Jewish Communities in West Africa and the Making of the Atlantic World

“Almost thirty years earlier, a very different sequence of events had taken place. In 1460, just after the death of Henry the Navigator, Afonso V, king of Portugal, dispatched a caravel to the Petite Cote. He gave the captain, Diogo Gomes, who already had experience sailing along the Guinea coast, tern horses to trade, along with authority over all the ships he would find there, “because he knew there were caravels that took swords and weapons to the Moors, giving [Gomes] orders to bring them under guard to him in Portugal.”

“Gomes was, of course, tracking illegal traders. One of these interlopers was captured, brought to the city of Oporto, and tortured “for having brought weapons to the Moors.” Fearing a similar fate, Mendo Afonso, an early lancado who had taken swords to Guinea, remained on the coast, living among African Muslims, until 1463 when he asked the king for a pardon.”

“The ensuing 150 years witnessed growing commerce between Portugal and West Africa. In exchange for ivory, wax, hides and, increasingly by the final decades of the sixteenth century, slaves, Portuguese merchants brought iron-even though it, too, was illegal–textiles, and horses to Guine. By the last two decades of the sixteenth century, weapons, especially iron swords, were an important component of Portuguese exports to Africa. A close of the reading of sixteenth and early seventeenth century Portuguese narratives indicates that these weapons were highly in demand in the Wolof and Serer states of northern Senegambia, as well as among the Banyuns, Cassangas, and other populations in the Gambia-Bissau region.”

“A Papal Bull, “In Coena Domini,” promulgated in 1364 and reissued annually until 1774, prohibited, among other offenses, the sale of weapons to the Infidel, upon pain of excommunication. By the late 1500s, if the Portuguese expressed public scruples about contravening the Papal Bull, their French, Dutch, and English trading rivals had no such compunctions. Portuguese lancados who had settled on the Senegambian coast played an important role as intermediaries in this international commerce. If one wished to obtain slaves, it was necessary to offer armas brancas. By the early seventeenth century, Lisbon merchants, too, were deeply involved in the trade.”

“The international weapons trade to West Africa was both affected by and itself influenced contemporary events in Morocco. The Moroccan invasion of Songhai in 1591 was a seminal episode in the military history of the sahel. The victory of the army of the Saadin ruler, Ahmed Al-Mansour, at the Battle of Tondibi had a far-reaching impact on the subsequent arms trade from the inland delta of the Niger River to the West African coast.”

“Shortly, after he defeated the Portuguese army at Al-Kasr-Quibir, in 1578, Mansour had begun to develop a modern arms industry based in Marrakesh. The Moroccan invasion of Songhai, thirteen years later, brought great numbers of these weapons invasion of Songhai, thirteen years later, brought great numbers of these weapons into the sahel and provided graphic evidence of the effectiveness of both armas brancas and mobile artillery.”

“By the end of Mansour’s reign in 1603, he had also begun to establish diplomatic and commercial ties to the United Provinces. These ties, which expanded under his successor, were mediated by Jewish merchants of Portuguese descent. Ultimately, the court of Marrakesh, assisted by the trader based in Holland, played a central role in the establishment of a complex network of military and commercial connections that linked Morocco to northern European trade networks and that connected both Marrakesh and Amsterdam to the weapons trade in West Africa.”

“Race and attitudes towards race as they are socially constructed to have to be understood as they were in their specific temporal context. The Portuguese experience provided the foundation for attitudes among the Sephardic community of Amsterdam. The concept of raca was closely related to other categories in the late sixteenth and seventeenth-century Luso-African accounts about Guinea of Cape Verde. It should be noted that the term “race” the Portuguese Inquisition and the assessment of “purity of blood” that was required of candidates for a specific post and honorary titles.”

“This process began to have concrete consequences from the 1570s onward. But the Portuguese race evoked family origin (the roots), either ethnic, social, or religious. The term was not necessarily connected with skin color or other physical features, even if the latter could be signs of a certain social status, like slavery. It had a similar meaning to the concept of nacao, and hence sometimes an individual may be described as either [“jalofo denagao”] or “of the Wolof race [“de raga jalofo”], or “of the Wolof caste [“de casta jalofo”] just as another individual might be referred to as “of the Moorish race,” “of the Moorish nation,” or of “Moorish caste.” 

“The same applies to Jewish and New Christian which, as she asserted, was better than the caste of Old Christians. This was part of a common counterdiscourse among New Christians, a reaction to the permanent pressure against people of Jewish descent in Catholic Society. But this response appropriated the Old Christian discourse fostered by the Inquisition in Iberia.”

“Who were these Moors? In Portuguese sources of that time the category of “Mouro” could have two different meanings: a general one as a synonym for “Muslims,” wherever they were, or a specific meaning, the nomadic inhabitants of Mauritania. If we follow the first meaning which seems correct for the 1618 account the document would simply be saying that black non-Muslim traders were purchasing the swords, which then were resold to Muslims.”

“For instance the Muslim trading partners, as we know, consisted both of members of the Wolof political elite, and of Muslim agents of the Mande trade network that connected the Guinea coast to the inland sahel. But in the 1590 qoutation, we believe the second meaning was being used. By 1590, as we know Castelo Branco’s account, blade weapons, including alfanges and daggers, were arriving on the coast of Jolofo.”

“Andrew Alvares de Almada’s treatise (manuscript of ca. 1596) reads that Blacks were learning cavalry techniques from the Moors, who came from the desert: “They learn these tricks from the Moors, who normally follow the Jolof court, and who come there to sell horses. The same traders who sold horses would likely have sold cavalry weapons. In the 1590 Inquisition report, the Negros who sold these weapons were likely Wolofs and the Mouros who bought them were very likely these Sahran caravan merchants who had business with the Wolof royal courts, exchaning horses for other merchandise.”

