African Warfare Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

From the sixteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, sub-Saharan Africa underwent drastic change, evolving from a continent of empires, kingdoms, states, and city-states to a continent under European domination.

Political Considerations

From the sixteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, sub-Saharan Africa underwent drastic change, evolving from a continent of empires, kingdoms, states, and city-states to a continent under European domination. Although some sixteenth and seventeenth century African groups were living in stateless societies, most tended toward centralized states with significant military institutions. Powerful empires and kingdoms included those of Songhai, Oyo, Benin, and Bornu-Kanem in West Africa; Bunyoro, Buganda, and the Swahili city-states in East Africa; the kingdoms of the Kongo, Lunda, Luba, Changamire, and Mwanamutapa across Central Africa; the Funj Sultanate in the Sudan; and the Kingdom of Ethiopia.Africa;sub-SaharanAfrica;sub-Saharan

Major causes of warfare were for the control of trade routes, including rivers and lakes, and of markets and agricultural and grazing land. Other causes were for the subjugation of peoples to serve as workers, soldiers, and taxpayers. There were hostilities along the west coast of Africa for control of international trade. Some wars were waged to consolidate power. Others, such as the Islamic jihads, or holy wars, in West Africa, involved religion, although most also had underlying economic or political considerations. In the nineteenth century African states warred against one another, but these confrontations soon were replaced by wars of resistance against European imperialism.

There is little consensus among historians concerning the relationship between the slave Slavery;African slave tradetrade and warfare. During the 1500’s Portugal;AfricaPortugal expanded into Angola;Portuguese colonyAngola and MozambiqueMozambique, disrupting existing states, seizing land and slaves, and initiating Africa into the Atlantic slave trade. Other European nations followed, and in the subsequent three hundred years, millions of Africans were enslaved or died in the Americas. An accurate assessment of the slave trade as a cause of war is difficult, because there are insufficient records. There were states, such as DahomeyDahomey, that went to war to obtain captives to sell to Europeans, but historians also have demonstrated regional and local causes for many African hostilities, such as the Yoruba civil wars of the nineteenth century. There is agreement on one point: In virtually all wars, regardless of their causes, captives were sold to Europeans as slaves, often in exchange for firearms.

In this environment of increased warfare, some kingdoms disappeared and others grew, as centralization emerged as a strategy for both expansion and defense. By the eighteenth century political and economic patterns had shifted. The savanna region of West Africa declined, as Trade and warfare;Africatrade routes moved southward to forest states, such as Asante, Benin, and Dahomey, where commerce was linked with European merchants. In the nineteenth century there was a revival of state-building in the savanna region, as a series of Jihad (holy war);AfricaIslam;Africajihads created new governments under Islamic law. The states of Futa Futa ToroToro and Futa Futa JalonJalon emerged in the west, and the Hausa city-states in northern Nigeria coalesced into the Sokoto Sokoto caliphatecaliphate. By mid-century the Tukulor Tukulor EmpireEmpire of ՙUmar Tal (c. 1797-1864) and the Mandinka Mandinka EmpireEmpire of Samory Toure (c. 1835-1900) had also emerged as expansionist states with powerful military establishments. The Mossi Mossi states (Africa)states, significant since 1500, became more centralized and used their cavalry to resist Islamic expansion and avoid conquest. With the collapse of the Oyo Oyo EmpireEmpire in the early 1800’s, the Yoruba Yoruba states (Africa)states underwent a series of civil wars that lasted almost to the end of the century. States, such as Ibadan, attempted to fill this power vacuum and adjust to changing economic conditions, as Europeans encroached along the coast.

In East Africa, Swahili economic and military power grew as city-states were unified. BugandaBuganda remained a power in the lakes region. Ethiopia;nineteenth centuryEthiopia developed a more centralized monarchy and, with the aid of European firearms, began to expand and absorb its neighbors.

The British attempt to subjugate the Afrikaner settlers in southern Africa during the First Boer War, 1881.

(The Co-Operative Publishing Company)

In Central Africa the Lunda, Kuba, Lozi, and Bemba kingdoms remained significant powers, as did the Ovimbundu kingdoms in Angola. The Luba Luba kingdomkingdom in the central Congo became an expansionist state with a centralized administrative structure. There was violent competition for control of the long-distance trade routes that were used to transport slaves, ivory, copper, and salt. There was also competition for arable land. By the 1860’s the decline of the Atlantic slave trade and the increased availability of firearms intensified the struggle for the remaining commerce.

