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  • William Tyler

Always a student: West African Empires

A late friend of mine, Professor Brian Groombridge, once said, 'we are learning animals from the moment of our birth to the moment of our death'. I believe that implicitly, and have found the present pandemic crisis has been a good time to take up new historical interests. For some time, having taught the colonial history of Africa, I knew that my understanding of pre-colonial history was almost entirely missing. history. Reading Fauvelle's 'The Golden Rhinoceros' set me off on a new search for knowledge.


What comes below is an account of my early dabblings in the subject. I am going to share with you a very brief look at the three great medieval (to use a eurocentric phrase) empires of West Africa - Ghana, Mali, and Songhai.


But, before I do so, I should like to make a few general points about pre-colonial African history :

  1. Fauvelle in 'The Golden Rhinoceros' reminds us, as Europeans, that 'we must free ourselves from the image of a "uniform" and "eternal" Africa, of an Africa of innumerable and unchanging "tribes", of an Africa conceived as the reliquary of our "origins", for we are going to speak about African societies in history."

  2. There are problems relating to research in this area, and that is the paucity of written sources. Yet there are written sources in many parts of the continent that cover this period, although little known outside academic circles, and there is also the evidence of archaeology (although this is very much still in its infancy).

  3. To bring some sort of order to this area, we need to differentiate North Africa from the whole of sub Saharan Africa. North Africa, forming as it does the southern coast line of The Mediterranean, was very much an integrated part of the Ancient World. One only needs to think of the great civilisations of Egypt, or even of Carthage to understand the point that I am making. This is also the starting point for Islam in the continent.

  4. It is equally important not to approach this area with a map of 21st century Africa in your mind. The countries of Africa are modern; the creation of European Imperialists in the 19th and 20th centuries. They bear little historical continuity to the past, and thus in this fundamental way does the history of Africa differ from that of Europe or of Asia.

So to return to our three West African Empires:


GHANA (700-1200 AD). This must never be confused with the modern state of Ghana, as the original Ghana Empire did not include the territory of the modern state. The name Ghana was chosen in 1957 at the independence of The Gold Coast in order to emphasise the break with the colonial past. Nkrumah chose 'Ghana' as it was simply an old flourishing medieval state in West Africa. The original Ghana covered what is today Mauretania, Senegal, and Mali, and was known as Wagadou, for Ghana, the word, referred not to the land but to the ruler.

As with all three of these Empires Islam is at their core, although traditional African religions continued for many of the less educated. The embracing of Islam was, of course, a great benefit to trade, but it also opened up a whole new intellectual world. Islam as a religion didn't really percolate down to the ordinary people until the 19th century, remaining the religion of the political and intellectual elite. Also, as in the case of all three of these empires, Ghana's wealth came from trade, a link with the lands south of it, and with the lands north of the Sahara. Trade northwards was principally in gold, coming from further south. It also traded leather goods and salt. Salt was of the utmost importance right across the world. Without salt humanity cannot exist. It was trade which was the spur to Ghana's enlargement as it sought to protect its trade routes from robbers or other hostiles.

Early attempts to discover its past from archaeology was begun by French colonial archaeologists in the 1920s, and our knowledge from this source has continued to grow. Our principal contemporary written source is that of Ibn Bakri.

Ibn Bakri (c. 1040-1094) was an Arabic writer from Spain (Muslim Andalusia). He drew his information about Africa from traders and other visitors. Of Ghana, he writes, 'The city of Ghana consists of two towns situated on a plain....One of these towns, which is inhabited by Muslims, is large and possesses twelve mosques.....There are salaried imams and muezzins...."


MALI (1200-1500). Mali was known for its great wealth of gold, and its greatest ruler, Masa Musa, is regarded as the richest person who has ever lived. It is said that in today's money he was worth $ 400 billion. The Empire held three of the largest goldmines in the world, and by around 1300 it has been estimated that 50% of the world's gold derived from Mali. When Masa Musa travelled on pilgrimage to Mecca, with 60 thousand in his train plus a further 12 thousand slaves, it is said he distributed so much gold in Cairo en route that the city's currency was devalued for twelve years.

