Put simply, iron forging is the process of shaping metal into desired forms using a series of special tools and techniques. However, iron forging is far from easy. Before iron may be forged, it must be smelted.

Mastery by African peoples of the technical processes of smelting and forging has forever changed their world, practically, culturally, and symbolically. Iron ore is one of the African continent’s most plentiful natural resources, but one of the most difficult to process into usable metal. A blacksmith must first extract workable iron from iron-rich deposits through a refining process known as smelting. When heated to a semi-molten state in a furnace, iron particles combine to form a sponge-like and malleable mass called a “bloom.” This bloom is then heated to white-hot temperatures so that it may be shaped by a blacksmith’s hammer.

By the 1920s, the majority of indigenous furnaces across Africa had ceased their output of bloomery iron, and iron production was eventually outlawed by all colonial regimes in favor of Western equivalents. Although iron smelting was banned by the 1920s, iron forging continues to the present day using imported iron.

Iron Smelting in Practice

Watch the video below to view a reenactment of a traditional smelt by Mafa ironworkers in Lum-Ziver, Cameroon, led by master smith Dokwaza. While watching this film, write your answers to the following questions:

  • What materials does a blacksmith need to begin forging iron?
  • In your opinion, what is the most difficult aspect of smelting iron?
  • This video shows the production of an agricultural tool. What other tools might be created using iron?
Video by D. Paul Morris, Nicholas David, and Yves Le Bleis, courtesy of Nicholas David