Everyday Life In An Early West African Empire

100 Things you did not know about life in Songhai

an early West African Empire

© Robin Walker 2014

1. West Africa’s Niger River provided bigger and better harvests than the Nile. According to Major Felix Dubois, a pioneering French scholar on the Songhai Empire: ‘What the Nile has done for Egypt, the Niger has accomplished for the Sudan (i.e. West Africa). In the course of a year we witness the same striking and opposed pictures. The cultivation is as facile as that of Egypt, and is due to the same regular rise and fall of the river. But the Niger shows an even greater munificence in its gifts than does its brother of Eastern Africa.’

2. Ancient West Africa was highly urbanised. Professor Roderick McIntosh, an archaeologist whose specialism is West Africa, reported evidence that Mali’s Middle Niger region had an indigenous urbanism as dense and expansive as those of Ancient Egypt and Ancient Iraq. This urban culture dated back to the first millennium BC.

3. Some of these early cities were large. According to the BBC in The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu, at least one of these pre-Islamic cities was twice as large as Timbuktu at its height.

4. Warfare did not exist in the early period. A contributor to the BBC programme, Douglas Park, mentioned that archaeologists have found no evidence of warfare from these early cities. The evidence suggests that the people lived peaceably over many centuries.

5. Old Djenné, one of these early cities, had an iron industry from almost the foundation period of that city which was around 250 BC.

6. We know what the early urbanites were eating. According to archaeologists, in Old Djenné, the earliest inhabitants cooked and ate perch and catfish, and supplemented this with the flesh of crocodiles, tortoises and waterfowl. They also ate rice, sorghum and millet.

7. Even before the era of kings, the horse was an important animal among the Songhai. According to French historian, Jean Beraud-Villars: ‘They learned to use the horse, which will play a very important role in their history.’

8. Alayaman was the first documented king of Songhai ruling from 690 AD. He founded the Zuwa Dynasty, the first of three ruling Songhai Dynasties. He ruled from the ancient Songhai city of Kukiya.

9. The Songhai ruler based at the rival city of Gao or Kawkaw was the most powerful man in West Africa in the ninth century. According to Al Yaqubi writing in 872 AD: ‘Kawkaw is the greatest sovereignty of the Negroes, the most important and influential, to whom all the kingdoms pay allegiance … Subject to this (king) are a number of kingdoms which pay him allegiance and acknowledge his overlordship … Among them is the kingdom of Maraw which is extensive, whose king has a capital called al-Haya; and the kingdoms of Murdiya, al-Harbar, Sanhaja, Nadhkarir, Al-Zayanir, Arwar, Taqarut. All these are dependencies of the kingdom of Kawkaw.’

10. Kusoy, the fifteenth member of the Zuwa Dynasty, became Kukiya’s first Islamic king. Converting to Islam in 1009 or 1010, he appointed Muslims to governmental positions.

11. The insignia of the Songhai rulers consisted of a sword, a seal and a Koran by the eleventh century period – all sent from the Umayyad Dynasty ruling in Spain. By this period, Kawkaw and Kukiya were under one common ruler.

12. Salt was the Songhai currency. They mined it in the Berber territories and carried it south by caravan. There were royal storehouses for salt.

13. The Zuwa Dynasty had royal burials with tombstones of Spanish marble. Many of these exquisite tombstones continue to survive today.

14. The city of Gao had glass windows. Dr Tim Insoll of Cambridge University recovered an artefact in a 1993 excavation and later exhibited it in the British Museum. The caption connected to this artefact read as follows ‘Fragments of alabaster window surrounds and a piece of pink window glass. Gao 10th - 14th centuries.’

15. Gao was an important city of trade and business. According to Al Idrissi, a Moorish geographer, Gao was a ‘populous, unwalled, commercial and industrial town, in which were to be found the produce of all arts and trades necessary for the use of its inhabitants.’

16. The Zuwa Dynasty had interesting court rituals. The playing of drums signified to the public that the king was eating and thus all activity in the capital stopped. Dancers with hair plaited like rats tails performed the hair dance and entertained the ruler as he ate. Following the royal meal, they threw the remains of the food into the nearby river. At this point, the royal drummers played a different rhythm which sent a message to the public that they could resume business as usual. At this point, members of the court gathered and sent out a loud cheer.

