The Moroccan Conquest of the Songhay Empire

“Every year [prior to 1591], on the order of the king of Timbuktu [the askiya]… two hundred quintals of gold were sent to the Barbary; the war so upset everything that once could not produce four [quintals of gold], because the gold washers had fled for they did not want to work for others; and gold from the deserts of the interior came virtually no more, and this did not suffice for the price of the merchandise in the kingdom from where they came.”

“Ahmad al-Mansur’s invasion of Sudan created fresh illusions, but neither the circus of Marrakech nor even the vast curtain of the Sahara could long hide the truth. The conquistadors of the Red City destroyed everything in their path, real and otherwise–the heyday of the Saharan caravans, the glory days of Timbuktu, the empire of the Songhay, and the Island of Gold. Behind, they left only wistfulness.”

“Ghana was the first of the West African empires. A Soninke ethnic state that emerged around the fourth century, Ghana eventually came to control the area of present western Mali and southeastern Mauritania. Its power lay in the gold fields of Boure and Bambouk, and it was the first black African state to benefit from the camel-powered trans-Saharan trading system. This empire grew and flourished largely in anonymity until Berber and Arab raiders came calling.”

“By the eleventh century, the Ghanaians had been weakened by attacks from a Moroccan Berber dynasty, the Almoravids. The empire quietly disappeared a few decades later. The cause of this collapse is not known, but the Almoravids probably hastened its end. Gradually, over the next century, a successor state began to take shape from the ruins, Mali.”

“The Mandinka kingdom of Mali gradually extended its control over the gold fields through conquest and tribal alliances and by the early thirteenth century, it had crowned its first emperor, Sundiata Keita. In the decades that followed, the Malians embarked on conquest in Senegal, Guinea, and against the tribes of the eastern Niger, amassing a near monopoly on the West African gold trade.”

“By the middle of the fourteenth century, the empire reached from the Atlantic Ocean to Gao and spanned the modern-day countries of Senegal, southern Mauritania, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Mali, northern parts of Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, and western niger. The Malian Empire dominated West Africa, extending over 1,300,000 square kilometers, more than any Western European state, but it took a new religion and a larger-than-life character to make anyone outside the region take notice.”

“The religion was, of course, Islam. Mali was the first of the great West African empires to embrace Islam, though in its own distinct and limited way. Some Arab Scholars claimed it was Ghana, but the ruling class never adopted the new religion. Though the Malian nobility gradually converted to Islam, the faith was not imposed upon the populace. Islam remained confined to the capital and the desert “ports” where it had arrived centuries earlier with Berber traders. Many more years would elapse before Islam would start to dissipate from these points to the villages and towns of the savanna and the forest belt.”

“Islamic teaching and law became prestigious metiers and, and in the words of one historian, a “cult of the aristocracy. But, in the end, in West Africa, Islam was for the ruling elite and the tiny literate class, and it was a distinctly urban phenomenon. In the countryside, the majority lived as they had for centuries, with their nature gods, black magic and witch doctors.”

“The twenty-year Morocco-Songhay war seriously undermined the caravan trade networks and economic triad. Salt and gold were no longer meetings in abundance along the river. The salt mines were not secure, and that traffic slowed considerably. Gold traders began to prefer the Guinea coast, where the Portuguese coastal trading posts offered closer and more stable trading partners. However, this alternative provided only temporary relief. Line the Moroccan sugar industry, the West African gold market would soon plummet under competition from the Americas.”

Source: Conquistadors of the Red City: The Moroccan Conquest of the Songhay Empire By Comer Plummer

“When analyzing al-Mansur’s Songhay effort we are fortunate to possess the work of authors unattached to al-Mansur’s court, through which we have an opportunity to evaluate events presumably unencumbered by the flattering official portrayals that are so often the product of official dynastic secretaries and chroniclers. The work of the Arab historian and native of Timbuktu, Abd al-Rahman al-Sa’di, is one example. Al-Sa’di eventually secured employment in the Moroccan administration at Timbuktu, but his loyalties lay with the native elites of the Middle Niger. From him we gain a local perspective on the Moroccan invasion and conquest of the Songhay Empire, and well as on the Moroccan administration of the Middle Niger up until the middle of the seventeenth century”

