Hebrew Communities in Ancient West Africa

Although many of us have not been taught this, the Hebrew faith/Christianity is rooted in Africa. Judaism was is the cultural appropiation of African Spirituality.

Two French travelers from the 18th century, Conrad Malte-Brun and James Gates-Percival, traveled around Africa during the time of the Slave Trade and documented the tribes in Africa. While traveling through the Kingdom of Loango, which is present day Congo, they came across black Jews. In their book, A system of universal geography: or A description of all the parts of the world, they write :

The kingdom of Loango contains black Jews, scattered throughout the country; they are despised by the Negroes who do not even deign to eat with them; they are occupied in trade, and keep the sabbath so strictly that they do not even converse on that day; they have a separate burying ground, very far from any habitation. The tombs are constructed with masonry, and ornamented with Hebrew inscriptions.

The European Jew-ish newspaper known as Haaretz, published documents from a Portuguese traveler who wrote about what he saw in Senegal, during the time of the Slave Trade. The Portuguese traveler said this :

“Some of the people here believe in Mohammed, but the majority are idol worshippers,” wrote the nameless Portuguese navigator. “In this land there are Jews known as ‘Gauls,’ and they are black like the rest of the inhabitants. But they have no synagogues and do not conduct Jewish ceremonies.”

They do not live with the other blacks, but separately,” he reported. “Because they do not dare enter the villages, they locate themselves behind the houses of the ruler of the village and at dawn they sing his praises, until he grants them a portion of millet. And then they go. If they didn’t do so, the rest of the blacks would not tolerate them — so great is their hatred for them, which forbids them from entering any house except for that of the ruler of the village. If they find them inside the village, they are beaten with sticks.”

The uniformed writers of the Haaretz article try make the claim that because these Jews in the document did not practice Hebrew customs, they were not really Jews. The most likely reason why the tribe didn’t practice Hebrew traditions is because many Israelites were scattered and lost their culture and identity during their persecution.

Also this document is important because it shows how much the Israelites were hated by the native African population. This also helps debunk the myth that “Africans sold other Africans”. They both were African but two different tribes. The local West Africans, helped sell Israelites who migrated from Israel, aka, North East Africa.

A historical account from the 1700’s describes the connection between West Africans and the Israelites. This account is from an African man from the Igbo tribe of Nigeria, named Oludah Equiano. He was kidnapped from Nigeria and was enslaved in Barbados and Virginia. He was somehow able to purchase his freedom and went on to become a writer and abolitionist. In his autobiography, he not only documented the horrors of slavery, but he also wrote about his culture back home during the slave trade. He detailed how his tribe practiced the same customs of the Jews in the Hebrew Bible, called the Torah.

“We practiced circumcision like the Jews, and made offerings and feasts on that occasion in the same manner as they did. Such is the imperfect sketch my memory has furnished me with of the manners and customs of a people among whom I first drew my breath. And here I cannot forbear suggesting what has long struck me very forcibly, namely, the strong analogy which even by this sketch, imperfect as it is, appears to prevail in the manners and customs of my countrymen and those of the Jews, before they reached the Land of Promise, and particularly the patriarchs while they were yet in that pastoral state which is described in Genesis — .”

“ Like the Israelites in their primitive state, our government was conducted by our chiefs or judges, our wise men and elders; and the head of a family with us enjoyed a similar authority over his household with that which is ascribed to Abraham and the other patriarchs. The law of retaliation obtained almost universally with us as with them: and even their religion appeared to have shed upon us a ray of its glory, though broken and spent in its passage, or eclipsed by the cloud with which time, tradition, and ignorance might have enveloped it; for we had our circumcision (a rule I believe peculiar to that people:) we had also our sacrifices and burnt-offerings, our washings and purifications, on the same occasions as they had.”

Igbo Jew in Nigeria (Courtesy: Chika Oduah)

For whatever reason a White House memo dated Tuesday, January 28, 1969, to President Nixon, former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger describes the Igbos as “the wandering Jews of West Africa-gifted, aggressive, westernized, at best envied and resented, but mostly despised by their neighbors in the federation”(Foreign relations document, volume E-5, documents on Africa 1969–1972). See White House memo here. https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/nixon/e5/55258.htm

This quote shows how the Igbo tribe has gained a national reputation for its Hebrew characteristics.