Nineteenth century warfare was more intense in southern Africa;sub-SaharanAfrica than elsewhere on the continent. In the late 1700’s population growth and a series of droughts had created a famine. Nguni Nguni chieftaincieschieftaincies began fighting over grazing land, initiating an era of great turmoil, the Mfecane (African era of turmoil) mfecane, or “crushing.” Warfare and mass migration affected all of southern Africa, and small chieftaincies were integrated into larger entities. With its revolutionary military tactics, the Zulu Zulus kingdom emerged as the most significant African power in the region. Other groups, such as the Swazi and Sotho, consolidated chieftaincies into kingdoms for defensive purposes. Unable to resist the Zulu expansion, some Nguni groups fled northward. Mzilikazi (founder of Ndebele) Mzilikazi (c. 1790-1868), an earlier ally of the Zulu, also fled north; engaging in Zulu-style warfare, he established the highly centralized Ndebele kingdom in present-day Zimbabwe. Wars continued through the nineteenth century, as the English and the Afrikaners Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch settlers, entered into a three-way struggle with the African states for control of South South Africa Africa, resulting in some of Africa’s most famous battles: Blood River Blood River, Battle of (1838) (1838), Isandhlwana Isandhlwana, Battle of (1879) (1879), and Ulundi Ulundi, Battle of (1879) (1879).

Throughout the nineteenth century, African kingdoms experienced a complex interplay of local, regional, and international forces. Economically, there was a dramatic shift away from the Atlantic slave trade toward the so-called legitimate trade, with a corresponding rearrangement of economic patterns and power balances. Politically, the process of centralization continued unabated in most parts of the continent. The integration of groups into larger, more centralized political entities provoked conflict and warfare, but in some cases promoted wider security and stability. The ending of the overseas slave trade, however, corresponded with the beginning of European Imperialism;Africaimperialism. The development of African states and their subsequent increase in military prowess did not prevent the onslaught of European imperialism, but it did enable many African states to fight intense wars of resistance, such as the heroic efforts of the Mandinka EmpireMandinka and DahomeyDahomey kingdoms against France;imperialismFrance. The Zulu, Asante, and BeninBenin kingdoms raised similar resistance to English imperialism. Ultimately futile, this resistance inspired subsequent generations, and in some instances, provided the basis for resistance to Colonialism;AfricaEthiopia;Italian invasion of 1896colonialism. Ethiopia escaped conquest when its emperor Menelik Menelik IIMenelik II (emperor of Ethiopia)[Menelik 02]II (1844-1913) defeated the Italian army at Adowa Adowa, Battle of (1896)(1896). However, it later succumbed to the firepower and poison gas of Benito Mussolini’s army in the second Italo-Ethiopian War Italo-Ethiopian War (1935)[Italo Ethiopian War](1935).

Military Achievement

British troops advance on the Zulus at the Tugela River in 1900.

(P. F. Collier and Son)

Between 1500 and 1900 the evolution of African warfare corresponded with the increasing centralization of African kingdoms, states, and empires. Centralization increased control of trade and resources that were used for further expansion. Conquest augmented the human and material resources for state formation, empire building, and consolidation of power. By the nineteenth century such consolidation had led to the economic integration of various regions of Africa.

West West AfricaAfrican states north of the rain forest were able to purchase Horses and horse riding;Africahorses for Cavalry;Africacavalry. Some smaller horses were bred locally, but the larger horses used by heavy cavalry had to be imported from North Africa. In many cases horses were obtained through trade of slaves. In the savanna regions cavalry became the most important aspect of their militaries, such as that of the Sokoto Sokoto caliphatecaliphate, which could put a cavalry of more than 25,000 on the battlefield. Neighboring Bornu-Kanem[Bornu Kanem]Bornu-Kanem could field a cavalry of 7,000. In the central SudanSudan the Funj Funj sultanatesultanate used cavalry to defeat the Christian kingdom of Alwa (Christian kingdom)Alwa and maintain two centuries of control prior to Egypt’s invasion (1820-1821). Later in the century the MahdistsMahdist state of ՙAbdullāh et Taՙā՚isha (1846-1899) proclaimed a jihad and used extensive cavalry units to force Egypt out of the Sudan. Cavalry dominated the military in the expansive region stretching from western Senegal to the Sudan. Only the expanded use of firearms in the second half of the nineteenth century reduced its effectiveness.

