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Wolof Empire (aka Wollof, Jolof, Jaloof or Jollof)

The Wolof Empire (also spelt Wollof, Jolof or Jollof) emerged soon after 300 AD in the Senegambia Valley between the Gambia and Senegal rivers. To the north east it was bounded by the semi-desert ferlo, beyond which was Futa Toro. To the east it was bounded by the states which came under the rule of the Manding. And finally to the south lay the Gambia River.

The original Wolof state, it was formed before the 14th century, probably as a result of the breakup of the kingdom of Tekrur and the demise of Malian power in the Senegambia region. By the 16th century, five major states Walo, Cayor, Baol, Sine, and Saloum owed allegiance to the ruler (burba) of Jolof, but during the 17th century, all these revolted against Jolof domination, and the state became relatively isolated from the lucrative trade with Europeans. Because of its location, it was open to attacks from Mauritania and from the more prosperous coastal states of Cayor, Walo, and Baol. At an early date, much of the population was converted to Islam.

The Wolof occupied the seaboard between St Louis and Cape Verde and the south bank of the Senegal from its mouth to Dagana. Farther inland the districts of the Walo, Cayor Baol and Jolof (the last, the name of a chief division of the nation, being sometimes used as the national name) were almost exclusively peopled by Wolof. The cities of St Louis and Dakar were both in the Wolof country, and throughout the French Sudan.

The name is variously explained as meaning "speaker" or "black." The Wolof justify both meanings, for they are at once far the blackest and among the most garrulous of all African peoples. To one observer, they were a very tall people, with splendidly proportioned busts but weak and undeveloped legs and flat feet. "Certainly the Wolofs are blacks of the blacks, their shiny skin having the colour of ebony, and their very lips being black, although of a lighter shade than the rest of the body." The Wolof language was spoken throughout Senegambia, and numerous grammars, dictionaries and vocabularies appeared since 1825. There was, however, no written literature.

The Wolof preserved their national songs, legends and proverbs by memory, but iave little knowledge of letters beyond the Arabic characters on their paper spells and amulets. Wolof, a typical agglutinating language, differs from all other African forms of speech. The roots, almost all monosyllables ending in consonants, are determined by means of suffixes, and coalesce while remaining invariable in their various meanings. By these suffixes the meaning of the words is endlessly modified.

Most Wolof were nominally Mahommedans, and some near the Christian missions professed Christianity, but many pagan rites were still observed. Animal worship was prevalent. The chief difference is that the former had trinkets enclosing scraps from the Koran, while the latter wear medals and scapularies. All feasts, Mohammedan and Christian alike, are celebrated with equal zeal, and many of the old pagan rites still attract the multitude. Thus at Gore the capture of a shark and its exhibition in the streets excites a perfect frenzy of delight, all work being stopped for hours together. The family genius have offerings made to them, the most popular of these household deities, the lizard, having in many houses a bowl of milk set aside for it daily. The Wolof had three hereditary castes, the nobles, the tradesmen and musicians (who are despised), and the slaves. These latter were kindly treated. Polygyny is customary.

It is thought the Wollof people originated from the Sahara before is became hostile to farming due to desertification. As the environment deteriorated some of them drifted into the Senegalese areas of Futa Toro and modern-day south eastern Mauritania. With the Arab conquests of around 640 AD they were forced to move into north and east Senegal where over time villages developed into autonomous states such as Baol, Kayor, Saloum, Dimar, Walo and Sine the overall ruling state being that of Jolof who came together voluntarily to form the Jolof Empire.

Legend has it that in Walo the fishermen from several villages argued vehemently over firewood which lay along the edge of a lake at Mengen. Just before matters developed into violence a mysterious person called Ndyadyane Ndyaye (Njanjan Njie) arose from the lake and shared out the firewood fairly among the men and promptly vanished much to their bafflement. The decision was made to try and catch him so they feigned another argument and when he appeared he was caught.

When Mansa Wali Jon the ruler of Sine, who was himself endowed with supernatural powers, heard about the strange goings on in Mengen he shouted "Ndyadyane Ndyaye" which is an expression of utter amazement. This name was given to the strange visitor (actual name: Amadu Bubakar Ibn Muhammed). He became the first ruler of the new empire with the title Burba Jolof and other states voluntarily pledged allegiance to him. Thus the new empire arose around 300 AD in the Senegambia valley which stretched from the Gambia River and encompassed most of modern-day Senegal.

By the end of the 15th century, the Wolof states of Jolof, Kayor, Baol and Walo had become united in a federation with Jolof as the metropolitan power. The position of king was held by the Burba Wolof and the rulers of the other component states owed loyalty to him while being allowed local sovereignty in internal state matters. Saloum and Sine were later brought within the union. Before they became involved in trading with the Portuguese merchants on the coast, the Wolof people enjoyed the benefits of long established trading and cultural ties with the Western Sudanese empires and had also benefited from trading with Futa Toro and the Berbers from North Africa. Through these early trading links and organisation the Wolof states grew wealthy and had formidable strength.

Starting in the 1440's Portuguese soldiers and seamen garrisoned the small island of Arguin, on the northerly coast of Mauritania and raided the Senegambian mainland for captives whom they took back to Portugal and sold as slaves. By the 1450's, however, this form of kidnapping gradually developed into regular trade between the trade representatives of Burba Wolof and his petty state rulers and the Portuguese sea captains. The kings of the various Wolof states proved eager to exchange captives for European goods such as textiles, firearms, metal items and cotton.

Cayor [Kayor] state benefited greatly from this trade because it bordered the coast and included the lands around Cape Verde where the Portuguese set up their initial trading links with the Wollof. This geographical advantage gave the prominent men of Cayor commercial advantages which made them powerful and gave them the desire to be independent of Jolof's hegemony over them. In around 1556 the nobility of Cayor rebelled against the Burba Jolof and gained its independence. The new royal title of the king of Cayor was Damel. Emboldened by this success the Damel of Cayor invaded and conquered the neighbouring state of Baol. To cap it all Cayor later defeated the Jolof army and their Burba leader.

As a result of this new state of affairs the prosperity of Jolof declined due to the fact that its contact with the European traders was severed by Cayor. However, because the Damels of Cayor late proved incapable of building a cohesive and strong empire of their own they were repeatedly attacked by the northern Mauritanian Berbers.

This led to Baol severing the domination of Cayor in 1686. Shortly after this Jolof took advantage of this weakness in Cayor's power and attacked. They had partial success when the Damel was killed. In later battles the Burba Jolof was killed and his army forced back. After this the king of Baol, Latir Faal Sukabe, took control of Cayor and became the new Damel. He ruled until 1702. Such battles and wars continued between the noble rulers of the Jolof states until the late 19th century when they were eventually subdued by the French colonials.

The old kingdom of Cayor, largest of the Wolof states, was preserved by the French. The king was elected, but always from the the largest of Wolof state's ruling family, and the electors, themselves unable to succeed, only number four. When elected the king received a vase said to contain the seeds of all plants growing in Cayor, and he is thus made lord of the land. In earlier days there was the Bur or "Great Wolof," to whom all petty chiefs owed allegiance. The Wolof were very loyal to the French, and have constantly proved themselves courageous soldiers.





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Page last modified: 06-12-2016 14:29:25 ZULU