Ndiadiane N’diaye Founds the Wolof Empire

The Wolof Empire emerged in the thirteenth century under the leadership of Ndiadiane N’diaye and became a powerful expansionist state, partly because of its unique location along the West African coast.

Summary of Event

The Wolof (also spelled Djolof, Jolof, or Ouolof) Empire was formed when a group of people migrated in the tenth century from the powerful Ghana Ghana (ancient) Empire (situated far northwest of modern-day Ghana) and settled in the Senegal River region. Migrations;Wolof to Senegal River region The Wolof’s cultural origins in Ghana are seen most clearly in the similarities of religion and culture between the Wolof and Ghana peoples. [kw]Ndiadiane N’diaye Founds the Wolof Empire (13th century)
[kw]N’diaye Founds the Wolof Empire, Ndiadiane (13th century)
[kw]Wolof Empire, Ndiadiane N’diaye Founds the (13th century)
Wolof Empire
Ndiadiane N’diaye
Africa;13th cent.: Ndiadiane N’diaye Founds the Wolof Empire[2180]
Government and politics;13th cent.: Ndiadiane N’diaye Founds the Wolof Empire[2180]
Ndiadiane N’diaye
Alvise Cadamosto

Senegal was the site of several large kingdoms in the tenth century, as a result of its location along the borders of the Sahelian and riverine trades that converged between the Senegal and Niger Rivers in the savanna lands. In the west, the Wolof abutted the Atlantic Ocean, creating an opportunity for fish and other oceanic products to be exported in the trans-Saharan trade. However, the geographic area inhabited by the Wolof was broad and environmentally diverse. The climate varied drastically between the northern and southern ends of the Wolof territory, from arid desert in the north to tropical rain forest in the south. This environmental diversity allowed for the growth of a wide variety of crops.

Prior to the settlement of the Wolof people in the Senegal River area, there was a state north of the region known as Tekrur Tekrur , which had grown to be one of West Africa’s most powerful states. Tekrur had been in existence for a long time and may have expanded even before the initial growth of the Ghana Empire. Tekrur became wealthy from the trans-Saharan trade between northern and western Africa, which involved the exchange of such items as gold, slaves, and salt—three of the most highly prized possessions of that time.

The Tekrur kingdom collapsed around the time that the Wolof state was emerging under the leadership of Ndiadiane N’diaye. N’diaye claimed rule over the smaller states of Waalo, Cayor, and Baol, which had formed after the initial settlement of the Wolof people in the Senegal region toward the Atlantic coast, and N’diaye united them to form the Wolof kingdom. (Some sources note that these states, along with Djolof proper, formed in the mid-sixteenth century as the result of a fragmented Wolof Empire.)

The Wolof Empire was similar to many West African Sudanic cultures of the thirteenth century in that it was centered on a king, or burba. However, this burba did not inherit the throne through birth; he was instead chosen by a handful of nobles who made up the elite democracy. These lords chose the individual whom they saw as most fit to rule the empire from a group of qualified candidates. The lords also held the power to dethrone those they had elected if they grew to dislike the ruler’s ideals or style of reign. The burba could retain power for decades as long as the nobles were satisfied with his leadership. These nobles obtained their status and political strength through their leadership in the military, their influence on trading systems, and their close alliance with one another through social networks under the king’s rule.

The Wolof people were organized into a hierarchy of castes, a rigid structure in which the social position of the person was inherited. There were three main castes: the jambur or gor (freeborn), the nyenyo (artisan castes), and the jam (slaves). The freeborn included both the poorest commoner (baadola) and the royal peoples. The main economic occupation of the Wolof was farming, and the royal members were at the top of the social pyramid. The nyenyo caste included the tega (goldsmiths, silversmiths, and blacksmiths), the rabbakat or maabo (weavers), the ude (leatherworkers), and the gewel (musicians, praise singers, and historians). These occupations were inherited, and marriage outside the caste was forbidden. Caste system;Wolof Empire

