Thursday, August 28, 2014

Songhai Empire: The Last Great Empire

Songhai Empire
In area of Western Africa, great civilization appeared and fell. Cities like Timbuktu, Gao, and Djenne (Jenne) were just among the flourishing cities of trade, culture, and education. Trans-Saharan trade of cloth, gold, and salt brought wealth and prosperity to the civilization that control such lucrative routes. Rivers provided fresh water and food that sustained empires for long time. Among the last empires that grew in this part of the world is the Empire of Songhai. From obscurity of a shadow of another empire, it grew to become the dominant power in the area.

The Songhai people of Africa occupied the area near the bend Niger River. They were under the dominion of the great Mali Empire. They lived for many years as fishermen, farmers, and traders. They adept to the rivers of Niger and became experts in boat building. For a long time, they lived under the control of the Mali Empire.

However, in 1335, the winds of changed blew. The Mali Empire had been weakened. Internal strife took its toll.  The Songhai began to assert themselves and began to fight for their freedom. Later on, they began a conquest to annex their neighbors into their dominion. A great leader then emerge to lead the Songhai further into expansion. Sonni (Sunni) Ali succeeded his father in 1462.

Under Sonni Ali, the Songhai would emerged as a great Empire in the region. In 1468, he marched triumphantly to the great city of Timbuktu and pushed the Tuaregs north. Under his leadership also, the city of Djenne bowed to the Songhai Empire. With two great cities under his control, he also had access to the vast wealth provided by the salt and gold trade of the Sahara. It allowed Sonni Ali to sustain his army and continue his campaigns. He waged wars against the Mossi people in the south. He attempted to subdue them but the Mossi were fierce fighters, unwilling to submit easily. Unable to crush the Mossi, he moved on and attacked the Hausa people. Besides military conquest, he also established an effective bureaucracy that would centralized the whole empire, revolving around his capital – Gao.

Under Sonni Ali, question of state religion arose. Sonni Ali professed he was a Muslim. However, his actions were in contradiction. He continued to support the traditional animist religion of the Songhai. Also, he persecuted Muslim scholars in Timbuktu. He was credited with the breakdown of Islamic scholarship within the Empire during his reign. Scholars hailed him as a great expansionist and warrior but they condemned him for his harsh treatment of scholarship.

In 1492, the period of Sonni Ali was over. He died by droning during his campaign against Fulani people. His son, Sonni Barou succeeded him. Sonni Barou’s reign, however, would not last long. In 1493, an ambitious general of Sonni Ali launched a coup against Sonni Barou. The general’s name was Mohammad Ture. When Mohammad Ture succeeded in toppling Sonni Barou, he took the title of Askia (Askiya). Under his leadership, expansion would continue alongside with paradigm shift from animism to Islam.

During Mohammad Askia’s reign, the borders of the Empire pushed forward. In the East, the Songhai Empire annexed the Hanembornu and Hausa states. In the west, the border reached the Upper Senegal River. In the north, the Songhai took control the rich salt mines of Teghaza.

In religious matter, Askia made sincere efforts to impose Islam to the Empire. He made pilgrimage to the Holy City of Mecca. He also went to Cairo and requested the Sultan of Egypt to recognize him as the Caliph of the western African region. Is request was granted. Mosque were constructed throughout the Empire. Islamic scholarship were encouraged and flourished through his reign. Islamic scholarship once again bloomed in the cities of Timbuktu and Djenne. His reign was the golden age of Islam in the Songhai Empire.

His reign, however, would end as it began, in a coup. Blind, old, and weak, in 1528, the once mighty general and great ruler of the Songhai Empire was deposed by his equally ambitious and ruthless sons. Askia Musa deposed his father and exiled him. Mohammad Askia would live for another decade before passing away in 1538.

Along with his deposition, stability in the Empire would crumble. Series of coups, intrigues, and murder would shake the Empire for a decade. In 1535, Askia Musa was assassinated. His successor, Askia Bankouri, was deposed and sent exile in 1537. It was until Askia Daud (Daoud) that the Songhai Empire finally saw stability and a long reigning ruler. The stability, however, was proved to be too late. The series of killings and coups led to the weakening of the Empire.

A new threat then rose in the north. The Moroccan empire under Ahmad al-Mansur threatened to conquer and annex the Songhai Empire. The severely weakened Songhai Empire was no much for the powerful Moroccan Army armed with muskets. In 1591, a powerful army from Marrakesh marched towards the Songhai capital of Gao. Askia Ishaq II attempted to defend his capital. He met the Moroccan army just miles away from Gao, in Tondibi. Askia Ishaq was defeated. The Songhai Empire then disintegrated. The Moroccans took control of the cities of Djenne, thus weakening the finances of the Songhai. The Songhai then moved out of Gao and sought refuge in the Dendi and established an Empire.

After the defeat of the Songhai rulers and the fall of the city of Gao, the areas that once occupied by the Songhai Empire broke up into smaller states. The Songhai remained independent in form of the Kingdom of Dendi until its defeat and fall in the hands of the French. The Songhai Empire was the last great empire of West Africa.

Appiah, K. & Henry Gates (eds.). Encyclopedia of Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 

Burns, J. & R. Collins. A History of Sub-Saharan Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Fage, J. A History of Africa. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Shillington, K. (ed.). Encyclopedia of African History. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2005.

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