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

It was Common for Magrib Berbers to marry Soninke women



“Scholars have attributed Ghana’s political hegemony to the ruler’s ability to unify Soninke villages and maintain a cohesive confederacy of chiefs under the command of one king. Ongoing raids launched by North African Berbers searching for gold and slaves also served to maintain Ghana’s unification.”

“Though many North African groups raided the kingdom throughout its existence, Ghana developed alliances with one Berber people—the Magrib. Many Magrib Berbers established trade relations with Ghana chiefs and lived among their allies. Several trading posts were established in the Soninke villages near Kumbi, the main center of Ghana, as well as in the south and north of the Gambia River. (Levtzion 1973:24, 28, 104).”

“Other major Ghana trading posts included in Timbuktu, Wagadugu, Gundiuru, and Awdaghustic. Magrib Berbers traded horses, brass, copper, glassware, beads, leather, textiles, tailored clothing, and preserved food to the Soninke in exchange for gold, ivory, cloth, and preserved food to the Soninke in exchange for gold, ivory, cloth, pepper, kola nuts, and sometimes slaves.”

“In these trading centers, it became common for Magrib Berbers to marry Soninke women. Furthermore, the alliances between Ghana chiefes and Magrib Berbers helped Ghana retain its domination over Malinke and Songhay villages; when revolts erupted, the Magrib Berbers assisted their allies. By A.D. 1076 the Magrib Berbers demanded that the Soninke people convert to Islam (Levtzion 1973: 44; Oliver and Fagan 1975:166). The King of Ghana complied, yet many villages resisted.”

“The pressures to convert increased when Sanhaja tribes from various regions of North Africa united in a religious movement to convert people to Islam and attack those who resisted. The Sanhaja, like the Berbers, was a racially mixed Hamitic people, who were unified under the religious Almoravid Movement, centered in Morocco. Unlike the Magrib Berbers, the Sanhaja were enemies of Ghana and took over some of the Magrib Berber trading posts.”

“Many Soninke villages converted to Islam as a means of averting Islamic attacks. This did not stop the Sanhaja from demanding tribute from Ghana villages and taking people as slaves. By A.D. 1250 the Almoravid Movement had provoked conflict and religious factionalism in the Kingdom of Ghana (Levtzion 1973:51; Oliver and Fagan 1975:169). Most Ghana chiefs refused to convert to Islam and instead chose to end the Confederacy.

“Many successor states emerged out of Ghana. By this time a large part of West Africa had converted to Islam.”

“The Soso, who had been conquered by Ghana, emerged as the most powerful kingdom. They conquered many Soninke villages and also began preying upon the Malinke villages, which were not unified under one kingdom. Some Malinke villages were able to retain their independence and were subsequently unified by a man called Sundjata. Sundjata then launched a successful military campaign against the Soso people and replaced them as the military power of West Africa.”

“By A.D. 1250 Malinke chiefs had united in a confederacy, with Sundjata as their king (Oliver and Faga 1975:169). Sundjata’s clan, the Keith, became the ruling family, and his confederacy evolved into the Kingdom of Mali. The power of the Kingdom of Mali expanded, and it came to encompass the entire region that had formerly been Ghana. The Malinka also conquered the peoples from the Kingdom of Songhay.”

Source: Recovering History, Constructing Race: The Indian, Black, and White Roots of Mexican Americans By Martha Menchaca

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


Encyclopedia of African History 3-Volume Set

“Founded by the Sunni dynasty, Songhay was the last of the three great empires of Western Sudan. Under Sunni Ali (1464-1492), Songhay became an empire, totally eclipsing Mali, which had been in decline by the early fifteenth century. Much of Sunni Ali’s reign was taken up by wars of conquest. The Sonni dynasty had built up a powerful army of horsemen and war canoes with which Suleyman Dandi had extended Songhay territory upstream along the Niger bend.”

“The primary reason for Morocco’s hostilities against Songhay was due to economic interest. El Mansur, the ruler of Morocco, coveted and sought to control the salt mines and gold deposits within Songhay’s territory, which was erroneously believed to still be in abundance at the time of the attack. The first attempt at invading Songhay was a failure.”

“The first consequence of Moroccan conquest was the establishment of a protectorate over a substantial part of what used to be the Songhay empire. Songhay thus became a province of Morocco, with Judah Pasha acting as the governor. The normalization of Al Mansur’ fortuitous ambition and his consequent loss of interest in Songhay resulted in the lack of effective administration of the territory and subsequent breakdown of law and order.”

Citing Encyclopedia of African History 3-Volume Set

Discovering the Songhay Empire By Laura La Bella


“Askiya Ishaq II offered the Moroccans a tribute of one hundred thousand pieces of gold and one thousand slaves, hoping this would pacify them and encourage them to leave the Songhay Empire alone. Sultan Mulay al Mansur wanted his army to occupy the newly conquered land below the desert. He angrily rejected Askiya Ishaq’s offer and replaced Judar Pasha with another general, also named Mansur who was instructed to complete the conquest of Songhay.”

“The Moroccans occupied Timbuktu, Gao, and Jenne. The Songhay Empie had fallen to the Moroccans. The Songhay people, though vanquished and stripped of their empire, remained silent. They went on to found the Dendi Kingdom, which held sway in what would become modern-day Niger, from 1591 to 1901. After many futile decades spent trying to reestablish Songhay supremacy in West Africa, the Dendi Kingdom, weakened by a long of unstable leaders, coups, and wars, succumbed to occupation by French colonial forces. “


Citing Discovering the Songhay Empire By Laura La Bella