According to 17th century Arabic historical documents called, Tarikh al-Fattash and the Tarikh al-Sudan, many Hebrew communities existed through out West Africa.

The Tarikh es Soudan recorded by Abderrahman ben Abdallah es-Sadi (translated by O.Houdas) stated that a Jewish community was formed by a group of Egyptian Jews, who had travelled to the West Africa through Chad.

See also: al-Kati M., “Tarikh al-Fattash, 1600”.

The historian Leon Africanus travelled through out the south of Sahara in Africa and came across many black hebrew communities.

See Leo Africanus (al-Hassan b. al -Wazzan al-Zayyati), Della discrittione dell’Africa per Giovanni Leoni Africano, Settima Parte, in G.B. Ramusio, Delle navigationi e viaggi. Venice 1550, I, ff.78–81r.

Why is this not known? Part of it was due to religious persecution.

In 1492, the emperor, Askia Muhammed, came to power in Mali, the previously tolerant region of Timbuktu and decreed that Jews must convert to Islam or leave. Practicing Hebrew customs became illegal in Mali. In 1526, the historian Leo Africanus wrote,

The king (Askia) is a declared enemy of the Jews. He will not allow any to live in the city. If he hears it said that a Berber merchant frequents them or does business with them, he confiscates his goods.”

Today many Israelites are still living in Africa. In 2016, a French Jewish filmmaker, named Lauren Gavron,made a film called, Black Jews, The Roots of an Olive Tree. It documents Hebrew tribes in Africa. What inspired Gavron to make the film was, a book written by Edith Bruder, called, The black Jews of Africa, history, identity, religion.

“In sub-Saharan Africa, you can find ‘Judaic’ tribes in Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Uganda, Cameroon, South Africa, Zimbabwe and even in Sao Tome and other countries,” Bruder said. Many of the black Hebrew tribes that were documented in the film, claimed that their ancestors migrated from Israel and Yemen. These West African countries that have Hebrew communities, are the same countries that African Americans were kidnapped from during the Atlantic Slave Trade. Again, the same African countries that African Americans trace their ancestry back to, contain Hebrew tribes and communities. Israelite tribes have been found in countries that are not listed above.

In his book ,The Great Roman-Jewish War: 66–70, the Roman historian, Flavius Josephus, stated over thousands of years ago,that the Israelites migrated into Africa. He writes:

“General Vaspasian and his son Caesar Titus fought against the Jews. Millions of Jews fled into Africa, among other places, fleeing from Roman persecution and starvation during the siege.”

This event would explain the beginning of the migration of Jews from Israel to West Africa. In the 1990’s, a black Hebrew tribe called the Lemba, that resides in Zimbabwe, had their DNA tested in a study done by The Center for Genetic Anthropology at University College London. The DNA test confirmed, that the Lemba, had the same DNA sequences as the Israelite priests, that many believe to be the descendants of Aaron, the older brother of Moses. The results from the study means that the Lemba tribe share the same DNA as the ancient Israelites. A DNA study done on Sephardic Jews, by Family Tree DNA, showed that the DNA sequences that are found in predominately Sub Saharan Africans and African Americans, were present during the “formation of the Ancient Israelites.”

Due to the fact that the DNA evidence links black people to Israel, is such a key point, I listed the citation at the very bottom of the article.

The black Hebrew tribes in Africa,mentioned above, are fascinating but they are anything but new.

Members of the Lemba Tribe (Photo Cred PBS Cicada Films).

For whatever reason a White House memo dated Tuesday, January 28, 1969, to President Nixon, former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger describes the Igbos as “the wandering Jews of West Africa-gifted, aggressive, westernized, at best envied and resented, but mostly despised by their neighbors in the federation”(Foreign relations document, volume E-5, documents on Africa 1969–1972). See White House memo here. https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/nixon/e5/55258.htm

This quote shows how the Igbo tribe has gained a national reputation for its Hebrew customs.

Llorente, M. G. et al. Ancient Ethiopian genome reveals extensive Eurasian admixture throughout the African continent. Science 350, 820–822, (2015).

14. Brace, C. L. et al. The questionable contribution of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age to European craniofacial form. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 103, 242–247, (2006)