About personal security in Medieval Kanem-Bornu:
“a lone woman clad in gold might walk with none to fear but God.”
The Kanem-Bornu empire is the name given by historians to the longest African empire to exist in the Common Era. At 1900, towards the end of the empire, only a smaller state called the Bornu empire remained in north-eastern Nigeria, which represented the territories from the late 18th century to 1900. Few would know that this later empire that modern Europeans encountered started in 700 CE (700 AD) and existed for a thousand and two hundred years.
In comparison, the Eastern Roman Empire, a contemporary state of the Kanem-Bornu empire lasted 1,123 years until 1282 CE from 330AD when it was established under Constantine. Likewise, the Holy Roman Empire established under Charlemagne as an imitation of the Byzantine Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire) in 800 CE lasted only 1,006 years until its desolution in 1806.
The Kanem-Bornu Empire was remarkable for a few reasons:
At its peak, the Kanem-Bornu empire controlled an area of 776,996 square kilometres (300,000 square miles). For 2018, that would have covered Chad, Niger, north-eastern Nigeria, Libya, northern Cameroon and parts of Sudan. In comparison, the Eastern Roman Empire, a contemporary state, had a population of 5 million and covered an area of 1.050 million square kilometres.
The Kanem-Bornu Empire had a sense of history and, unlike the usual erroneous presumption about Africa, left us a large amount of records about its history including a Kings list. The early history of the Empire is mainly known from the Royal Chronicle or GIRGAM discovered in 1851 by the German traveler Heinrich Barth.
The Kanem-Bornu Empire produced a string of effective and talented rulers over a one-thousand-year span. One ruler for instance, Idris Aluma/ Alooma fought 349 wars and won 1,000 battles. Under his rule, highway robbery was tackled masterfully and rule of law became so reliable, it was said about travel in the empire:
“a lone woman clad in gold might walk with none to fear but God.”
Flag of Bornu Empire
Population of Bornu Empire
The population was about 5,000,000 people.
1085 The kingdom converts to Islam under the influence of Zaghawa.
Hume-1085 – 1097
Dunama I-1098 – 1150
Biri I -1150 – 1176
Bikoru- 1176 – 1193
Abd al-Djel Selma 1193 – 1210
Dunama II Dabbalemi 1210 – 1224
Kade 1224- 1242
Kachim Biri-1242 – 1262
Dari-1262 – 1281
Ibrahim I Nikale-1281 – 1301
Abdullah I-1301 – 1320
1314 Increased aggression from Egypt and internal discord leads to the collapse of the neighbouring kingdom of Dongola in Nubia.
Selma- 1320 – 1323
Kure Gana- 1323 – 1325
Kure Kura- 1326 – 1327
Mohammed I- 1327 – 1329
Idris I-1329 – 1353
Daoud -1353 – 1356
Othman I-1356 – 1369
1370 – 1389 Internal struggles and external attacks tear Kanem apart. Six mais reign in this period, but Bulala invaders (from the area around Lake Fitri to the east) kill five of them. This proliferation of mais results in numerous claimants to the throne and leads to a series of internecine wars.
Othman II- 1369 – 1371
Abu Bakr Lagatu-1371 – 1372
Idris Dunama III / Umar Idrismi-1372 – 1380 Moved the capital to Bornu.
c.1380 the Bulala force Mai Umar Idrismi to abandon Njimi and move the Kanembu people to Bornu on the western edge of Lake Chad.
Omar I-1380 – 1388
Kade Alunu-1388 – 1389
Biri II- 1389 – 1421
Othman Kalinuama -1421 – 1422
Dunama IV 1422 – 1424
Abdullah II 1424 – 1432
Ibrahim II 1432 – 1440
Kadai 1440 – 1446
Dunama V 1446 – 1450
Mohammed II 1450 – 1451
Amarma 1451 – 1453
Mohammed III 1453 – 1458
Ghazi 1458 – 1463
Othman III 1463 – 1473
Omar II 1473 – 1474
Mohammed IV 1474 – 1479
‘Ali Gazi 1479 – 1507
Idris II Katakarmabe 1507 – 1529
Mohammed V 1529 – 1544
‘Ali I 1544 – 1548
Dunama VI 1548 – 1566
Abdullah III 1566 – 1573
Aissa Kili N’guirmamaramama 1573 – 1589 Queen.
