West African Kingdoms before the Slave Trade
Welcome to this segment of “Learn More, Teach More,” on the big kingdoms of West Africa before the slave trade and European colonization. I’d like to start by showing you a portion of a map of Europe and its known world made in 1375. It pictures a North African trader approaching the king of Mali, who holds a gold nugget in one hand and a golden scepter in the other. The monarch was Mansa Musa, identified on the map as “the richest and noblest king in all the land.” This lecture will describe Mansa Musa’s kingdom, ancient Mali; its trade links across the Sahara and through much of West Africa; and the larger trends in precolonial West African history of which Mali and its trade were just one part. I’m going to emphasize two basic themes: first, that
precolonial Africa was home to complex, dynamic societies; and second, that part of sub-Saharan Africa’s dynamism had to do with its connections to other parts of the world, which allowed Africans to exchange goods and ideas over wide distances.
The inhabitants of different parts of western Africa have been linked to each other by commercial networks since ancient times. Before camels were introduced to North Africa from Egypt in around 300 CE, trade mostly occurred over relatively short thdistances, using oxen, donkeys, and horses. But by the 5 century CE camels had
become the major form of desert transport. This was a revolutionary development: camels could carry the same load as oxen, but at a steady pace over a much greater distance in soft sand, withstanding heat and cold, and needing very little fresh water. If we imagine the Sahara Desert as a great ocean, with the sahel (from the Arabic word meaning shore) on its southern fringe, then camels were the ships. Over the centuries, North African Berbers and others crossed the Sahara, linking up with traders from the south, whose own desert-fringe caravan routes intersected the coastal and riverine networks of other peoples. These intersecting networks promoted long-distance trade in salt, gold, iron, kola nut, spices, and other commodities, including some slaves. The major trade goods were desert salt from the north—needed to preserve food in a tropical
climate--exchanged for food and gold from the south.
At the southern fringe of the Sahara, local, regional, and long-distance trade was made possible by advances in agriculture which allowed some people to specialize in occupations other than farming. In the first millennium CE, small trading settlements, growing with the caravan traffic, became centers for craftsmen who worked in leather, wood, ivory and metals. Later the rulers of these cities extended their power to ever wider regions of neighboring countryside. West Africa north of the tropical forest and south of the desert was the location of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest and most thsophisticated states in the period before the 19 century. People could travel and
communicate over long distances either on horseback or foot across the dry savanna--a landscape not unlike the North American prairie—or along the water routes of the mighty
Niger River. And their location between the trans-Saharan trade routes and the northern parts of commercial networks from gold-producing areas meant that the great empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay could profit from the commerce passing through their territories. They also were influenced to varying degrees by Islam, which gradually spread through trade to the lands south of the desert, which the Arabs called the bilad al-
sudan, or “the land of the blacks.”
The earliest of West Africa's big states is known by historians as Ghana, after the title of its king. Not to be confused with the modern country called Ghana, ancient Ghana was located in what is now Mali and Mauritania. Founded probably around 300 thCE, it was a powerful trading state by the early 9 century, when Arabic sources
described it as “the land of gold.” Although most of its people were engaged in agriculture, the basis of Ghana’s power was its ability to tax goods passing through, and
its monopoly of the gold trade from Bambuk, at the headwaters of the Senegal River. Revenues from trade funded the army and bureaucracy of the state. Over time, the empire was built through conquest over lesser states, both north toward the Sahara and south toward the gold fields. Ghana’s system of government expanded as well, with subordinate areas ruled by local governors who funneled taxes to the central administration. th In the mid-11 century, Ghana began to be invaded by Berber warriors from the north-west, called the Almoravids. After conquering all of Morocco, the Almoravids crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and took over what was then Muslim Spain. A southern section of the Almoravid movement meanwhile moved into Ghana and seized the capital of the empire in 1076. There was much resistance and a constant series of revolts. But the Ghana Empire fell apart, with the different provinces succumbing to the Almoravids, becoming self-governing, or forming into smaller kingdoms.
