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12.8: Songhai

  • Page ID
    72301
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    Learning Objective

    • Explain the importance of Timbuktu after locating the Songhai Empire

    Key Points

    • The Songhai Empire was a state that dominated the western Sahel in the 15th and 16th centuries. At its peak, it was one of the largest states in African history. Initially, the empire was ruled by the Sonni dynasty (c. 1464–1493), but it was later replaced by the Askiya dynasty (1493–1591).
    • In the second half of the 14th century, disputes over succession weakened the Mali Empire and in the 1430s Songhai, previously a Mali dependency, gained independence under the Sonni Dynasty.
    • Sonni Ali reigned from 1464 to 1492. In the late 1460s, he conquered many of the Songhai’s neighboring states, including what remained of the Mali Empire. He was arguably the empire’s most formidable military strategist and conqueror. Under his rule, Songhai reached a size of over 1,400,000 square kilometers.
    • The internal political chaos and multiple civil wars within the empire allowed Morocco to invade Songhai. The main reason for the Moroccan invasion was to seize control of and revive the trans-Saharan trade in salt and gold. The empire fell to the Moroccans and their firearms in 1591.
    • The empire’s power was linked to economic trade; their government system granted authority to local chiefs as long as they did not undermine Songhai policy and tightly controlled labor division system.

    Terms

    Timbuktu

    A historical and still-inhabited city in the West African nation of Mali, situated 20 km (12 mi) north of the River Niger on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. In its Golden Age, the town’s numerous Islamic scholars and extensive trading network enabled an important book trade. Together with the campuses of the Sankore Madrasah, an Islamic university, this established the city as a scholarly center in Africa.

    Sahel

    The ecoclimatic and biogeographic zone of transition in Africa between the Sahara to the north and the Sudanian Savanna to the south. Having a semi-arid climate, it stretches across the south-central latitudes of Northern Africa between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea.

    Sonni dynasty

    A dynasty of rulers of the Songhai Empire of medieval West Africa. The first ruler of the dynasty, Sunni Ali Kulun, probably reigned at the end of the fourteenth century. The last ruler, Sonni Baru, ruled until 1493 when the throne was usurped by the Askiya Muhammad I (known also as Askia the Great), the founder of the Askiya Dynasty.

    Gao

    A city in Mali located on the River Niger that for much of its history was an important commercial center involved in the trans-Saharan trade. Towards the end of the 13th century, it became part of the Mali Empire, but in the first half of the 15th century the town regained its independence and with the conquests of Sonni Ali (ruled 1464–1492) it became the capital of the Songhai Empire.

    Introduction

    The Songhai Empire (also transliterated as Songhay) was a state that dominated the western Sahel in the 15th and 16th centuries. At its peak, it was one of the largest states in African history. The state is known by its historiographical name, derived from its leading ethnic group and ruling elite, the Songhai. Sonni Ali established Gao as the capital of the empire, although a Songhai state had existed in and around Gao since the 11th century. Other important cities in the empire were Timbuktu and Djenné, conquered in 1468 and 1475 respectively, where urban-centered trade flourished. Initially, the empire was ruled by the Sonni dynasty (c. 1464–1493), but it was later replaced by the Askiya dynasty (1493–1591).

    During the second half of the 13th century, Gao and the surrounding region had grown into an important trading center and attracted the interest of the expanding Mali Empire. Mali conquered Gao towards the end of the 13th century and the town would remain under Malian hegemony until the late 14th century. But as the Mali Empire started to disintegrate, the Songhai reasserted control of Gao. Songhai rulers subsequently took advantage of the weakened Mali Empire to expand Songhai rule.

    Imperial Songhai

    In the second half of the 14th century, disputes over succession weakened the Mali Empire and in the 1430s, Songhai, previously a Mali dependency, gained independence under the Sonni Dynasty. Around thirty years later, Sonni Sulayman Dama attacked Mema, the Mali province west of Timbuktu, paving the way for his successor, Sonni Ali, to turn his country into one of the greatest empires sub-Saharan Africa has ever seen.