Idris III Alaoma / Idris Aluma 1580 – 1617 The empire peaked at this time.
Mohammed VI Bukalmarami 1617- 1632
Ibrahim III 1632 – 1639
Hadj Omar 1639 – 1657
Mid-1600s, sustained by the reforms of Idris III (1580-1617), the empire now begins to fade.
‘Ali II – 1657 – 1694
Idris IV – 1694 – 1711
Dunama VII – 1711 – 1726
Hadj Hamdan – 1726 – 1738
Mohammed VII -1738 – 1751
Dunama VIII Gana -1751 – 1753
‘Ali III -1753 – 1793
late 1700s, Bornu’s rule now extends only westwards, into the land of the Hausa of modern Nigeria.
Ahmad -1793 – 1808
Dunama IX Lefiami- 1808 – 1811
Mohammed VIII -1811 – 1814
1814 – 1846 When the semi-nomadic alliance of Muslim tribesmen take over the empire under Mohammed, the Sayfawas return to the old capital of Kanem under Dunama IX to remain titular monarchs.
Mohammed el Amin I 1814 – 1835 Non-Sayfawa dynasty ruler.
Dunama IX Lefiami 1814 – 1817 Sayfawa ruler restored at Kanem.
Ibrahim IV 1817 – 1846 Sayfawa ruler at Kanem.
Omar / Umar 1835 – 1853 Son of Mohammed.
‘Ali IV Dalatumi 1846 Sayfawa ruler at Kanem. The last of the Sayfawas.
1846 Ali V takes part in a civil war in league with Ouaddai tribesmen. He is defeated by Omar and one of the longest ruling dynasties is ended. The title of mai is dropped for a more modest one.
Abdul Rahman 1853 – 1854
Omar 1854 – 1880
Bukara Kura 1880 – 1884
Ibrahim 1884 – 1885
Hashimi 1885 – 1893
1890 – 1893 The empire is conquered by Great Britain.
Muhammad el Amin II 1893
Sanda Limananbe Wuduroma 1893
1893 The Bornu empire is conquered following an invasion from eastern Sudan by a warlord
Origins of Kanem
The accepted origins of the empire start when a nomadic community of Tebu-speaking Kanembu settled in Njimi and established a capital there under the first Mai (king) known as Sef or Saif. The area already had inhabitants living in walled city-states; these were autochthons called the Sao culture. The Sao culture dates back to 600 BC. The earliest kings pre-date the foundation of Islam.
The Sao culture already had skilled workers in bronze, copper and iron. The city-states had patrilineal societies united into one polity with one language and a common religious system. This contradicts the ludicrous ideas of Hamitic theory published as scientific work during the Trans-Atlantic Slave era that suggests all kings and organized political systems in Africa were the remains of Middle Eastern, Asiatic or Indo-European people that conquered black Africans.
KANEM was located at the southern end of the trans- Saharan trade route between TRIPOLE and the region of Lake Chad. This strategic location was both lucrative and attracted attacks from Northern neighbours for control of the Kanem economic role.
Housing in Kanem-Bornu Empire
The Bornu Empire built houses that were different to certain other African cultures. Due to the temperature of their location, they elected to construct buildings using red bricks.
Shift of the SAYFUWA court from KANEM to BORNU
By the end of the 14th century, internal struggles and external attacks had torn KANEM apart. Between 1359 and 1383, seven MAISREIGNED, but BULALA invaders (from the area around Lake FITRI to the east) killed five of them. This proliferation of MAIS resulted in numerous claimants to the throne and led to a series of internecine wars. Finally, around 1380 the BULALA forced MAI UMAR IDRISMI to abandon NJIMI and move the KANEMBU people to Bornu on the western edge of Lake Chad. Over time, the mix of the KANEMBU and Bornu, people created a new language, the “Kanuri.”.
