Songhay: the rise and fall of Africa’s greatest empire

The Songhay Empire wouldn’t be the first military power to set too much store in its cavalry. But by the time it fell to Morocco at the end of the sixteenth century it had little cause for complacency about anything.

Founded in 1464 out of the ruins of the Malian Empire, Songhay was the largest of the indigenous empires in African history. At its zenith Songhay covered some 540,000 square miles, stretching east-west for some 1,200 miles along the Niger between the Sahara to the north and the Sudan savannah to the south. Although it incorporated the great centre of Islamic learning and culture at Timbuktu, its capital was was further east at Gao, where traditional religious beliefs still had significant currency, as they did in the country at large.

As with many another empire, it’s biggest problem structurally was succession. While some emperors, such as Askiya Toure (1493–1528) and Askiya Dawud (1549–1582), were able to secure their thrones and rule successfully, the periods succeeding their reigns were characterised by fratricidal rivalries and rifts. The empire split east-west more than once, reflecting wider cultural and religious divisions among its subject peoples.

Songhay’s economy was built on trade and tribute. The latter was weakened by the frequent scrambling for power between warring family members; even during Toure’s reign, it had lost satellite states in Hausaland. Meanwhile the trans-Saharan trade routes – on which its traffic of gold, salt and slaves relied – were in decline thanks to the Portuguese opening the Gold Coast to international shipping.

Worse, Songhay had a powerful enemy. Morocco had attacked Taghaza – the location of an important salt mine on Songhay’s northern border – in 1556 and occupied two Saharan oases, Tuwat and Gurara from 1583. Then in January 1590, the Moroccan sultan Al-Mansur sent the emperor, Askiya Ishaq II an ultimatum, demanding taxation rights over the salt from Taghaza and noting – probably untruthfully – that one of Ishaq’s brothers had requested his help in taking the throne.

Ishaq’s response was brusque. And it was accompanied by a handful of spears and a couple of horse shoes. If Moscow had its winter to defend it from Napoleon, Songhay had the Sahara. And it had its cavalry. Al-Mansur, perhaps with an eye on establishing a universal caliphate, was undeterred. “[They] have only spears and swords, weapons which will be useless against modern arms. It will be easy for us… to prevail,” he told his advisers. The Songhay, for their part, were disdainful of the new technologies of war; it is said they threw captured Moroccan firearms in the Niger.

The 4,000-strong Moroccan army under the command of Judar Pashr, a Spaniard, left Marrakesh in October and entered the Sahara in late December accompanied by 10,000 camels and 1,000 horses. Was it complacency that led Ishaq to ignore advice to block the waterholes and wells of the near desert? Certainly his army – at least 40,000 strong, although some estimates were more than twice that – was hastily assembled, too slowly to attack the invading army as it emerged exhausted from the desert.

These then were the circumstances of the Battle of Tondibi, fought on 12 March 1591. (Some say it was the following day). One report says that Ishaq’s plan was to break the Moroccan line by driving hundreds of stampeding cattle into it, but the plan backfired. Frightened by the noise and tumult of the Moroccan cannon and firearms, the cattle turned and crashed into the Songhay army instead. The ranks scattered; Ishaq himself fled to fight another day. In the end only a group of Songhay warriors who had roped themselves together were left standing. They fought to the last.

Ishaq himself sued for peace, offering tribute to the sultan. The offer was refused.

This piece first appeared in the March 2021 issue of History Today.

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