West African Empires Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

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.

Political Considerations

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.Africa;medievalGhanaMaliSonghaiAfrica;medievalGhanaMaliSonghai

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 Islam;AfricaIslamic faith out of North Africa in the eighth century, new forms of commercial, religious, social, cultural, and military interaction transformed the social and political landscape of West Africa. In some instances, as with the reign of Mansa Mūsā Mansa Mūsā IMansa Mūsā I (Malian king)I of Mali (1312-1337 c.e.), Islamic influence transformed the organizational structure of the empire and the administration of justice and launched the religious wars of the Islamic jihad. Subsequent kings and kingdoms either waged war under the doctrines of the Islamic tradition or sought to eradicate the Muslim tradition altogether, setting the stage for much of the military history of the kingdoms of Mali and Songhai until the emergence of the European slave trade and the introduction of firearms. These latter developments in turn fueled a long-standing pattern of internecine warfare that ultimately depopulated entire towns and regions subject to West Africa’s colonial-era encounter with European merchants, militarists, and slave traders.

Military Achievement

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 Sudan;empiresSudanese empires to establish large professional armies for the maintenance of law and order over a vast territory, the medieval kingdom of Mali in turn contributed to the formal development and mobilization of cavalry forces in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in order to command the battlefields of the savanna and sahel regions of West Africa. Both within and beyond the context of indigenous warfare, the kingdoms of Songhai and BeninBenin, among others, further advanced indigenous armaments, protective armor, fortifications, tactical mobilizations, and, ultimately, the adoption of firearms.

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 TimbuktuTimbuktu and GaoGao, the trans-Saharan trading town of WalataWalata, and the salt mines of TaghazaTaghaza to the north. During Mansa Mūsā’s reign the territory of Mali was doubled in size, and the capture and control of the primary salt- and gold-producing areas of the region secured the empire’s wealth and stability. So famous were the cavalry exploits of Mansa Mūsā’s day that one of the more notable art forms of this time consisted of relatively large terra-cotta figures of mounted cavalry troops replete with padded body armor, backpacks, elaborate helmets with chin straps, and a variety of weapons including swords and javelins. Ultimately, Mansa Mūsā’s conquests and his organization of an imperial form of government transformed Mali from a regional to an international presence, with Malian ambassadors posted in Morocco and Egypt.

The kingdom of Songhai provides another prominent body of documented achievements in the use of light Cavalry;Songhaicavalry for the purposes of territorial gain and empire building. Malian and Songhai battle formations, or Mandekalu (West African battle forces)mandekalu, entailed the use of light cavalry forces bearing padded armor, spears or javelins, and imported swords. Such forces were highly effective in combat with enemy soldiers within the range of the savanna; however, these same cavalry forces were far less effective in the forested areas to the south of the Niger River or within tsetse-fly-ridden regions where Horses and horse riding;Africa horses were vulnerable. This was clearly the case for the Mandekalu horse warriors of the Mali Empire, whose realm was largely restricted to the West African sahel and savanna woodlands through much of the period extending from 1100 to 1500 c.e. Following on the heels of the cavalry were the infantrymen, who typically bore full armor, iron-tipped spears, and poisoned Poison;arrows arrows.

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.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

TheArmor;West AfricanUniforms;West Africanearliest indigenous forms of combat relied largely on the deployment of shock weapons, including short-handled wood, stone, and iron-tipped thrusting spears; javelins; iron swords; protective headgear; and bamboo shields. The use of these weapons provides a clear indication that hand-to-hand combat was a key strategy both in the sahel and savanna and in the jungle-shrouded landscapes that contained the West African kingdoms. As did the armies of other societies engaged in jungle or desert combat before the advent of firearms, those of the West African kingdoms employed thrusting spears and other shock weapons. To this ensemble of shock weapons were added Projectiles;West Africanprojectiles, or “missile weapons,” in the form of the hunting bow and iron-tipped arrow, which was a critical innovation for those infantry that accompanied the cavalry corps late in Ghana’s military history. Much of this early weaponry constituted the warriors’ toolkit for centuries to come. Primary innovations centered on the transition from stone-tipped wooden arrows and spears, and bows and Bows and arrows;Africaarrows, to iron-tipped projectiles in these same categories. The Slings;Africanslingshot has also been documented among the weaponry utilized in combat within and between the West African kingdoms. The addition of North African, Spanish-Moorish, and German steel sabers and swords to the growing arsenals of West African weaponry indicates the growing international status and wealth of West African armies.

