The kingdom of Songhai existed from 1375 to 1591. It was ruled by the Za dynasty, Sunni dynasty and Askia dynasty of kings. The Songhai kingdom occupied the banks of the river Niger and stretched over the regions of Mali, Ghana, Nigeria, the borders of the Sahara and to the Atlantic Ocean coast. The kingdom spread over a large number of cultures and people were known to speak Songhai, Mandinka, Fulani, and Moore amongst other languages.
At its peak, the kingdom covered 540,000 square miles. The rulers expanded trade in West Africa during their reign. The Songhai kingdom enjoyed great success until its decline in the late 1500s, after which they were defeated by the Moroccans.
Origins and History
The Songhai kingdom started in the city of Gao. It was formed by farmers and fishermen in the early 6th century. These were the original Songhai natives who followed a local African religion. Gao was just one of the many towns on the banks of the Niger. In the 7th century, a ruler from Yemen began ruling the towns close to the Niger. They were called the Za or Dia kings and adopted ancient African traditions. By the 11th century, Gao had become a region of bustling trade and commerce. The influx of traders from regions such as Egypt and Tunisia created a large population of Muslim traders. It was around this time that the Za dynasty settled in Gao and converted to Islam. Gao grew in wealth and power until the 14th century, when they were absorbed by the Mali empire.
By 1350, the Mali Empire started to weaken due to discord in the royal family. A prince of the Za dynasty, Ali Kolon, overthrew the last Za ruler and established the Sunni dynasty. Soon afterward, Suleiman Mar from the Sunni dynasty rebelled and took control of Gao.
In the 15th century, Sunni Ali became king and expanded the territories of the Songhai kingdom until it became the largest kingdom in West Africa. He conquered the land surrounding the Middle Niger and annexed the important trading cities of Djenne and Timbuktu. He was known to be an effective military leader and drove back several raids from neighboring states.
Religion in the Songhai Kingdom
The rulers of the Songhai kingdoms were Islamic. The nobility saw adopting Islam as a pragmatic choice towards establishing diplomatic and economic relations with the neighboring Arab states. The Askia dynasty would use Islam as the basis for crafting laws and as a unifying force over the empire. Askia Mohammed I waged many holy wars or jihads against surrounding regions, but Islam was never imposed upon the people. The nobility in the kingdom adopted Islam while the lower classes continued to follow their African religion.
Askia Mohammed was a devout Muslim and undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca. On his way back, he brought several Muslim scholars to set up schools of learning in Timbuktu. He built mosques and invited Muslim poets and scholars to his court.
Administration and Changing Laws in the Songhai Kingdom
The Songhai kingdom had a very centralized process of ruling. The kings were directly in control of appointing officers to posts in the bureaucracy. Each region was ruled by a governor. Under the governors were the mayors, who were in charge of the cities and towns. The kings mostly allowed the governors and mayors to rule with autonomy. This helped them retain control of the sizeable Songhai kingdom.
Askia Mohammed, I brought several administrative reforms during his reign. He introduced a uniform system of weight and measurements within the kingdom. He set up separate offices to deal with matters of wealth, farming, military, and law issues. He also established systems to ensure the people paid their taxes correctly. Due to these measures, corruption in trading and governance was brought to a minimum, and the kingdom prospered.
Askia Mohammed was also known to create opportunities for men who did not belong to the royal family. People of lower classes were allowed to occupy high posts in the bureaucracy.
Slaves were often used as advisers and soldiers by the Songhai administration. The rulers believed slaves could be trusted with making impartial decisions, as compared opposed to the citizens who had a stake in the outcomes. A slave’s status in Songhai often related to the status of his master, so for instance a King’s slave had more status that a free man.
A sample of positions in the Songhai administration include: Anfaras who were judges, the Gumei-koi who was the port director, the Hi-koi responsible for ships and smaller craft, the Berbuchi-mundio responsible for affairs relating to Berabic Arabs, Koira-banda mundio responsible for a city, Uanei-farma as Minister for property, Sao-farma as superintendent of forests, Lari-farma responsible for affairs relating to white minorities, and the Tari-mundio was the inspector of agriculture. This list is not exhaustive.
Culture, Art and Literature
Several accounts of the Songhai kingdom state that literature, research, and study flourished during the Askia dynasty. Askia Mohammed I was known to encourage the influx of Muslim scholars and teachers. Several subjects including astronomy, theology, law, and medicine were researched in Timbuktu’s universities.
