Songhai Empire

The Rise and Fall of the Songhai Empire in Africa

In the 9th century CE, the people of the city of Gao along the Niger River spread into the Middle Niger area, becoming the Songhai state in the West African savanna. The Songhai Empire prospered due to river trade focused on agricultural goods, fishing, hunting, and iron-working technologies. Songhai’s influence and riches rose due to its involvement in trans-Saharan commerce. Trading of gold, salt, ivory, skins, copper, and other items happened between North African Berber traders and West African forest producers.

Songhai was one of the biggest African empires, spanning from the early fifteenth to the late sixteenth centuries. Songhai was the biggest kingdom in African history, controlling thousands of tribes.

The Rise of the Songhai Empire

The Mali Empire, based in Timbuktu, had controlled the region around the Big Bend of the Niger River before establishing the Songhai Empire. The mighty Mali Empire took notice of Songhai’s success and annexed the realm in the 14th century. The Songhai Empire amassed enormous wealth via the commerce and tribute it received along the Trans-Saharan Trade Route.

As Mali crumbled, restoration of Songhai’s independence happened. The Songhai Empires’ creation happened when the Songhai people of Gao broke away from the Mali Empire. The Songhai Empire’s capital was established at Gao, a walled city that served as a key trading centre. The Sonni Dynasty began to expand its frontiers in the 15th century. By 1473, Sonni Ali had led Songhai’s cavalry and canoe fleets to victory over Tuareg and Mossi armies. The capturing of the rich cities of Timbuktu and Jenne also happened during their rule.

Sonni Ali Ber and his successor, Askia Muhammad Toure from 1492 to 1528, grew the Songhai kingdom into the most powerful in West Africa. It was larger than both Mali and Ghana.Moreover, it was the first country in the region to establish organized governance. Sonni Ali used his cavalry and a mobile fleet of ships to transform Gao into the Kingdom of Songhai forcibly.

Sonni Ali was succeeded by Askia Muhammad Toure, who created the Askia as a new governing dynasty. He continued Sonni Ali’s expansionist strategy by capturing a key oasis in the Sahara Desert and eventually defeating Mali. Askia Muhammad Toure then captured other adjacent kingdoms in subsequent expeditions. Finally, he consolidated his authority by establishing a massive bureaucratic corps to supervise and manage his empire.

Muhammad Toure was a visionary who revolutionized commerce by standardizing weights, measures, and money, fusing the many Songhai civilizations into a single national culture.

King Sonni Ali Ber

King Sonni Ali Ber
Credit: Pinterest

Around 1468, King Sunni Ali, also known as Sonni Ali Ber, switched from the Songhai’s usual periodic attacks on their opponents to a more persistent campaign of permanent territorial expansion. Sunni Ali captured the former Mali Empire with an army equipped with armoured cavalry and the sole naval fleet in North Africa, by placing it on the Niger River.

The Songhai ruler used his image as an indigenous animist religious wizard to intimidate his foes. He also managed to combine mercy with harshness. As a result, the monarch got the moniker “Sunni the Merciless”. However, Sunni Ali’s fighting tactics of overpowering with overwhelming force and speed were even more effective than these measures. After the conquering of lands by the monarch, they were split into provinces and governing happened by a governor. Sunni Ali extorted tribute from local leaders, took hostages, and arranged political alliance marriages. But he also built many dykes that enhanced irrigation and agricultural productivity in many places.

King Askia Mohammad Toure

King Askia Mohammad Toure
Credit: Ancient Origins

King Mohammad I (1494-1528 CE), a former Songhai army captain who had usurped the kingdom from Sunni Ali’s son, Sonni Baro, began using the dynastic title Askiya or Askia, which means “ruler” or “usurper ruler”. The new monarch would command the Songhai Empire’s largest territorial extent for the first time. He was cementing his position as the Songhai Empire’s second most powerful leader after Sunni Ali.

One of the motivations for King Mohammad‘s intention for expanding the Songhai Empire’s interests to the southeast was the loss of control of a portion of West Africa’s gold trade to the Portuguese. Gobir, Katsina, and Zaria, three key cities in Hausaland located between the Niger River and Lake Chad, were assaulted. Kano, the region’s fourth-largest city, was forcibly made to pay a large tribute to the Songhai ruler.

