Overview, West Africa and the rise of the Songhai Empire

West Africa is home to many of Africa's oldest kingdoms. These kingdoms played an important role in the development of trade and economic growth of the region. As old kingdoms came to be replaced by new smaller ones many changes were experienced. The transformations were influenced by conquest and warfare along with patterns of trade. West African societies were shaped by competition for wealth and the search for independence from more powerful kingdoms.

The earliest African civilizations south of the Sahara desert were in West Africa. These civilisations developed at a time when most of Europe was experiencing the Dark Age, after the fall of the Western half of the Roman Empire around 476 A.D. the people of West Africa could already smelt iron ore to make tools for warfare and agriculture. Iron farming tools made agricultural methods far more efficient. This led to improvements in agriculture and greater productivity of the land, as prosperity grew the population expanded giving rise to larger towns. Broad rivers linked people in these larger towns by way of canoe travel. These rivers also maintained the fertility of the soil all year round.

At the same time kingdoms were developing in this region. One of the earliest kingdoms to emerge here was ancient Ghana to the far West. By the year 300 A.D, this kingdom had been ruled by about 40 kings, showing that its political administration was well developed to allow new kings to take office without destroying the kingdom by fighting destructive civil wars. The economy of Ghana was based on iron and gold mining along with agriculture. Products were traded with Berber societies north of the Sahara desert. At the same time (1230-1300) the Mali kingdom of the Mande people, to the east of Ghana, was growing and increasing its control of trade in the region. This brought the two kingdoms into conflict. Finally, the Ghana kingdom was taken over by the Mali kingdom. The Mali kingdom was able to establish its influence with ease due to the surrounding savannah terrain. This enabled the easy and speedy dispatch of soldiers across the region to conquer neighbours. The adoption of the Islamic faith by the Mali people in about the 1500s during the rule of Kankan Musa, created a point of unity for this kingdom.

Quarrels over who should succeed the throne and rebellion by the Fulani people in Senegambia and the Songhai people in Gao led to the collapse of the Mali kingdom in the 16th century. Songhai became independent of Mali, and rivalled it as the leading power in West Africa.

Culture, Religion and Monarchy

The Songhai had settled on both banks of the middle Niger River. They established a state in the 15th century, which unified a large part of the western Sudan and developed into a brilliant civilisation. It was ruled by the dynasty or royal family of Sonni from the thirteenth century to the late fifteenth century. The capital was at Gao, a city surrounded by a wall. It was a great cosmopolitan market place where kola nuts, gold, ivory, slaves, spices, palm oil and precious woods were traded in exchange for salt, cloth, arms, horses and copper.

Islam had been introduced to the royal court of Songhai in 1019, but most people remained faithful to their traditional religion.

Sonni Ali reorganised the army, which was equipped with a fleet on the Niger River. The commander of the fleet was known as the ‘Master of the Water’. Foot soldiers captured the best men of the defeated armies. An elite cavalry was fast and tough. They wore iron breastplates underneath their battle tunics.

The foot soldiers were armed with spears, arrows and leather or copper shields. Military music as produced by a group of trumpeters. The total army comprised 30 000 infantry and 10 000 horsemen.  The Songhai defence system was the largest organised force in the western Sudan; not only was a political instrument, but also an economic weapon by virtue of the booty it brought in. They conquered the cities of Timbuktu and Jenne.

Muslim scholars at Timbuktu called Sonni Ali ‘tyrannical, cruel and impious’. The Sonni’s were driven from power by the Muslim Askiya dynasty.

The new monarchy based at Gao had centralised and absolute and sacred power.  It was possible to approach him only in a prostate position. He sat on a raised platform surrounded by 700 eunuchs. People paid taxes to the king in return for internal and external security. The royal court was responsible for the administration and the army. Large estates belonged to nobles. They were worked by servile labour that did the fishing, animal raising for milk, meat and skins, and the agricultural work.