17. The First Songhai Empire had a well organised army. Al Idrissi in 1153 wrote: ‘The king of Kawkaw … has a large bodyguard, a considerable retinue, generals and armies, complete with uniforms and fine decorations. They ride horses and camels, and are brave and overawe the neighbouring tribes who surround their land.’

18. The First Songhai Empire had a powerful merchant caste. Al Idrissi wrote: ‘[T]heir merchants dress in tunics and gowns with turbans around their heads and ornaments of gold. The nobles and notables, who wear the izar [i.e. a head-wrap derived from a mouth veil], have dealings with the merchants and sit in with them and advance them goods in return for a share in the profits.’

19. Traditional religions were practised and had a public presence. Al Bakri, writing in 1067, mentions that, despite the Emperor being a Muslim, the people of Kawkaw had icons similar to those adored by other Negroes. In the sixteenth century, temples dedicated to the worship of the traditional deities remained standing in Gao and Djenné.

20. The terracotta art of Old Djenné was sculpted by women artists. According to Dr Peter Garlake, a distinguished scholar of African antiquities, African societies made a rigid division between metallurgy as a male preserve and pottery as a female preserve. This division occurs across Africa and remains a long-lived tradition. This ultimately means that the terracotta art of the Niger Inland Delta (and across Africa in general) was the work of female artists.

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21. Mansa Musa I, emperor of Mali, conquered Songhai in 1325. The First Songhai Empire collapsed and it was absorbed into the Mali Empire. This ended the first great era of Songhai history.

22. Despite being colonised, Gao continued to be a great city. Ibn Battuta, a fourteenth century visitor, described Gao as ‘one of the finest cities of the blacks.’

23. Cowrie shells replaced salt as the principal currency during this period but both currencies remained in use. Ibn Battuta tells us that 1,150 cowries equalled one golden dinar in value. Also 1,200 cowries equalled one large mithqal of gold.

24. The Sunni Dynasty, the second Songhai ruling house, declared the Songhai independent of the Mali Empire. Unfortunately scholars cannot agree on what date this event happened. Some give the date as 1355. Others say 1375.

25. The Songhai Kingdom expanded into the Second Songhai Empire under Sulayman, the seventeenth member of the Sunni Dynasty. Among other territories, Sulayman seized the province of Mina in Masina in the mid fifteenth century.

26. Sunni Sulayman was a brilliant soldier. According to Professor Molefi Asante: ‘It is said that his troops were so quick that they stole the day from the enemies while they were still asleep and kept them in perpetual darkness.’

27. Sunni Ali, his successor, was even more distinguished. According to Professor Cheikh Anta Diop, the brilliant Senegalese historian, Ali (ruled 1464-1492) ‘was the first emperor to take the title of Dali, which is the equivalent of Caesar in the African tradition.’

28. Conspicuous consumption existed at that time. Askiya the Great, founder of the Askiya Dynasty, the third Songhai ruling house, launched a pilgrimage to Mecca through Cairo in late 1496 requiring ‘seventy leopard-skin bags to hold his robes.’

29. Askiya the Great (ruled 1493-1529) had access to enormous wealth. In the words of Professor John Jackson, a distinguished African American historian: ‘Some 300,000 pieces of gold were allotted for the financing of this trip. One third of the amount was used to cover the cost of travel; another third was distributed as alms [i.e. charity] in the holy cities of Arabia, and for the support of an inn in Mecca for the housing of Sudanese [i.e. West African] pilgrims; and the last third was expended in the purchase of merchandise.’

30. Three hundred thousand gold pieces was an astronomical amount of money. According to Professor Hunwick of Northwestern University: ‘It is equivalent in weight to about 44,850 oz. (or 2805 lbs. = 1,275 kg.), and at today’s prices would be worth over £8m ($13m).


31. Songhai flourished exceedingly during the time of Askiya the Great. Mr J. A. Rogers, the brilliant Jamaican researcher, explains that: ‘Under the leadership of Askia, the Songhai Empire flourished until it became one of the richest of that period. Timbuctoo became the real center of the Mohammedan world, and was known as the “The Queen of the Sudan,” and “The Mecca of the Sudan”.’

