Large and powerful Kingdoms covered much of west Africa from Medieval times onwards.
The Ghana Empire or Wagadou Empire (existed before c. 830 until c. 1235) was located in what is now southeastern Mauritania, and Western Mali. Complex societies had existed in the region since about 1500 BCE, and around Ghana’s core region since about 300 CE. When Ghana’s ruling dynasty began is uncertain, it is first mentioned in documentary sources around 830 CE. The introduction of the camel, which preceded Muslims and Islam by several centuries, brought about a gradual change in trade, and for the first time, the extensive gold, ivory trade, and salt resources of the region could be sent north and east to population centers in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe in exchange for manufactured goods.
The Empire grew rich from the trans-Saharan trade in gold and salt. This trade produced an increasing surplus, allowing for larger urban centers. It also encouraged territorial expansion to gain control over the lucrative trade routes.
The first written mention of the kingdom comes from Arabic-language sources some time after the conquest of North Africa by Muslims, when geographers began compiling comprehensive accounts of the world known to Islam around 800. The sources for the earlier periods are very strange as to its society, government or culture, though they do describe its location and note its commercial relations.
The empire’s capital is believed to have been at Koumbi Saleh on the rim of the Sahara desert. According to the description of the town left in 1067, the capital was actually two cities six miles apart but “between these two towns are continuous habitations”, so that they might be said to have merged into one.
The major part of the city was called El-Ghaba and was the residence of the king. It was protected by a stone wall and functioned as the royal and spiritual capital of the Empire. It contained a sacred grove of trees used for Soninke religious rites in which priests lived. It also contained the king’s palace, the grandest structure in the city.
The name of the other section of the city is not recorded. It was surrounded by wells with fresh water, where vegetables were grown. It was inhabited almost entirely by Arab Muslims along with twelve mosques, one of which was designated for Friday prayers, and had a full group of scholars, scribes and Islamic jurists. Because the majority of these Muslims were merchants, this part of the city was probably its primary business district.
Most of our information about the economy of Ghana comes from merchants, and therefore we know more about the commercial aspects of its economy, and less about the way in which the rulers and nobles may have obtained agricultural products through tribute or taxation. Merchants had to pay a one gold dinar tax on imports of salt, and two on exports of salt. Imports probably included products such as textiles, ornaments and other materials. Many of the hand-crafted leather goods found in old Morocco may also had their origins in the empire. The main center of trade was Koumbi Saleh. The king claimed as his own all nuggets of gold, and allowed other people to have only gold dust. In addition to the exerted influence of the king onto local regions, tribute was also received from various tributary states and chiefdoms to the empire’s periphery. The introduction of the camel played a key role in Soninke success as well, allowing products and goods to be transported much more efficiently across the Sahara. These factors all helped the empire remain powerful for some time, providing a rich and stable economy that was to last over several centuries.
Much testimony on ancient Ghana depended on how well disposed the king was to foreign travelers, from which the majority of information on the empire comes. Islamic writers often commented on the social-political stability of the empire based on the seemingly just actions and grandeur of the king.
The Arabic sources, the only ones to give us any information are sufficiently vague as to how the country was governed. It is mentioned that the king had officials who surrounded his throne when he gave justice, and these included the sons of the kings of his country. Detailed accounts on the geography of the region show that in 1067 Ghana was surrounded by independent kingdoms, and Sila, one of them located on the Senegal River was “almost a match for the king of Ghana.”
Given the scattered nature of the Arabic sources and the ambiguity of the existing archaeological record, it is difficult to determine when and how Ghana declined and fell. The earliest descriptions of the Empire are vague as to its maximum extent, Ghana had forced Awdaghast in the desert to accept its rule sometime between 970 and 1054.
A tradition in historiography maintains that Ghana fell when it was sacked by the Almoravid movement in 1076, but this interpretation has been questioned. Dierk Lange, who believes that the Almoravids had an important role in Ghana’s fall, notes that it was due to their instigation of internal political instability, rather than military actions or conquest.
While there is no clear cut account of a sack of Ghana in the contemporary sources, the country certainly did convert to Islam. They extended their domination over the Sudan, pillaged, charged poll tax and other dues, and converted many of them to Islam. It is clear, however, that Ghana was incorporated into the Empire of Mali, according to a detailed account of al-‘Umari, written around 1340. Ghana still retained its functions as a sort of kingdom within the empire, its ruler being the only one allowed to bear the title malik
The Mali Empire or Mandingo Empire or Manden Kurufa was a West African empire of the Mandinka from c. 1230 to c. 1600. The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita and became renowned for the wealth of its rulers, especially Mansa Musa I. The Mali Empire had many profound cultural influences on West Africa, allowing the spread of its language, laws and customs along the Niger River. It extended over a large area and consisted of numerous vassal kingdoms and provinces.
The Mali Empire flourished because of trade above all else. It contained three immense gold mines within its borders unlike the Ghana Empire, which was only a transit point for gold. The empire taxed every ounce of gold or salt that entered its borders. By the beginning of the 14th century, Mali was the source of almost half the Old World’s gold exported from mines in Bambuk, Boure and Galam. There was no standard currency throughout the realm, but several forms were prominent by region. The Sahelian and Saharan towns of the Mali Empire were organized as both staging posts in the long-distance caravan trade and trading centers for the various West African products. At Taghaza, for example, salt was exchanged; at Takedda, copper. Ibn Battuta observed the employment of slave labor in both towns. During most of his journey, Ibn Battuta traveled with a convoy that included slaves, most of whom carried goods for trade but would also be traded as slaves. On the return from Takedda to Morocco, his caravan transported 600 female slaves, suggesting that slavery was a substantial part of the commercial activity of the empire.
