Biggest cities in Sub Saharan Africa (500-1500)

Nov 2018
West Covina
According to Walter Rodney, a marxist historian which I admire a lot, in his work "How Europe underdeveloped Africa" he explains the development of the small, militaristic states of Yoruba and lower Nigeria due to the influence of the Europeans.

It is not he said civilization was developed by Europe, no way, on the opposite he identified the local and long lasting developments of native African cultures. But in the African context, where large empires integrating diverse areas were common, the rise of very little, and very powerful states, is linked to the trade of fire weapons and resources with the Europeans, which slave demand made this little and powerful states possible, with their thriving cities. In any case, the underliying factor here is the very high agriculture productivity, which is behind the strong demographic and urban development of the area.

The Oyo might be more in line with traditional African empires, but its rise as superpower around 1600 can't be a coincidence.
Oyos rise would have more to with horses being more available


Ad Honorem
Feb 2010
Canary Islands-Spain
He is correct. The basis of Oyo' military might was its cavalry, not firearms.

Walter Rodney's interpretation is misleading. I'll elaborate on why later.
Sorry guys, I mean, why suddenly the Oyo "found" useful the cavalry? Why in 1600 and not in 1200?


Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
Benin City, Nigeria
Sorry guys, I mean, why suddenly the Oyo "found" useful the cavalry? Why in 1600 and not in 1200?
Oyo had previously been invaded and defeated by the Nupe, and Oyo's leadership took refuge in a part of Borgu temporarily. Both Nupe and Borgu would have been using cavalry already, like other Sahelian states already were.

Reclaiming their territory and defeating their enemies meant that it was necessary for Oyo to adapt to the warfare of their enemies. It was probably during that period of refuge that the Oyo began their use of cavalry on a significant scale, in order to recapture their lost territory and defeat the Nupe invaders. Robert Smith's article "The Alafin in Exile: A Study of the Igboho Period in Oyo History" (1965) discusses the Oyo traditions surrounding their defeat by the Nupe, their eventual recuperation from this defeat, and their later emergence as a major power in the region.

I will try to go into more detail about the issue of the development of the states in the area and the role of external trade later when I find time.


Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
Benin City, Nigeria
So after re-reading the post above I see that I wrote "like other Sahelian states already were" when talking about Nupe and Borgu use of cavalry. Strictly speaking, Nupe and Borgu were/are in a transitional savanna zone, between the forest areas to the south and the sahelian areas further to the north, and not actually in a really sahelian region. But regardless, references to the extensive use of horses by the Nupe are abundant in the available sources, such as the Kano chronicle. In the book The Horse in West African History, the author, Robin Law, also identifies multiple references to the manufacture of stirrups, bridles, and other horse equipment in the Nupe area.

Something that sheds some light on Oyo's involvement with European trade is Peter Morton-Williams' 1964 article "The Oyo Yoruba and the Atlantic trade, 1670-1830". The article doesn't make a case for Oyo's military power being connected to its involvement with European trade, but instead mostly casts doubt on the idea.
Last edited:
Feb 2018
Above the equator doesn't necessarily mean North African like you just stated. But maybe you made a mistake there. As I thought we both agreed before, there's a lot of Sub Saharan Africa above the equator. That said I understand wanting to specifically learn about southern African cities, but the way you went about it is curious.

This statement I'm making below isn't necessarily for you, it's more in reference to Bart Dale's statements and many people who think along the same lines as he that are on this very site and all over the the internet.

It's always interesting how the slightest outside influence leads many to believe an Sub Saharan African civilization isn't quite African enough for them, but don't feel that way about other civilizations. Others can constantly have influence from outsiders, but they're still considered undeniably European or Arabian or Indian and so on. Interesting...
It's just way to dismiss any african accomplishment and protect their already existent notions

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