BORNU TERRITORY ON 1500
MAI GHAJI ALI
MAI GHAJI ALI has been described in many quarters as one of the major kings under the KANEM-BORNU EMPIRE. This status was based on his achievements and leadership skills. Some Historians and interest group make reference to him as the founder of the “BORNO THE 2ND KANURI EMPIRE”.
With control over both capitals, the SAYFAWA dynasty became more powerful than ever. The two states were merged, but political authority still rested in Bornu. KANEM-BORNU peaked during the reign of the statesman MAI IDRIS ALUMA(1571–1603).
MAI IDRIS ALUMA
The emergence of Idris Aluma was characterized by some development before him.
Some accounts recorded the reign of a woman known as AISSA KILI N’GUIRMAMARAMAMA. She was said to be the daughter DUNAMA MOHAMMAD. Some other accounts, mainly Islamic accounts, tend to give the credit to Abdullah who was also the son of DUNAMA MOHAMMAD. After the death of DUNAMA MOHAMMAD, his son Abdullah reigned for about a year after which AISSA KILI N’GUIRMAMARAMAMA took control of the Empire. She stood in for some years, as the heir to the throne Idris Aluma was believed to be too young to ascend. She reigned before Idris Aluma was mature enough to ascend to the throne in 1569.
The details of his ascension to the throne are not clear but Idris Aluma’s reign has been characterized as the best in the KANEM-BORNU Empire. BORNU EMPIRE reached its peak during the reign of Mai Idris Aluma.
Aluma went after the elements creating instability in the Empire and also those challenging his authority. He turned his military power on those non-Islamic groups that were revolting against BORNO EMPIRE.
He killed many of the Sao and the NGIZIM people, sold some of them into slavery in exchange for horses, arms and goods which the Empire got from the Arab world.
The remnant among those considered stubborn had no choice than to integrate, pledge and show loyalty to the Empire. This achievement brought a high level of internal stability in the empire.
Aluma knowing that the strength of any political entity during his time relies on the military, decided to strengthen the army. He re-organized and re-equipped the army for effective operation. He re-equipped the army with modern weapons.
Some accounts credited him to be the first Mai to introduce the use of fire-arms into the Empire. He got fire-arms from Ottoman Empire, Tripoli and the Arab world. He purchased MUSKETS, BUNDUG and other available weapons with which he equipped the army.
He employed some TURKISH MUSKETEERS and some MULLATO SLAVES to teach and drill his army on the use of the new weapons. The establishment of a Musketry Corps in the BORNO EMPIRE army helped to strengthen the army.
Aluma is remembered for his military skills, administrative reforms, and Islamic piety.
Aluma introduced a number of legal and administrative reforms based on his religious beliefs and Islamic law (Sharia).
He sponsored the construction of numerous mosques and made a pilgrimage to mecca, where he arranged for the establishment of a hostel to be used by pilgrims from his empire.
Trade Routes Map of Medieval Saharan Trade (1400) by T L Miles
KANEM-BORNU under Aluma was strong and wealthy.
Government revenue came from tribute, sales of slaves and duties on and participation in trans-Saharan trade.
Unlike the Kingdoms of Mali and Songhai in West Africa, the Chadian region did not have gold.
Still, it was central to one of the most convenient trans- Saharan routes. Between Lake Chad and Fezzan lay a sequence of well-spaced wells and oases, and from Fezzan there were easy connections to North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea.
Many products were sent north, including natron (sodium carbonate), cotton, kola nuts, ivory, ostrich feathers, perfume, wax, and hides, and slaves.
Imports included salt, horses, silks, glass, muskets, and copper.
Aluma took a keen interest in trade and other economic matters.
He is credited with having the roads cleared, designing better boats for Lake Chad, introducing standard units of measure for grain, and moving farmers into new lands.
In addition, he improved the ease and security of transit through the empire with the goal of making it so safe that “a lone woman clad in gold might walk with none to fear but God.”
KANEM’S expansion peaked during the long and energetic reign of MAI DUNAMA DABBALEMI (1203–1242) and the empire’s influence extended westward to Kano (in present-day Nigeria) and thus included Bornu, eastward to OUADDAI, and southward to the Adamawa grassland.
