Date: c. 1375 – c. 1591
Length: 216 Years
The Songhai Empire, also known as the Songhay Empire, was a pre-colonial West African trading state centered on the middle reaches of the Niger River in what is now central Mali. The empire eventually extended west to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, and east into present-day Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
Considered one of the greatest African empires, from the early fifteenth to the late sixteenth century, Songhai was also one of the largest empires in West Africa, stretching all the way to present-day Cameroon. With several thousand cultures under its control, Songhai was clearly the largest empire in African history.
Conquest, centralization, and standardization in the empire were the most ambitious and far-reaching in sub-Saharan history until the colonization of the continent by Europeans.
Established by the Songhai tribe circa 800 C.E., the kingdom lasted nearly 800 years, until being overtaken by Morocco.
Origins of the Songhai Empire
Prior to the rise of the Songhai Empire, the region around the Big Bend of the Niger River had been dominated by the Mali Empire, centered on Timbuktu.
Mali grew famous due to their immense riches obtained through trade with the Arab world, and the legendary hajj of Mansa Musa. By the early fifteenth century, the Mali dominance of the region began to decline as internal disputes over succession weakened the political authority of the crown. Many subjects broke away, including the Songhai, who made the prominent city of Gao their new capital.
The history of the ancient city of Gao has been reconstructed from oral history and tombstone writing at the burial site of kings. While the two sources of historical record do not always agree in details, together they form an image of Gao beginning in the seventh century C.E. While it would not be considered the center of the Songhai Empire until early in the eleventh century C.E. , the first records of Gao describe a bustling trade center that had established political autonomy. Capitalizing on the conditions already existing in Gao, the Songhai chose it as their capital in 1010 C.E., a move which set Gao along the road of future development and growth.
The first Dia, or king, of the Songhai Empire to enter the historical record is Dia Kossoi, who was responsible for converting the empire to Islam in 1010 C.E., concurrent with the shift to Gao as capital. Many scholars argue that his conversion was a pragmatic measure to benefit relations with berber traders, who controlled the caravans and played a major role in the economy of the empire. This opinion is supported by the existence of non-Muslim customs in the royal court after Dia Kossoi’s embrace of Islam.
Under Mali Rule
Following the death of Kossoi, Gao embarked on an expansionist mission in order to cement its control of the trans-Saharan trade routes. The rising economic importance of Gao was crystallized in the early fifteenth century C.E., when the Mali ruler, Mansa Musa, led a series of campaigns to wrest dominance of the trans-Saharan trade routes and gain the wealth of Gao. While these campaigns were successful, the territory proved too expansive and Mali governance lasted approximately 50 years.
Around 1335, the line of dia kings came to an end and was replaced by a new series of leaders whose title was sunni or shi. The second man to bear the title of sunni, Suleiman-Mar, was responsible for gaining Songhai independence from Mali in 1375 C.E. The establishment of an independent Songhai Empire caused another period of geographic expansion, spearheaded by Sunni Ali.
Sunni Ali, who gained the throne around 1464 C.E., was a militaristic leader who led by example and used war as an effective means of uniting dissenting factions. He was never defeated in battle and used his military prowess to quell Tuareg raids in the north and Mossi incursions in the south. The military campaigns he launched proved to have an economic benefit for the empire, as with his control of critical trade routes and cities such as Timbuktu. Sunni Ali brought great wealth to the Songhai Empire, which at its height would surpass the wealth of the Mali.
By deposing the reigning Sunni in battle, Muhammad Turay, or Askia the Great, of the Mandé people gained power in the late sixteenth century C.E. His rise to power was facilitated by religious strife within the Songhai Empire, as previous leaders had tried to appeal to many religious groups at once, and in doing so, failed to satisfy any of them. Drawing his largest power base from Muslim urban centers, Askia the Great broke with sunni tradition and a political system based on strict interpretations of Islamic law. His dictates were enforced by well–trained military and were carried into the far reaches of the Western Sudan under a program of expansion.
Along with the implementation of religious ideology, Muhammad Turay also brought political reform and revitalization. He set up a complex bureaucracy with separate departments for agriculture, the army, and the treasury, to each of which he appointed supervising officials.
The Height of the Songhai Empire
Safe economic trade existed throughout the Empire, due to the 200,000 person army stationed in the provinces. Primary to the economic foundation of the Songhai Empire were the gold fields of the Niger River. These gold fields, which were often independently operated, provided a steady supply of gold that could be purchased and bartered for salt. Salt was considered so precious a commodity in West Africa that it was not uncommon for gold to be traded for equal weight in salt. When coupled with the sale of slaves, salt and gold consisted of the bulk of trans-Saharan trade and the Songhai dominance in these commodities solidified Songhai’s role as a leader in the trans-Saharan trade system.
The Julla, or merchants, would form partnerships which the state protected, which had the affect of protecting the port cities on Niger. It was a very strong and powerful trading kingdom.
In addition, the government was centralized by creating a large and elaborate bureaucracy to oversee the empire’s interests. Weights, measures, and currency were standardized so that culture throughout the Songhai began to homogenize.
Did you know?
At its height, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Songhai Empire was the largest empire in West Africa
At its greatest extent, the Songhai lands reached towards the lower portions of the Niger River into modern day Nigeria, into the northeastern portions of modern day Mali, and into a small section of the Atlantic Coast in the west. Included in the broad expanse of the Songhai empire were metropolitan centers such as Gao and Timbuktu. Songhai would continue to prosper and expand until late into the sixteenth century, particularly under the long and peaceful rule of Askia Daoud.
Decline of the Songhai Empire
In the late sixteenth century, Songhai slid into civil war, following the paths of their predecessors; the Ghana, Mali, and Kanem kingdoms. Drought and disease had fallen upon the land. However, the empire might have survived these challenges were it not for the wealth of their kingdom and the determination of their foes to control the gold trade. While beneficial to the royal establishment, the economic dominance of the Songhai Empire proved to be its downfall, as it proved an enticing object for many of its competitors, who were willing to use military force to stifle the power of the Songhai.
Most significant among the challengers to Songhai dominion was the Moroccan interest, who sought control of Songhai’s extensive wealth. Economic motivations, when coupled with civil war over succession which weakened the authority of the central Songhai government, led Moroccan Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur Saadi to dispatch an invasion force under the Judar Pasha. (Judar Pasha was a Spaniard by birth but was captured at a young age and educated at the Moroccan Court.) After a cross-Saharan march, Judar’s forces razed the salt mines at Taghaza and moved on Gao; when Askia Ishaq II met Judar at the 1591 Battle of Tondibi, the Songhai forces were routed by the Moroccan’s gunpowder weapons despite their vastly superior numbers. Judar sacked Gao, Timbuktu, and Djenné, destroying the Songhai as a regional power.
However, governing such a vast empire across such long distances proved too much for the Moroccans, and they soon relinquished control of the region, letting it splinter into dozens of smaller kingdoms. The final blow to the Songhai Empire was not being conquered by the Moroccans, but rather the inability of the disjointed smaller kingdoms to form a political alliance and reassert a strong central government. The Moroccan invasion also served to free many of the Songhai tributary states that had previously been sources of slaves for the trans-Sharan trade routes. Recognizing their chance to ensure bodily freedom, many of the subject slave populations rose up to deal the final blow to the weakened empire. The largest of these groups was the Doghorani, who played an instrumental role in the rebellion.