African Kingdom/Empire of the week: The Songhai/ Songhay Empire
(Images of pre-colonial to modern day Songhai people above)
The Songhai Empire was the largest and last of the three major pre-colonial empires to emerge in West Africa. From its capital at Gao on the Niger River, Songhai expanded in all directions until it stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to what is now Northwest Nigeria and western Niger. Gao, Songhai’s capital, which remains to this day a small Niger River trading center, was home to the famous Goa Mosque and the Tomb of Askia, the most important of the Songhai emperors. The cities of Timbuktu and Djenne were the other major cultural and commercial centers of the empire.
The Songhai people founded Gao around 800 A.D. As the city and region grew in importance, the Malian Empire incorporated both as it expanded across the West African savanna.
Though the Songhai people are said to have established themselves in the city of Gao about 800 A.D , they did not regard it as their capital until the beginning of the 11th century during the reign of the dia (king) Kossoi, a Songhai convert to Islām. Gao so prospered and expanded during the next 300 years that from 1325 to 1375 the rulers of Mali added it to their empire. In about 1335 the dia line of rulers gave way to the sunni, or shi, one of whom, Sulaiman-Mar, is said to have won back Gao’s independence. The century or so of vicissitudes that followed was ended by the accession in about 1464 of Sonni ʿAlī, also known as ʿAlī Ber (d. 1492). By repulsing a Mossi attack on Timbuktu, the second most important city of Songhai, and by defeating the Dogon and Fulani in the hills of Bandiagara, he had by 1468 rid the empire of any immediate danger. He later evicted the Tuareg from Timbuktu, which they had occupied since 1433, and, after a siege of seven years, took Jenne (Djenné) in 1473 and by 1476 had dominated the lakes region of the middle Niger to the west of Timbuktu. He repulsed a Mossi attack on Walata to the northwest in 1480 and subsequently discouraged raiding by all the inhabitants of the Niger valley’s southern periphery. The civil policy of Sonni ʿAlī was to conciliate the interests of his pagan pastoralist subjects with those of the Muslim city dwellers, on whose wealth and scholarship the Songhai empire depended. His son Sonni Baru (reigned 1493), who sided completely with the pastoralists, was deposed by the rebel Muḥammad ibn Abī Bakr Ture, also known as Muḥammad I Askia (reigned 1493–1528), who welded the central region of the western Sudan into a single empire. He too fought the Mossi of Yatenga, tackled Borgu, in what is now northwestern Nigeria (1505)—albeit with little success—and mounted successful campaigns against the Diara (1512), against the kingdom of Fouta-Toro in Senegal, and to the east against the Hausa states. In order to win control of the principal caravan markets to the north, he ordered his armies to found a colony in and around Agadez in Aïr. He was deposed by his eldest son, Musa, in 1528. Throughout the dynastic squabbles of successive reigns (Askia Musa, 1528–31; Bengan Korei, also known as Askia Muḥammad II, 1531–37; Askia Ismail, 1537–39; Askia Issihak I, 1539–49), the Muslims in the towns continued to act as middlemen in the profitable gold trade with the states of Akan in central Guinea. The peace and prosperity of Askia Dāwūd’s reign (1549–82) was followed by a raid initiated by Sultan Aḥmad al-Manṣūr of Morocco on the salt deposits of Taghaza. The situation, which continued to worsen under Muḥammad Bāni (1586–88), culminated disastrously for Songhai under Issihak II (1588–91) when Moroccan forces, using firearms, advanced into the Songhai empire to rout his forces, first at Tondibi and then at Timbuktu and Gao. Retaliatory guerrilla action of the pastoral Songhai failed to restore the empire, the economic and administrative centres of which remained in Moroccan hands.
At its peak, the Songhai city of Timbuktu became a thriving cultural and commercial center. Arab, Italian, and Jewish merchants all gathered for trade. A revival of Islamic scholarship also took place at the university in Timbuktu. However, Timbuktu was but one of a myriad of cities throughout the empire. By 1500, the Songhai Empire covered over 1.4 million square kilometers
Economic trade existed throughout the Empire, due to the standing army stationed in the provinces. Central to the regional economy were independent gold fields. The Julla (merchants) would form partnerships, and the state would protect these merchants and the port cities of the Niger. It was a very strong trading kingdom, known for its production of practical crafts as well as religious artifacts.
The Songhai economy was based on a clan system. The clan a person belonged to ultimately decided one’s occupation. The most common were metalworkers, fishermen, and carpenters. Lower caste participants consisted of mostly non-farm working immigrants, who at times were provided special privileges and held high positions in society. At the top were noblemen and direct descendants of the original Songhai people, followed by freemen and traders. At the bottom were war captives and European slaves obligated to labor, especially in farming. James Olson describes the labor system as resembling modern day unions, with the Empire possessing craft guilds that consisted of various mechanics and artisans
Upper classes in society converted to Islam while lower classes often continued to follow traditional religions. Sermons emphasized obedience to the king. Timbuktu was the educational capital. Sonni Ali established a system of government under the royal court, later to be expanded by Askia Muhammad, which appointed governors and mayors to preside over local tributary states, situated around the Niger valley. Local chiefs were still granted authority over their respective domains as long as they did not undermine Songhai policy
Tax was imposed onto peripheral chiefdoms and provinces to ensure the dominance of Songhai, and in return these provinces were given almost complete autonomy. Songhai rulers only intervened in the affairs of these neighboring states when a situation became volatile; usually an isolated incident. Each town was represented by government officials, holding positions and responsibilities similar to today’s central bureaucrats.
Under Askia Muhammad, the Empire saw increased centralization. He encouraged learning in Timbuktu by rewarding its professors with larger pensions as an incentive. He also established an order of precedence and protocol and was noted as a noble man who gave back generously to the poor. Under his policies, Muhammad brought much stability to Songhai and great attestations of this noted organization are still preserved in the works of Maghrebin writers such as Leo Africanus, among others
Sources/ Read more: 1| 2| 3
(If you want to know where I got all the images from ask)
King Askia Muhammad aka Askia the Great
King Sunni Ali Ber