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 Trousers, Honor of the (Mali)Trousers. According to the twelfth century Arab author ՙUmarī, al-ՙUmarī, al-[Umari]al-ՙUmarī (1301-1349), who chronicled the history of the Mali Empire, “Whenever a hero adds to the list of his exploits, the king gives him a pair of wide trousers, and the greater the number of a knight’s exploits, the bigger the size of trousers. These trousers are characterized by narrowness in the leg and ampleness in the seat.” Combat insignia and ethnic accoutrements were also characteristically donned by warriors, and the role of insignia, such as feathers inserted into headgear, was intended to signify rank and status within the battle formations. Fifteenth century Bini swordsmen were depicted in brass castings wearing an elaborately standardized protective armor that included armored helmets, spiked collars and breastplates, massive curvilinear swords, and war hammers.

Military Organization

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 Tarikh al-Fattash (Songhai military)al-Fattash, was organized under the aegis of three full-time commanders or generals. The dyini-koy or balama was the commander of the army, the hi-koy was the admiral of the war-canoe fleet, and the tara-farma was the full-time commander of the cavalry forces of the empire. Each of these commanders and his respective subordinates was identified by his uniform, clothing, and insignia.

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.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

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 Professional militaries;West Africanprofessional soldier and created large standing armies as well as highly disciplined cavalry forces. The kingdom of Songhai clearly epitomized the changing nature of military practice: Songhai’s unceasing pattern of territorial and political expansionism served to justify the role and status of its formally institutionalized military.

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 Islam;AfricaAfrica provided a catalyst for the intensification of professional soldiering and the protection of trade with Arab merchants. Given the growing penetration of Islamic thought and culture in West Africa, the military took on a police function where trans-Saharan trade was concerned. During this period, although the protection of trade remained of paramount concern, the advent of the Islamic Jihad (holy war)jihad, or holy war, signaled the beginning of wars devoted to spreading the Islamic faith and eliminating infidels, or nonbelievers. With the rise of Mali, the military took on an expansionist function, conquering the city of GaoGao and consolidating control over the salt and gold trade. The heavily Islamic character of Mansa Mūsā’s reign reflected a long-standing pattern of Islamic influence and status. On one hand the adoption of the Islamic tradition in Western African kingdoms increased social and cultural cohesiveness over a vast

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.

Medieval Sources

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 Bakri, al-Bakri, al- (Arab geographer)al-Bakri (died c. 1094), who describes ancient Ghana in The Book of Routes and Kingdoms; and Mahmud Kati, Mahmud al-Kati, Mahmud al- (Arab scholar) al-Kati, a Muslim scholar who authored the Tarikh al-Fattash, or History of the Sudan, which was largely incorporated into the accounts of Ibn Mukhtar in his publication of the Tarikh al-Fattash. Among the most important historians of later periods of the kingdoms of Mali and Songhai are Ibn BaṭṭūṭahIbn Baṭṭūṭah[Ibn Battuta] Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, a fourteenth century Muslim traveler, and al-Ḥasan ibn Muḥammad al-Wazzān al-Zaiyātī (c. 1485-c. 1554), also known as Leo Africanus, LeoAfricanus, Leo Africanus, who wrote about his travels in History and Description of Africa and the Notable Things Contained Therein (1526).Africa;medievalGhanaMaliSonghai

Books and Articles
  • 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.
Films and Other Media
  • The Forts and Castles of Ghana. Documentary. Image Entertainment, 2003.

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