The most important of Ghana's immediate successor states was that of the Soninke-speaking Soso, which was at the height of its power in the early 13th century during the rule of Sumanguru Kante. In about 1235 Sumaoro was challenged by the Mandinka people of the little state of Kangaba (also a former Ghana province), near the headwaters of the Niger River. The two armies fought each other in a famous battle, which over the centuries since then has become an important part of West African oral history, handed down over generations by praise singers called griots. Sumaoro was
defeated and killed and the leader of the opposing force, Sundiata Keita (1235-1260), then founded the Mali Empire by incorporating or conquering Sosso and nearby territories. Mali repeated the achievements of Ancient Ghana on a still greater scale. Its rulers secured of the gold-producing lands of Bambuk and as well as new goldfields at Bure, ultimately controlling an extensive system of regional and long-distance trade. Most subjects were engaged in agriculture, however, which was taxed through provincial governors loyal to the mansa (king) at the capital.
The Mali Empire enjoyed its greatest power and prosperity under the rule of thMansa Kankan Musa (c. 1312-37), whose picture adorned the 14 century map I
mentioned at the beginning. The armed horsemen of Musa’s armies extended the reach of the empire to the middle Niger region and Timbuktu, southern trading towns, northern trans-Saharan trading cities, east to the borders of Hausaland (present-day northern Nigeria), and west nearly to the Atlantic coast. Mansa Musa enclosed this huge portion of the Western Sudan within a single system of law and order, guaranteeing safety for traders and travelers. In the 14th century some two-thirds of the gold in Europe and the Middle East came from the Western Sudan, carried over the Sahara and then to the Mediterranean, and Mali was now recognized as a world power. Under Mansa Musa, Mali's ambassadors were established in Morocco, Egypt and elsewhere, while North African and Egyptian scholars visited Mali’s capital. New mosques were built and
Koranic schools were opened in the cities along the Niger bend, especially the great city of learning, Timbuktu. th After the Muslim conquests of the Middle East and North Africa during the 7 thand 8 centuries, Islam had spread into West Africa with the trans-Saharan trade, although most non-traders remained unconverted. The rulers of Ghana had employed foreign Muslims in government posts but were not Muslims themselves. But Mansa Musa, like the Mali kings before him, was a Muslim, and he supported Islam as well as Mandinka religion. In 1324 he set off on a pilgrimage to Mecca, dispensing so much gold when his caravan passed through Cairo that the Egyptian city was plagued with inflation for years afterwards. A generation later, the great traveler Ibn Batutta observed religious practices in Mali, admiring its people's "assiduity in prayer and their persistence in performing it in congregation and beating their children to make them perform it," although he was less impressed by such non-Islamic practices as masked dancing, public recitation of pagan traditions, self-abasement before the king, eating of unclean foods, and scanty female clothing.
In an era of tenuous long-distance communications, and on a continent with low population densities, it was difficult to hold a large empire together. After about 1400, rebellions in Mali’s provinces started to become successful, and the Empire shrunk and
weakened. But even as its political power declined, the Mali Empire, which was about 200 years old at this point, still commanded respect and fame, especially among tributary states founded by its warriors. In its diminished form, Mali remained viable, but ever weaker, through nearly two more centuries, coexisting with the new ascendant power, Songhay.
The Songhay people established themselves at the Niger River trading city of Gao at the beginning of the 7th century, dominating the previous inhabitants. The settlers were enterprising traders and welcomed Berber merchants who came from the north. thOver time, Songhay market-centers prospered and grew. By the 14 century, Gao was so
valuable that the great Mali ruler, Mansa Musa, sent out his generals and armies to bring it within the Mali Empire. But Mali's control of Gao lasted only about fifty years, ending when Gao won its independence in 1375. By the 16th century, the Songhay state had become the largest ever in tropical Africa before the European conquest. Its strength derived from Songhay’s favorable position along the Niger River, which provided means of communication and trade; the prosperity of commercial cities like Gao, Timbuktu and Jenne; and good leadership, especially under the famous ruler Sunni Ali.
Sunni Ali became King of Gao and the Songhay lands in about 1464. At this time Mali was weakening and in general there was a good deal of political instability in this part of West Africa, which threatened trade. A horse-riding warrior who fought frequently and skillfully, Sunni Ali knew no means of uniting the Western Sudan except by war. His armies captured Timbuktu and then ancient city of Jenne, which had never before been under foreign domination. In his 35-year reign he was never once defeated. Later, Sunni Ali’s successors continued to expand the empire in size and broaden the operations of the central government.
