Pre-Colonial, Sub-Saharan African History

A few days ago, Ms. Carlysle pointed me in the direction of some interesting historical scholarship namely, helping Steve Jackson Games to compile a GURPs source book on the pre-colonial history of the kingdoms and nations of Sub-Saharan Africa.

It’s great that SJG is interested in this! As a veteran role-playing gamer, I have for many years felt that a whole section of mythology and history has been ignored in the role-playing games community: Africa.

This is due to a lot of reasons. One is the conspicuous absence of African Americans in US nerd subculture in general. The other reason is that until about fifty years ago historical scholarship of Sub-Saharan African was almost non-existent. The truth is there were a several major, literate cultures in pre-colonial Africa and a lot of interesting history has, until recently, been ignored.

The lack of historical scholarship on pre-colonial, Sub-Saharan Africa has been, and is being, slowly corrected. Recently in the last decade, there has been a revival of interest in Sub-Saharan history now that Apartheid has ended and many African countries are painfully and bloodily trying to move towards stability, prosperity and democracy. Priceless historical records have been, and are being, lost to the Aswan High Dam, the civil war in Sudan, the poverty of Mali’s libraries in Timbuktu and Jenne, and turmoil in Nigeria and West Africa. On the plus side, there has been a rebirth of scholarship of the ancient stone cities in Zimbabwe and South Africa, information that was repressed and ignored by the Apartheid regimes there.

Anyway, Steve Jackson Games, always ones to be sticklers for accuracy and daringly avant-garde, has put an African history and mythology source book on their wish list of works to be completed. Carlysle thinks, given my interests in African culture and history and role-playing games and my bachelor’s in history, that I’d be a good candidate to write a manuscript for the cats over at SJG.

I have been, for nearly two years now, trying to construct an timeline for an allohistory I dreamed up based on two obscure historical events in African history: The Battle of Sile and the historically disputed trans-Atlantic expedition of Mansa Muhammad. As such I’ve been reading all the reputable books I could find on pre-colonial African history–Basil Davidson, Richard Hull and others.

Even still, I have mixed feelings about undertaking such a task. To really do Jackson’s source book justice, I’d have to learn classical Arabic, ancient Egyptian and Phoenician and have the powers of university and museum archivists and scholars at my disposal. I’m just a curious hobbyist.

Also there is the issue of stealing voice. Where do I get off, being a white geek in his late thirties, writing about and perhaps trivializing African history? It would be much more empowering to the black geek youth of the world if one of their own did this.

And while my expository writing ability is pretty good, I’ve never written a book before, let alone game scenarios or source books. I’ve written a lot of software documentation but I don’t think that really applies. I’ve played role-playing games for many years now but most of my notes are tables and rough outlines, never anything coherent.

I don’t know. I guess I could submit my manuscript proposal to them and have it rejected. For the sake of interesting game backgrounds this book has to be written. Someone has to write this. Perhaps by pushing things I can get some other amateur scholars and nerds out there to do this. Hopefully some black ones.


  1. Actually Pre-Columbian America, Australian, Oceanian and South Asian history and culture have been largely ignored too but, that’s for another day. Arabic culture, although not as badly, tends to get the short shrift as well.

    I don’t say this to throw a lot of guilt around. I say this because it’s a damn shame that all this cool stuff is being wasted! Sometimes I am bored unto mortification on seeing yet another rehash of ancient European culture passing itself off as a ground breaking game background. Yes, I find the resurgence of interest in East Asian culture refreshing!

  2. But this is not entirely true. If you look hard, you’ll find that there are lots and lots of black geeks. And I don’t mean just Steve Urkel, Guinan or LaForge, ground breaking, and perhaps controversial, fictitious characters though they may be.

    For example, science fiction has been graced with the works of Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson for years now. In the gaming sphere, Travis Williams, who used to be a big wheel in White Wolf, has been designing both software and paper games for over a decade now. And of course I have personal history. When I as kid gaming in high school back in the Seventies, our gaming group, a large, rambling and occasionally, unintentionally, dangerous one, had two kids who just happened to be black–just as intense, obsessed, pedantic and square as all the rest of us.

  3. Where the Assyrians forced the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of the New Kingdom to quit Egypt and flee to Meroe. Nearly a hundred years before, King Piye, the ruler of Meroe, had invaded Egypt, which was in decline, with the mission of restoring Egyptian culture to greatness–sort of like how the Mongols viewed themselves after they invaded China and established the Sung Dynasty. His descendants ruled Egypt and Meroe for nearly a century.

  4. According to a story related to us by the Muslim scholar al-Umari, during Mansa Musa’s reign in Mali, around 1300ce, Malian explorers may have found the mouth of a river, perhaps the Amazon, after many weeks voyage across the Atlantic. Archeologists and historians have yet to verify this story with more evidence but it is compelling.

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