32. The Songhai army was tightly structured under the Askiya Dynasty. The emperor was the commander-in-chief of the army and would direct military operations in person. He was also responsible for appointing the generals, the most important of which was the dina-koi, the generalissimo. However, each province of the Empire had various corps of men under the command of the civil authority. The provincial governor, therefore, had an army at his disposal, headed by a general. There was thus a hierarchy from the Askiya, then the dina-koi, i.e. generalissimo, then a position such as the Djenné-koi, i.e. administrative or military chief for Djenné – other territories would have their own, then the general, then the tunkoï, kuran, and soira, i.e. three lowest military positions.

33. The government was tightly structured. According to Professor Diop and Professor Trimingham, the Second Songhai Empire had the following administrative positions:

  • Local Governor of a province or a town
  • Police Commissioner
  • Head Judge
  • Three levels of military personnel below the position of Captain in the territorial guards
  • Administrators and military chiefs of the territorial guards
  • Directors of ports
  • Chief of the navy responsible for ships and smaller craft
  • Chief tax collector
  • Dignitary in charge of markets
  • Dignitary with responsibility for making saddles
  • Administrator in charge of the affairs concerning the Arabs and Berbers
  • Suburban Administrator of a city
  • Chief of etiquette and protocol
  • Minister of property
  • Superintendent of forests
  • Chief of forests
  • Superintendent of waterways, who policed the rivers, lakes and fisheries
  • Minister in charge of affairs concerning the white minorities inhabiting the country
  • Chief of the cavalry
  • Inspector of agriculture

34. The Songhai kings had a strict system for collecting taxes and customs. They collected taxes in gold pieces but also collected in kind, especially from slaves – the treasury had large stores of grain, saddles, swords and fabrics. The royal treasury also contained golden coins and nuggets of gold.

35. Songhai had two official types of justice. One was royal justice, the other, Islamic justice.

36. Royal justice dealt with major crimes like treason. The emperor would oversee the hearings and hand down the punishment. The emperor also had the power to pardon anyone.

37. Qadis were the judges who presided over Islamic justice. They handled day-to-day matters of justice including local disputes, civil law and criminal law cases. West African societies followed the interpretation of Koranic law according to the school of the Imam Malik, an eighth century AD Arabian scholar.

38. The mosques and houses of qadis were sanctuaries. If a criminal or a banished person entered such places, the other authorities could not touch them. The qadi may even win a pardon from the emperor on behalf of such a criminal.

39. Songhai’s legal system involved the use of forms and documents. Al-Sadi, a seventeenth century African scholar, provides the following example: ‘Tuesday, when we entered the prison, we found the unfortunate Salti in a pitiful state. I read him the register of the inventory, and as he declared that this was indeed his entire fortune, we attested to it in writing on the register to vouch for its authenticity.’

40. The Songhai kings aimed to remain dignified at all times. Like kings across a wide variety of African kingdoms, the Songhai king would never publicly raise his voice. If the king had something to say, he would tell his herald who, in turn, would repeat it to the general assembly. If a member of the public wanted to approach the king, he would remove his headdress, and cover his head with dust showing respect.

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41. The court musicians played trumpets and drums. According to Major Felix Dubois: ‘Upon the occasions of [the ruler] going out, his cortège was preceded by musicians, drums, and trumpets, and he rode in solitary state, with his suite at a respectful distance behind.’

42. The Second Songhai Empire Period had a merchant caste. Mahmud Kati, a sixteenth century African historian, tells us that: ‘If you ask what the difference is between a Malinke and a Wangara, both people share the same origin. However, Malinke used to refer to the soldiers, but Wangara indicates the merchants who carry on trade from one country to another.’

43. The Songhai region became a place of great wealth. According to Major Felix Dubois: ‘The prosperity of the Sudan [i.e. West Africa], and its wealth and commerce, were known far and wide in the sixteenth century. Caravans returning along the coasts proclaimed its splendours in their camel loads of gold, ivory, hides, musk, and the spoils of the ostrich. The Portuguese (always the first traders of Europe), endeavoured at this time to enter into relations with these countries of the Niger, whose magnificence had become a proverb. “As tar cures the gall of a camel, so poverty find its unfailing remedy in the Sudan,” was the saying of northern Africa.’

44. We know what people were wearing in the sixteenth century. Leo Africanus tells of men and women wearing veils in Walata. He describes the people of Djenné as well-dressed, wearing large swathes of black or blue cotton, also turbans of the same colour. In the case of the priests and the doctors (i.e. scholars), they wore white. He saw women wearing veils in Timbuktu.

