(AFRICA, EMPIRES and SLAVERY – continued)

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Muslim Herdsmen and Empires

In the 1700s, in an area of grasslands and woodlands in West Africa below the Sahara Desert, Islam had been spreading. Herdsmen resented paying taxes to agricultural kingdoms and they had been converting to Islam, which gave the isolated herdsmen a sense of strength and of belonging to something great. There, in the highlands of Futa Jalon and Futa Toro, not far from the Atlantic coast, Muslim herdsmen rebelled. They took power from non-Muslim chieftains and began building mosques, establishing Islam law and building feudal-like confederations.

Farther east in the early 1800s, Muslim empires arose around Hausaland – at the southern edge of the Sahara desert directly south of Algeria. In Hausaland in 1804, Muslim herdsmen went on jihads against non-Muslim Hausa chiefdoms. The Hausa chiefs and aristocrats had been annoying their peasants and the peasants had been giving them little support. The Hausa chiefs had also been weakened by disunity. One Hausa chief sent his cavalry against the Muslims, but to no avail. The Muslims gained power in the region and built a new capital for themselves at Sokoto.

Among the Muslims at Sokoto an elite ruled with a combination of military and religious authority. Campaigns of expansion were launched, and by 1817, the Muslims had built an empire – the Sokoto Empire – more than five hundred miles (800 kilometers) from west to east and as far south as Kontagora. An attempt was made to expand eastward into the Bornu region, a region that had already been under the control of Muslims. Muslims warred against Muslims, and the expansion failed.

Literacy increased under the Muslims in the Sokoto Empire. The caliph of the Sokoto Empire from 1817 to 1837 was Muhammad Bello, who wrote tracts on science, law, morality, history and Islamic doctrine. He attempted to rule in accordance with Islamic law: the Sharia. Sokoto became a center where Islamic scholarship flourished. Under Bello, military campaigns continued. More than fifty in his twenty years of rule involved campaigns of expansions and campaigns against rebellion. He sought to limit excesses committed by his troops and to limit greed-inspired corruption among officials.

When Muhammad Bello died in 1837 the Sokoto Empire included an area south and west of Raba and the Adamawa region – an empire of around ten million people. A Muslim elite was ruling over peasants as had the Hausa aristocracy. Trade flourished, with Kano as a major market center. Slaves were employed in agriculture and as domestics, and in the Adamawa region some landowners had more than a thousand slaves.

The Masina Empire

Halfway between the Atlantic coast and Hausaland, south of Timbuktu, there was conflict in the 1700s between Muslim herdsmen and Masina overlords. By the early 1800s, Masina had its own Muslim overlords. A Muslim named Seku Ahmadu Lobboe was opposed to the mixing of animism and Islam tolerated by these overlords, and, in either 1810 or 1818 (a disputed date), he led a jihad against what were called satanic factions. He overran various chiefdoms, taking power in Jenne and gaining a measure of control over Timbuktu about 400 miles to the north. He led a council of forty that was opposed to the use of alcohol or tobacco and opposed to dancing – prohibitions not welcomed by many, especially in urban centers.


From Egypt's administrative center in the Sudan, Khartoum, across approximately 500 miles (800 kilometers) of desert, was Darfur, which had often been raided for slaves by the Egyptians. Some of these slaves were transported across the Red Sea for labor on an expanded pilgrimage site at Mecca, while others were put on ships bound for Constantinople and Turkey's city of Izmir.


West of Darfur directly south of what today is Libya was Wadai (Oaddai), a place with a little water and a center of trade in slaves, cattle, horses, corn and honey. There an Islamic movement called the Sanusi brotherhood was established, a movement whose founder, Muhammad bin Ali al-Sanusi, was from Algeria. The founder was concerned with Islam's decline in power and influence. In Arabia he had met and had associated with Wahhabi Islamists, and at Mecca he had won the support of prince Mohammad Sherif of Wadai, who had become Sultan of Wadai in 1838.



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