The Empire of Songhai Was Originally Part of

The Songhai Empire (aka Songhay, c. 1460 – c. 1591) replaced the Mali Empire (1240-1645) every bit the most important country in Westward Africa (covering modern southern Mauritania and Mali). Originating as a smaller kingdom along the eastern bend of the Niger River c. yard, the Songhai would aggrandize their territory dramatically from the reign of Male monarch Sunni Ali (1464-1492).

With its capital at Gao and managing to control trans-Saharan trade through such centres as Timbuktu and Djenne, the Songhai empire prospered throughout the 16th century until, ripped apart by civil wars, it was attacked and captivated into the Moroccan Empire c. 1591.

Decline of the Republic of mali Empire

The Republic of mali Empire, located along the savannah belt between the Sahara desert to the north and the forests of southern Westward Africa (often referred to as the Sudan region), had prospered through its control of local and international trade, specially in gold and salt, since the mid-13th century. However, the empire began to collapse in the 1460s following ceremonious wars, the opening up of competing trade routes elsewhere, and attacks from the nomadic Tuareg of the southern Sahara then the Mossi people, who at that fourth dimension controlled the lands due south of the Niger River. Worse was to come, though, with the rise of the Songhai Empire, an aboriginal kingdom but at present more powerful than ever. The Mali Empire would cling on to the western corner of its once vast territories, that is until the Moroccans arrived in the 17th century.

The Songhai Empire was dominated by & named subsequently the Songhai (aka Songhay or Sonhrai), a group of Nilo-Saharan-speaking peoples.

Male monarch Sunni Ali

The kingdom of Songhai dates dorsum to at least the 9th century and was contemporary with the Republic of ghana Empire (6-13th century) further to the east. Information technology was dominated by and named later the Songhay (aka Sonhrai), a grouping of Nilo-Saharan-speaking peoples. Although conquered by the Mali Empire, the Songhai people would prove troublesome and powerful because they controlled river transport on the Niger. The Songhai kings made regular raids on Mali urban centres from the early 15th century and ultimately won their independence every bit the Republic of mali kings lost their grip on several smaller subjugated kingdoms on the periphery of their empire.

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Around 1468, King Sunni Ali (aka Sonni Ali Ber) changed the traditional Songhai tactic of small-scale and desultory raids on its enemies to a more sustained campaign of permanent territorial expansion. With an regular army equipped with armoured cavalry and the only naval armada in North Africa, which he deployed on the Niger River, Sunni Ali was able to conquer the rump of the erstwhile Mali Empire. Every bit the Timbuktu chronicle, the
Tarikh al-Sudan
(c. 1656) notes:

[He reigned] for 28 years, waged 32 wars of which he won every ane, ever the conquistador, never the conquered.

(quoted in de Villiers, 102)

Songhai Empire

Roke~commonswiki (CC BY-SA)

The Songhai king played on his image as a wizard of the indigenous animist organized religion to strike fright into his enemies. He also finer mixed leniency (conquered warriors were invited to join his ain regular army, for example) with complete ruthlessness (infamously executing many of the peculiarly resistant Fulbe tribe). Hence, the male monarch earned his epithet, ‘Sunni the Merciless’. Even more effective than these strategies was Sunni Ali’s battle tactics of attacking the enemy with overwhelming force and with the utmost speed. Conquered territories fell similar dominoes and were divided up into provinces and ruled past a governor appointed by the king. Tribute was extracted from local chiefs, hostages taken and marriages of political alliance arranged, only at least Sunni Ali did build many dykes which improved the irrigation and agricultural yield of many areas.


Past 1469 the Songhai had control of the important trade ‘port’ of Timbuktu on the Niger River. In 1471 the Mossi territories south of the Niger River bend were attacked, and by 1473 the other major merchandise centre of the region, Djenne, also on the Niger, had been conquered. Unfortunately for Sunni Ali though, all this new territory did not give him access to the goldfields of the southern coast of W Africa that both the Republic of ghana and Mali rulers had grown rich on. This was because a Portuguese fleet, sponsored by the Lisbon merchant Fenão Gomes, had, in 1471, sailed around the Atlantic coast of Africa and established a trading presence near these goldfields (in modern Ghana).

Timbuktu, with a population of around 100,000 in the mid-15th century CE, continued to thrive as a trade ‘port’.

The opening upwards of the sea route to the Mediterranean would too hateful the trans-Saharan camel caravans now faced serious competition every bit the best way to get trade goods to North Africa and Europe. However, the Portuguese were not quite then successful as they had hoped in exploiting Africa’s resources. Certainly, the Songhai in whatsoever example managed to monopolise the Saharan caravan trade which brought rock salt and luxury goods like fine cloth, glassware, sugar, and horses to the Sudan region in commutation for gold, ivory, spices, kola nuts, hides, and slaves. Timbuktu, with a population of around 100,000 in the mid-15th century, continued to thrive as a trade ‘port’ and as a eye of learning into the 16th and 17th centuries when the city boasted many mosques and 150-180 Koranic schools.

Merchandise centres, in particular, became sophisticated urban centres with housing built in rock and many having a large public square for regular markets and at least 1 mosque. Around this core was a floating suburban population living in mud and reed houses or tents. Rural communities, meanwhile, continued to be wholly dependent on agriculture, but the presence of rural markets indicates at that place was usually a nutrient surplus. Certainly, famine was a rare event during the beginning half of the Songhai Empire’southward reign, and there are no records of any peasant revolts.


The Songhai government was much more than centralised in respect of the more federal arrangements of the earlier Republic of ghana and Mali Empires. The ruler was an accented monarch but despite having effectually 700 eunuchs at his court in Gao, the Songhai kings were never quite secure on their thrones. Of the nine rulers in the Songhai Empire’s history, six were either deposed in rebellions or died fierce deaths, usually at the hands of their brothers and uncles.

