How Widespread Was The Use Of Steel In Pre-Colonial Sub-Saharan Africa?

Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,576
Benin City, Nigeria
#21
Some references to steel in historical descriptions. I will post more of these as I remember them or find them.


In Gustav Nachtigal's Sahara and Sudan, an important late nineteenth century description, the author mentions the use of steel battle axes by the royal horsemen in the kingdom of Darfur in the southern part of the modern day country of Sudan. Nachtigal wrote of these horsemen that in addition to lances, swords and a few guns, "many had steel battle-axes, damascened and here and there decorated with gold or a few precious stones." [Allan G.B. Fisher and Humphrey J. Fisher's 1971 translation.]

Nachtigal also mentions the use of steel armor by the horsemen of Wadai. Wadai was an important Sahelian kingdom located in what is now Chad and the Central African Republic:





(Nachtigal notes that they had no real "soldiers" because they lacked a standing, professional army and instead seemed to rely on levies, but the details of his own description suggest that there were certain permanent military positions, so it is probable that certain individuals held those fixed positions permanently while also holding whatever civilian rank or position they had in peacetime.)

The excerpts above are from pp. 183-184 of the fourth volume of Allan G.B. Fisher and Humphrey J. Fisher's translation of Nachtigal's book Sahara and Sudan.
 
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Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,576
Benin City, Nigeria
#22
In the book Narrative of travels and discoveries in Northern and Central Africa: in the years 1822, 1823, and 1824 by Dixon Denham, Hugh Clapperton, and Walter Oudney, some of Bornu's soldiers are described as having "steel jackets" and one as having a "skull-cap" (a helmet) of steel.
 
Jun 2015
5,716
UK
#24
Sad in 2018 that 19th century notions still hold.

This is why the British themselves were impressed with the Asante governance system and Benin City construction....the same racist white supremacists who conquered Africa.
 
Nov 2018
84
West Covina
#26
The fundamental technique of iron production is smelting iron ore. The furnaces of Africa might have been smaller than those elsewhere, but their iron was of equal quality, and their furnace designs, the earliest dating back to 800 BCE, were ahead of their time. Bloomeries took on two distinct forms, open pit and domed, with domed being more efficient. Many of the domed furnaces used to smelt iron were upward of 10 feet tall, the height allowing for more ore and coke and focusing the heat toward the top of the furnace, where the ore was. Coke, the high-carbon fuel for the furnace, helped remove impurities. The higher quality the coke, the finer the grade of iron that would be produced. Some of the highest-grade coke in Africa came from the Congo Basin, where coke was made from hardwood charcoal. The temperature the iron was raised to was also crucial, iron’s melting point being 2,800 degrees F. To reach this temperature, bellows had clay tubes, called tuyeres, which were put through the fire itself, preheating the air and pushing the temperature higher. This technique could produce forms of mild steel, less likely to break than brittle imported steel. A similar technique of preheating air would not be used in Asia until the first century and not in Europe until the 14th century.

Once smelted, iron would be forged into large, easily stored blocks known as ingots until a need arose. Once the need arose, the iron would be reheated in open forges. The forge differed from the smelting furnace, being open to the air. The anvils used throughout sub-Saharan Africa were made of stone, giving an interesting advantage to African smiths. Stone absorbs less heat than steel, meaning iron being forged would remain at a malleable temperature for longer. This allowed the African smiths to forge with few reheatings. The hammers used differed between regions. Many used simple stone hand hammers, with assistants using larger stones when more powerful blows were needed. In regions where iron hammers were used there was a tradition of including pieces of a master smith’s hammers in the iron of their apprentice’s hammer, creating a lineage connecting modern smiths to ancient times.

There are some challenges in determining the techniques used by African blacksmiths. The first is that there has been little continuation of tradition since the introduction of foreign products. Smelting furnaces disappeared from the Congo when European steel was introduced in the 19th century. Smiths from other regions limited their production to save time and money.

The second challenge in determining the techniques comes from what was local competition in East Africa and northern parts of Sudan. The haddad, Islamic smiths, relied on scrap steel, and as a result out-produced the traditional smiths who smelted their own iron. Nonetheless, the indigenous smiths produced higher-quality metals, and the haddad frequently copied their forge marks to make pieces seem traditional. An example of this is the ngalio throwing knives of the Sara people of modern-day Chad. Knives produced by traditional smiths are smaller, smoother, and marked by a series of hammer strikes along the right side of the blade (with the knife’s spur facing forward). Knives made by the haddad are larger and have irregular curves and rough hammer marks on the left side of the blade. The combination of cheaper materials with large-scale competition ended some traditions and relegated others to only symbolic use. This was not the only instance of Islamic smiths imitating local styles. In Sudan, it was common practice to give to allied leaders after battles prestige knives with Koranic verses on the flat of the blade. Many prestige knives also had pagan symbolism included into the blade’s geometry.

Many traditional, and fascinating, techniques remain. Consider the use of forge welding in making the status axes among the Nsapo. The technique included heating the metal of two or more pieces of iron to near their melting point and hammering the pieces together. The challenge for this technique is that in the forging process exposed pieces of heated metal oxidize, producing flakes of iron-oxide called scale. When two pieces of metal are welded together, scale could form in between, weakening the bond. For this technique to work, smiths applied a material to seal out oxygen while not interfering with the metal bonding. The material commonly used was charcoal powder, which burns off or absorbs into the iron. Another distinctly African technique was using wooden forms to help forge hot iron; this was employed by the Mande blacksmiths, who hailed from west African countries, including Mali and Burkina Faso. Many of the hardwoods found in central Africa can sustain the impact of hammering largely unchanged and resist heat enough that only their surfaces char. The result is a forging form that can be carved to any shape.