In 1896, the Mahdist state of ՙAbdullāh et Taՙā՚isha proclaimed a jihad and used extensive cavalry units to force Egypt out of the Sudan.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The Islam;AfricaJihad (holy war)Islamic jihads of the nineteenth century transformed much of the savanna region of West Africa, not only by creating religious unity but also by politically integrating previously fragmented groups. Islam was spread widely throughout many of the region’s rural populations. The implementation of Islamic law was accompanied by a significant spread of literacy, and in some cases, greater economic security. Trade linkages also were established with the wider Islamic world.

In both East and Central Africa consolidation of state power allowed for the exploitation of a wide range of natural and human resources. Local trade networks were linked to long-distance routes, bringing products from remote regions into a wider market arena connected to both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Along the East African coast, trade was dominated by the Swahili peopleSwahili, who conducted armed caravans into the interior, developed long-distance commerce, and established Kiswahili as the lingua franca, or common language, of eastern Africa.

Although the consolidation of territory and governance and the expansion of economic relations were important accomplishments, two more overarching achievements of the African states and their militaries were realized in the years from 1500 to 1900. The first was the prevention of foreign occupation of African territory from 1500 to the 1870’s. By the latter date only 10 percent of African territory, mostly in South Africa and Algeria, was under direct European control. Although diseases and other factors contributed to this state of affairs, the strength of African kingdoms and empires played a major role. Even during the era of the devastating slave trade, Africans were able to control the terms of trade and limit Europeans to small fortifications on the west coast.

The other important achievement was the powerful resistance of many African states to nineteenth century European Anticolonial movements;Africaimperialism. For many reasons, such as superior European military technology and logistical support, the use of African troops against each other, and the inability of African states to form alliances, the resistance was doomed to fail. Nevertheless, the era of resistance not only gave African people a sense of pride but also fostered the development of political and ethnic identities. DahomeyDahomey resisted French armies for four years. Although the massive, heavily armed British-Egyptian force defeated the MahdistsMahdist state at the Battle of Omdurman Omdurman, Battle of (1898)(1898), the foundations had been laid for Sudanese Sudannationalism. In southern Africa political and economic turmoil also created broad-based ethnicities. Despite defeat by the English and exploitation by the Afrikaners, the concept of ZulusZulu nationhood had been established; today, the Zulu are South South AfricaAfrica’s largest ethnic group and a political force of considerable importance. The founder of the Sotho Sotho kingdomMoshoeshoekingdom, Moshoeshoe (c. 1786-1870), used remarkable diplomacy and military acumen to develop armed mountain fortifications that survived Zulu and Afrikaner depredations; his kingdom emerged as the independent nation of LesothoLesotho in 1966. With their defensive positions, diplomacy, and Zulu-style military organization, the SwazilandSwazi consolidated chieftaincies into a kingdom that maintained its territorial integrity and emerged as the independent nation of Swaziland in 1968. These are but a few examples. The memory of the resistance survived in oral tradition and continues to play a large role in contemporary African historical writing. It provided a historical and psychological frame of reference in the nationalist struggles for freedom and established the foundation for future nationhood.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

In the period from 1500 to 1900, African weapons underwent slow, evolutionary development, until modern firearms were introduced in the mid-nineteenth century. In many African societies, weapons were part of a complex cultural system and were imbued with social, cultural, and religious, as well as military, significance. For example, amulets for spiritual protection were worn in leather pouches around soldiers’ necks, were tied to uniforms, or were attached to weapons. Islamic soldiers wore small pouches with pieces of paper inscribed with verses from the Qur՚ān.

African weapons types varied according to the geographical regions of their use. In the forest areas of West and Central Africa and the open veldt of southern Africa, infantries used throwing spears, multipointed throwing knives, and less common projectile weapons such as darts, slings, and throwing clubs. Infantry assault units carried shields and shock weapons: swords, clubs, axes, daggers, and spears.