“Early Sa’di attempts to control the salt resources of the desert date from at least 1526, when a Moroccan force temporarily occupied the Tuwat Oasis. Over the next thirty years al-Mansur’s predecessors launched additional expeditions against Tuwat, Taghaza, and into Mauritania. But the importance of salt was too great for the Songhay to consider relinquishing control. According to al-Sa’di, in the early 1540s the Songhay rulers responded to one Moroccan request by ordering a raid of two thousand Tuareg on Morocco’s Dra’a Valley.998 Later, they foiled an otherwise successful Moroccan conquest of Taghaza by simply redirecting traders to another location.999 Al-Mansur’s first effort, however, fared much better. Al-Sa’di reports that the Sultan requested of the Songhay one year’s worth of tax from the mines of Taghaza, and received instead a goodwill gift of more than ninety pounds of gold, the generosity of which allegedly led to a great friendship between the sultan and the Songhay Askiya (emperor) Dawud.1000 Some see the rivalry with the Ottoman Empire as an important factor in al-Mansur’s Songhay venture. Ottoman agents were indeed active in sub-Saharan Africa. Bornu, a central Sudanic empire in the area adjacent to Lake Chad, attracted Ottoman mercenaries and technology with a series of aggressive jihads. In the middle of the century the Ottomans themselves extended their reach into Fezzan, a territory also claimed by Bornu. The latter sent an embassy to the Ottomans, but negotiations came to naught.1001 It is unclear whether or not military conflict ensued, though the anonymous Spaniard claims that the Turks marched through Egypt to conquer Bornu, but so weakened by thirst could not defend themselves.1002 Whatever may have occurred, the Ottoman supply of arms to Bornu dried up, and in 1582-83 its leaders turned to al-Mansur to meet their needs.  Al-Sa’di identifies a Songhay slave imprisoned at Taghaza, Wuld Kirinfil, as the impetus. According to al-Sa’di it “was God’s decree and His destiny that he [the slave] should break out from that prison and flee to the Red City, Marrakesh….”1014 There he wrote a letter to al-Mansur describing the difficult circumstances under which the Songhay were living and the resulting ease with which they could be conquered.1015 The anonymous Spaniard asserts that the ostensibly same escapee claimed to be the brother of the Songhay ruler, Askiya Ishaq, that his throne had been usurped, and that in return for support in regaining his kingdom he would acknowledge al-Mansur’s suzerainty and reward him with great wealth. “Account of the Anonymous Spaniard,” in Hunwick, Timbuktu, 318-319”

“Al-Mansur adopted the Ottoman practice of incorporating non-Turkish and non-Muslim elements into the army. Among the most prominent were European Christian renegados and Muslim Andalusians. Unlike the tribal corps these two groups often carried firearms, often filled senior posts in the army, guarded the sultan when he led campaigns, and received their pay before all others.1032 Neither group, as their names imply, were fully integrated into Maghribi society, and thus their allegiance to the ruler could be more readily ensured since it was through him alone that they enjoyed special status. The comparatively sizeable contingent of renegados and Andalusians in the Sa’di expedition is open to several possible interpretations. They were certainly among the best of the sharīf’s troops, and in this sense it is no surprise to see them in the invasion force. At the same time, dispatching some of his most loyal forces on an uncertain mission across nearly a thousand miles of desert also held special risks for al-Mansur’s domestic position. Revolts had under his predecessors been commonplace in sixteenth-century Morocco. In fact, al-Mansur was returning from the suppression of a rebellion in Fez when Wuld Kirinfil arrived and spurred renewed consideration of a Saharan venture.1033 Consequently, the extended absence and potential loss of loyal, effective troops was not a light matter.”

Source: MOROCCO IN THE EARLY ATLANTIC WORLD, 1415-1603 A Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Georgetown University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in History By Earnest W. Porta, Jr., J.D

Fortunes of Africa

“Whatever kind of trade with Africa was involved, European governments sought to benefit by granting national monopolies to commercial companies venturing there. In 1618, England’s James I gave a charter of monopoly to thirty London merchants who had formed the Company of Adventurers of London Trading into Parts of Africa, namely ‘Gynny and Nynny’ (Guinea and Benin) with the purpose of ‘discovering the golden trade of the Moors of Barbary’. The Dutch monopoly on trade between Africa and the Caribbean was run by the Dutch West India Company which, by the 1640s, was transporting about 3,000 slaves a year to the Americas.” 