45. The market traders were generally honest people. According to English historian Lady Lugard: ‘The markets were, it is said, rendered so honest, that a child might go into the market-place and would bring back full value for value sent.’

46. One of the currencies was golden coinage. According to Leo Africanus: ‘The coin of Timbuktu is of gold without any stamp or superscription, but in matters of small value they use certain shells [i.e. cowries] brought here from Persia, four hundred of which are worth a ducat and six pieces of their own gold coin each of which weighs two-thirds of an ounce.’

47. The gold miners were industrious beyond belief. According to Professor Charles Finch speaking of the combined gold output of Songhai and previous empires in the same region: ‘It is estimated that the total amount of gold mined in West Africa up to [the year] 1500 was 3,500 tons, worth more than $30 billion in today’s market [i.e. in 1998].’

48. The Mali and Songhai Empire had banks. In the words of Lady Lugard: ‘Systems of banking and credit, which seem to have existed under the earlier kings of [Mali], were improved. Banking remained chiefly in the hands of the Arabs, from whom letters of credit could be procured, which were operative throughout the Soudan [i.e. West Africa], and were used by the black travelling merchants as well as by Arab traders.’

49. Infant mortality was an important issue in Songhai. Mahmud Kati tells of Askia Dawud having at least 61 children (i.e. he had more than one wife). Of these, more than 30 of them died in childhood.

50. We know something of the lifestyle of a boy from a poor family. Mahmud Kati tells of Uthman whose daily chores included doing housework to help his mother, making food, pounding millet, carrying wood and water, and carrying wood to school. Children from poor families who could not afford to pay school fees, which ranged from 5 to 10 cowries per week in the late sixteenth century, paid in fire wood instead.

51. According to Professor Diop, pupils started school aged four or five. By the age of eleven, they should have been able to recite the Koran from memory and to write it out with the correct punctuation.

52. We know how school teachers were paid. Ali Takaria of Timbuktu, for example, received about 1,725 cowries per week. Since his pupils paid five to ten cowries per week, this suggests that he may have had about 230 fee paying pupils. If he was typical of other schoolmasters, there may well have been over 34,000 fee paying pupils in Timbuktu.

53. We know what subjects Songhai university students read. Typically, they studied Arabic grammar and syntax, astronomy, logic, rhetoric and prosody. Timbuktu academics purchased and copied books on a number of subjects including astronomy, astrology, botany, dogma, geography, Islamic law, literary analysis, mathematics (including calculus and geometry), medicine, mysticism, morphology, music, rhetoric, philosophy, the occult sciences, and geomancy. The Greek astronomer Ptolemy was a basic reference for Islamic astronomy. The Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, were also common. The Greek physician Hippocrates was popular as well as the Persian medical scholar Avicenna.

54. A surviving Timbuktu manuscript tells us how an ideal university student should conduct himself. He should be ‘[m]odest, courageous, patient and studious; he must listen carefully to his professor and have a solid understanding of his lessons before memorizing them. The students must learn to debate among themselves to deepen their understanding of the material. They must always have a great respect and a profound love for their teacher, because these are the conditions for professional success.’

55. The university degrees took ten years to complete. According to Professor Henry Louis Gates, the community honoured their graduates and gave them key societal positions. Students received a traditional turban on their graduation.

56. There were a number of career options available to graduates. Some lecturers issued licences authorising their best students to teach particular texts. Thus, some students became teachers and lecturers. Others became judges and imams. The rural holy men became parish priests – attending to every part of the life cycle of their flock.

57. The family members of different generations usually lived in a group of houses or maisonettes next to each other called a compound. They built these habitations around a round or square interior courtyard. The compounds occupied a larger land area in the villages but a lesser area in the cities because the town houses had more than one storey.

58. Marriage linked the larger families into social units called castes. Each caste specialised in a different trade or business. Reinforcing this was a religious belief that the ancestor of the caste entered into a contract with the ancestor spirit who first taught that trade to humanity by passing it down to the caste.

59. Cultured and aristocratic women in Timbuktu serenaded their husbands before seducing them. According to historian Salem Ould Elhadj, they played the fiddle in a domestic context amongst other women and for their husbands. After dinner, the wife would burn incense as a seductive prelude followed by serenading her husband. Traditionally, she played until her husband slept.

