuries.  For example, Kunta Kinteh Island and its related sites along the Gambia River estuary bear testimony to different facets of the African-European encounter over a period of 500 years.  Other world heritage sites are relatively recent, including the Island of Saint-Louis, which became a French colonial settlement in the 17th century and was briefly the capital of French West Africa.  In Morocco, the Medina of Essaouira is an example of a late 18th-century fortified town built on the principles of contemporary French military architecture.  Another place with a relatively succinct and recent history is Robben Island, location of the notorious prison near Cape Town where Nelson Mandela and other South African anti-apartheid campaigners were detained.

To read more about each of the world heritage sites characterising European colonial influences, and see a slideshow of each place, follow these links:

Cannon and fortifications at the Portuguese-built Fort Jesus (Mombasa, Kenya), one of the nine UNESCO world heritage sites relating to the European colonisation of AfricaOne of the many European-built forts and castles of Ghana (Volta, Greater Accra, Central and western Regions) designated as a UNESCO world heritage siteMonument to slavery at the Island of Goree (Senegal), one of the UNESCO world heritage sites that testifies to European colonial influences on the African continentPortuguese colonial architecture on the Island of Mozambique UNESCO world heritage site



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