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(AFRICAN EMPIRES to 1500 CE – continued)

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AFRICAN EMPIRES to 1500 CE (2 of 4)

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Empires in West Africa

In West Africa, trade was giving rise to towns. There, on the fringes of the Sahara, arose a kingdom and empire that its rulers called Wagadu. The people of this kingdom were the Soninke – black people who spoke the language of Mande. Their king was called Ghana, and Ghana became the name by which this kingdom and empire became known – ancient Ghana rather than the modern state also called Ghana.

The kings of ancient Ghana were authoritarian. They inherited rule through their mother's side of the family – matrilineal rather than patrilineal as with kings in Europe at the time – and they claimed descent from an original ancestor whom they believed had first settled the land. Ghana's king was the leader of a religious cult that was served by devoted priests, and the king's subjects were obliged to view him as divine and as too exalted to communicate directly with them.

Ghana's kings had enhanced their power and enriched themselves by exploiting the trade passing through their territory. From the perspective of merchants they were not unlike highway bandits, forcing from tradesmen a tax on the gold they carried. But the tax was shrewder than robbery: a continual robbery would have ended the arrival of tradesmen carrying gold.

As Ghana's kings grew richer they conquered, forcing obedience from the kings of other tribes, from whom they exacted tribute. They extended their rule to the gold producing regions to their south, and they imposed a tax on gold production.

Ghana's major competitor was the Berber dominated city of Awdaghost to the northwest – a city with an ample supply of water, surrounded by herds of cattle and where millet, wheat, grapes, dates and figs were grown. The Berbers who dominated that city had wanted to make it the major point of passage for caravan trading across the western Sahara. But in the year 990 Ghana conquered the city, putting Ghana at the peak of its power.

Muslim Incursions

During Ghana's days of glory, Muslim tradesmen were coming south in caravans from places like Sijilmasa, Tunis and Tripoli. From Sijilmasa the caravans had been going through Taghaza to Awdaghost. From Tunis and Tripoli they had been going to Hausaland and the Lake Chad region. They had been bringing salt south, and they also carried cloth, copper, steel, cowry shells, glass beads, dates and figs. And they brought slaves to sell.

The Muslims were literate while the Soninke and their kings were not. The Soninke left no record of the doings of their kings. It was through Muslim writers that modern historians would gather what information they could about Ghana.

The Muslims were offended to find people worshiping a king as a divinity rather than worshiping Allah. The Muslims complained of people believing their kings to be the source of life, sickness, health and death. The Muslim writer al-Bakre described a Ghana king as having an army of 200,000 men, 40,000 of whom were archers. And he described the presence in Ghana of small horses.

Among the Soninke, the town of Kumbi had become a commercial center alongside a town of round mud-brick huts. Muslim tradesmen at Kumbi built stone houses and a number of mosques. Some Muslims there served as ministers at the king's palace, and the town of Kumbi became an intellectual center for western Africa.

Muslim writers described one king of Ghana as renowned for his great wealth and the splendor of his court. The king held audience wearing fine fabrics and gold ornaments and bedecked his animals and retainers in gold. People in the north of Africa spoke of the king of Ghana as the richest monarch in the world.

But the power of Ghana's kings was destined to end. Muslims in western Africa united behind the Almoravids – a Muslim dynasty that ruled in Morocco and Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries. A religious movement among the Muslims known as the Sanhaja inspired the Almoravids and others to a holy war, and Muslim Berbers in the Sahara joined an effort to convert people to Islam and to war against Ghana. The leader of the Sanhaja movement and army in the Sahara area, Abu Bakr, captured Awdaghost in 1054. And in 1076, after many battles, he captured the city of Kumbi.

Almoravid domination of Ghana lasted only a few years, but the Almoravids held onto control of the desert trade that had been dominated by Ghana. Without control of the gold trade, the power of Ghana's kings declined further. They had, converted to Islam – while holding onto the religious rituals and myths that justified their rule to their subjects. They allowed Berber herdsmen to move into Soninke homelands, and these herdsmen began overgrazing Ghana's lands. Ghana's agricultural land became worn and able to support fewer people. Subject kings and tribes broke away from Ghana's rule. The king of the Sosso people, in neighboring Kaniaga, turned the tables on Ghana, and in 1203 the Sosso overran Ghana's capital city, Kumbi.

