South of the great Saharan desert is a long band of low, flat grassland. Cold and dry in the winter, warm and wet in the summer, this thousand-kilometer long stretch of land was insulated from the rapacious empires of the Mediterranean by the harsh desert to its north. While the desert presented an impassable barrier to an invading army, trade across it was both possible and profitable, sometimes immensely so. The first routes were laid down in ancient times, and Roman campaigns in Africa often centred around gaining control of them. The fall of the Roman Empire coincided with the domestication of the camel, and this new beast of burden made the trade much easier. Salt came south from the Mediterranean salt mines, and gold went north form the gold mines of central Africa. North as well went people – nine million slaves were transported north along the caravan routes over the centuries. The wealth generated by this trade in the Sahel gave rise to a constant struggle to control it, and in the constant sparring empires rose and fell. Perhaps the most powerful, and yet the most short-lived, was the Songhai Empire.
Songhai as a country came into existence around 1000AD, and eventually became part of the Mali Empire, one of the most long-lived African empires. In 1430, as the Mali’s power faded, Songhai managed to assert its independence. This was not the first time they had tried to split away from the empire, but it was the first time they had succeeded. The ruling Sonni dynasty had reigned for the last several hundred years, and immediately started making the most of independence. It was Sonni Sulayman Dandi who laid the foundations for empire, by building a fleet of warships to prowl the Niger river and a host of cavalry to swarm on the bank, then sending both out in concert to conquer. Control of the river then set the stage for Dandi’s son, Sonni Ali Ber, to build an empire.
Sonni Ali is a hard figure to judge. History is often biased, and so often the only way to the truth is to place two biases in balance and hope they cancel out. So with this. The society of the Songhai was a unique blend of Islam and traditional African religions, with the former brought south along the trade routes and firmly entrenched in the cities, and the latter holding sway in the countryside. In the oral tradition of the countrymen, Sonni Ali is remembered as their last great king, a powerful magician who stood for them against the elites of the court and the cities. His conquest of Timbuktu was prompted by their failure to honour promises of transport for his army. The fleet he seized and built upon was then put to use conquering the city of Jenne, in a seven-year blockade and siege. This then gave him control over the entire fertile Niger delta, as well as a monopoly on the western trade routes. His cavalry was powerful enough to tame the nomadic Tuaregs of the desert, and when the Dendi empire attacked, not only were their attacks repulsed but the Songhai counter-attack saw them absorbed into the empire.
There are two sides to the story, however, and in the Islamic Chronicles Sonni Ali is remembered as a vicious tyrant, capricious and given to fits of extreme temper. His conquest of Timbuktu is recalled as particularly bloody, and those at his court ran the constant risk of execution on a whim. Of course, his support of the traditional religions (although he was nominally Muslim) was never going to win him their friendship, but it is undoubtedly true that he ruled with a firm hand. He also practised slavery on a wide scale, with entire towns of slave farmers being made to meet the production quotas set by his government. Children born in these villages were born into slavery, with those not needed to tend the fields being sent north in chains. Even his death in 1492 is divisive, with the Islamic chroniclers recording it as an accidental drowning, while the oral tradition has him poisoned by one of his generals, his nephew Muhammed Ture. Whether this is true or not, it is certain that less than a year later Muhammed Ture had taken the overthrown Sonni Ali’s son, Sonni Baru, with the justification that Baru had refused to renounce the traditional religion. Thus began the Askia dynasty.
It was under Askia Muhammed “the Great” that the Songhai Empire would reach its zenith. Askia aligned himself firmly with the Islamic city dwellers, most especially the scholars of Timbuktu, and this led to both an outpouring of literature and historical writings as well as a powerful and well-practised bureaucracy for his kingdom. Askia held back from restructuring the empire in the image of the traditional Islamic kingdoms of the north, but instead strengthened and formalised the existing structures, standardising trade weights and ensuring efficient running. Although he was a devout Muslim, and even made the long trip to Mecca, he did not enforce the religion on the Songhai people. This diplomacy also served him well in war, where despite his lack of Sonni Ali’s military prowess, he still managed to extend the boundaries of the empire through well-chosen alliances and cleverly negotiated treaties. He even extended the boundaries of the empire north across the desert to the salt mines of Taghaza, bringing both ends of the trans-Saharan trade network under his control.
However, no matter how great a ruler an usurper is, simply by winning the throne through force he has forever devalued is. So it was with Askia Muhammed. His son Musa killed his chief general, Musa’s uncle Yaya, and exiled Askia Muhammed to a small island in the river Niger. From here the old man could only watch as the new Askia Musa began to systemically hunt down and kill his brothers and cousins, though not successfully enough to prevent one of his brothers from killing him. It was that brother’s killer, another brother named Askia Ismail, who would recall the aged Askia Muhammed nine years later. A year later, the old ex-ruler died and was buried in the Tomb of Askia, which in recognition of his devout Islamic faith has become a celebrated mosque and site of pilgrimage.
Askia Ismail’s grasp on power proved as fleeting as his brothers, and the year after his father in 1539 he died. He was succeeded by Askia Ishaq, a ruthless man who held power for ten years through the simple expedient of killing or banishing anyone even suspected of treason. It was during his reign, too, that Morocco began making moves against the Songhai, seeking control of the Taghaza mines. After his death his brother Askia Daoud came to the throne, and it seemed that the stability of Ishaq’s reign was solid. In fact, Daoud would reign for 33 years, but more and more effort was needed to pacify the edges of the empire, while Morocco continued to menace them. Marrakesh, too, conquered Taghaza but was unable to hold it.
Daoud’s death in 1582 with no clear successor was the death-knell of the empire. A bloody nine-year civil war ensued, leaving the empire vulnerable to outside invasion. A costly war with Portugal had left Morocco looking for sources of income, and the control of trans-Saharan trade (along with the gold mines they mistakenly believed the Songhai possessed) was too great a prize to pass up. He sent south an army of four thousand men, led by Judar Pasha, a eunuch slave-general of Spanish birth but raised within Morocco. His army attacked and plundered Tagahza, before moving on the Songhai capital of Gao. The current ruler of Songhai, Askia Ishaq II, assembled an army of 40,000 men to stop him, fully ten times Judar’s force. However the Moroccans had one key advantage, one that the Songhai had never faced before. Guns. The Songhai had planned to stampede a herd of cattle through the Moroccans, but the sound of the arquebuses and cannons firing against them panicked the animals and it was the Songhai who were trampled, with their infantry then mowed down by the fire from the Moroccan ranks. The larger army was slaughtered, and the military might of the Songhai empire was destroyed.
The Moroccans continued on to Gao where Judar Pasha was less than impressed with the Songhai’s capital. He wrote in a letter back to the Sultan:
“The palace of the Askiya is not equal to the house of the chief muleteer of Marrakesh.”
Failing to find the gold they sought, they razed the city before moving on to Timubktu and Jenn, which were thoroughly looted. With the three great cities of the empire destroyed, there were was no recovery possible. The Moroccans reach had exceeded their grasp, however, and they could not hod what they had conquered, though they returned home with plunder enough to justify the trip. The empire fragmented, and the once-great Songhai people fled back to their ancestral homeland to became just another minor African kingdom, the Dendi, which would endure until the French colonials in 1901 conquered it. The Songhai Empire, at its height more than 1.4 million square kilometres in size, had not lasted more than four generations. Still, the Songhai endure – nowadays more than three million people still speak the Songhai language, and their culture remains an important part of the modern Africa.