In the period from 400 to 1591, West Africa saw the rise and fall of the indigenous kingdoms and empires of Ghana, medieval Mali, and Songhai.
In the period from 400 to 1591, West Africa saw the rise and fall of the indigenous kingdoms and empires of Ghana, medieval Mali, and Songhai. Although many other petty states and kingdoms arose in West Africa during this time, only Ghana, Mali, and Songhai achieved the status of full-fledged and long-lived conquest states and expansionist empires, for which contact-era Islamic and European documentary histories are available.
Ghana’s emergence as the first of the West African empires ultimately set the stage for subsequent developments identified with the establishment of the kingdoms of Mali and Songhai. In each instance the intensification of trade along the trans-Saharan trade network was a critical factor underlying the expansion, influence, and institutionalization of the military orders of the day. In fact, much of the wealth generated to support the maintenance of professional armies–documented by various Islamic writers to have ranged between 40,000 and 200,000 soldiers each–was derived directly from the military and police protections afforded foreign travelers and merchants on the trans-Saharan trade corridor. With the advent and spread of the
Africa, c. 1000-1500
Military achievement during this period centered on the emergence and mobilization of professional armies and cavalry forces; the formalization of military protocols, organizational structures, propaganda, and tactics; and the adoption of new military technologies, fortifications, and weaponry. Whereas the primary achievements ascribed to the kingdom of Ghana center on the fact that it was the first of the western
The combined impact of the Islamic faith and the deployment of cavalry forces on the military culture of the era were most forcefully felt during the reign of the Malian king Mansa Mūsā I. Mansa Mūsā undertook the military expansion of Mali and the concomitant control and taxation of the trans-Saharan trade in salt, gold, ivory, ebony, pepper, and kola nuts. His primary contribution was the military incorporation of the Middle Niger River region into the kingdom of Mali through the use of cavalry forces and professional armies. In addition, his conquests ultimately led to the control and incorporation of the important mercantile centers and cities of
The kingdom of Songhai provides another prominent body of documented achievements in the use of light
Ultimately, the development of sophisticated military organizations, advanced strategies and tactics, effective diplomacy, and weaponry of the kingdoms of Mali, Songhai, and successor states of West Africa was such that these kingdoms largely dictated the conditions of European and Arabic commerce in West Africa well into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The kingdom of Mali eventually standardized its warriors’ battle regalia and uniforms, as did the kingdoms of Ghana, Songhai, and Benin. In addition, Malian rulers introduced the so-called Honor of the
A mounted warrior of the Bornu, where cavalry was a dominant aspect of the savanna kingdom’s military.
According to one Muslim history of West Africa, the Songhai military, known as the Tarikh
West African kings typically rose to power through either inheritance or demonstrated success as a military leader, conqueror, or facilitator of a coup. All military organization and support in West African kingdoms was directly subject to the order and mandate of the ruling king in his capacity as commander in chief. The organizational culture of each kingdom’s armies varied according to the nature of the military mobilization. Slaves or other captives often served a critical support function during major military operations. Although professional armies were often renowned for their cavalry corps, they often included tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of infantrymen, backed by slaves who facilitated the movement of cargo and supplies necessary to the deployment of troops in long-distance engagements. The combination of infantry, cavalry, and naval corps proved a highly resilient and organizationally effective military method for maintaining the long-term stability of the West African kingdoms of Mali and Songhai.
The doctrines, strategies, and tactics that characterized West African warfare varied considerably through time, reflecting cultural and technological influences that affected the region through the course of nearly twelve hundred years of human interaction. The earliest recorded wars and military mobilizations of the Ghanaian peoples centered on the protection of the all-important salt trade. However, the nature of war and weaponry in West Africa evolved in response to the growing significance of iron for tools and weapons, the capture of war captives for the slave trade, and the mining of gold for commercial exchange with Arab and European merchants. Ultimately, the protection of the kingdom and its long-distance trade networks and merchants led to the formalization of professional armies and the formation of special military units within the kingdom. Despite this changing relationship between the king and his soldiers, Ghana is thought to have depended largely on civilian reserves for the mobilization of standing armies. The later kingdom of Mali expanded the role of the
West Africa, 15th-16th Centuries
Throughout the course of West African history, religious doctrine served to define and redefine the nature and transformation of military doctrine, political organization, and, ultimately, conquest interactions with neighboring states. Whereas Ghana was the dominant power of the western Sudan from 700 to 1000, the Islamic domination of North Africa and the growing role of Islam in West
geographic region and brought about a new era of prosperity. On the other hand, the scorched-earth policy of empire building and the role of the jihad ultimately fed the decline of the kingdom of Mali and, subsequently, that of Songhai.
Early Arab and Muslim accounts of the culture, society, technology, militarism, and urban settings of the West African kingdoms are among the most authoritative and complete. Such accounts include those of the eleventh century Arab geographer
Brooks, George E. Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in Western Africa, 1000-1630. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993. Connah, Graham. African Civilizations: Precolonial Cities and States in Tropical Africa, an Archaeological Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Conrad, David C. Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. Rev. ed. New York: Chelsea House, 2009. Davidson, Basil. African Kingdoms. New York: Time-Life Books, 1971. _______. West Africa Before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850. London: Longman, 1998. McKissack, Patricia, and Fredrick McKissack. The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa. New York: Henry Holt, 1994. Martin, Phyllis M., and Patrick O’Meara, eds. Africa. 3d ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. Mays, Terry M. “At Tondibi in 1591, Firearms and Stampeding Cattle Heralded the Fall of a Once-Great Empire.” Military History 18, no. 3 (August, 2001): 18. Mendonsa, Eugene L. West Africa: An Introduction to Its History, Civilization, and Contemporary Situation. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2002. Oliver, Roland, and Anthony Atmore. Medieval Africa, 1250-1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Phillipson, David W. African Archaeology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985. The Forts and Castles of Ghana. Documentary. Image Entertainment, 2003.
Armies of Muṛammad and the Caliphate
Armies of the Seljuk Turks
The Ottoman Armies