Source: The Forgotten Diaspora: Jewish Communities in West Africa and the Making of ..By Peter Mark, José da Silva Horta.

Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay


“From ancient times to the middle of the 19th century, one of the biggest groups within Mande society was slaves. In a great medieval state like the Mali Empire, many slaves were captured during wars of expansion. Slaves were an extremely important part of the economy because their labor had great value. They also brought in wealth when they were sold across the trans-Saharan trade routes.”

“When soldiers returned from a successful raid or battle, roughly half the loot, including slaves, was taken by the ruler on behalf of the state. Many slaves were exported across the Sahara or traded in slaves. They would simply enter the service of their captors and continue to practice their occupations. In the case of a woman of high status, it was possible for her to become a wife of her captors.”

“If a captive who had previously been free was from a family that held the kind of special relationship, known as senankuya, with the captor’s family, he would probably be freed. A legendary example of this happened when a chief named Nynyekoro knew he was going to be attacked by the army of Segu, led by Faama Da Diarra. He also knew he had no chance against their superior strength. He told all his advisers to take off their clothes, thus reducing their social status to the level of uncircumcised boys. “

“During the period of colonial rule, Guinea was referred to as the jewel of French West Africa. It had beautiful white sand beaches, Paris-style restaurants, and luxurious hotels. Guinea exported coffee, peanuts, mangos, and pineapples. Guinea gained its independence from France on October 2, 1958, by voting against remaining in the French Community. The people who ran the government and the technicians who maintained utility services were angry at Guinea’s vote against remaining with France. They left the country almost overnight.”

“When the European powers divided up the African continent into colonies in the 19th century, they established artificial boundaries that cut right through ancient cultures and political systems. By the beginning of the 1960s, when the former French West African colonies had gained their independence, the former territories of medieval Ghana, Mali, and Songhay were located in several different nations.”

“The ruins of Ghana’s cities of Kumbi Saleh and Awdaghust are in southern Mauritania, the goldfield of Bure is in Guinea, and the rest of ancient Ghana is in Mali. The heartland of the old Mali Empire is divided between Mali and Guinea, but its outer territories extend into Senegal, Mauritania, Cote d’Ivoire, and Burkina Faso. The former territories of medieval Songhay now lie in Mali, Niger, and Mauritania. The ancient heartland of these empires, however, was located in what is now Guinea and Mali.”

Source: Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay By David C. Conrad

American Colonization Society: The Bornu People were of Berber Origin

“At this period his territory did not extend to the northern bend of the Niger, which was occupied by Berbers. Jenne, the town which M. Dubois describes in his interesting book on “Timbuctoo the Mysterious” as still at the present day constituting a bit of Egypt in the heart of the desert, is said by the Arabs to have been founded by pagans in the year 800 (the year in which Egbert ascended the English throne), and was specially famed as the resort of the learned. Timbuctoo was founded by Berbers in the year 1087, about twenty-five years later than the town Morocco, and was never sullied by pagan worship. As the march of ancient Egyptian civilization can be traced through Negroland, moving gradually from east to west, so the march of this relatively modern Arab civilization can be traced steadily from west to east.”

“Thus we have come gradually eastward to our own territory of Nigeria, where the Hausa States, probably of mixed Berber and Coptic origin, were founded at a period of which the narrative takes us back to mythical history.  The Berber state of Audaghost, lying northwest in the desert, paid tribute to Ghana up to the middle of the eleventh century. The Bornu people were also of Berber origin, illustrating, like the Hausas and the mixed people of Ghana and the Berbers of Timbuctoo, that pressure of the northern races upon the fertile belt of which I have spoken.”

“Dugu appears to have been the name of the first sultan of any modern dynasty of which we have continuous records. He resigned about 850, and toward the end of the eleventh century, Bornu would seem to have been in some way the suzerain of the Hausa States. The earliest of Arab writers speak of the kingdom as spreading between the Niger and Lake Chad. It also included Kanem, on Lake Chad, at that time pagan, though at a later period it accepted Islam and produced distinguished men.”

“A black poet from Kanem is spoken of as enjoying considerable success at the Spanish court of one of the Almoravide sultans. Bornu appears as early as 1489 on Portuguese maps. In the early part of the sixteenth century, their kings maintained regular diplomatic relations with Tripoli and the outer world.”

“I have kept you already too long in speaking of these five divisions of Negroland-Ghana, Melle, Songhay, Hausa, and Bornu–in the northern portion of the Negro belt. There were many others of secondary importance, but these were the kingdoms which in turn were most directly exposed to Berber influence and rose to the most decided preeminence during what may be called our own historic times.”

“The mystery of the decadence of peoples is among the great operations of nature for which we have no explanation. The civilization of Negroland was inspired in the first instance by Egypt. It disappeared as the power of Egypt declined. It rose again with the rise of the western Arabs; it fell with their fall. The power of the Moors was destroyed in Spain, and the onward pressure of the at that time very partially civilized Christian nations had nothing to substitute for the highly cultivated standard of Arabian life. Gradually the African Arabs were driven out of Europe, and there began a reflex action of Europe upon Africa. The end of the fifteenth century saw the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope. The navigation of the Atlantic became general, and a wholly new chapter of foreign influence in West Africa was initiated.”

“The European coast colonies came into existence, but they were founded for the most part in the midst of the very lowest class of pagan natives. It is impossible for me to speak of them tonight. At the same time, the higher civilizations of the northern edge of Negroland was destroyed by the decadent Moors, who feeling the pressure of Europe upon their shores, overran the center of North Africa about the year 1592, and established by force of arms a purely brutal military domination.”

Source: Liberia, Issues 19-27