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Songhai / Songhay

Writing in 1068, the Andalusian geographer al-Bakri (d. 1054) was able to gather precious information about Islam in three contemporary African kingdoms: Gao, Ghana, and Takrur (in lower Senegal). The king of Gao was Muslim, but the common people adhered to their ancestral religion, and pre-Islamic customs persisted at the court. The partial acceptance of Islam in Gao is contrasted with the zealous adherence to Islam of the king of Takrur, who compelled his subjects to observe Islamic law and carried out a jihad against his neighbors. The Islamic militancy of Takrur was exceptional, whereas Gao's symbiotic relationship between Islam and the traditional religion was more typical of Islam in West Africa.

Around 1375, Gao, a small tributary state of Mali, broke away under the leadership of Sunni Ali and thus began the rise of the Songhai Empire. Over the next 28 years, Sunni Ali converted the small kingdom of Gao into the huge empire of Songhai. Songhai encompassed the geographic area of ancient Ghana and Mali combined and extended into the region of the Hausa states of ancient and contemporary northwest Nigeria. Mandinka, Wolof, Bamana, (also called Bambara) peoples, and others lived in the western reaches of the Songhai in the Senegambia area. Hausa and Fulani people lived in the region that is now northwest Nigeria. All of these cultures still exist.

Islamic scholars and African oral traditions document that all of these states had centralized governments, long distance trade routes, and educational systems. Between the 13th and 17th centuries Mande and Mande-related warriors established the dominance of Mande culture in the Senegambia geographical region. Throughout the West African savanna where people migrated in advance of the Mande warriors, people spoke mutually intelligible Mandekan languages, and had a strong oral history tradition. In the 18th century people of the Mande culture were highly represented among those enslaved in the French Louisiana colony in North America.

The Songhai Empire began when the Songhai king took advantage of a weakened Mali Empire to extend control over ever more territory.

The Songhai people had long settled along the middle region of the Niger River, using the river for transport, fishing, hunting, and agriculture. By the ninth century this middle region of the Niger had been integrated into the state of Songhai, with its capital at Kukiya. Merchants traded with villages along the Niger and as far as the town of Gao, which had been founded by Berber and possibly even Egyptian merchants, attracted by the Bumbuk gold trade of Ghana. In 1009, the fifteenth king of Songhai converted to Islam and decided to live in Gao. Gao attracted Muslim merchants and scholars and became the most important settlement and commercial center and in due time the capital.

It was in the fifteenth century, when the empire of Mali was greatly weakened, that Songhai was able to expand its territory. Sunni Ali Ber (Ali the Great) extended his rule from Gao to Timbuktu and Djenne in the mid-fifteenth century, and then conquered the whole kingdom of Mali, using a powerful army of horsemen and a fleet of war canoes. He made Songhai the largest and most powerful of all the Sudanese kingdoms.

Eventually Timbuktu was restored to its former status as a great center of Islamic learning. Gao became a prosperous city of 10,000 inhabitants under Askia Mohammed Touré, a Soninke and devout Muslim. After his elaborate pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, he expanded the empire through a series of jihads (holy wars), extending his rule farther east to the Hausa states near Lake Chad and the Mossi kingdom to the south. He used Islam to reinforce his authority, to unite the far-flung empire, and to revitalize trans-Saharan trade. He did not force Islam on the ordinary people, most of whom retained their traditional religious beliefs. Within a few years, the Songhai empire was considerably larger than Mali and occupied almost the entire western Sudan.

Marriages or connections which resulted in the birth of princes, recognised as royal, are worthy of mention, as they represent a custom of the Soudan, where, amongst terms of peace, the demand of a wife for the conqueror from the royal family of the conquered almost invariably appears. They also indicate a gentle method by which the amalgamation of conquered provinces was made secure. There was no province of the empire from whom the future Emperor or Caliph of the Soudan might not be taken.

Other marriages, although they did not give successors to the throne, gave personages of high importance and influence in the political administration of the country. Viceroys, governors, generals, admirals, inspectors, cadis, and officials whose functions it is not now easy to determine but whose titles were so eagerly sought as to show them to have been accompanied by considerable emoluments and power, were frequently selected from the sons and nephews of the kings. Oriental history has demonstrated that such a system has its serious inconveniences, and the Soudan was no exception to the rule, for if on the one hand the honours of the kingdom were opened freely to the best blood of every province, the system also created an excessive number of claimants ; for all preferment, and gave rise to labyrinths of intrigue, which not infrequently upset for personal motives the wisest plans. Successions were too often accompanied by the private murder or public massacre of superfluous co-heirs.