Infantry units often were organized according to the weapons they carried. Typical examples were archer units, such as those of the Mossi and Luba. Archers and archery;AfricaArchers provided long-range firepower, especially in open areas. Bows ranged in size from 2.5 to 5 feet in length, with a 40- to 50-pound draw and a general range of 75 yards. Arrows;AfricaArrows had iron-headed shafts that were sometimes dipped in Poison;arrowsSwords;Africapoison.

Swords were among the most common weapons used by both infantry and cavalry units. These weapons had two-edged straight blades or curved blades. Most were manufactured locally, but the blades themselves were often imported. Swords used in the forest regions tended to be shorter in length. All cavalrymen carried a short sword for use after spears had been thrown or lost.

Uniforms of nineteenth century French soldiers in Algeria: infantry (left) and cavalry.

(Library of Congress)

Infantries and cavalries made extensive use of the Spears;Africaspear, which was the most commonly used weapon. Spears were differentiated by their functions: Lances;AfricaLances were used for thrusting, whereas Javelins;Africanjavelins were used for throwing. Six-foot lances were carried by heavy cavalry and used in shock assaults. Javelins were used by the more mobile light cavalry, with each rider carrying a supply of the weapons. The most significant revolution in such weaponry occurred in South Africa, where the Zulu converted their long throwing spears into shorter, stabbing weapons; protected by heavy shields they advanced rapidly and engaged the enemy at close quarters.

Firearms Firearms;Africawere introduced into West Africa in the sixteenth century by North African Muslims and by Europeans on the coast. Early weapons were mostly flintlock muzzle-loaders, which became part of the trade cycle of guns, gold, and slaves. During the 1700’s Muskets;Africamusket use spread among coastal and forest states, such as DahomeyBeninDahomey, Benin, and Asante. Firearms helped these states dominate their neighbors. In the rest of Africa, firearms spread slowly until the 1850’s when modern weapons were introduced.

The overall impact of the musket on African armies was limited. Guns and gunpowder of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were poor and unreliable. Muskets were insufficiently maintained and were difficult to reload quickly without considerable training. They were inaccurate because they were shot from the hip. Coordinated firepower was rarely used. There is no evidence that the use of muskets increased the death rate, or that they were always decisive against enemies without firearms. In 1726 an Oyo cavalry without firearms defeated a Dahomian force armed with muskets. Despite these limitations, the intense sound of firearms created psychological terror in the enemy. In eastern and southern Africa and Ethiopia, firearms had even less impact on warfare than they had elsewhere. In Central Arms trade;AfricaAfrica muskets were most often used by slave-raiding parties.

After 1850 modern firearms were made available in Africa, where obsolete European guns were sold as more effective weapons were produced on the European continent. Breechloaders such as the single-shot Snider were used in West Africa. Eventually, repeating rifles, such as the Winchester, were also used. Other firearms sold to African states included the Snider-Enfield, Martini-Henry, Chassepot, Mauser, French Gras, Lee-Enfield, and French Lebel models. Although Europeans sold these weapons by the thousands, they were reluctant to sell machine guns and artillery to African states, with the exception of Ethiopia. Some artillery was captured from European armies, but its availability and usage was limited. Overall, Africans failed to take advantage of modern firearms. Their courage and high morale allowed them to resist the European onslaught, but they could not prevail.

Throughout Africa soldiers wore distinctive uniforms for identification, protection, and mobility. The most elaborate Uniforms;Africauniforms belonged to the standing armies; the least formal were worn by the “citizens’ armies.” Soldiers of the MandinkaMandinka EmpireEmpire wore conical straw hats, rust-colored trousers, and leather sandals; officers were identified by red turbans. Ethiopian soldiers wore trousers and knee-length tunics with bands tied around the waist. Cavalry troops wore long Islamic-style robes for lightweight protection from the sun. Throughout West Africa military jackets were common, as were long or short trousers with apronlike coverings. Troops in hot, dry regions usually wore sandals; in forest areas and in southern Africa, soldiers usually went barefoot.

Many African soldiers wore hats or Helmets;AfricaHeadgear;Africahelmets for protection and identification. Protective devices ranged from metal helmets in Benin and Ethiopia to strips of rolled cloth tied in turbans around the head. Other headgear was made of tightly woven palm fiber or heavily quilted cotton.