The Songhai kingdom was the last major one in the region. Its fall did not bring an end to kingdoms in West Africa. Kingdoms that survived were Guinea, Benin in Nigeria, Ashanti in present day Ghana and Dahomey, north of Benin. These kingdoms continued the Trans Saharan trade with the Arab states in North Africa. The Trans Saharan trade was complex. It was not limited to trade and the exchange of gold, copper, iron, kola nuts, cloth, and salt. It was also about close co-operation and interdependence between kingdoms south of the Sahara and kingdoms north of the Sahara. Salt from the Sahara desert was just as important to the economies and kingdoms south of the Sahara as gold was for those in the north. Therefore, the exchange of these commodities was vital for the economic and political stability of the region.

Travel and trade in Songhai

Trade significantly influenced the course of history in West Africa. The wealth made through trade was used to build larger kingdoms and empires. To protect their trade interests, these kingdoms built strong armies. Kingdoms that desired more control of the trade also developed strong armies to expand their kingdoms and protect them from competition.

Long distance trade helped the local economy and supported internal trade. Merchants travelling between towns across the Sahara needed places to rest and stock up with food for the journey across the Sahara desert. Food would be provided by local markets that relied on local farms for supplies. This practice allowed merchants to plan long trips knowing that local markets would provide food and shelter. For this reason, many kingdoms in West Africa encouraged agricultural improvements to meet this need. Often this meant uniting smaller farmers, traders and societies into stronger trading blocs. For example, the Kuba kingdom in present day Congo brought together different cultures under a single authority and used the Congo River as a main transport link to other distant kingdoms. As a result, smaller traders joined with each other like the Chokwe and Lunda kingdoms under a single broad-based trade. This led to the increase of ivory and rubber trade between these kingdoms and with Portuguese traders.

Present day Kuba King. Source: Daniel Laine (2001) National Geographic, from www.news.nationalgeographic.com

The slave trade was also important for the economic development of West Africa. For a very long time, West African kingdoms had relied on slaves to carry out heavy work. The Songhai kingdom under the rule of Askia Mohammed used slaves as soldiers. Slaves were trusted not to overthrow their rulers. Slaves were also given important positions as royal advisers. Songhai rulers believed that slaves could be trusted to provide unbiased advice unlike other citizens who held a personal stake in the outcome of decisions. Another group of slaves was known as palace slaves or the Arbi. The Arbi slaves served mainly as craftspersons, potters, woodworkers, and musician. Slaves also worked on village farms to help produce enough food to supply the growing population in towns.

The Asante kingdom of the Akan people grew in about the 15th and 16th century into a powerful kingdom in the most southern parts of West Africa, present day Ghana. This growth was made possible by the rich gold mines found in the kingdom. The Akan people used their gold to buy slaves from the Portuguese. Since 1482, the Portuguese who were interested in obtaining Asante gold, had opened a trading port at El Mina. As a result, their first slave trade in West Africa was with the Akan people. The Portuguese bought the slaves from the kingdom of Benin, near the Niger Delta in Nigeria. Slave labour made it easy for the Akan people to shift from small scale agriculture to large scale agriculture (Giblin 1992). The shift transformed the Asante kingdom and it developed a wealthy agricultural and mining economy.

The Akan people needed slaves to work their gold mines and farms. Passing traders and a growing population in the Asante towns demanded increasing supplies of food. The slave trade with the Portuguese continued until the early 1700s. The Akan people supplied the Portuguese with slaves to work on sugar plantations in Brazil. A small number of slaves were kept in the Asante kingdom. However, by this period, the Atlantic slave trade dominated trade with West Africa. Kingdoms like the Asante and Dahomey used their power to raid societies like the Bambara, Mende, and Fulanis for slaves. The kingdom of Benin is the only known kingdom in West Africa to abolish slave trading in Benin. The slave trade ban was succesful and forced the Portuguese to search for slaves elsewhere in West Africa. However, Dutch traders took over the role. From the 1600s the Dutch dominated the West african and Atlantic Slave trade.

The Portuguese and Dutch governments were unable to colonise West African kingdoms because they were too strong and well organised. As a result, the slave and ivory, rubber and gold trades remained under the control of Asante, Fon, and Kongo kingdoms. In 1807, the British government abolished the slave trade. Because West African kingdoms did not co-operate with the British, the slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean continued. However, the slave trade declined in areas where the British had influence, for example the Gold Coast.