60. Men and women suffered from some of the sexual problems that are common today. A surviving manuscript from the Ahmed Baba library collection in Timbuktu entitled Advising Men on Sexual Engagement with their Women discusses various concoctions of the ‘hubble, bubble, toil and trouble’ variety that allegedly improves sperm count, combats impotence, increases libido, helps sexual potency, and strengthens the husband’s and the wife’s orgasm.

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61. Women could divorce their husbands. A manuscript from the Ahmed Baba library collection has a wife repudiating her husband by comparing him to her father. This comparison meant that her former husband was now sexually off limits just as her father is off limits. This is unusual. In typical Islamic divorce situations, it is the husband who repudiates his wife by comparing her to his mother!

62. The Songhai cities became divided into quarters. The populations became heterogeneous, divided into wards based on ethnicity, or according to trade specialisms or professions. The different ethnicities had their own quarters in the cities. The different tradespeople had their own quarters including metalworkers, tanners, weavers and tailors. Each quarter had its own social life, market and mosque.

63. West Africa continued to be highly urbanised. According to Sergio Domian, an authority on West African architecture, the Malian Empire of the fourteenth century has highly urbanised: ‘At the height of its power, Mali had at least 400 cities, and the interior of the Niger Delta region was very densely populated.’ Songhai inherited these cities in the sixteenth century.

64. Gao had a population of 100,000 people. A 1585 AD census suggests that Gao had 7,626 blocks of walled houses, ignoring straw huts. According to Sergio Domian, this suggests a population of 100,000 people.

65. We know what life was like at the Gao palace. According to Leo Africanus, the ruler had a special palace set aside for women, concubines, their guarding eunuchs and slaves. Between the public gate and the private door to the palace was a large walled courtyard. There were galleries on each side of the courtyard for the king to hold public audiences. The palace area had cavalry, armed foot soldiers, secretaries, advisors, captains and stewards.

66. The biggest product in Timbuktu was books. According to Leo Africanus: ‘In Timbuktu there are numerous judges, doctors [i.e. of letters] and clerics all receiving good salaries from the King. He pays great respect to men of learning. There is a big demand for books in manuscript, imported from [North Africa]. More profit is made from the book trade than from any other line of business.’

67. We know how the people of Timbuktu amused themselves. According to Lady Lugard: ‘[M]usic held always a high place, and under Askia the Great’s successors, orchestras, provided with singers of both sexes, were much frequented. Of Askia the Great himself, it is said that “his mind was set towards none of these things.” Chess-playing, of a kind which is particularly described as “Soudanese chess”, was carried to the extreme of a passion. We hear of a general in the reign of one of the succeeding Askias, who gave it as an excuse for allowing himself to be surprised by the enemy's cavalry, that he was so much absorbed in a game of chess as not to have paid attention to the reports of his scouts.’

68. A modern architectural scholar had high praise for the ancient city of Djenné. Its buildings were attractive with houses of two storeys, with indoor drainage systems. So impressive was the city that a modern architect, Pierre Maas, wrote a book whose title translates as Djenné: An Architectural Masterpiece.

69. The Djenné houses had indoor toilets. According to Major Felix Dubois: ‘A system of baked pipes is established in every dwelling to carry away the household water, and latrines, with perfectly constructed drainage, are established on all the terraces.’

70. We know what was inside the Songhai houses. According to Mahmud Kati, the sixteenth century African historian, the Songhai houses had doors that locked with keys, furniture that needed a key to open it, a wardrobe, chairs, prayer rugs, blankets for sleeping, and large quantities of merchandise including grain and salt.

71. The Great Mosque of Djenné is the pre-eminent example of the Western Sudanic style of architecture. Jean-Louis Bourgeois, an authority on the monument, described it as ‘the largest adobe building in the world.’

72. ‘Hating’ was a big problem in Djenné during this period. According to Al-Sadi, the seventeenth century Songhai historian, among many admirable qualities (they were kind, charitable and solicitous), the people of Djenné possessed a trait that we recognise today among many Black peoples. Al-Sadi said that if a person becomes successful, the others uniformly hate him but pretend not to show it. However if something goes wrong, they will show it.

73. The towns and cities were surrounded by thousands of villages. In the district of Djenné alone, there were more than 7,000 villages.

74. The village cottages were built circular for good mathematical and economic reasons. According to Professor Claudia Zaslavsky, an American mathematician: ‘The circular house in its many versions is found throughout the [African] continent. The circle, of all closed geometric shapes … encompasses the greatest area within a given perimeter. Confronted by a scarcity of building materials … the African chooses the circle as the most economical form.’