The Shields;Africashield served as the basic armor for the infantry and some light cavalry. Shields were made of animal hide, wood, or tightly woven grass. They varied in size and shape and sometimes reflected the social status of the user. Ethiopians placed high value on elaborately decorated shields. In southern Africa shield-making was a specialized craft. Oval-shaped Zulu shields, made from thick cattle hide, were 5 feet long. When infantry advanced in close order, shields were raised; when hitting the enemy line on the run, shields produced a shock effect on the enemy’s defenses. As the use of firearms spread, the use of shields declined.

Units of heavy cavalry, such as those of the Sudan, wore Armor;Africaarmor made of quilted cotton that was padded with fiber. Armor covered both man and horse. In some areas imported chain mail also was used. Not all heavy cavalry wore armor, as it was expensive, cumbersome, and reserved for the most elite units. Other armor included metal breastplates, padded jackets, and leather aprons worn around the waist.

Military Organization

Given the diversity of African civilizations, military organization took a wide variety of forms. Historian Bruce Vandervort describes four types of organization used by African states and empires. All were hierarchical systems. The first type included armies in which recruits were summoned locally or regionally to serve as discrete units within the military structure. In Ethiopia;nineteenth centuryEthiopia, for example, regions supplied military units that were under almost feudalistic local control; after 1855 the centralized monarchy commanded a more national army, with each unit representing its individual region. The armies of Dahomey, Benin, and Asante were similar in form. Some Islamic states, such as the Tukulor Tukulor EmpireEmpire, also had regional armies under central command; soldiers were under royal control but served under officers from their own regions.

In the second type of military organization, exemplified by that of the ZulusZulu, individual soldiers from various regions were integrated into preexisting units. While under arms they lived, trained, and fought together, although they represented different regions or groups. Zulu kings DingiswayoDingiswayo (Zulu king)Dingiswayo (c. 1770-c. 1818) and ShakaShaka (Zulu king)Shaka (c. 1787-1828) changed the military’s traditional structure, transforming the Zulu age groups into military units. Age groups were composed of young men who underwent a common circumcision ceremony and initiation rite to enter adulthood. With growing military threats, the Zulu leadership did not want its young men to be far from home during this initiation. Instead, young unmarried men were placed in regiments with others of their age range. They were barracked in military settlements near royal households and became part of the Zulu standing army under direct control of the king. Additional youth were easily integrated into the units. They bonded by living and training together into a fighting force. The officers, or indunas, who replaced traditional territorial chiefs, were appointed by the king. The Ndebele people Ndebele instituted a similar system, in which soldiers served not under officers from their own region but under commanders who were part of a rigid hierarchy.

A third type of military organization was the “citizens’ army,” in which all physically able males were expected to bear arms during times of war. These levies commonly served as infantry under local officers and usually were required to bring their own weapons and provisions. Using this model, Mai Idris Alooma, Mai IdrisAlooma, Mai IdrisAlooma (r. 1571-1583) of Bornu-Kanem was able to put more than 100,000 soldiers in the field. This general call-up system was common throughout West Africa.

The fourth type of military organization was the standing army of Professional militaries;Africaprofessional soldiers. Earlier African armies had been loosely composed of units called up for specific purposes; by the nineteenth century there was a parallel development in the growth of centralized governments and the expansion of standing armies. Early examples were Bornu’s standing unit of musketeers and Oyo’s professional war chiefs. Later examples included Ethiopia and Dahomey and the Zulu, Tukulor, and Mandinka empires.

The roles of Slavery;in African armies[African armies]slaves in African armies varied. Because of the potential risk in arming slaves, many states used them only for transport. Most typically, slaves were used as soldiers in infantry units in the Islamic states of West Africa’s savanna regions. The states of Bornu-Kanem[Bornu Kanem]Bornu-Kanem and Sokoto caliphateSokoto made regular use of slave-soldiers, and Samory Toure integrated enslaved riflemen into Mandinka infantry units. In the nineteenth century some Yoruba states also used slaves as soldiers.