Industrial development in Britain led to increasing trade with West Africa in agricultural products like palm oil, rubber, and cocoa. To supply Britain with these products, the Asante kingdom kept the slaves they had captured for the Atlantic slave trade and used them as farm workers instead. This led to the growth of slavery in West Africa because each kingdom wanted to profit from this new trade. West African slavery came to a slow end towards the end of the 19th century when many of these kingdoms were colonised by the French and British. Former slaves became the landless lower classes.


The states of the Niger Delta extend for about three hundred miles along the Gulf of Guinea from the Benin River on the West to the Cross River on the East. Due to the many rivers, which cross over each other, the main source of transport was by canoe. Societies found in this area include the Ibo, Ijaw, Jekiri Efik and Calabari.

Unlike other West African states, Niger ones were different in character. They were small states that maintained contact through war, trade and migrations. The Atlantic trade brought about great prosperity in this region. These states were known for their skill in politics and for their “middleman” skills in commerce. Their long history of internal trade had brought these small states together and led to economic growth of Bonny (also known as Igbani) and Warri states.

The Kingdom of Dahomey (also known as the Fon Kingdom of Dahomey) was the southern part of the Republic of Benin, a country that divides the dense forest of Nigeria from those of modern Ghana. Dahomey was the most prominent coastal state in the region. It was ruled by a king on the authority of the queen mother who held the power to appoint an heir. The king and queen mother ruled Dahomey from their capital Abomey. Dahomey began emerging as a great power in the early 18th century because of the slave trade. It also managed to overtake other coastal states competing for control of both the slave and inland trade. The Fon army was unusual in West Africa because its soldiers were women feared by other neighbouring coastal states.

In about 1650 there was a great demand from the West Indies sugar plantations for African slaves. The Fon people used their position as sea-merchants to ensure that they held a monopoly of the slave trade. The Dahomey kingdom also relied on its strong military to dominate weaker inland states and to conquer coastal states. States looking to trade in the region were expected to pay a fixed amount of tax and fixed prices for slaves. Custom duties were paid in respect of each ship as well.

By the 18th century the Fon king had absolute power and under his rule Dahomey became strong enough to capture neighbouring coastal states. The Fon were still paying tribute to the Oyo kingdom and this meant that they had to appease the Oyo with guns and other goods each year. In 1725, Dahomey conquered the Oyo kingdom, and three years later they pushed south to Savi and Whyad, Jakin was taken in 1732 but it was only in 1740 that the Fon won complete control when Whydah became a Fon colony. This ushered in control of the coast and even visiting Europeans had to gain prior permission to go ashore.

Atlantic System, Contact with Europeans 

The arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century in search of new trading opportunities changed the trade networks in West Africa. An important change was the new direction of the slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean instead of the Sahara desert. This increased the power of small West African kingdoms like the Asante and Dahomey kingdoms. It also contributed to the fall of the Songhai Empire, because the slave and gold trade were no longer going through the Songhai kingdom. As a result, the Songhai rulers could not claim tribute and taxes from these kingdoms.

The other change came from the growing slave trade. African slaves were captured from Africa to work as slaves in the Americas in the early 1500’s. Portugal, Spain, France and Britain were the key players in this slave trade, which lasted for more than 400 years. Because Portugal was the first to establish itself in the region and to enter treaties with West African kingdoms, it had the monopoly on the slave and gold trade. As a result, Portugal was responsible for transporting over 4.5 million Africans, approximately 40 percent of the slaves taken from the continent before the 1700s. During the 18th century however, Britain was responsible for almost 2.5 million of the 6 million African slaves traded. Due to expanding market opportunities in Europe and the Mediterranean, they increased trade across the Sahara and later gained access to the interior using the Senegal and Gambia River, which bisected long-standing trans-Saharan routes. The Portuguese brought in copper ware, cloth, tools, wine and horses and later included guns, in exchange for gold, pepper, slaves, and ivory. The growing trade across the Atlantic came to be called the triangular trade system.