The Mandingo Empire

After their victory over Ghana, the Sosso expanded against the Mandingo (or Mande) – a people who spoke Mande and lived on fertile farmland around Wangara. The Sosso king, Sumaguru Kante, put to death all of the sons of the Mandingo ruler but one, Sundjata, who appeared to be an insignificant cripple. Sundjata rallied the Mandingo. A guerrilla army built by Sundjata overwhelmed the Sosso and in 1235 killed their king, Sumaguru Kante. Sundjata annexed Ghana in 1240, and he took control of the gold trade routes. Merchants moved out of Kumbi to a commercial city farther north: Walata. And in small groups the Soninke people began emigrating from what had been their homeland.

The empire that Sundjata created, called Mali, controlled the salt trade from Taghaza and the copper trade across the Sahara. The gold trade was a source of wealth for Mali, and so too was trade in food: sorghum, millet and rice. And regarding trade, Mali dominated the town of Timbuktu, nine miles north of the Niger River, which had risen a century or two before as a point of trade for desert caravans.

After Sundjata's death in 1255 more conquests were made by his successors - Mansa Uli and then Sakura. Sakura had been a freed slave serving in the royal household and had seized power after the ruling family had become weakened by quarreling among themselves. It is surmised that Sakura was responsible for Mali's expansion to Tekrur in the west and to Gao in the east.

Mali Empire

The Mali Empire circa 1350 CE, an empire that existed from 1230 to around 1600.

Songhai Empire

The Songhai Empire circa 1500 CE, an empire that existed from 1464 to 1591.

By the 1300s, Mali's kings had converted to Islam, which gave them advantages of good will in diplomacy and commerce. The rituals and artifacts of previous worship were maintained. The king's subjects continued their traditional prostrations and covering themselves with dust to display humility.

By the 1300s, Muslim Mandingo merchants were trading as far east as the city-states in Hausaland and beyond to Lake Chad. Islam was spreading with the trade of its merchants, and it appears that in the 1300s or 1400s the kings of Hausaland converted to Islam. But when a Mali king tried to pressure people in the gold mining region around Wangara to convert, a disruption in the production of gold was threatened, and the pressure to convert was withdrawn.

One Mali emperor was Mansa Musa, who ruled from 1312-1337. On record is his pilgrimage to Mecca, his entourage described as including 500 slaves with gold staffs and 100 camels each with 300 pounds of gold. Mansa Mura is described as spending lavishly in the bazaars of Cairo and his spending is said to have increased the supply of gold to an extent that its price depreciated on the Cairo exchange. And, as usual, scholars were not immune from being influenced by wealth, Mansa Musa bringing a collection of  them back with him from Mecca. Mali had been literate, but only insofar as it had been employing Muslim scribes at the court of its kings. As in Europe, common people could not yet read or write.

The Songhai Rebellion and Mali's Decline

Mali reached its peak in fame and fortune in the 1300s. Late in the 1300s the old problem of dynastic succession brought quarrels that weakened the Mali kingship and gave opportunity to the Songhai, who lived along the middle of the Niger River and monopolized fishing and canoe transport there. Trade at Gao had brought Islam to the Songhai. Some Songhai royalty had converted to Islam, as had an unknown percentage of other Songhai. Mali's control over the Songhai capital, Gao, had always been tentative, and the spirit of independence had not died among Songhai kings. A Songhai king led his people in rebellion. The rebellion disrupted Mali's trade on the Niger River. Mali's empire suffered as the Songhai sacked and occupied Timbuktu in 1433-34. In 1464 a Songhai king, Sonni Ali, took power, and again Timbuktu was attacked. Sonni Ali captured the city after a great loss of life. Five years later, Sonni Ali conquered the town of Jenne which had been thought impregnable. In his twenty-eight years of military campaigning, the victorious Songhai king won the title King of Kings. He dominated trade routes and the great grain producing region of the Niger River delta. Sonni Ali's competitor, the Mali empire, was deteriorating, and the Mali empire was to end in the 1600s.

Benin Exports Slaves

Benin was a city that dated back to the eleventh century – and no relation to the West African nation of Benin of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Benin was a large city for its time – a walled city several kilometers wide in a forested region inland from where the Niger River emptied into the Atlantic. In the mid-1400s the ruler of Benin, Ewuare built up his military and began expanding. Captives taken in battle he traded to the Portuguese. Benin's empire reached about 190 miles (300 kilometers) in width by the early 1500s. Then it stopped expanding, and with this it had no more captives to sell as slaves, while selling slaves to the Portuguese was being taken up by others.

Copyright © 2009-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.