The Songhai Empire

The Kingdom of Songhai, or Songhay, developed from a community of fishermen who lived along the Niger River and were skilled canoeists. During the 9th century they became part of the state of Songhai and began trading with Muslim traders in Gao, which than became part of the kingdom.

The Kingdom of Songhai grew from the ashes of the Kingdom of Mali and was the last kingdom in the western Sudan. During its domination of the area Mali had defeated the small kingdom of Gao in 1325. The city of Gao, the capital of the kingdom, had been occupied by the Songhai before Mansa Musa from Mali had arrived, and as Mali began to decline after Musa's death during the 14th century, Songhai began to rise, around 1464.

The leader that inspired this rise was Sonni Ali, or Ali, Ber, who conquered most of the remaining Mali empire, including the city of Timbuktu. During the next 100 years the Songhai empire reached its peak as Islam as a religion and Islamic learning was actively promoted by the king. By the end of the 15th century Songhai had replaced Mali, but was defeated by a large Moroccan force at the end of the 16th century. This ended 700 years of domination of the western Sudan by centralized and powerful black kingdoms.

Kings

Great Songhai leaders like Sonni Ali Ber, who was killed in a Muslim rebellion, and his successor Askia Muhammad Toure, who ruled from 1492 to 1528, built this empire into the most powerful in West Africa. It was larger than both Mali and Ghana and introduced organized government to the area. Sonni Ali aggressively built Gao into the Kingdom of Songhai by using his cavalry and very mobile fleet of ships. He conquered Timbuktu and the harbor of Jenne, or Djenne, both important Malian cities.

The kings of the Mali empire were called “mansa” which means “lord”, a title that had been adopted by Sudiata. The most famous of all, after Sundiata, was his grandson, Mansa Kankan Musa I. Musa, who was in power from 1312, to 1337 was not the first Muslim ruler of Mali, but he became famous as a result of his hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy city of Islam, in 1324 and 1325. His lavish display of riches and generosity drew the attention of the whole Islamic world and Europe.

Sonni Ali was replaced by Askia Muhammad Toure, who established a new ruling dynasty, the Askia. He continued Sonni Ali's campaign to expand the kingdom by taking control of important oases in the Sahara Desert and finally defeating Mali. He followed this with further campaigns to conquer more neighboring kingdoms. He centralized his government by introducing a large bureaucratic force to oversee and administer his kingdom.

Muhammad Toure was innovative and improved trading by standardizing weights, measures and currency, blending the different Songhai cultures into one national culture. He was also a devout Muslim and replaced Songhai administrators with Arab Muslims to spread Islam through his empire. Muslim judges called qadis, ran his legal system on Muslim principles. Most of the people living in cities embraced Islam. In rural areas where 97% of the Songhai people lived, traditional African religions dominated.

Economy and industry

Like the kingdoms of Ghana and Mali before it Songhai became rich through trade. There was a privileged class of craftsmen and slaves were mostly used as farm workers. Trade only really thrived under Muhammad Toure with kola nuts, gold and slaves as the main exports. These goods were exchanged for textiles, horses, salt and luxury goods.

Leo Africanus, a Spanish Moroccan traveler and writer, visited Gao and noted that there was a very wealthy ruling class: "The houses there are very poor, except for those of the king and his courtiers. The merchants are exceedingly rich and large numbers of Negroes continually come here to buy cloth brought from Barbarie (Morocco) and Europe."Leo Africanus, a Spanish Moroccan traveler and writer, visited Gao and noted that there was a very wealthy ruling class: "The houses there are very poor, except for those of the king and his courtiers. The merchants are exceedingly rich and large numbers of Negroes continually come here to buy cloth brought from Barbarie (Morocco) and Europe."

Decline

Songhai declined as a result of internal political struggles but its mineral wealth also drew the attention of invaders. The Songhai empire had become too large to control while changes in the environment caused droughts and disease. Even though its army was 35 000 men strong, some of the inhabitants started to rebel against the king. This made the empire vulnerable and Morocco, which was one of its territories, revolted to gain control of its own gold mines and the sub-Saharan gold trade. After the Moroccan army attacked in 1591 the Songhai empire collapsed. In 1612 the Songhai cities fell to anarchy and the greatest empire in African history disappeared.

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