During this time, Gao’s capital had a population of 100,000 people. The empire was spanning practically from the Senegal River in the west to central Mali in the east. In addition, the valuable salt mines at Tagahaza in the north were part of the area. As a result, the Songhai Empire ruled the entire length of the Niger River, West Africa’s commerce superhighway practically. The Songhai peoples became a small minority in a polity that included the Mande, Fulbe, Mossi, and Tuareg.

Trade during the Songhai Empire Rule

By 1469, the Songhai had taken control of Timbuktu on the Niger River, which served as an important commerce ‘port’. The Mossi areas south of the Niger River bend underwent attacks in 1471. Djenne, the region’s second important commercial centre, was taken in 1473. However, Sunni Ali’s new area did not provide him access to the goldfields of West Africa’s southern coast. This is where both Ghana and Mali’s monarchs became wealthy. This trade happened because, in 1471, a Portuguese ship commanded by Lisbon trader Feno Gomes travelled across Africa’s Atlantic coast. There he established a trading foothold near these goldfields in modern-day Ghana.

With the advent of the Mediterranean sea route, trans-Saharan camel caravans face stiff competition. That’s because it is the best means to transport commercial products between North Africa and Europe. However, the Portuguese were not as successful in utilizing Africa’s riches as they had intended. The Songhai monopolized the Saharan caravan trade. They deliver rock salt and luxury items like fine fabric, glassware, sugar, and horses to Sudan in return for gold, ivory, spices, kola nuts, skins, and slaves. Timbuktu thrived as a commerce ‘port’ and a study centre into the 16th and 17th centuries. The city had a population of over 100,000 in the mid-15th century.

Trade centers evolve into sophisticate urban centres with stone-built dwellings, vast public squares of marketplaces, and at least one mosque. A floating suburban population lived in mud and reed homes or tents around this centre. Meanwhile, rural societies remain entirely reliant on agriculture, albeit the prevalence of rural markets implies typically a food surplus. Famine was undoubtedly uncommon throughout the Songhai Empire’s early half, and there are no accounts of peasant revolts.

Islam took Prominence during Songhai Empire Rule

A monarch named Za Kusay was the first documented Songhai to convert to Islam in 1010 CE. On the other hand, the ruling elite still embraced animistic beliefs such as numerous gods, possession dances, and spell casting.

After Sunni Ali Ber’s death, Askia Muhammad I took over the kingdom. However, Islam did not fully spread among the non-ruling elite. Sunni Ali claimed to be a Muslim, but oral history shows he had conventional animistic views. On the other hand, Askia Muhammad was a devout follower of Islam.

Askia Muhammad promptly appointed Islamic judges and directed the construction of hundreds of Islamic schools throughout the empire. He built, notably Sankore, West Africa’s first known Muslim university, at Timbuktu. Those seeking religious enlightenment and those seeking a decent education come to these institutions. Here they were picking up Islam and spreading the message.

Askia Muhammad, a skilled diplomat, embarked on his famous journey to Mecca in 1495 with a large entourage and roughly 30,000 gold coins. He distributed to charities and lavishly gifted to everyone he met. With this act, he establish diplomatic relations between Gao and Mecca and got the name “Caliph of Western Sudan,” giving him extraordinary power among West African Muslim kings.

Once Islam had taken root in his dominion, Askia Muhammad dispatched missionaries to neighbouring countries to preach the faith. As a result of the king’s Jihad, the Fulani, Tuareg, Mossi, and Hausa tribes are Muslims, even though he never forced them or anyone else in his realm to convert. Instead, the king just rewarded them by establishing Muslims as the elite and giving a stepping stone for the poor and ignorant to join them. In other words, he made Islam a more appealing social and economic option than animism.

Songhai Empire Governance

Compared to the more federal structures of the preceding Ghana and Mali Empires, the Songhai administration was far more centralized. Despite having roughly 700 eunuchs at his court in Gao, the Songhai monarchs were never completely safe on their thrones. Six of the Songhai Empire’s nine rulers happened to die in revolts or were killed violently, mostly by their brothers and uncles.