Military structure also varied in terms of balance between different types of units. In West Africa’s open savanna regions the main force was cavalry, usually supported by infantry. The cavalry was an elite corps, sometimes forming a military aristocracy. The supply of horses and tack was shared by the king and the territorial leadership. Some cavalries were divided into light and heavy units, based on the type of horse and the military objective. Cavalry units tended to have more autonomy with territorial leadership, whereas infantries were more hierarchically structured under a centralized command.

In the forest areas of West Africa, armies relied primarily on infantry, because horses could not survive the sleeping sickness carried by the tsetse fly that was prevalent throughout the region. Infantries were divided into units of men wielding different weapons such as spears, swords, or bows and arrows. Some infantrymen carried muskets, but in the nineteenth century more modern firearms appeared. The use of firearms by infantry was most prevalent among the forest states.

In addition to land forces, some African states maintained Navies;Africanfleets of war canoes and plank boats. They were used for transport and assault on rivers, lakes, and lagoons. Most were small and maneuverable, but larger Canoe fleets, Africancanoes were 100 feet long, with a seating capacity of 100 soldiers. The SonghaiSonghai made such extensive use of their Niger River canoe fleet that they appointed a naval commander. The Zambezi, Gambia, Senegal, and Congo Rivers were also sites of canoe warfare. The Buganda Bugandakingdom, known for its canoe fleet, was considered a naval power on Lake Victoria.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

The strategies of African militaries grew out of governmental policies and their long-term objectives. The causes of warfare and the development of strategic planning were interrelated. Strategic objectives included control of long-distance trade routes; access to cattle, horses, slaves, and food; creation of defensible borders; and ideological factors such as the establishment of Islamic theocracies. The achievement of strategic goals was based on the assessment of many variables, such as strength of the opposition, conditions at home, available weapons and manpower, perceptions of success, and the collection of intelligence.

Tactics included the conduct of the war, types of assaults or maneuvers, coordination of cavalry and infantry units, and use of weapons in the battle plan. Tactics varied widely from region to region. This was evident in the use of infantry. In late nineteenth century Ethiopia;nineteenth centuryEthiopia, for example, riflemen formed the core of the infantry. They were assault forces trained to maximize the effectiveness of their firepower, but they were also skilled in the techniques of ambush and skirmish. Infantry in the forest regions, however, relied primarily on the frontal assault supported by flanking movements. The armies of AsanteAsante and DahomeyDahomey had a standard marching formation: Advancing scouts preceded a main body with left and right wings, followed by a rear guard. Such infantries balanced units of archers, spearmen, swordsmen, and those armed with knives and clubs.

Nineteenth century East African slavers march their captives to the coast. In virtually all African wars of the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, captives were sold to Europeans as slaves, often in exchange for firearms.

(Associated Publishers, Inc.)

The integration of Firearms;Africafirearms into African infantries was a slow and uneven process. Firearms predominated only in Ethiopia, the Mandinka and Tukulor Empires, and the forest states of West Africa. Although Muskets;Africamuskets were available in the forest states after the sixteenth century, their increasing use generally did not revolutionize warfare. Even in the second half of the nineteenth century, when more effective breechloaders were introduced, there was little change in either military organization or tactics. Most states failed to develop a coordinated use of firearms.

Cavalry Cavalry;Africaunits dominated the armies in the western, central, and eastern Sudanic regions. Mounted units were composed of both light and heavy cavalry. Heavy cavalry carrying lances and swords were used as shock troops in direct assaults. Light cavalry rode small, fast horses that were used in flanking movements or surprise attacks; these horsemen carried lightweight spears and small javelins. Although most states had infantry units that exceeded cavalry in numbers, foot soldiers generally retained a supportive role. Heavy cavalry were sometimes accompanied by archers; light cavalry often had footmen to carry extra javelins. Although ՙUthman dan ՙUthman dan FodioՙUthman dan Fodio[Uthman dan Fodio]Fodio (1754-1817) eschewed heavy cavalry in favor of light cavalry in his conquest of the Hausa states and establishment of the Sokoto Sokoto caliphatecaliphate, his cavalry tactics underwent few changes. Even the introduction of firearms had little impact on the Sudanic ideal of the warrior-horseman.

A political cartoon by John Tenniel warns the British against underestimating the indigenous peoples it was attempting to subjugate in southern Africa.

