The Songhai Empire
Updated: Jun 28
The Songhai Empire was the largest and final of West Africa's three main pre-colonial empires. Songhai spread in all directions from its capital at Gao on the Niger River, eventually extending from the Atlantic Ocean (modern-day Senegal and Gambia) to what is now Northwest Nigeria and central Niger. The famous Goa Mosque and the Tomb of Askia, the most powerful of the Songhai emperors, were located in Gao, Songhai's capital, which is still a small Niger River trading center today. The empire's other main cultural and commercial hubs were the cities of Timbuktu and Djenne.
About 800 A.D., the Songhai people founded Gao and made it their capital during the reign of Dia Kossoi in the 11th century. The Malian Empire absorbed both as it spread across the West African savanna as the city and area rose in importance.
Mali's dominance was gradually undermined by palace intrigue, which disrupted the emperors' orderly succession. Gao rebelled in 1375, recognizing the vulnerability at the heart of Mali. Songhai then began its own imperial expansion at Mali's expense, conquering Mema in 1465 and capturing Timbuktu, the region's largest city, from the Taureg who had recently taken it from Mali.
Sunni Ali Ber, the military officer who oversaw these successes, is generally regarded as the Songhai Empire's first great emperor. He expanded his kingdom even more, gaining control of key Trans-Saharan trading routes as well as other Mali cities and provinces.
Sunni Ali Ber's son, Sonni Baru, succeeded to the throne after his father's death in 1492, but he was deposed one year later by Askia (Emperor) Muhammad Toure. Few more conquests were made under the new emperor, who was a devout Muslim. Instead, he consolidated the bureaucracy, appointing nearly all mayors and regional governors, and implementing Sharia law throughout the empire.
Askia Muhammad Toure also bolstered political and cultural relations with the rest of the Muslim world by encouraging scholars and skilled workers from Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, and Muslim Spain to come to the country. He was the first West African monarch to permit ambassadorial exchanges with these and other Muslim countries.
Songhai enjoyed an era of stability and prosperity after Askia Muhammad Toure's death in 1528, thanks to a succession of emperors. While the overwhelming majority of Songhai's inhabitants were small farmers whose fortunes were tied to success in agriculture rather than commerce, urban-centered trade thrived in Gao, Timbuktu, and Djenne.
The time of peace and prosperity came to an end in 1591, when a civil war gave Morocco's Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur Saadi the opportunity to send an army to conquer Songhai. Al-Mansur aspired to rule over the goldfields of West Africa and establish himself as Sudan's Caliph.
At the Battle of Tondibi, the invading Moroccans face Askia Ishaq II, the last Songhai Emperor. Despite outnumbering the invading force, the Songhai were routed by the Moroccans' use of arquebus muskets and six cannons, both of which made their first appearance with this invasion. After Ishaq was killed by the Taureg, who were allied with the Moroccans, the Songhai retreated in confusion.
The Moroccan Army, on the other hand, quickly discovered that occupying Songhai was much easier than ruling it. Morocco was forced to send additional resources across the Sahara due to constant rebellions and opposition, as well as a lack of supplies. Faced with these logistical issues and the near-impossibility of managing the gold mines that caused the invasion in the first place, the Moroccans withdrew from the area in 1661.
Despite this, the Songhai Empire could not be resurrected. The elites who escaped Gao founded a new capital at Lulami. From 1591 to 1901, a succession of Askia's (Emperors) sought to carry on the old empire's rituals. Finally, in 1901, French imperial forces captured Songhai, putting an end to the last vestige of Songhai's former glory.