75. Agriculture was highly organised. In the words of Professor Diop: ‘In Black Africa, crop rotation, irrigation, and manuring of fields were all practised.’

76. Some Songhai plantation slaves became rich. According to Professor Hunwick: ‘From the time of Askiya Dawud, if not before, the askiyas had their own estates where rice was cultivated along the Niger from Dendi to Lake Debo. The estates were worked by slaves and supervised by slave officials, some of whom evidently grew quite rich and powerful.’

77. The farmers were highly industrious people. Sergio Domian says: ‘In the Middle Ages, the Sudan (i.e. West Africa) was an extremely rich region, and all the travellers of the time mentioned the abundance of edible products.’

78. During the Second Empire Period, tea was highly prized, particularly in Timbuktu.

79. Songhai had a drink similar to white wine. According to Richard Jobson, a seventeenth century traveller: ‘[W]e note Palmeta trees, and in some places there are whole grounds or groves of them, the use whereof is to draw from them a most sweet and pleasant drink, which we call Palmeta Wine [i.e. palm wine] … the taste whereof, doth truly resemble white Wine when it comes first over into England, having the same sweetness of taste, and in colour.’

80. Songhai had milk, yoghurt and two types of butter. According to Jobson: ‘[W]e should be sure to have their custom every day, which was to bring us new milk, sour milk, and curds, and two sorts of butter, the one new and white, the other hard and of an excellent colour, which we called refined butter, and is with out question, but for a little freshness, as good as any we have at home: all which they brought unto us, in great and small gourds like dishes, made up very handsomely.’

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81. In Timbuktu they still have the old mediaeval texts passed down as family heirlooms. There are around 60 private libraries in Timbuktu still owned by Black families and institutions. National Geographic estimates that 700,000 manuscripts have survived in Timbuktu alone.

82. Timbuktu’s book industry was well structured and extensive. At the end of a book was stated the title, the author, the date of the manuscript copy, and the names of the scribes who copied it. Some books also named the proofreaders and the vocalisers (i.e. scribes who added vowels to Arabic).

83. Commercial documents have survived that typically began with the phrase ‘let all who read this document know.’ Following this were the names of the buyer and the seller, a detailed description of the product, a declaration of the legal validity of the sale, a confirmation that the purchaser paid the price in full, and the name of the drafter and the date.

84. The old manuscripts show that the Timbuktu scholars also studied botany, medicine, biology, chemistry, mathematics and climatology. According to Curtis Abraham in New Scientist: ‘With barely a dent made in the Timbuktu manuscripts, the team are in a race against time. Over the centuries, the documents have been subjected to the ravages of temperature fluctuations, humidity, dust and grit, and many of the texts, written on delicate paper, are beginning to disintegrate. While conservationists race to save the manuscripts, Medupe’s team plans to expand the project next year to cover botany, medicine, biology, chemistry, mathematics and climatology.’

85. Political infighting weakened the Songhai Empire. According to Professor Trimingham, an authority on West African history: ‘The subsequent history of succession to the throne is a series of fratricidal struggles, palace revolutions, and coups d’état. Eight askiyas occupied the throne between 1528 and 1591.’

86. Askiya Musa, the second member of the Askiya Dynasty, was a tyrant. Mahmud Kati wrote: ‘No one more despicable or vile than the Askiya Musa ever occupied the royal throne of the Songhai.’

87. Court life was embellished during the time of Askiya Bonkana, the third member of the Askiya Dynasty. According to Lady Lugard: ‘[T]he palace was enlarged and greatly embellished, the court thronged with courtiers in ever-increasing numbers. The habits of dress became sumptuous, and it would seem from incidental allusions that different functionaries had their different uniforms and insignia of office, to the wearing of which great value was attached. The dress and appointments of women became also extravagantly luxurious. They were served on gold. In full dress their persons were covered with jewels, and the wives of the rich when they went out were attended by well-dressed slaves.’

88. Apparently Askiya Ismail was jealous of the attention an ostrich gave to Bonkana and used it to justify overthrowing him. Major Felix Dubois quotes Ismail as follows: “I accepted the honour [of seizing the throne and becoming the next ruler] for three reasons, to rescue my father from his distressful condition, to enable my sisters to resume wearing the veil that Bankouri [i.e. Bonkana] had obliged them to relinquish, and to pacify Yan Mara, one of the hundred hen ostriches who was want to throw herself into a frenzy whenever she saw Bankouri.”