There were two significant exceptions to the traditional Sudanic cavalry and its associated military tactics. Nineteenth century Tukulor EmpireTukulor and Mandinka were Islamic states that incorporated large regions and diverse peoples. With the introduction of firearms, these states restructured their militaries. In establishing and expanding the Tukulor state, ՙUmar ՙUmar TalՙUmar Tal[Umar Tal]Tal reduced the cavalry and relied more on infantry. He amassed large numbers of muskets and rifles. By mid-century he had assembled an infantry that coordinated firepower and tactical maneuvers with the shock element of the cavalry charge.

Samory Toure, SamoryToure, SamoryToure, often called the Bonaparte of the Sudan, was another military innovator. In building the Mandinka Mandinka EmpireEmpire he was renowned for both his diplomatic skills and his war tactics. He developed one of the only modernized armies in sub-Saharan Africa. He also reduced the cavalry and substituted large, well-armed, mobile Infantry;sub-Saharan Africainfantry units. He acquired European artillery that supported infantry assaults. His army consisted of central units in the capital, with additional units in the outlying districts. Each district had a force of 5,000 that was organized around 300 highly trained Professional militaries;Africaprofessional soldiers called sofas. The standing army consisted of approximately 10 percent of all able-bodied men, but during wartime a conscription system called up 50 percent of the adult males. Samory adapted his strategy and tactics to those of his opponents. Against African enemies he used set-piece battles and direct assaults; against the French, with their artillery and rapid-fire weapons, he relied on guerrilla warfare. His infantry could employ Guerrilla warfare;Africa guerrilla tactics because they traveled light, lived off the land, and attacked French supply lines. Each soldier had a firearm, often a repeating rifle, a saber, and a dagger. Samory combined firepower with rapid movement of troops. After fifteen years of resistance, French military power overwhelmed Samory’s empire, but his memory remains a lasting legacy in the region.

Another example of outstanding tactical use of infantry was Shaka’s Zulu army. ShakaShaka (Zulu king)Shaka had modified the long spear into a short-handled weapon used for stabbing rather than throwing. The infantry advanced, sometimes running, in a tight line with shields raised to ward off enemy spears. With their stabbing spears they were able to engage the enemy at close quarters. To take full advantage of this new weapon, they developed an assault formation known as the Cow-horns (Zulu assault formation)[Cow horns]“cow-horns.” This consisted of three equal-sized regiments, with a fourth held in reserve, formed into a crescent shape. The center regiment was used as a shock force; the other units that flanked to the left and right extended forward. The center regiment initiated a furious assault on the opponent, while the “horns” enveloped the enemy from the sides and rear. Once in close quarters, the soldiers used their stabbing spears in hand-to-hand combat. Some Zulu shields had hooks on top, which were used to pull down an enemy’s shield and expose part of his body. Zulu soldiers underwent extensive training and maintained a high level of fitness. Their highly mobile regiments sometimes traveled 50 miles in a day. Zulu tactics produced decisive victories and changed warfare throughout southern Africa, as Nguni groups carried the new developments northward into Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi.

African military doctrine was influenced by the interrelationship of religion and warfare. Written documentation, oral tradition, and material culture indicate that virtually all armies engaged in pre- and postbattle ceremonies for purification, protection, and victory. Some kings and military leaders used divination to choose the best time for battle. In some societies the religious pantheon included a god of war who was usually associated with iron, such as Gu in Dahomey or Ogun in Yoruba territory. Invocation of the supernatural was considered essential in warfare.

Contemporary Sources

Primary sources for the study of African military history include African, Arabic, and European writings; African oral tradition; and local histories written by African authors. For the savanna regions of West Africa, there are many sources written in Arabic by African Muslims and North Africans. Two seventeenth century works are essential: Tarikh Tarikh al-Fattash (Mahmud Kati) al-Fattash by Mahmud Kati (1468-1593) and Tarikh as-Sudan (Abd al-Rahman) Tarikh as-Sudan by Abd al-Rahman as-Sadi (1596-1656). Ibn Fartua (fl. 1582), the imam of Mai Idris Alooma, wrote an account of his experience. The “Kano Chronicle” is a native history of the Hausa people. There is a large body of contemporary Arabic documentation on nineteenth century Islamic states written by Fulani scholars. There is a similar collection of writing in Kiswahili on the history of the East African coast, among the most valuable being the “Kilwa Chronicle” and the “History of Pate.”

