Songhai Empire Dissolves Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Invading Moroccans proved strong enough to destroy the Songhai Empire, but they did not assume control over the entire area of the former empire. Large chunks broke away and became independent, leaving the Arma, the descendants of the Moroccans, to rule a more modest state along the Middle Niger Valley.

Summary of Event

In 1591, a Moroccan Morocco army equipped with firearms crossed the Sahara Desert and attacked the Songhai Empire. In a series of battles, the Moroccans smashed the sword-and-bow army of the Songhai, killing two askias (Songhai emperors). The Songhai capital was then moved from Gao to Timbuktu, where the Moroccans set up their own administration, led by a pasha, who served as a military governor responsible to the Moroccan sultan in Marrakech. A remnant Songhai group retreated southward into the brush and forest country of Dendi Dendi , where they fought a successful guerrilla war that stopped the Moroccan advance. [kw]Songhai Empire Dissolves (17th cent.) Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;17th cent.: Songhai Empire Dissolves [0120] Government and politics;17th cent.: Songhai Empire Dissolves [0120] Expansion and land acquisition;17th cent.: Songhai Empire Dissolves [0120] Africa;17th cent.: Songhai Empire Dissolves [0120] Sudan;17th cent.: Songhai Empire Dissolves [0120] Mali;17th cent.: Songhai Empire Dissolves [0120] Songhai Empire

The Moroccans proved strong enough to destroy, but not reconstruct, the Songhai Empire, which, before the invasion, had encompassed a huge area. Because the number of available Moroccan troops was never very large, some of the subject peoples of the empire, whom the Morrocan troops were to subdue, were able to revolt while groups who lived on the fringe of the empire began raids. Once the Moroccan advance ground to a halt in Dendi and the Moroccan aura of invincibility disappeared, whole populations of the empire began breaking away. However, the Moroccans retained control over the most commercially valuable parts of the empire, that is, the Niger River Valley between the cities of Jenne in the west and Gao in the east and the trans-Saharan trade corridor running north to the salt mine at Taoudenni.

After the death of the last of the great Saՙdian sultans in 1603 plunged Morocco into a series of dynastic wars, the government in Timbuktu began to change. In 1612, officers in Timbuktu overthrew the Marrakech-appointed pasha and appointed their own: Abdullah al-Tilimsānī Abdullah al-Tilimsānī . Abdullah al-Tilimsānī was then overthrown by his own men in 1618, but by this time even the rulers in Marrakech had come to realize that the government in Timbuktu represented an independent state. This state became known as a pashalik, and its ruler was elected by army soldiers. The Moroccans took wives and produced children who intermarried, creating a caste of soldier-rulers called the Arma. The Arma Arma were divided into garrisons, or Casbahs (forts), scattered across the Middle Niger Valley.

The pashalik’s war against Dendi gradually ended. The Songhai made one final attempt to dislodge the Moroccans of the pashalik in an offensive launched between 1608 and 1612, which was stopped only after the Moroccans bribed the Songhai commander. In 1630, a treaty was signed between the pashalik and Dendi, in which the pashalik officially abandoned its goal of conquering the whole Songhai Empire. Within a few years, however, the two sides were raiding each other, and the pashalik was interfering in Songhai dynastic disputes. In 1639, an Arma army sacked the Dendi capital of Loulami and killed the askia but then withdrew. This proved to be the last major encounter between the two states. Arma interests turned elsewhere while Dendi plunged further into civil war, eventually disintegrating into petty states.

Dendi was downriver of Gao in the old empire’s southeastern corner. To the southwest was the city of Jenne Jenne , which had traditionally been ruled by its own king, the jenne-were. The Moroccans and their Arma successors, who maintained a Casbah in Jenne, treated the jenne-were more like a glorified town chief than a king, which generated resentment and led to revolt on occasion. In the area between Jenne and Timbuktu lived the Fulbe Fulbe (Fulani, Peul), a pastoral people who had migrated from the west. Had the jenne-were sought an alliance with the Fulbe, the pashalik’s power would have crumbled almost to the doorstep of Timbuktu. This was an option, however, that neither side seemed willing to consider. In 1599, for example, the jenne-were had remained loyal to the Moroccans, causing his city to come under siege by an anti-Moroccan coalition that included the Fulbe. In 1608, during the Songhai offensive, the two switched sides, with the Fulbe supporting the Moroccans and the jenne-were opposing them.

During the 1630’s and 1640’, a series of incidents led to sporadic revolts in Jenne and attacks by the Fulbe. In 1645, the pashalik concluded a peace with one group of Fulbe, the Dialloube Dialloube , who formed their own state in the inland delta region of Macina between Jenne and Timbuktu. Warfare, generally confined to raiding, continued on and off against the more pastoral Sanqare Fulbe, with the Arma launching an offensive against them as late as 1689.