89. Askiya Dawud, the sixth member of the Askiya Dynasty, married a Malian princess in some style. Al-Sadi recorded that: ‘He caused the princess to be conducted to Songhai in a sumptuous train. She was covered with jewels, surrounded by numerous slaves, both men and women, and provided with an abundant baggage train. All of the utensils of the household were of gold – dishes, pitchers, pestle and mortar, everything.’

90. Askiya Muhammad Bani, the eighth member of the Askiya Dynasty, died an unfortunate death. In the words of Professor Diop: ‘When balama Mohammed es-Sâdek revolted against Askia Mohammed Bano [i.e. Bani] and in March 1588 attempted to march on Kaoga, the Askia, who came forth to challenge him to battle, wore an iron breastplate. As it was extremely hot and the Askia was very fat, he died of the effects of his armor.’

91. Even a racist account from a European scribe gave positive information about Africans. An old source attributed to ‘An Anonymous Spaniard’ tells us of what information a contemporary European received about Askiya Ishaq II, the ninth member of the Askiya Dynasty: ‘It is said that Ishaq of Gao is a man of forty-five years. Although black, he is truthful and faithful to his word, and has a very gentle nature, and many good qualities; he is well loved by his subjects. He is not depraved as are the Moors of Marrakesh and Fez, and has no other vices than those permitted by his religion.’

92. Songhai was destroyed by a Moroccan army armed by Queen Elizabeth I of England. Sultan El Mansur of Morocco wrote to Queen Elizabeth I on June 23 1590 requesting England’s assistance to destroy Songhai. The Queen was more than happy to supply artillery, cannonballs, guns and soldiers.

93. The lure of Songhai's wealth attracted other greedy Europeans. In fact, of the 4,000 men in El Mansur’s first division of the army, 2,500 were Europeans. According to Professor DeGraft-Johnson, the distinguished Ghanaian historian: ‘So ready were Europeans to enlist in this Moroccan army that Spanish became its official language.’

94. On October 25 1590, the Arab European army left Morocco to invade Songhai. The army consisted of 2,000 soldiers, 1,500 lancers, 500 cavalry, 1,000 camel-men, 8,000 camels, 1,000 packhorses and 600 scouts. Presumably, the 7,000 camels without camel-men were laden with artillery and supplies.

95. Judar Pasha, a Spanish slave, led the invasion. The records describe him as ‘a little eunuch with blue eyes.’

96. The invasion and conquest of Songhai destroyed West African urban culture. In the words of a modern historian: ‘Vast agglomerations of people dwindle into insignificant villages. Timbuktu which had a population of 200,000 dwindled into a village of 15,000 people … Even moral standards were relaxed in the midst of this universal distress.’

97. The invaders stole so much gold from Songhai that the Sultan of Morocco employed 1,400 smiths to melt it down. An old Moroccan source says: ‘There were fourteen hundred smiths in his palace employed in making the gold into coins, while other portions of the treasure were converted into necklaces and jewels, and the name of El Dékébi (the Golden) was given to the sultan.’

98. The conquerors destroyed tons of Songhai written documents. According to Professor Diop: ‘Also lost were the judicial and administrative archives: assistants of cadis kept minutes of the sessions. But tons of documents have disappeared.’

99. The Arab European invasion was a disaster for Songhai. In the words of Lady Lugard: ‘[W]hile other forms of wealth were greedily appropriated, the contents of the libraries were destroyed. The sack of Timbuctoo was the signal for the letting loose of all the evils of lawless tyranny upon the country. From this time the history of the Soudan becomes a mere record of riot, robbery and decadence.’

100. A West African historian of the seventeenth century wrote History of the Sudan to preserve the record of Songhai history before the evidence disappeared altogether. According to Al-Sadi, author of History of the Sudan: ‘I saw the ruin and collapse of the science of history and I observed that its gold pieces and small change were both disappearing. This science is rich in gems and can give many lessons because it gives people knowledge of their country, their ancestors, their records, the names of heroes and their biographies. With the help of God, I undertook to record all that I had been able to glean about the princes of the Songhai people, telling their adventures, history, exploits and battles. Then I added the history of Timbuktu from the foundation of that city, of the princes that ruled there, and the scholars and saints who lived there.’

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