A powerful West African people.
Who were the Songhai?
The Songhai Empire was a powerful trading state in West Africa, and the largest empire that the African continent has ever seen. Their vast territory included the modern nations of Nigeria, Senegal and Mali.
In the 1500s, an Arabic diplomat named Leo Africanus wrote a report of the Songhai Empire. He said that “the inhabitants are very rich” and that “the royal court is magnificent and very well organized.”
The Songhai were also keen scholars, with a famous university at Timbuktu, where students studied Islamic law, medicine and astronomy. In the end, the empire’s period of power barely lasted a century, but it was a century of wealth and glory.
The origins of the Songhai
Like many civilizations, the Songhai people started life as a nomadic tribe who settled on the banks of a fertile river: the Niger River. These people learned to farm, herd animals, and harvest resources from the river.
By the 10th century, the Songhai people had started to trade with other cultures, and became an important hub for commercial routes across the Sahara desert. At that time, they called themselves the Gao. Other civilizations, like the Ghana Empire, were rich in gold, and the Gao benefited as this wealth flowed through their towns.
No Gao sources survive today, but other cultures did mention them. Ibn al-Faqih, a Persian historian, wrote how the Songhai had “markets and trading houses […] to which there is continuous traffic from all parts.”
In the 14th century, the wealthy Gao began to attract the attention of rival powers. The Mali Empire was the dominant force in West Africa at that time, and its rulers decided to take control of the Gao kingdom.
Under Mali rule, the Gao remained wealthy, and an important hub for trans-Saharan trade, but they now had to pay taxes to their Mali rulers. The main currency in the region was cowrie shells, or alternatively, they paid their taxes in gold.
At this time, both cultures practiced Islam, which made the relationship slightly easier to bear, but it was still a difficult period for the Songhai people and their Gao kingdom.
In the 1400s – after two-hundred years of successful rule – the Mali Empire began to fade. They were weakened by a series of civil wars and attacks from neighboring states and tribes, like the nomadic Tuareg of the south Saharan desert.
The Songhai people were causing problems too, as they launched raids on Mali towns and cities, and generally proved to be a thorn in the side of the Mali Empire. The fading Mali struggled to retain control of the Songhai, and were eventually forced to admit defeat.
The newly independent Songhai state had a powerful man at its helm: Sonni Ali the Great. He decided that the Songhai deserved more than independence; they deserved to build a powerful empire of their own.
King Sonni Ali
King Sonni Ali was a powerful and charismatic ruler. While he was officially a Muslim, he cultivated an image as a powerful magician with links to traditional African spirits.
From 1468 to 1492, he led a Songhai army on more than thirty conquests, winning every one of them. His magical reputation struck fear into his enemies, and he often acted with ruthless violence, executing anyone who tried to defy him.
But he also had a gentler side, inviting defeated soldiers to join his army, and making trade agreements with local chiefs and kings. By the end of his rule, the Songhai Empire had claimed most of the land once held by the Mali Empire, effectively replacing the former superpower as the primary force in West Africa.
Trade and learning
At the height of its power, the Songhai Empire continued to play a major role in trans-Saharan trade. However, they struggled to match the former wealth of the Ghana Empire or the Mali Empire, because the most important gold fields in West Africa had been claimed by a foreign force.
That foreign force was the Portuguese – they had established a colony on the African coast in 1415, and proved difficult to budge. Nevertheless, the Songhai continued to trade other goods, such as salt and slaves, with North African merchants.
They also invested in science and learning, with Sankoré Madrasa – a university in the wealthy Songhai city of Timbuktu – becoming a major hub for Islamic scholarship. At its peak, in the early 1500s, Timbuktu was one of the richest and most well-respected cities in the world.
The collapse of the Songhai
The Battle of Tondibi in 1591 was a decisive moment for the Songhai Empire. The battle started when the Saadi Moroccans – a rival empire on the other side of the Saharan desert – attacked the Songhai with a force of approximately 4000 men.
The Songhai heavily outnumbered the Moroccans, but the Moroccans had superior firepower: guns and cannons like the ones being used elsewhere in the world, including the powerful Ottoman Empire. The Moroccans won, and took control of the Songhai’s land and riches.
The Moroccans soon realized that controlling such a large empire was no easy task; it stretched from modern day Senegal to Nigeria and included many different cultures and languages. They eventually abandoned the territory, but the Songhai Empire did not rise again. Instead, the region splintered into dozens of smaller kingdoms, none of which came close to Songhai’s former power.
The legacy of the Songhai
Some aspects of Songhai culture are still alive today; griot storytellers sing songs which originated in the Songhai period, and traditional Songhai architecture can still be seen in cities like Timbuktu.
But these cities stand in stark contrast to their former glory. Timbuktu – the former jewel of West Africa, full of trade and learning – is now made up of crumbling houses and dusty streets. This decline can be blamed on a number of factors, including climate change and political instability, but the most prominent cause is European influence.
In the centuries following the collapse of the Songhai Empire, and Morocco’s decision to withdraw, European powers took advantage. They took control of the Songhai’s former trade routes, mined the region’s natural resources, and exploited West Africa for slaves. It is a period of history from which the region is yet to recover.