Medieval Africa – the great kingdoms

The joys of holiday reading – things that you are interested in for no ulterior process…

The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa is one of those books that does just what it says in the title: this introductory text by Patricia and Frederick McKissack sets out a brief history, a short outline of the life and economies of the kingdoms, and describes the sources on which this information is based – and their contradictions.

That’s great, and is probably all most readers are going to want, since I suspect most will, like I did, come to the subject from the starting point of almost total ignorance. What sparked my interest was a discussion on the Medieval-L listserv, which started with the incidence of the plague in Africa and branched out. I was vaguely aware that there were big and important kingdoms in West Africa at that time, but that knowledge was about as far as it goes.

Royal Kingdoms begins usefully with a map, which places the extent of the medieval kingdoms on a modern map. The first, Ghana (c. 300AD- c.1050AD), was (confusingly) largely in modern-day Mali. The second, Mali (c.1200AD-1500AD), extended beyond that, into the south of what is now Mauritania, most of Senegal and Guinea, and into the western corner of Niger, incorporating the one place name here that almost everyone will know – Timbuktu. Songhay (c.800AD-1580AD) was at its height the largest, extending to cover much of Niger, plus the north of Benin and Nigeria.

The basis of the economy of all of these empires was simple: salt and gold. The latter was so plentiful that it was said in the kingdom of Ghana the value of the two comodities was equivalent, pound for pound. The source of the salt was well-known – the city of Taghaza in the Sahara desert, where the mines were worked by slaves (either captives of war or criminals) whose lives were miserable and short. The city was so miserable that their free overseers worked only on two-month contracts.

Gold-mining by contrast was a lucrative, if secretive, trade. The location of the mines was a closely guarded secret – one that the archaeologists are still arguing about – and a 10th-century writer from Baghdad, Al-Musadi, reported that a special method of “dumb bartering” was used in its trade. Merchants would arrive with grain, leather, cloth and salt and spread out their goods, before beating a special drum to announce the start of the trade, then leaving. The miners then left a measure of gold dust they considered fair payments. The traders on their return to the market site then had to decide if it was adequate – if so, they took it and left; if not, they again left their goods and departed, indicating they wanted more gold.

These two commodities were the basis of trade, but not far from the only goods available. Caravans reached the Ghana capital Kuombi Saleh from Egypt, Arabia, and even central Asia. From Arabia they crossed the continent through Awdoghast, from North Africa through Sijilmasa in Morocco. The wealth of Ghana with its gold meant the finest luxury goods, silks, furs, jewels travelled these long camel routes.

On the account provided by the McKissacks the farmers, who were 80% of the population of Ghana, lived a relatively comfortable life, largely in extended family compounds, with several of these making up a village. There is archaeological evidence for dikes and earth dams for irrigation, and certainly the production must have been sophisticated to produce the surplus to feed the cities. But male farmers were also soldiers, owing their king a month’s military service each year.

It is clear that there’s historiographical controversy over the fall of Ghana. Arab sources suggest that this was down to the Almoravids, radical Muslim reformers who between 1054 and 1059 made conquests as far afield as the Moroccan city of Sijilmasa and Muslim Spain. But the McKissacks suggest that the real cause was the rise of a group from within Ghana, the Susu, who broke away and fatally weakened the kingdom.

The following rise of Mali is also buried in controversy, for the Arab sources paint it as a struggle between the evil (i.e. non-Muslim) Susu king Sumanguru and the king of another group, the Mandinka, Sogolon-Djata, who had converted to Islam. The McKissacks say describe him as “the King Arthur and George Washington of Mali”.

But the best-known king came later – Mansa Kankan Musa I, who made a famed pilgrimage to Mecca, arriving in Cario in 1324 with 500 slaves, each carrying a six-pound staff of gold. Altogether, there were 60,000 people in the caravan. By the time he left the gold market was saturated, and it took more than a dozen years to recover.