There was an imperial council of the most senior officials, which comprised the finance minister, the admiral of the Songhai fleet, who also oversaw the provincial governors, the head of the army, and the minister of agriculture if a monarch reigned long enough to profit from it. Forests, wages, purchases, property, and foreigners were all overseen by ministers. A chancellor-secretary handled the formal documentation. In addition, many authorities with specialized responsibilities, such as police or inspecting the usage of official weights at commercial centres and leaders of local craft guilds and tribal groupings, were present at the local level. The local tax collector, who gathered commodities for the crown to pay the army, and court and give some support to the needy, was one official that no one could avoid, although the wealthy had to pay him more than the poor.

Songhai Empire Army

Songhai Empire Army
Credit: Daily Scribbling

Sonni Ali restructured the army, equipped with a Niger River flotilla. The fleet commander was given the title ‘Master of the Water’. Foot troops happen to seize the best men of the fallen army. The army also had a swift and strong elite cavalry. Under their combat tunics, they wore iron breastplates.

The foot warriors used spears, arrows, and leather or copper shields. A group of trumpeters composed military music, and the army’s overall strength was 30 000 soldiers and 10,000 horse riders. The Songhai defence system was the greatest organization in force in western Sudan. It happened to serve as both a political and economic weapon, thanks to the loot it brought in. They took over Timbuktu and Jenne.

Slave Trade of the Songhai Empire

The slave trade was crucial to West Africa’s economic prosperity. The use of slaves to carry out hard labour happened for a long time in West African countries. The deployment of slaves as troops happened in the Songhai dynasty under Askia Mohammad. Expectations of slaves were to obey their masters. Even the appointment of slaves happened to positions of power as royal counsellors. Unlike other people who had a personal stake in the result of decisions, slaves were trusted by Songhai monarchs to offer an unbiased opinion. Palace slaves, sometimes known as the Arbi, were another type of slave. Slaves from Arbi functioned mostly as artisans, potters, woodworkers, and musicians. Slaves also worked on village farms to assist in producing enough food to feed the rising population in cities.

The Fall of the Songhai Empire

From the final quarter of the 16th century, the Songhai Empire began to erode along the margins, particularly in the west. This decline was primarily owing to a run of ineffective leaders and civil battles over succession rights that had plagued the empire since King Mohammad’s death in 1528. First, the empire was virtually cut in half by a struggle between Mohammad IV Bano (1586 CE) and his brothers. Then came the fatal death blow. In 1590-1, Moroccan chieftain Ahmad al-Mansur al-Dhahabi (1603 CE), dubbed “the Golden Conqueror,” sent a small force of 4,000 men equipped with muskets to attack the empire. The Songhai force had 30,000 soldiers and 10,000 cavalries, but all they had were spears and arrows.

The Moroccans won the battle due to this technological disadvantage, despite periodic but ineffective Songhai counter-offensives over the next few years. Finally, the capturing of the Songhai treasure happened, and the empire was merged with the Moroccans, with Timbuktu becoming a province inside it. The Songhai Empire, once the biggest in West Africa, had disintegrated and vanished from within. Since the sixth century, it would be the final great empire to rule West Africa.

The entry of the Portuguese in quest of new economic possibilities in the 15th century altered the trade networks in West Africa. The changing course of the slave trade over the Atlantic Ocean, rather than via the Sahara desert, was a significant alteration. As a result, small West African kingdoms like Asante and Dahomey gained more strength. Because the slave and gold trade no longer passed through the Songhai kingdom, it also contributed to the Songhai Empire’s demise. As a result, the Songhai kings could not collect tribute or taxes from these nations.


Many events contributed to Songhai’s decline, notably the tragic loss of Songhai’s key commercial cities. Songhai was effectively decimated due to this significant reduction in trade and sources of revenue. The Moroccans never completely assaulted, but Songhai was damaged and eventually collapsed. The Songhai Empire’s ultimate blow came not via Moroccan conquest but from the lesser kingdoms’ incapacity to build a political union and a powerful central authority. Many Songhai tributary nations that had previously been providers of slaves for trans-Saharan trade routes were freed due to the Moroccan invasion. Many subject slave populations rose to provide the ultimate blow to the crumbling empire, seeing their chance to guarantee bodily independence.

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