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Transporting Salt on the Niger River

Transporting Table salt on the Niger River

Taguelmoust (CC BY-SA)

Should a king reign long enough to benefit from it, there was an imperial quango of the most senior officials which included the finance minister (kalisa

farma), the admiral (hi

koy) of the Songhai fleet who besides supervised the regional governors, the head of the army (balama), and the government minister of agriculture (fari

mondzo). There were as well ministers responsible for forests, wages, purchases, holding, and foreigners. A chancellor-secretarial assistant dealt with the official paperwork. At the local level, in that location were many officials with specific duties such as policing or checking the use of official weights at trading centres, besides every bit heads of local craft guilds and tribal groups. One official who nobody could escape from, although the rich had to pay him more than the less well off, was the local tax collector, who gathered in goods for the crown to pay the regular army, courtroom, and provide some provision for the poor.

King Mohammad I

King Mohammad I (r. 1494-1528), a former Songhai ground forces commander who had wrested the throne from Sunni Ali’south son, Sonni Baro, began the use of the dynastic title
(meaning ‘ruler’ or perhaps even ‘usurper ruler’). The new king, forming a fully professional army for the first fourth dimension, would oversee the greatest territorial extent of the Songhai Empire, earning his place as the Songhai’due south 2d greatest leader after Sunni Ali.

The loss of control of a slice of West Africa’s gold trade to the Portuguese may have been one of the reasons for Male monarch Mohammad’s decision to expand the Songhai Empire interests to the southeast. Three major cities of Hausaland, located between the Niger River and Lake Chad, were, according to the historian Leo Africanus (d. c. 1554), attacked: Gobir, Katsina and Zaria. The quaternary major city in the region, Kano, was obliged to pay a hefty tribute to the Songhai male monarch.

The capital at Gao in this flow boasted an impressive 100,000 inhabitants and the empire stretched near from the Senegal River in the west to what is today primal Mali in the eastward. In addition, the territory included the lucrative common salt mines at Tagahaza in the northward. The Songhai Empire completely dominated almost the whole stretch of the Niger River, West Africa’due south trade thruway so that the Songhai peoples were now a small-scale minority group in a state that encompassed such diverse groups as the Mande, Fulbe, Mossi, and Tuareg.

Tomb of Askia Mohammad I, Gao

Tomb of Askia Mohammad I, Gao

Taguelmoust (CC Past-SA)

Islam & Animism

The Islamic religion, long-established in other empires in the Sudan region like Ghana and Republic of mali, had a somewhat precarious beingness in the Songhai Empire, at least initially. King Sunni Ali observed sure Islamic practices similar the Ramadan fast for political expediency only (he also sacrificed animals to trees and supported heathen sorcerers) and was vehemently anti-Muslim in that he persecuted without mercy Muslims who were a political threat (Fage, 424). In contrast, King Mohammad I (as his name would suggest) was a convert and he fifty-fifty made the pilgrimage or
to Mecca where he received the honorary championship of the Caliph of the Sudan. Mohammad imposed Islamic law on his people, appointed
(Islamic magistrates or judges) equally heads of justice at Timbuktu, Djenne and other towns, and engaged the services of the North African Mohammad al-Maghili as his government advisor. The works of the latter would become an important part of the Islamic reform movement that swept the region from the 18th century. Certainly, an urban aristocracy adult which was predominantly Islamic. Not merely made up of wealthy merchants, at that place also sprang up a class of religious scholars whose texts not only examined the ins and outs of their religion only as well produced works on many other subjects from science to history.

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King Mohammad may even have tried to impose Islam as the state religion but, as in the Songhai’s predecessor states in the Sudan region, Islam was largely limited to the elite and urban populations while rural communities and the greater part of the population remained loyal to their traditional animist beliefs. In the latter religion, it was thought that spirits possessed certain objects, especially impressive natural phenomena, trees, caves, and prominent natural features. The two most important spirits were Harake Diko and Dongo, linked to the Niger River and thunderstorms respectively, which is hardly surprising given the importance of the river to trade and rain to the dry savannah of West Africa. These spirits and others (notably those belonging to dead ancestors) had to be constantly kept in a good mood, hence they were made offerings of food and potable and honoured with masked dances and ceremonies. More a belief system than a formal religion, there were, all the same, practising priests, the

or sorcerers, who made it their business concern to minimise the interference of evil spirits in hamlet diplomacy.


The Songhai Empire began to compress around the edges, especially in the west, from the last quarter of the 16th century. This was largely due to a string of ineffectual leaders and ceremonious wars for the right of succession which had blighted the empire ever since the expiry of Rex Mohammad in 1528. 1 particular rivalry, betwixt Mohammad 4 Bano (r. from 1586) and his brothers, effectively divided the empire in one-half. Then the concluding deathblow was swift. The Moroccan leader Ahmad al-Mansur al-Dhahabi (d. 1603), known rather grandly as ‘the Aureate Conqueror’, sent a pocket-sized force of peradventure 4,000 men armed with muskets to set on the empire in the 1590-1. The Songhai regular army numbered some 30,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry, only their weapons were mere spears and arrows. As a outcome of this technological mismatch, the Moroccans won the state of war, fifty-fifty if there were a few desultory but ineffectual Songhai fightbacks over the next few years. The Songhai treasury was seized and the empire, including Timbuktu, was captivated into that of the Moroccans, becoming a province therein. The Songhai Empire, W Africa’s largest ever, had simply crumbled from inside and evaporated. Information technology would be the terminal of the nifty empires that had dominated W Africa since the 6th century.

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The Empire of Songhai Was Originally Part of