One of the problems the authors encounter, and about which they are entirely open, is the nature of the sources. Most written sources come from a Muslim perspective, which produces a perspective skewed by an antipathy to kings and peoples who hung on to their traditional animist faiths, and by the fact that many of the writers were only visitors to the kingdoms – and sometimes even were only recording other travellers’ reports. Then there is still fragmentary archaeological evidence – the site of the capital of Mali has not even been definitively identified. And then there is the traditional record of the region, preserved by the griots, the traditional bards or poets from a still-living Homeric-style practice. These records have their value, but the history is often obscured by thick layers of myth.

But there is a solid Arabic chronicler of Mali – the famed traveller Ibn Battuta, who reached the capital in the time of Musa I’s son. He praised the peace of the kingdom, saying that thee was “complete and general safety throughout the land”, and even if a foreigner died there, his goods were not seized, but protected for his proper heirs.

Much, however, is, and is likely to remain, uncertain. An Arabic writer records the account of someone who met Mansa Musa during his hajj and reported that the king had said he’d, some time between 1300 and 1310, sent an expedition to sail westwards, across the Atlantic – but only one returned. The McKissacks say:
“The story of the Malian fleet is very controversial. Al-Umari’s narrative is unequivocal and Mali may well have had the resources to undertake an expedition of this kind…. But al-Umari also states that the mission failed, and archaeologists insist that there is no record of any contact across the ocean.”

As that passage indicates, the language the McKissacks use is simple and straightforward, sometimes a little basic – this is a text that might easily be read by high school students, and that grates on the ear occasionally. But knowledge of these great kingdoms should be spread as far and wide as possible, so it is a price worth paying. They also illustrate the text with a scattering of black and white photos, well-chosen, particularly for explaining the distinctive architecture of the region. And I doubt that I’d really have grasped the nature of a balaphon from any written description.

And when the McKissacks get to the final kingdom in their story, Songhay, they have more and richer written sources to draw upon – particularly the accounts of Leo Africanus, the Spanish Moor who was converted to Christianity, and of Mahmud al-Kati, a doctor of Islamic law at Sankore University in Timbuktu who was descended from the Soninke, the people who had ruled old Ghana. (Although his text survives only as part of more recent works.)

Leo Africanus provides a vivid account of the dangers of the caravan trade. “[When merchants couldn’t find water they perished. Their] carcasses are afterwards found lying scattered here and there, scorched with the heat of the sun.” But the culture of Timbuktu impressed him: “There are numerous judges, doctors and clerics all receiving good salaries from the king.”

This was a city only recent recovered from disaster, for it hit by religious struggles of the 15th century. The founder king of the Songhay empire, Sunni Ali Ber (Ali the Great) had been a warrior who was Muslim in name only, and his son, Baru, was likewise, reportedly refusing to say his prayers five times a day but repeating them all at once. On campaign he cut that down further by just reciting the names of the prayers. And women were unveiled in his cities, and traditional rituals were part of state ceremonies. A group of devout Muslims demanded a tightening of religious control, but he responded that religion was a private matter in which even a king had no right to interfere.

It was this that led to his downfall in a religious-inspired coup, and it was religious enthusiasm that led to Songhay reaching the greatest extent of these three empires, under the usurper Askia Muhammad Toure, who sent his troops east against the Hausa states between the Niger River and Lake Chad, then north against the Tuaregs.

But perhaps it was this overextension, perhaps the apparent threat, for it was not long before, with Songhay weakened by a series of short-lived kings, the sultan of Morocco, Mulay Ahmed, in 1590 sent an expedition across the Sahara, which had previously seemed a militarily impenetrable barrier. They were armed with arquebuses, an early musket, and disciplined and well-trained. This, and the surprise factor, was enough to overwhelm Songhay, althought the occupation only continued until 1618, when Morocco realised that the distances were just too great for real control. But descendants of the Moroccan soldiers formed scores of minor principalities, becoming dictators known and Arma, and Songhay, and the trans-Saharan trade, never recovered. Many of the people of the region ended up as slaves, transported to the Americas. But one thing was saved – the location of the gold mines was kept from the conquerors.

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