Sunni Ali was particularly concerned with balancing the Muslims and non-Muslims in his empire. Himself a Muslim, he respected Islamic law for Muslims, but he did not enforce the religion on his subjects. Claiming that Sunni Ali was not a true Muslim, an Islamic coalition drove him from power and founded a new dynasty, whose
most important ruler was Askia Muhammad (ruled c. 1493-1528). Under his rule, Timbuktu flourished as a great center of Islamic learning, and a reinvigoration of trans-Saharan trade increased Songhay’s wealth.
Like Ghana and Mali, Songhay brought together multi-ethnic populations which nevertheless shared broad cultural similarities. These common elements both helped to make political unification possible, and also were reinforced through the circulation of people and ideas that took place in the big empires. For instance, many languages in the western Sudan are part of the same Mande language family, which includes Mandinka,
Soninke, Dyula, and Bambara. Mande speakers are widely dispersed, from the margins of the Sahara to the Atlantic Ocean and from Senegambia to Nigeria. Despite great differences in vocabulary, these languages are similar in systems of sound, grammar and semantics, so that people could become multi-lingual fairly easily.
Traditional western African societies also shared similar types of social organization, which made it easier for members of different kingdoms and chieftaincies to relate to each other. These societies all organized young men and women into “age grades,” which were cohorts who moved through the stages of life together and could be called upon for communal work responsibilities. They all recognized secret institutions like the Poro society, a religious group spread throughout the western Sudan. And they all conformed to well-known standards of hospitality and good behavior for hosts and travelers. Visiting the empire of Mali in the 14th century, the famous Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta praised the "complete and general safety in the land. The traveller has no more reason than the man who stays at home to fear brigands, thieves, or violent gangs." Certain occupational groups, like the Dyula trading diaspora, also cut across geographic and political divisions. So did the occupational caste groups of griots (musicians, praise-
singers, and oral historians), blacksmiths, and leatherworkers—all of whom were thought
to have occult powers and were both respected and socially segregated.
Religious beliefs and ceremonies were broadly similar among the peoples of West Africa. Whatever their specifics, West African religion incorporated four categories of supernatural phenomena interacting with each other and with humankind: a creator god remote from everyday affairs and difficult to communicate with; spirits believed to live in the earth, waters, plants and animals; amulets, which blacksmiths made to contain the magical powers of vegetable, animal and mineral substances; and ancestors, who could intercede with other spirits on behalf of their descendants and the community at large. Islam spread gradually in this religious context, carried by traders and scholars and concentrated in the cities. Rulers of West African kingdoms were glad to have Muslim administrative help (particularly since Muslims were the only people who were literate), but royal power also rested on traditional African religion, which held that spirits of the land ensured agricultural success and ancestors made contacts with spirits of the land. Most West Africans who had contact with Islam simply added Allah to the existing pantheon, without seeing any contradiction. The result was a spectrum of beliefs which rulers patronized in the interests of social and political harmony. Just as Ibn Battuta had watched the king of Mali celebrate the end of Ramadan in the morning and listen to bards in bird-head masks sing his praises in the afternoon, so a ruler of Jenne is said to have built a mosque divided into two sections, one for Muslims and one for pagans.
By the latter years of the Songhay Empire, such religious tensions contributed to political fragmentation. While contestants for the throne fought each other, revolts took
place at the kingdom’s fringes. But the end of the Songhay Empire came with an attack from the north. In 1582, in an attempt to exert control over the gold trade, the sultan of Morocco sent a force to seize the salt-deposits located in the north of the Songhay Empire. The Moroccan troops were armed with a weapon not seen before on the battlefields of the Western Sudan, an early form of musket called an arquebus. This skirmish in a remote
part of the empire opened a war with Morocco which proved disastrous for Songhay. At the same time as it was fighting Moroccan expansion, many of Songhay's subject peoples broke away from the empire. The Moroccan success turned out to be limited, keeping Timbuktu and Gao but not strong enough to rule the former empire, which broke into smaller kingdoms and chieftaincies. Islam continued to expand even after the eclipse of the Songhay Empire. Similarly, trans-Saharan trade continued, joined after about 1500 by the expanding European slave trade on the Atlantic coast.