The Triangular Trade System

The Atlantic Slave Trade (also known as the triangular trade) was a system of trade that revolved around three areas. The first point of the triangle would begin in Africa, where large shipments of people were taken across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas (The Caribbean, North and South America) to be sold to work in colonies on plantations as slaves. Once the slaves were offloaded in the Americas, the same ships would then load products from plantations such as sugar, cotton and tobacco. These products would be sold in Europe. From Europe the ships would carry manufactured goods such as cloth, iron, rum and guns, which they would use in exchange for slaves and gold.

Most captured slaves were taken between 1450 and 1500, from the West African interior with the co-operation of African kings and merchants. There were occasional military campaigns organised by Europeans to capture slaves, especially by the Portuguese in what is now Angola. This accounts for only a small percentage of the total. In return, the African kings and merchants received various trade goods including beads, cowry shells (used as money), textiles, brandy, horses, and perhaps most importantly, guns. These guns became a very important trade commodity when West African kingdoms were increasingly organising their militaries into professional armies. During this period England sold close to 100 000 muskets a year to West African kingdoms.

Slaves crossing the Atlantic Ocean endured inhumane conditions aboard the ships transporting them. They would travel naked and cramped into the hold of the ship chained together at the ankles and packed together side-by-side in holds which were about 1.5 m high with hardly any light and fresh air. They were provided with buckets, which they had to use as toilets. This resulted in many slaves becoming sick and dying. Cases of fevers and small pox were common during the voyages. The health of slaves on board was made worse by the lack of medical attention. Slaves would be regularly hosed down with water each morning and those that had died overnight, would be thrown overboard.

The slave trade was abolished in 1807 by the British government. The French only abolished their slave trade in 1848. The continued Atlantic slave trade forced the British government to take responsibility to end slave trading. They captured European ships and released slaves on board. This was made more difficult by the unwillingness of West african kingdoms to give up the slave trade. The British government tried to influence the Asante rulers to stop practising slavery in their kingdom with no success. As a result, from the 1870s, the British government began to colonise the Asante people in order to prevent the use of slave labour, but also as an excuse to take control of the rich gold mines of the Asante and to protect British commercial interests against French expansion in the region. Click here to read a lesson about colonial rule and African responses.

The tomb of Askia Muhammad (1443-1538) I contains the remains of Africa’s prominent leaders ding the Middle Ages worldhistoryarchive

The foot soldiers were armed with spears, arrows and leather or copper shields. Military music as produced by a group of trumpeters. The total army comprised 30 000 infantry and 10 000 horsemen. The Songhai defence systemwas the largest organised force in the western Sudan; Not only was a political instrument, but also an economic weapon by virtue of the booty it brought in. They conquered the cities of Timbuktu and Jenne.

Muslim scholars at Timbuktu called Sonni Ali 'tyrannical, cruel and impious'. The Sonni's were driven from power by the Muslim Askiya dynasty.

The new monarchy based at Gao had centralised and absolute and sacred power.

It was possible to approach him only in a prostate position. He sat on a raised platform surrounded by 700 eunuchs. People paid taxes to the king in return for internal and external security. The royal court was responsible for the administration and the army. Large estates belonged to nobles. They were worked by servile labour that did the fishing, animal raising for milk, meat and skins, and the agricultural work.

The following information will still be developed for this topic:
- Travel and trade in Songhai at the height of its power ( Arab, Italian and Jewish merchants at Timbuktu)
- Learning and culture
- Fall of the Empire: Moroccan invasion of 1591.
- Women in Songha
- Contact with Europeans Please contribute activities and content for this section by clicking on the ‘contribute’ button.

800 - Gao was established
1110 - Timbuktu was established
1290 - Empire of Mali established and conquered Timbuktu and Gao
1375 - Timbuktu appeared for the first time on a European map
1400 - Gold trade flourished - from west Africa, through Timbuktu and Gao, to Europe
1450 - Large settlement of scholars and traders in Timbuktu
1468 - Songhay Empire established by Sunni Ali. Took over Timbuktu and Gao
1493 - Muhammed Ture, a Muslim, founded the Askia dynasty and took over Songhay Empire.
1530 - Portuguese came to Timbuktu in search of wealth. Only one man survived.
1591 - Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire conquered by Moroccans.

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