Rise of the Arma in Timbuktu

The Arma, a military caste that descended from Moroccan soldiers who conquered the Songhai Empire, built the pashalik, a state that endured for almost two centuries.

Summary of Event

In 1591, the sultan of Morocco Morocco , Ahmad al-Manṣūr Ahmad al-Manṣūr , sent an army commanded by Judar Paşa Judar Paşa across the Sahara to attack and conquer the Songhai Empire Songhai Empire . Although Judar’s army of between three thousand and four thousand fighting men, plus auxiliaries, was vastly outnumbered, it defeated the Songhai in a number of engagements because the Moroccans were equipped with muskets and cannon; the Songhai had swords and bows only. Within a decade, the Moroccans came to control most of the Niger River Valley between the cities of Jenne and Gao, making Timbuktu their capital. [kw]Rise of the Arma in Timbuktu (1612)
[kw]Timbuktu, Rise of the Arma in (1612)
[kw]Arma in Timbuktu, Rise of the (1612)
Government and politics;1612: Rise of the Arma in Timbuktu[0610]
Expansion and land acquisition;1612: Rise of the Arma in Timbuktu[0610]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1612: Rise of the Arma in Timbuktu[0610]
Africa;1612: Rise of the Arma in Timbuktu[0610]
Mali;1612: Rise of the Arma in Timbuktu[0610]

Morocco, however, drifted into rebellion and civil war following the death of al-Manṣūr in 1603. In 1612, soldiers in Timbuktu overthrew the sultan-appointed pasha (commander) and placed Abdullah al-Tilimsānī Abdullah al-Tilimsānī in control. Abdullah al-Tilimsānī was then overthrown in 1618 by fellow officers, after which the Moroccan government decided unofficially to abandon its enterprise in the West African interior. In theory, the conquered territory remained part of the Moroccan Empire, at least as long as the Saՙdi Dynasty Saՙdi Dynasty[Sadi Dynasty] ruled in Morocco. In fact, however, the pashas became independent sovereigns elected by their soldiers

Judar’s original force was comprised mostly of professional soldiers Military;Morocco and had a distinct ethnic division. One thousand of the musketeers were Andalusians, refugees from Muslim Spain who had been forced into exile during the Christian Reconquista. Another thousand musketeers were uluj, or renegades, European Christians who converted to Islam. The musketeers were augmented by Turkish mercenaries and some Christian prisoners of war and freely hired European Christians who had particular skills in operating artillery, among other skills. A contingent of 1,500 lancers was recruited from certain loyal tribes in Morocco, and support personnel, including camel drivers, sappers, and physicians, were also Moroccans. In the following years, most of the reinforcements were drawn from the southern part of Morocco, largely tribesmen the sultan distrusted and wanted to get out of his own country. By one account the total number of troops sent from Morocco to conquer and rule the Songhai amounted to 23,000.

The Moroccan army brought along no women, and local women were among the victims of war. For several years Moroccan soldiers accumulated large numbers of concubines. Once it became apparent that they were stranded in the interior of West Africa and not likely to return to Morocco, the soldiers began establishing families. Their children married each other, founding their own group that became known as the Arma, or Ruma (from the Arabic al-rumat).

From the beginning, half of the Arma gene pool was Sudanese, mostly Songhai, but it also included Soninke, Fulbe, and others. The Moroccans brought with them some preferences retained by the Arma. In architecture, for example, the Arma preferred the Maghribian style—introducing such innovations as grilled windows—and in music they transplanted their love of the violin. In other matters, however, the Arma soon became more West African than north African. This clearly shows in the language of the Arma. Judar’s army was comprised largely of Arabic and Spanish speakers, but subsequent generations of Arma learned their language from their mothers, and soon the descendants of the original conquerors spoke only Songhai. They did not, however, see themselves as Songhai. They remained a people apart, a ruling military caste that believed they were superior to the sea of peoples over which they ruled.

The state the Arma created is known in history as the pashalik
Pashalik . Soldiers were divided into units supposedly based on their origins, the most important being the divisions of Fés and Marrakech, comprising the right and left wings of the army. This military distinction gradually evolved into a political one, the divisions becoming parties and eventually clans, reflecting their exclusiveness and cohesiveness. The office of pasha alternated between divisions. In turn, the high officers of each division selected a candidate, who was then endorsed by the rank-and-file. This system discouraged pashas who were too ambitious or too capable. When the pasha succeeded in alienating enough of his fellow officers, they came together and deposed him.

Twenty-one pashas ruled between 1612 and 1660. Following their reigns, many were killed, imprisoned, or exiled. The pashalik was not a stable system, and it would get worse. The most notable attempt to introduce a stronger and more centralized government occurred during the reign of ՙAbd al-Qādir. ՙAbd al-Qādir When he set out to put down a rebellion by the garrison at Gao, however, his army deserted him, and he was subsequently overthrown and beheaded in 1632

In 1659, the last of the Saՙdian sultans was killed. Henceforth, the people of the pashalik no longer officially recognized the sultan of Morocco as their overlord. The pasha became, in theory, the final arbiter of power along the Middle Niger. This did not, however, lead to a stronger, more stable system. On the contrary, during the second half of the seventeenth century, the average reign of a pasha dropped from over two years to eleven months. Some pashas ruled for several weeks or days only. In 1697, one was elected and deposed on the same day. The situation for pashas did not improve during the following century. Between 1671 and 1750, the pashalik experienced 114 regime changes. After 1750, there were long periods of interregnum until the system faded into oblivion at the end of the century


The descendants of a Moroccan army cut off deep in the West African interior assumed the role of ruling caste over a state created by default. Sometimes described as a military republic, the pashalik is a good study in the disadvantages associated with a government controlled by its own army. Although the pasha was, in theory, elected, the government was a military oligarchy with power in the hands of certain families that provided the high officers. The officers vied for power among themselves, but collectively they opposed the centralizing tendencies of ambitious pashas

For a people bred in the military tradition, the Arma proved to be quite factious. As a result, the pashalik was never as large, powerful, or well-ruled as the Songhai Empire it replaced. Nevertheless, the pashalik endured for almost two centuries, providing at least some measure of security for the maintenance of an orderly society across much of the middle portion of the Niger Valley. Most of the time it also protected the trans-Saharan and trans-Sudanese trading systems. In the end, the pashalik succumbed to its own internal inconsistencies, but the descendants of the Arma remain a proud people who still inhabit many of the former garrison towns along the river Arma

Further Reading

  • Abitbol, Michel. “The End of the Songhay Empire.” In Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century, edited by B. A. Ogot. Vol. 5 in General History of Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. Abitbol’s studies are the most complete of the Arma period, but most are available only in French. However, his main findings are adequately covered in the chapter of this work, which is part of a multivolume set on African history.
  • Hunwick, John O. Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire. Boston: Brill, 1999. Hunwick, the foremost Songhai scholar in North America, provides useful primary source documents together with a lengthy interpretative essay and extensive comments and notes.
  • Saad, Elias. Social History of Timbuktu. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Saad explores the Arma regime and its relation with the civilians who lived in the main pashalik town.
  • Thornton, John. Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500-1800. London: UCL Press, 1999. Thornton explores the professional soldier (particularly the Arma) and his role and effectiveness in contrast to the mass levies (conscriptions) common to other armies of the time.

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