    Sonni Ali reigned from 1464 to 1492. Like Songhai kings before him, he was a Muslim. In the late 1460s, he conquered many of the Songhai’s neighboring states, including what remained of the Mali Empire. He was arguably the empire’s most formidable military strategist and conqueror. Under his rule, Songhai reached a size of over 1,400,000 square kilometers. During his campaigns for expansion, Ali conquered many lands, repelling attacks from the Mossi to the south and overcoming the Dogon people to the north. He annexed Timbuktu in 1468, after Islamic leaders of the town requested his assistance in overthrowing marauding Tuaregs (Berber people with a traditionally nomadic pastoralist lifestyle) who had taken the city following the decline of Mali. However, Ali met stark resistance after setting his sights on the wealthy and renowned trading town of Djenné (also known as Jenne). After a persistent seven-year siege, he was able to forcefully incorporate it into his vast empire in 1473, but only after having starved its citizens into surrender

    Oral traditions present a conflicted image of Sonni Ali. On the one hand, the invasion of Timbuktu destroyed the city; Ali was described as an intolerant tyrant who conducted a repressive policy against the scholars of Timbuktu, especially those of the Sankore region who were associated with the Tuareg. On the other hand, his control of critical trade routes and cities brought great wealth. He is thus often presented as a powerful politician and great military commander and under his reign, Djenné and Timbuktu became great centers of learning.

    image
    Songhai Empire in 1500. Songhai rulers took advantage of the weakened Mali Empire to expanded Songhai rule. Under the rule of Sonni Ali, the Songhai surpassed the Malian Empire in area, wealth, and power, absorbing vast areas of the Mali Empire and reaching its greatest extent.

    Following Ali’s reign, Askia the Great strengthened the Songhai Empire and made it the largest empire in West Africa’s history. At its peak under his reign, the Songhai Empire encompassed the Hausa states as far as Kano (in present-day Nigeria) and much of the territory that had belonged to the Songhai empire in the west. His policies resulted in a rapid expansion of trade with Europe and Asia, the creation of many schools, and the establishment of Islam as an integral part of the empire. Askia opened religious schools, constructed mosques, and opened up his court to scholars and poets from throughout the Muslim world, but he was also tolerant of other religions and did not force Islam on his people. Among his great accomplishments was an interest in astronomical knowledge, which led to the development of astronomy and observatories in the capital.

    Not only was he a patron of Islam but he was also gifted in administration and encouraging trade. He centralized the administration of the empire and established an efficient bureaucracy that was responsible for, among other things, tax collection and the administration of justice. He also demanded that canals be built in order to enhance agriculture, which would eventually increase trade. More importantly than anything he did for trade was the introduction of weights and measures and the appointment of an inspector for each of Songhai’s important trading centers. During his reign Islam became more widely entrenched, trans-Saharan trade flourished, and the Saharan salt mines of Taghaza were brought within the boundaries of the empire.

    However, as Askia the Great grew older, his power declined. In 1528, his sons revolted against him and declared Musa, one of Askia’s many sons, as king. Following Musa’s overthrow in 1531, Songhai’s empire went into decline. Multiple attempts at governing the empire by Askia’s sons and grandsons failed and between the political chaos and multiple civil wars within the empire, Morocco invaded Songhai. The main reason for the Moroccan invasion of Songhai was to seize control and revive the trans-Saharan trade in salt and gold. The Songhai military, during Askia’s reign, consisted of full-time soliders, but the king never modernized his army. The Empire fell to the Moroccans and their firearms in 1591.

    The Organization of Songhai

    At its peak, the Songhai city of Timbuktu became a thriving cultural and commercial center where Arab, Italian, and Jewish merchants all gathered for trade. 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.

    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.  Historian James Olson describes the labor system as resembling modern day unions, with the empire possessing craft guilds that consisted of various mechanics and artisans

    Criminal justice in Songhai was based mainly, if not entirely, on Islamic principles, especially during the rule of Askia the Great. Upper classes in society converted to Islam while lower classes often continued to follow traditional religions. Sermons emphasized obedience to the king. Sonni Ali established a system of government under the royal court, later to be expanded by Askia, 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.

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