Source Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour By Martin Meredith

“The French government gave a slaving monopoly to the French West Indian Company until the demand for slaves became so strong that it opened the slave trade to any Frenchman who wanted to engage in it. ‘There is nothing that does more to help the growth of those colonies [in the Caribbean]… than the labor of Negroes,’ declared a royal proclamation. In 1660, the Royal Adventurers into Africa, a London Company whose investors included King Charles II and three other members of the royal family, was given a monopoly of England’s African trade for 1,000 years. Some of the gold it brought back from the Gold Coast was turned by the Royal Mint into coins with an elephant on one side; they were popularly called ‘guineas’, a unit of currency equivalent to twenty-one shillings which remained valid until 1967. In 1665, the company estimated that half of its returns came from gold, a quarter from slaves, and a quarter from ivory, pepper, wood wax and hides. When the Royal Adventurers encountered financial difficulties, its place was taken in 1672 by the Royal African Company of England which was given a license to trade in ‘gold, silver, Negroes, Slaves, goods, ware and manufacturers’ for 1,000 years and a monopoly of all African trade until 1688. Its main base in Africa became the Gold Coast and its headquarters there at Cape Coast included a garrison of fifty English soldiers, thirty slaves and a resident commander responsible for all English actions in West Africa.”

Source Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour By Martin Meredith

“By the end of the seventeenth century, as much as three-fifths of the income of the Royal African Company derived from the sale of slaves. As well as chartered companies, increasing numbers of privateers-‘interlopers’-competed for a share of the business. The triangular trade between Europe, the west coast of Africa and the Americas brought a triple round of profits to European merchants. On the outward journey to Africa, they brought linen, cloth, metalwares, beads, brandy, wine, and firearms; they picked up slaves which they sold in the Caribbean or Brazil, taking back to Europe cargoes of sugar, tobacco and rum.”

Source Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour By Martin Meredith

“To assist his campaign of conquest, Faidherbe recruited an army of Senegalese and tirailleurs-‘skirmishers’-trained and led by French and local Afro-French officers. From Saint Louis, he pushed forward in all directions. North of the river he fought a three-year-long war against Trarza Moors for control of their inland trade routes.”

Source Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour By Martin Meredith

“Among his other observations, Alvares noted that although Lebna Dengel could muster a sizeable army, it was poorly equipped, with little more than spears, bows, and arrows. When the king finally agreed to let the Portuguese go, six years after their arrival, he furnished them with a letter requesting military and technical assistance, proposing an alliance that would ‘ tear out and cast forth the evil Moors, Jews, and heathens from [our] countries.”

Source Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour By Martin Meredith

“On their voyages exploring the Senegal River in the 1440s, the Portuguese established regular trading links with two Wolof kingdoms, Walo and Cayor, long accustomed to dealing in slaves and other commodities with Arab and Sanhaja merchants, exchanging them for Barbary horses which had survived the journey across the Sahara. ‘The King,’ wrote the Venetian adventurer, Alvise Ca’ da Mosto, ‘supports himself by raids, which result in many slaves from his own as well as neighboring countries. He employs these slaves…in cultivating the land…but he also sells many to the [Moors] in return for horses and other goods.” Horses were highly prized. According to da Mosto, the Wolofs would offer from nine to fourteenth slaves for a single horse.”

Source Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour By Martin Meredith

“Those who knew the truth,’ declared the contemporary Kilwa Chronicle, ‘confirmed that they were corrupt and dishonest persons who had come only to spy out the land in order to seize it.’ On their arrivals in Mombassa, they were treated as unwelcome visitors. Da Gama had his own suspicions, as Velho recorded: At night the captain-major questioned two Moors we had on board by dropping boiling oil upon their skin so that they might confess any treachery. They said that orders had been given to avenge what we had done in Mozambique.”

Source Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour By Martin Meredith