West African Kingdoms before the Slave Trade - DOC

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					                     West African Kingdoms before the Slave Trade
                                     Lisa Lindsay

         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
distances, using oxen, donkeys, and horses. But by the 5 th 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
sophisticated states in the period before the 19 th century. People could travel and
communicate over long distances either on horseback or foot across the dr y 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
CE, it was a powerful trading state by the early 9 th 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
          In the mid-11th 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
Mansa Kankan Musa (c. 1312-37), whose picture adorned the 14th 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.
         After the Muslim conquests of the Middle East and North Africa during the 7 th
and 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,
         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.
Over time, Songhay market-centers prospered and grew. By the 14 th 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.

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