The intricate decorations on ceremonial and battlefield swords required a set of techniques that demanded finesse. The two primary ways smiths would produce these patterns were cold chiseling and hot forging. The cold chiseling work is akin to carving: The cold metal of the blade is carefully cut to produce the pattern. Small steel punches of various forms would be used to hammer stipples or hatchwork into the sides of the blade. These hatch marks were unique to the sword being made and were sometimes zoomorphic, imitating animal skin. The hot forging involved more three-dimensional shaping of blade elements. Another rare technique was inlaying copper. This would be done by piercing a pinhole in the blade and pouring a small drop of molten copper into it, producing a copper spot on the blade.
 
Feb 2018
62
ohio
#27
What the cultures of Zimbabwe and Tanzania discovered, was to use the blast of bellows-air to drive the carbon upward through liquid iron. The bubbles' surface area reached more of the iron, and made a lot more steel, than the old process of blowing across the top of the fire.

Basically, this blast of air from below is how a Bessemer furnace works today.
 
Feb 2018
62
ohio
#28
The fundamental technique of iron production is smelting iron ore. The furnaces of Africa might have been smaller than those elsewhere, but their iron was of equal quality, and their furnace designs, the earliest dating back to 800 BCE, were ahead of their time. Bloomeries took on two distinct forms, open pit and domed, with domed being more efficient. Many of the domed furnaces used to smelt iron were upward of 10 feet tall, the height allowing for more ore and coke and focusing the heat toward the top of the furnace, where the ore was. Coke, the high-carbon fuel for the furnace, helped remove impurities. The higher quality the coke, the finer the grade of iron that would be produced. Some of the highest-grade coke in Africa came from the Congo Basin, where coke was made from hardwood charcoal. The temperature the iron was raised to was also crucial, iron’s melting point being 2,800 degrees F. To reach this temperature, bellows had clay tubes, called tuyeres, which were put through the fire itself, preheating the air and pushing the temperature higher. This technique could produce forms of mild steel, less likely to break than brittle imported steel. A similar technique of preheating air would not be used in Asia until the first century and not in Europe until the 14th century.

Once smelted, iron would be forged into large, easily stored blocks known as ingots until a need arose. Once the need arose, the iron would be reheated in open forges. The forge differed from the smelting furnace, being open to the air. The anvils used throughout sub-Saharan Africa were made of stone, giving an interesting advantage to African smiths. Stone absorbs less heat than steel, meaning iron being forged would remain at a malleable temperature for longer. This allowed the African smiths to forge with few reheatings. The hammers used differed between regions. Many used simple stone hand hammers, with assistants using larger stones when more powerful blows were needed. In regions where iron hammers were used there was a tradition of including pieces of a master smith’s hammers in the iron of their apprentice’s hammer, creating a lineage connecting modern smiths to ancient times.

There are some challenges in determining the techniques used by African blacksmiths. The first is that there has been little continuation of tradition since the introduction of foreign products. Smelting furnaces disappeared from the Congo when European steel was introduced in the 19th century. Smiths from other regions limited their production to save time and money.

The second challenge in determining the techniques comes from what was local competition in East Africa and northern parts of Sudan. The haddad, Islamic smiths, relied on scrap steel, and as a result out-produced the traditional smiths who smelted their own iron. Nonetheless, the indigenous smiths produced higher-quality metals, and the haddad frequently copied their forge marks to make pieces seem traditional. An example of this is the ngalio throwing knives of the Sara people of modern-day Chad. Knives produced by traditional smiths are smaller, smoother, and marked by a series of hammer strikes along the right side of the blade (with the knife’s spur facing forward). Knives made by the haddad are larger and have irregular curves and rough hammer marks on the left side of the blade. The combination of cheaper materials with large-scale competition ended some traditions and relegated others to only symbolic use. This was not the only instance of Islamic smiths imitating local styles. In Sudan, it was common practice to give to allied leaders after battles prestige knives with Koranic verses on the flat of the blade. Many prestige knives also had pagan symbolism included into the blade’s geometry.

Many traditional, and fascinating, techniques remain. Consider the use of forge welding in making the status axes among the Nsapo. The technique included heating the metal of two or more pieces of iron to near their melting point and hammering the pieces together. The challenge for this technique is that in the forging process exposed pieces of heated metal oxidize, producing flakes of iron-oxide called scale. When two pieces of metal are welded together, scale could form in between, weakening the bond. For this technique to work, smiths applied a material to seal out oxygen while not interfering with the metal bonding. The material commonly used was charcoal powder, which burns off or absorbs into the iron. Another distinctly African technique was using wooden forms to help forge hot iron; this was employed by the Mande blacksmiths, who hailed from west African countries, including Mali and Burkina Faso. Many of the hardwoods found in central Africa can sustain the impact of hammering largely unchanged and resist heat enough that only their surfaces char. The result is a forging form that can be carved to any shape.

The intricate decorations on ceremonial and battlefield swords required a set of techniques that demanded finesse. The two primary ways smiths would produce these patterns were cold chiseling and hot forging. The cold chiseling work is akin to carving: The cold metal of the blade is carefully cut to produce the pattern. Small steel punches of various forms would be used to hammer stipples or hatchwork into the sides of the blade. These hatch marks were unique to the sword being made and were sometimes zoomorphic, imitating animal skin. The hot forging involved more three-dimensional shaping of blade elements. Another rare technique was inlaying copper. This would be done by piercing a pinhole in the blade and pouring a small drop of molten copper into it, producing a copper spot on the blade.
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McNaughton, P.R. (1988). The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa. Indianapolis, Ind.: Indiana University Press
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