Beginning in the 1500’s European merchants made regular visits to the African coasts. Many left descriptions of wars, trade, and diplomacy. There are accounts by William Snelgrave, William Bosman, John Norris, Archibald Dalzel, Jean Barbot, O. Dapper, and many others. A plethora of Portuguese records exist, but these accounts, written before the mid-nineteenth century, deal almost exclusively with African coastal regions and contain little reliable information on events in the interior.

Many late-eighteenth and nineteenth century European sources were written by explorers, merchants, and missionaries. Some of the most important authors include Richard Burton, Hugh Clapperton, Henry Fynn, Heinrich Barth, Henry Stanley, John Duncan, Samuel Baker, René Caillié, J. S. Gallieni, John Speke, Mungo Park, and James Bruce. These works are valuable as sources but must be used carefully, as they contain ethnocentric observations and stereotypes, exaggerations, and misleading information. Nevertheless, they remain important sources for the study of African armies.

There are two other types of African sources. The first, oral tradition, is an integral part of African cultures and a rich source for military history. Given the connection between warfare and royal power, oral tradition must also be evaluated with caution, because it often reflects the viewpoint of the ruling elite. The second source includes local histories written by African authors. These are collections of oral traditions supplemented by the experiences of the authors and the memories of the local inhabitants. Examples are works by Nigerian authors Samuel Johnson and Jacob Egharevba. Historians should examine works of art, music, song, and dance for further insights into the role of the military. These sources become valuable when they are integrated and corroborated. Only then will one gain an understanding of warfare and society as it is reflected in the “new military history.”Africa;sub-Saharan

Books and Articles
  • Akinjogbin, Adeagbo, ed. War and Peace in Yorubaland, 1793-1893. Ibadan, Nigeria: Heinemann, 1998.
  • Crowder, Michael, ed. West African Resistance: The Military Response to Colonial Occupation. New York: African, 1971.
  • Falola, Toyin, and Robin Law, eds. Warfare and Diplomacy in Precolonial Nigeria. Madison: African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin, 1992.
  • Inikori, J. E. “The Import of Firearms into West Africa, 1750-1807: A Quantitative Analysis.” In Warfare and Empires: Contact and Conflict Between European and Non-European Military and Maritime Forces and Cultures, edited by Douglas M. Peers. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate/Variorum, 1997.
  • Lamphear, John. “Sub-Saharan African Warfare.” In War in the Modern World Since 1815, edited by Jeremy Black. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • Law, Robin. “Warfare on the West African Slave Coast, 1650-1850.” In War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warfare, edited by R. Brian Ferguson and Neil L. Whitehead. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: School of American Research Press, 1992.
  • Peers, C. J. Warrior Peoples of East Africa, 1840-1900. Illustrated by Raffaele Ruggeri. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2005.
  • Smaldone, Joseph P. Warfare in the Sokoto Caliphate: Historical and Sociological Perspectives. 1977. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Smith, Robert S. Warfare and Diplomacy in Precolonial West Africa. 2d ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
  • Spring, Christopher. African Arms and Armor. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.
  • Thornton, John K. Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500-1800. London: UCL Press, 1999.
  • _______. “Warfare, Slave Trading, and European Influence: Atlantic Africa, 1450-1800.” In War in the Early Modern World, edited by Jeremy Black. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999.
  • Vandervort, Bruce. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830-1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Films and Other Media
  • The Battle of Algiers. Feature film. Magna, 1966.
  • The British Empire in Color. Documentary. History Channel, 2008.
  • Shaka Zulu. Television miniseries. Harmony Gold, 1986.
  • Warriors: Zulu Siege. Documentary. History Channel, 2009.

Berber Warfare

Carthaginian Warfare

China: The Qing Empire

The Cold War: The Nonaligned States

Colonial Warfare

Colonial Wars of Independence

The Egyptians


Geography, Weather, and Warfare

Imperial Warfare


Japan: Modern

The Mughal Empire

The Ottoman Empire

Roman Warfare During the Republic

The War on Terror

Warfare and the United Nations

West African Empires

Categories: History Content