By the time Portugal and Spain embarked on exploration and conquest of the Western Hemisphere, Mohammed Askia I ruled over Songhai. Askia completed Mansa Musa’s project to create a great center of learning, culminating with the establishment of the Sankore University in Timbuktu. Sankore teachers and students were from all over sub-Saharan Africa and from the Arabic nations to the east. Leo Africanus, an eyewitness described Sankore University thus: “[H]ere are great stores of doctors, judges, priests and other learned men that are bountifully maintained at the King’s (Muhammad Askia) costs and charges.”

Leo Africanus was born, El Hasan ben Muhammed el-Wazzan-ez-Zayyati in the city of Granada in 1485, but was expelled along with his parents and thousands of other Muslims by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Settling in Morocco, he studied in Fez and as a teenager accompanied his uncle on diplomatic missions throughout North Africa. During these travels, he visited Timbuktu. As a young man he was captured by pirates and presented as an exceptionally learned slave to the great Renaissance pope, Leo X. Leo who freed him, baptized him under the name “Johannis Leo de Medici,” and commissioned him to write in Italian a detailed survey of Africa. His accounts provided most of what Europeans knew about the continent for the next several centuries.

Leo Africanus also described Timbuktu as: “[A] town full of exceedingly rich merchants and hither continually resort a great store of Negroes which buy cloth brought out of Barbary and Europe. It is a wonder to see what plenty merchandise is daily brought thither, and how costly and sumptuous things be.” The clothes that Africanus describes were European textiles traded for the Songhai exports of gold, ivory, and slaves.

The Songhai Empire survived and prospered by centralizing administrative power, revitalizing the trans-Sahara trade, and by using Islam as a unifying force. The administration of Songhai was more centralized than that of Mali. Traditional rulers were replaced by royal appointees who owed their positions directly to the king. The Songhai empire was divided into five large provinces, each with its own governor, Islamic courts, and professional fighting force to ensure that farmers of the province paid regular tribute to the king. The main sources of government income were thus tribute from the provinces, produce from the royal farms in the Niger flood plain and the Songhai heartland, and taxes on trade. Gold, kola nuts, and slaves were traded for salt, cloth, cowries, and horses. Cloth was woven from local Sudanese cotton and in towns like Djenne, Timbuktu, and Gao, woolen cloth and linen from north Africa were unraveled and re-woven to meet local tastes.

The Songhai Empire collapsed when the Moroccans used superior weaponry to seize power and when maritime trade routes replaced trans-Sahara trade routes. The Songhai kingdom did not last long. The Moroccans seized the salt mines at Taghaza in 1585 and conquered Gao and Timbuktu, thanks to their gunfire which easily overcame the swords, spears, and arrows of the Songhai, even thought the latter had far larger numbers.

the kingdom of Morocco successfully crossed the Sahara (losing half of its military force) and defeated the Songhai army in 1591 in response. However, Morocco was not able to annex Sudan to the west. As a result Hausa trading cities in Sudan attracted caravans crossing the Sahara, which brought textiles, hardware, and weapons. In return they sent gold, textiles, leather goods, and slaves. Moorish soldiers occupied the Songhai cities, beginning a reign of terror that lasted well into the eighteenth century. The trade routes were no longer safe.

Drought and disease also weakened the economy. In the east, the growth of Hausa states, Bornu, and the Tuareg sultanate of Aïr drew trans-Saharan trade away from Songhai and the western routes. The Songhai Empire broke into several separate states. As the Moorish civilization in North Africa declined, the demand for gold and other trade goods declined and trade became less lucrative. The Sahara became more of a barrier between the Sudan and Europe. Meanwhile the Portuguese began arriving in the Gulf of Guinea in the mid-fifteenth century and began trading with coastal Africans, first in gold (thus diverting gold from the trans-Saharan trade routes) and then in slaves.

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Page last modified: 09-02-2019 18:40:53 ZULU