An historical fact is sometimes forgotten: African urban history is a very old and complex affair. Cities existed in Africa in ancient archaeological times and during the age of medieval Islam. The Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, and Atlantic Ocean trading systems spurred urban development, as did autochthonous processes. Early on, urbanization was made possible, as elsewhere, by the agricultural so-called neolithic revolution, which allowed noncultivating urbanites—men of power, priests, craftsmen, and merchants—to be fed by their rural partners.
Another common point is that, from these varied and sometimes contrasted urban realities, a new urban revolution occurred from the very beginning of the nineteenth century. It resulted from an early (precolonial), even if often mediated, diffusion of European Industrial Revolution impulse into a westernized “modernity”; African modern cities were cities that politically and/or economically accepted or later were forced to adapt (as, in Yorubaland, Abeokuta or Ibadan). From that moment onward and still more than beforehand, cities proved to be main political and cultural focuses. Urban cultural processes probably are the most difficult to study, while they certainly were among the most decisive tools for change.
In time and space, African cities expressed a social and cultural evolution resulting from the interrelationship between urban people and their environment, structured along given political and social factors, and ecological, technological, and ideological constraints. Urban chronology, periodization, and events were diverse: in Southern Africa, a network of colonial cities were at work as early as mid-nineteenth century, from Cape Town to cities in Transvaal and Natal; in most coastal locations all around the continent, creolization began long before the eighteenth century, especially in Portuguese, Dutch, or Danish areas, and especially in Swahili cities; Islamization began in desert ports from the very beginning of the Middle Ages; Bantu capital cities of Central Africa were fitted with military and kinship social structures of local kingdoms and chiefdoms. Most of these elements progressively mingled and combined, giving birth to a complex and contrasted cumulative history. Therefore, urbanization south of the Sahara was, as elsewhere, a longue-durée process, expressing as much continuities as changes. Most of the time, these changes were not sudden, but resulted from long and often imperceptible adjusting processes, the accumulation of which resulted in revolutions of mind and society: urban spaces came to embody urban minds.