Decline of the Bornu Empire
The administrative reforms and military brilliance of Aluma sustained the empire until the mid-17th century, when its power began to fade.
By the late 18th century, Bornu rule extended only westward, into the land of the Hausa of modern Nigeria
The last Mai before the Fulani jihadist attacks was Mai Ahmad b. Ali (1791-1808). He was said to be extremely weak and later got blind. He had to relinquish power to his son DUNAMA when he could not hold on to it again.
The weakness of Ahmad did not help the Empire in the face of the Fulani attacks. The jihadist attacks completely reduced the strength of the Empire and triggered another development in the Empire.
Towards the end of the empire, the capital of Bornu Empire moved to “ GAZARGAMO”. In 1800s, the area covered was 129,499 sq. km (50,000 SQ mi) and by 1892 it was 50,000 km^2(19,000 SQ mi).
Alkali, Nur, and Bala Usman, eds., Studies in the History of Pre-Colonial Borno (Zaria: Northern Nigerian Publishing, 1983)
Barkindo, Bawuro: “The early states of the Central Sudan: Kanem, Borno and some of their neighbours to c. 1500 AD.”, in: J. Ajayi und M. Crowder (ed.), History of West Africa, Bd. I, 3rd ed. Harlow 1985, 225–254.
Barth, Heinrich: Travel and Discoveries in North and Central Africa, vol. II, New York, 1858, 15–29, 581–602.
Brenner, Louis, The Shehus of Kukawa, Oxford 1973.
Kanem-Borno, in Thomas Collelo, ed. Chad: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1988.
Dewière, Rémi, ‘Regards croisés entre deux ports de désert’, Hypothèses, 2013, 383–93
Cohen, Ronald: The Kanuri of Bornu, New York 1967.
Hallam, W.: The life and Times of Rabih Fadl Allah, Devon 1977.
Hiribarren, Vincent, A History of Borno: Trans-Saharan African Empire to Failing Nigerian State (London: Hurst & Oxford University Press, 2017).
Lange, Dierk: Le Dīwān des sultans du Kanem-Bornu, Wiesbaden 1977.
— A Sudanic Chronicle: The Borno Expeditions of Idris Alauma (1564–1576), Stuttgart 1987.
— “Ethnogenesis from within the Chadic state”, Paideuma, 39 (1993), 261–277.
— “The Chad region as a crossroads”, in: M. Elfasi (Hg.), General History of Africa, vol. III, UNESCO, London 1988, pp. 436–460.
— “The kingdoms and peoples of Chad”, in: D. T. Niane (ed.), General History of Africa, vol. IV, UNESCO, London 1984, pp. 238–265.
–: “An introduction to the history of Kanem-Borno: The prologue of the Dīwān“, Borno Museum Society Newsletter 76–84 (2010), 79–103.
Lavers, John, ‘Adventures in the chronology of the states of the Chad basin’, ed. by Daniel Barreteau and Charlotte de Graffenried (presented at the Datation et chronologie dans le bassin du lac Tchad. Dating and chronology in the lake Chad basin, Bondy: Orstom, 1993), pp. 255–67
Levtzion, Nehemia, and John Hopkins: Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, Cambridge 1981.
Smith, Abdullahi: The early states of the Central Sudan, in: J. Ajayi and M. Crowder (ed.), History of West Africa, vol. I, 1st ed., London, 1971, 158–183.
Urvoy, Yves: L’empire du Bornou, Paris 1949.
The History Files. African Kingdoms. Chad. <http://www.historyfiles.co.uk/KingListsAfrica/AfricaChad.htm retrieved 19-Feb-2012>
Trimingham, Spencer: A History of Islam in West Africa, Oxford 1962.
Urvoy, Yves: L’empire du Bornou, Paris 1949.
Van de Mieroop, Marc: A History of the Ancient Near East, 2nd ed., Oxford 2007.
Zakari, Maikorema: Contribution à l’histoire des populations du sud-est nigérien, Niamey 1985.
Zeltner, Jean-Claude : Pages d’histoire du Kanem, pays tchadien, Paris 1980.