Gold nuggets were the exclusive property of the mansa, and were illegal to trade within his borders. All gold was immediately handed over to the imperial treasury in return for an equal value of gold dust. Gold dust had been weighed and bagged for use at least since the reign of the Ghana Empire. Mali borrowed the practice to stem inflation of the substance, since it was so prominent in the region. The most common measure for gold within the realm was the ambiguous mithqal (4.5 grams of gold). This term was used interchangeably with dinar, though it is unclear if coined currency was used in the empire. Gold dust was used all over the empire, but was not valued equally in all regions.
The next great unit of exchange in the Mali Empire was salt. Salt was as valuable, if not more valuable than gold in Sub-Saharan Africa. It was cut into pieces and spent on goods with close to equal buying power throughout the empire. While it was as good as gold in the north, it was even better in the south. The people of the south needed salt for their diet, but it was extremely rare. The northern region on the other hand had no shortage of salt. Every year merchants entered Mali via Oualata with camel loads of salt to sell in Niani. According to Ibn Battuta who visited Mali in the mid-14th century, one camel load of salt sold at Walata for 8-10 mithkals of gold, but in Mali proper it realized 20-30 ducats and sometimes even 40.
Copper was also a valued commodity in imperial Mali. Copper, traded in bars, was mined from Takedda in the north and traded in the south for gold. Contemporary sources claim 60 copper bars traded for 100 dinars of gold.
The number and frequency of conquests in the late 13th century and throughout the 14th century indicate the Kolonkan mansas inherited and or developed a capable military. Sundjata is credited with at least the initial organization of the Manding war machine. However, it went through radical changes before reaching the legendary proportions proclaimed by its subjects. Thanks to steady tax revenue and stable government beginning in the last quarter of the 13th century, the Mali Empire was able to project its power throughout its own extensive domain and beyond.
The Mali Empire maintained a semi-professional, full-time army in order to defend its borders. The entire nation was mobilized with each clan obligated to provide a quota of fighting age men. These men had to be freemen and appear with their own arms. Contemporary historians present during the height and decline of the Mali Empire consistently record its army at 100,000 with 10,000 of that number being made up of cavalry. With the help of the river clans, this army could be deployed throughout the realm on short notice.
The mansa’s defeat actually won Manden the respect of Morocco and may have saved it from Songhai’s fate. It would be the Mandinka themselves that would cause the final destruction of the empire. Around 1610, Mahmud IV died. Oral tradition states that he had three sons who fought over Manden’s remains. No single person ever ruled Manden after Mahmud IV’s death, resulting in the end of the Mali Empire.
The old core of the empire was divided into three spheres of influence. Kangaba, the de facto capital of Manden since the time of the last emperor, became the capital of the northern sphere. The Joma area, governed from Siguiri, controlled the central region, which encompassed Niani. Hamana or Amana, southwest of Joma, became the southern sphere with its capital at Kouroussa in modern Guinea. Each ruler used the title of mansa, but their authority only extended as far as their own sphere of influence. Despite this disunity in the realm, the realm remained under Mandinka control into the mid-17th century. The three states warred on each other as much if not more than they did against outsiders, but rivalries generally stopped when faced with invasion.
The Songhai Empire, also known as the Songhay Empire, was a state located in western Africa. From the early 15th to the late 16th century, Songhai was one of the largest Islamic empires in history. This empire bore the same name as its leading ethnic group, the Songhai. Its capital was the city of Gao, where a Songhai state had existed since the 11th century. Its base of power was on the bend of the Niger River in present day Niger.
The Songhai state has existed in one form or another for over a thousand years if one traces its rulers from the first settlement in Gao to its semi-vassal status under the Mali Empire through its continuation in Niger as the Dendi Kingdom.
The Songhai are thought to have settled at Gao as early as 800 CE, but did not establish it as the capital until the 11th century, during the reign of Dia Kossoi. However, the Dia dynasty soon gave way to the Sonni, proceeding the ascension of Sulaiman-Mar, who gained independence and hegemony over the city and was a forbear of Sonni Ali. Mar is often credited with wresting power away from the Mali Empire and gaining independence for the small Songhai kingdom at the time.
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 merchants would form partnerships, and the state would protect these merchants and the port cities on 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 their 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.
Following the death of the Emperor Askia Daoud, a civil war of succession weakened the Empire, leading the sultan of the Saadi Dynasty of Morocco to dispatch an invasion force (years earlier, armies from Portugal had attacked Morocco, and failed miserably, but the Moroccan coffers were on the verge of economic depletion and bankruptcy, as they needed to pay for the defenses used to hold off the siege). Judar Pasha was a Spaniard by birth, but had been captured as an infant and educated at the Saadi court. After a march across the Sahara desert, Judar’s forces captured, plundered, and razed the salt mines at Taghaza and moved on to Gao. When the Emperor met Judar at the 1591 Battle of Tondibi, Songhai forces, despite vastly superior numbers, were routed by a cattle stampede triggered by the Saadi’s gunpowder weapons. Judar proceeded to sack Gao destroying the Songhai as a regional power. Governing so vast an empire proved too much for the Saadi Dynasty however, and they soon relinquished control of the region, letting it splinter into dozens of smaller kingdoms. The Songhai people themselves established the Dendi Kingdom.