Slaves Slavery;Africa
Africa;slavery were the lowest caste of people of the Wolof Empire, and there were three categories of slaves: the jami-neg (domestic), jami-hareh (traded or captured), and jami-bur (crown slaves). Domestic slaves were born in the household and were rarely sold. They were treated like junior members of the family, often received their own land to farm, and were allowed to marry. Trade slaves were usually captured in war and had no ties to the community. They could be bought and sold, as they had no local social network or family to support them or protect their interests. Crown slaves did manual labor for the king and for the state. They sometimes became trusted advisers of the king if they proved themselves loyal and wise. These slaves, as well as the artisans and common freeborn peoples, were required to serve the empire’s nobles, working for them when necessary, and pay taxes in the form of cattle, other goods, and labor.

By the fourteenth century, the Wolof state had renounced all association with the large Mali Empire to its east and claimed a culture of its own. The Wolof became renowned for their artisans’s ability to craft precious metals and prospered from their control of trade, which in turn augmented the state’s political authority.

By the fifteenth century, nearly five centuries after the rise of the Wolof Empire, the Senegal River area was experiencing the influence of the Islamic religion and culture. The spread of Islam among the Wolof began with the political leaders and then expanded throughout the area among the commoner population until a majority of people of Wolof ethnicity and language had converted to Islam. Many of the Wolof practiced the Sufi form of Islam. Wolof beliefs were also characterized by “ontological absolutes,” which were explanations or expectations involving ten key concepts combining Islamic and pre-Islamic ideals.

Beginning in the mid-fifteenth century, the Wolof Empire had come into contact with Europeans on the Atlantic coast south of the Senegal River. The first recorded European contact occurred with the Venetian explorer and trader Alvise Cadamosto Cadamosto, Alvise , who in 1455 sailed along the West African coast past the mouth of the Senegal River. This contact led to trade with the Portuguese, heralding the beginning of a global commercial system based in the Atlantic. The Portuguese traded European and Asian textiles, copperware, cowrie shells, and horses in exchange for African gold, ivory, slaves, and locally made cotton cloth.


The Wolof Empire serves as an example of the rise of powerful states in West Africa between the tenth and sixteenth centuries. Unlike many of the earlier western African states, however, Wolof occupied an ocean coast; virtually all other large states in West Africa emerged inland. As a result, the development of the Wolof Empire was influenced by, and benefited from, early Atlantic trade.

The Wolof Empire continued to grow until its collapse around the mid-seventeenth century, caused by conflicts within its own borders. In 1556, for example, Cayor, in the west, divided from the Wolof Empire and cut off its coastal access. The declining status of the Wolof state was exacerbated by the presence of European merchants in the eastern Atlantic through the nineteenth century. Today approximately 1.5 million Wolof still reside in Senegal and its environs.

Further Reading

  • Boulègue, Jean. Le Grand Jolof, XIIIe-XVIe siècle. Paris: Façades Diffusion Karthala, 1987. Covers the history of the Wolof people in the empire between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries.
  • Charles, Eunice A. Precolonial Senegal: The Jolof Kingdom, 1800-1890. Brookline, Mass.: African Studies Center, Boston University, 1977. Covers the history of the Wolof Empire in the nineteenth century, with some mention of earlier eras.
  • Diop, Samba. The Oral History and Literature of the Wolof People of Waalo, Northern Senegal: The Master of the Word (Griot) in the Wolof Tradition. Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen Press, 1995. This book elaborates the epic tale of the Wolof and is concerned with the genealogy of the rulers of Waalo.
  • Diouf, Mamadou. Precolonial Senegal: The Jolof Kingdom, 1800-1890. Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, 2001. This text covers the larger history of Senegal.
  • Tamari, Tal. “The Development of the Caste System.” Journal of African History 32, no. 2 (1991): 221-250. Explains the history of the caste system in the Wolof state, focusing on griots and blacksmiths.