The Mali Empire did incorporate the modern state of Mali, but also covered South Mauretania, Senegal, North Burkino-Faso, Western Niger, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Northern Ghana. Unsurprisingly the extent of its territory is larger than any earlier or even later West African state - 478,819 miles and over 400 cities.

We are especially fortunate to have four written sources for Mali's history. Writing in the 14th century, Ibn Khaldrun, Ibn Battuta, and Shihab al-Uamri, followed in the 16th century by Leo Africanus.

Of these Ibn Khaldrun (1332-1406) is perhaps the most significant for he is regarded by many as the greatest of the early Arab historians and his biographer describes him as a genius.. Oliver, in his life of Mansa Musa, writes '...he gathered from written records, interviews and, most importantly, from the oral traditions....".

A word here about West African oral traditions is not out of place. Known as GRIOTS these stories of the past were handed down by oral storytellers from generation to generation. Think of the great minstrels of Medieval England who had incredible memories, memorising enormously long and complex stories, and not just one story but many. A number of West African griots were transcribed by European researchers from the 19th century onwards. An invaluable additional source of material.


SONGHAI (1350-1600). Islam, trade, gold, salt the story of this empire mirrors those of the empires which preceded it. After its fall no other large state entity arose, and the lands that had comprised the empire fractured into a multitude of states and statelets, which is where the Europeans came in and began creating a new political map of West Africa.


Before I finish this all too short a view, I should like to have a word about camels and the city of Timbuktu.


CAMELS. The great ships of the desert. Without the camel, imported into West Africa from the North, there would have been far more difficulties encountered with trade. The camel was the backbone of the great Saharan caravan routes. No other pack animal, including human slaves, were nearly as efficient as the camel, who can survive in the desert without taking more water on board for seven months. Fauvelle even tells us 'In bad years, the burning wind dried out the water in the goatskins; consequently, a camel's throat had to be cut and its stomach removed. The water it contained was drawn off into a sump and drunk with a straw.'

However, when trade caravans went southwards from these Empires, camels proved less satisfactory in the grassland because they usually succumbed if bitten by the tsetse fly. as did cattle, and many people too - only the donkey was seldom affected, and thus it was the donkey which became in these areas the preferred beast of burden.


TIMBUKTU. To Europeans the great mystery city of gold in the desert. 'Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but the word of god and the treasures of wisdom come from Timbuktu'. This old saying from West Africa tells us the whole story of Timbuktu. It is the study of Islam, and the general academic studies centred on its university, founded by Masa Musa.

The first European to reach Timbuktu was Major Gordon Laing in the early 19th century. Unfortunately he did not return to tell his tale as he was murdered outside the city in 1826. The first to reach,and return, was a Frenchman, Rene Caillie, a year later in 1857.

Timbuktu's greatest treasure were the fantastic early Arabic manuscripts preserved in private libraries. As John Julius Norwich has written, 'What has kept Timbuktu in existence for the last 400 years [after the decline of the Saharan caravan routes] was neither gold dust nor slaves, but pride in a thousand years of Muslim scholarship and a carefully guarded inheritance of thousands of manuscripts".

In recent times, with Timbuktu finding itself in a very modern Islamic fundamentalist crusade, many of the manuscripts were burnt by followers of Ansar Dine. However, many others were secreted away and survived; a story told in Joshua Hammer's book, 'The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu'.


I hope you have enjoyed reading this very short introduction - as I have enjoyed researching and writing it - to a subject that for many of us has been little known.

In an interview in the current edition of the BBC History Magazine with Afua Hirsch, presenter of a new BBC 4 series on African Art, she says, '.....Europe has a lot to learn if it opens its eyes. That's the message that comes through these programmes. It is a series about art - and you can watch it just to see beautiful art if you want. But if you pay attention, you will also start to understand where this continent has been, where it's heading, and why everyone in the world should take it seriously'.

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