Similar to the architecture of surrounding states, the Songhai kingdom’s mosques and buildings were made of mud bricks. Beams at intervals on the side of the mosques were used to create scaffolding for regular maintenance of the mosque. Kings commissioned the building of several mosques with areas for public congregation. The religious verses that were recited in public squares emphasized obedience to the King.
Art, dance and song are ancient traditions of the African people. They were still practiced in Africa during the reign of the Songhai kings. Pottery was a popular and well-developed art form. Artisans specializing in ceramics, jewelry, weaving, and other occupations were found in large numbers at the trading cities. Sculptures were made of terracotta, ceramic, clay, and metal. They depicted people and animals. The Songhai people also made masks that were used in religious ceremonies.
The Songhai kingdom was known to have a caste-based system of occupation. Children were expected to take up the same businesses as their parents. Artisans, miners, and farmers made up the lower class. Above them were the traders. Direct descendants of the Songhai were considered the higher level. Immigrants and slaves were once given the lowest class, but later in the regime, they were allowed to occupy higher classes as well.
Trade and Connections with the Surrounding States
The majority of wealth within the Songhai kingdom was due to the massive trade within the region and to the neighboring kingdoms. The goods of exchange were gold, salt, leather, grain, and slaves. Horses and textiles were also common in exchange. Cowrie shells, as well as gold and salt, were used as items for barter before the introduction of gold coins. The trade along caravan routes across the Sahara, Sahel, and along the river Tiber, contributed to the wealth of the Songhai kingdom.
Aksai Mohammed was responsible for creating the first envoys (or ambassadors) to the Arab states. Traders from Arabia, Spain, and Morocco were encouraged to do business in the kingdom.
Agriculture was the main occupation of the natives in Songhai. The grain produced was sent from farmlands to the cities. Traders exhausted their supplies because of their long journeys, so grain was made abundantly available to them. Rice, millet, and sorghum were grown in these areas. Canals from the Niger River were connected to the farmlands for irrigation purposes.
War and The Military Tactics of the Songhai
The Songhai kings were known for their large, well-equipped army in their years of prominence. Sunni Ali is often described as a ruthless leader who besieged many cities. He camped outside the city of Djenne for seven months until the city ran out of supplies and surrendered. Askia Daud regularly sent his army to the surrounding Mossi and Lulami countries to show off his military might. This was to encourage second thoughts about attacking his lands. The kings were known to have fleets of ships docked on the Niger.
The army consisted of cavalry, knights and bowmen. They were equipped with spears and shields made of copper and leather. Iron breastplates and chainmail were often used. The army was accompanied by a band of trumpets and drums.
The kingdom saw many expansion campaigns and wars with the neighboring states. The Aksai kings penetrated regions like the Hausa to the east of Songhai and Taghaza to the north. They also had frequent skirmishes with the Mossi
However, the might of the Songhai rule began to decline. Some descendants of Aksai Mohamed were ineffective rulers and fought amongst themselves. Periods of peace were few and far between. The Aksai kings failed to update their army’s weapons in the 16th century. Due to this, the Moroccans invaded Songhai in 1591 and massacred the army with their firearms. Certain other kingdoms that updated their military technology were able to resist such failures such as the Kingdom of Kanem-Bornu.
Basil Davidson, “West Africa before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850”. Routledge, 18 July 1998. ISBN: 978-0582318533
“Songhai/Songhay,” Global Security. <https://www.globalsecurity.org>
Stephanie Przybylek, “The Architecture and Art Of The Songhai Empire.” Study.com. <https://study.com>
“Songhai, African Empire, 15th-16th Century”, South African History Online. 8 November 2011. <https://www.sahistory.org.za>
“Songhai Empire (ca. 1375-1591)” Black Past.org. <https://www.blackpast.org>
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Hassimi Oumarou Maiga, “Balancing Written History with Oral Tradition: The Legacy of the Songhai People (African Studies)”. Routledge, 6 August 2009. ISBN: 978-0415963510
Books about the Songhai Kingdom
Philip Koslow, “Songhay: The Empire Builders (The Kingdoms of Africa).”Chelsea House Pub. April 1995. ISBN: 978-0791029435
David C. Conrad, “Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay.” Facts on File, 30 April 2005. ISBN: 978-0816055623