Book Review: A history of West Africa’s golden empires
Book Review: A history of West Africa’s golden empires
“African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa” sheds new light on the golden empires that controlled the West African interior and an astonishing patchwork of people who wrote their story against considerable odds. Drawing on a rich variety of sources including Arabic manuscripts and oral histories as well as recent archaeological findings, Michael Gomez puts early and medieval West Africa in a global context. This ground-breaking history reveals not only the wealth of these golden empires but also the important role of Islam.
Islam’s expansion, combined with the growth of commercial ties, triggered a series of unique political experiments which gave rise to empires in which the question of slavery was a major preoccupation. This encouraged a deep and original reflection resulting in the birth of new ideas and concepts long before the seeds of colonialism and the slave trade were sown.
This book invites us into West Africa’s multifaceted past at a time when the continent was both powerful and free from the scourge of slavery and the grip of imperialism. The author deplores the West’s collective silence on early and medieval Africa and the blatant lack of research despite considerable developments in the region, especially in the field of archaeology.
The discovery of hundreds of urban sites with an adjacent production of various local crafts gives the region a rightful place among world civilizations such as the Tang dynasties in China, the Vedic period in India and the Mayan civilization.
The Empire of Ghana was the first state established in West Africa in AD300 and when it reached its heyday during the 8th century, it covered much of present-day Mali and parts of eastern Senegal. Ghana was extremely wealthy and powerful, although it was the smallest of the so-called golden empires including Mali and Songhai.
Al Bakri, an Andalusian Berber historian and the greatest geographer in the Muslim West, is a major source of information thanks to his “Book of Highways and of Kingdoms,” written in 1068. It is based on literature and reports of merchants and travelers and gives crucial information on the Ghana Empire.
Al Bakri notices that “only the king and his heir apparent may wear sown clothes, other people wear robes of cotton, silk or brocade, according to their means.” The king sat in a domed pavilion in royal sessions and flanked on his right stood “the sons of the king of his country wearing splendid garments and their hair plaited with gold.” To approach the king, the people would fall on their knees and sprinkle dust on their heads, for this is their way of greeting him, “while the Muslims only clapped their hands.”
Traders introduced Islam to Ghana from the northern part of the country but it could not save the empire, which was eventually incorporated in the Empire of Mali.
Mali is probably the most legendary of West African empires. Founded in the middle of the 13th century by Sundiata Keita, leader of the Malinke people, it reached its apogee in the 14th century. Its gold mines aroused the interest of the European powers.
King Kankan Musa, grandnephew of Sundiata Keita, became one of the most extraordinary of all African kings. He ascended the throne at the age of 23 and reigned for 25 years. He is mostly remembered from the historical accounts related to his Hajj, which he performed at the age of 35 in 1324.
Ibn Kathir wrote in his book “The Beginning and the End of History” that Musa was accompanied by 20,000 people when he arrived in Cairo en route to the Pilgrimage. Other sources give different numbers, but these discrepancies can easily be explained by the fact that when Musa arrived in Egypt, he had fewer people around him than when he started.
Al-Umari, a source mentioned by Gomez, estimates that the King “left his country with 100 loads of gold,” which is equivalent to 16,000 kilograms or 16 tons. “They had so much gold with them that the rate of gold fell by two dirhams in each mithqal,” Ibn Kathir wrote humorously.
Musa’s display of wealth during his visit to Cairo impressed the Egyptians, who treated him like a powerful leader. His pilgrimage also encouraged the establishment of commercial ties between Mali and Egypt that would last for centuries. But, most of all, it would create “an indelible impression of Mali as the quintessential land of gold,” says Gomez.
Malians ruled at a time when the European powers were traveling across the oceans to discover new lands and expand their rule, but they turned away from the sea and chose the Sahara. Both the Mughal and Mongol empires showed that a naval force is not necessary if its lack of one is compensated by an exceptionally powerful and professional army. “Mali lacked this level of military proficiency; it was not spatially positioned to benefit from the generative effects of the Silk and Spice Routes, nor did it have access to such wide-ranging expertise,” writes Gomez.
As one of the greatest, if not the greatest, West African empire, imperial Mali ruled over Mali, Niger, Senegal and Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Chad. But its inability to extend its rule beyond its eastern and western provinces would eventually encourage breakaway states, threaten the unity of the empire and eventually lead to its dissolution.
When Mali began to disintegrate, the Songhai took control of Gao and, under the rule of Sonni Ali, the Songhai Empire even surpassed the Malian empire in area, wealth and power. This empire also distinguished itself with the creation of a professional army and a civil service, and Muslim scholars, judges and doctors were supported financially. By the mid-15th century, the Empire of Songhai reached its apogee and 50 years later, the city of Timbuktu became an important commercial center and a great seat of learning with the Sankore University housing 25,000 scholars.
Unlike the Malian Empire, where everything was controlled by the Mande, the Songhai Empire developed into an ethnically heterogeneous society in which loyalty to the state transcended allegiance to one’s clan.
The Songhai remained connected to the world via a sea of sand, the Sahara Desert. Never expecting an army to cross the desert, the Songhai were surprised by a daring attack from their unsuspected Berber neighbor. The decisive battle of Tondibi in 1591 put an end to the Songhai supremacy. Their empire soon splintered into many small kingdoms. In the mid-15th century, the arrival of the Portuguese along the Gulf of Guinea signaled the end of the golden empires in West Africa and the advent of a new period of confrontation and submission to Europe.