Jenne was one of four great Casbahs Casbahs , the others being located at Gao Gao , Bamba Bamba , and the capital of Timbuktu Timbuktu . Smaller Casbahs also existed in smaller towns along the river. Control over the land between garrisons was inconsistent and unpredictable, and some people beyond the immediate vicinity of the Casbahs accepted the pashalik’s overlordship at least in theory. Areas such as Gurma on the south side of the river were kept in line by periodic expeditions to show the pasha’s flag. Gurma was the home of a number of different non-Muslim peoples, including some fiercely independent groups such as the Dogon and Mossi. They were frequently raided for slaves, but the Arma made no attempt to incorporate them into the pashalik. North of the river lived nomads, the most important of which were tribes of Tuaregs Tuaregs . The Arma attempted to control them through treaties under which a chief agreed to recognize the pasha as his overlord, sometimes paying tribute, sometimes doing little more than professing allegiance.

During the seventeenth century, Gao, Bamba, and Jenne gradually asserted their independence from Timbuktu, a process that was more complete for Gao and Bamba than for Jenne, whose garrison needed strong support from Timbuktu in its sporadic struggles with the jenne-were. The Arma usually pulled together if threatened, but this did not keep the men from Bamba and Gao from engaging in acts of disobedience against Timbuktu. This occurred as early as 1623, when the kaid (commander) of Bamba, Abdallah al-Hindī Abdallah al-Hindī , led his garrison in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the pasha. Al-Hindī’s goal was not to split Bamba from the pashalik but to take control of the entire country for himself, but instead, he was killed.

In 1632, ՙAbd al-Qādir ՙAbd al-Qādir , one of the most powerful pashas, attempted to punish the garrison at Gao for insubordination. He led a force from Timbuktu but was defeated. In a second attempt that same year, his army deserted him, and he was deposed and subsequently executed. In 1651, the soldiers at Gao began electing their own kaid in the same way Timbuktu elected the pasha; a year later Jenne followed suit. The garrisons gradually exerted more autonomy, and the pashas’ interference in their affairs became increasingly rare. However, it cannot be assumed that the pashalik crumbled into city-states ruled by rival bands of Arma. No other garrison declared their kaids to be pashas, and in the scheme of things, kaids were subordinate to pashas, indicating that the garrisons were subordinate to Timbuktu, at least officially.


Following the fall of the Songhai Empire, a large portion of the interior of West Africa underwent a slow process of political atrophy. With its frequent elections and the removal of pashas from control, the pashalik did not prove to be a very stable government. The Arma remained a closed caste and never constituted a significant portion of the population.

As a consequence, the peripheral regions of the old Songhai Empire broke away to become independent under new states. In the north, large areas came under the control of nomadic tribes that sometimes retained a fictional allegiance to the pashalik. As the imperial system folded, more ethnic-based polities emerged, such as the Fulbe state of Macina. Not until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, were such entities powerful enough to assume imperial structures, first under the Bambara, who had not been a part of the Songhai Empire, and, subsequently and more forcefully, by radicalized groups of Muslim Fulbe.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abitbol, Michel. “The End of the Songhay Empire.” In General History of Africa, edited by B. A. Ogot. Vol. 5. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. An excellent short summary of the pashalik and its neighbors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bourqia, Rahma, and Susan Gilson Miller, eds. In the Shadow of the Sultan: Culture, Power, and Politics in Morocco. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. A collection that examines the relationship between power, legitimacy, and religion in the Moroccan monarchy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">El Fasi, M. “Morocco.” In General History of Africa, edited by B. A. Ogot. Vol. 5. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. An excellent synopsis of the Moroccans in Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunwick, John O. Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire. Boston: Brill, 1999. Hunwick notes the earliest examples of fringe groups that attacked and broke from the empire. The work also examines the situation in Jenne and the relationship between the pashalik and the Fulbe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaba, Lansine. “Archers, Musketeers, and Mosquitoes: The Moroccan Invasion of the Sudan and the Songhay Resistance, 1591-1612.” Journal of African History 22 (1981): 457-475. Kaba traces the origin of Dendi and the failure of the Moroccans in the early years to reunify the Songhai Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newman, James L. The Peopling of Africa: A Geographic Interpretation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. Newman offers a helpful analysis of the process of imperial fragmentation and the emergence of ethnic entities in Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thornton, John. Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500-1800. London: UCL Press, 1999. Includes a good discussion on the professional soldier (particularly the Arma) as opposed to the mass levies (conscriptions) common to other armies of the time.
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Categories: History