African Kingdoms from 900-1700 CE

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

The many kingdoms of ancient Africa are as diverse as the continent itself. This lesson will focus on many of the African kingdoms that thrived between 600 and 1900 of the common-era.

African Kingdoms

The African Kingdoms of West Africa all had a history that connected them through language, culture, and turmoil. There were those who came into creation in parallel timelines, and those who either preceded the other or were created by what remained from their collapse. The following information will chronicle the history of many of these kingdoms from the year 600 CE through the 1900s.


Dating back to as early as the 600s CE, northeast of Lake Chad lived a proud West African people belonging to the kingdom of Kanem ruled by the Zaghawa Dynasty. The Zaghawa were a tribe of Berbers known for their nomadic lifestyle in the deserts of North Africa. During the mid 1200s, Kanem began to experience problems like attacks from neighboring kingdoms. For this reason, the rulers of Kanem decided to move west to Borno in the 1300s.

Kanem Bornu

Kanem-Bornu struggled for a time in its early days. The Sefawa Dynasty had troubles determining who the next 'mai' or king would be, and went through several pretenders before leaving their claim to the throne. When Kanem-Bornu found its footing around 1396, it soon became a center for learning in the Muslim world through the 1400s.

In the 1500s Kanem-Bornu rebuilt their military and added firearms to their ranks. However, by the 1600s the kingdom began a slow march towards obscurity. Between 1657 and 1753 there were a total of seven mais, resulting in chaos. By the late 1700s Kanem-Bornu only held territory in northern Nigeria, and by 1893 the kingdom was under the control of Great Britain.

Warriors of Kanem Bornu
Kanem Bornu


The kingdom of Ife was the progenitor of the kingdoms of Oyo and Benin in the 1000s. The first king of Ife (also considered a deity), 'Oduduwa' was also a descendant of the first king of Benin. Much of the overlap in which kingdom came first, and which kingdom was subservient to the other is due to the fact that they all were a part of the Yoruba states of West Africa. Most of all three of these kingdoms were located in what is now Nigeria.

Ife Terra-Cotta Mask
Ife Terra-Cotta Mask


In the early 1500s Oyo was a smaller kingdom that owed fealty to larger surrounding kingdoms. However, by the mid 1500s Oyo had undergone a revolutionary change ushered in by its ruler 'Orompoto'. Orompoto added cavalry to his military that allowed him to extend Oyo's reach in West Africa like against Dahomey in the 1700s.

Oyo also had contact with Europeans, and played a large role in the slave trade in the 1500s and 1600s. Its location to the north of West Africa gave the kingdom fertile land for farming, and due to its rich soil, it was able to provide enough grain to sustain its people. By the 1700s, the slave trade that had made Oyo so powerful was shifting to other emerging kingdoms, and was also in decline. Due to losing this source of income, the kingdom of Oyo lost its position of power among the Yoruba states.

Location of Oyo


The kingdom of Benin was established in the 900s, but like Oyo was small in stature. There are those who also think that Benin and Oyo are the same kingdoms due to the fact that Oyo founded the capital of Benin called Ibinu in the 1100s. The history of Benin is fragmented, and to some historians confusing because its history is so interwoven with the surrounding kingdoms. However, there is no dispute that in the 1300s Benin began to flourish.

Like Ife, Benin was known for its culture and artwork with terra-cotta, bronze and copper. Like Oyo, Benin was heavily involved in the slave trade and went into decline with its abolishment. The capital of Benin was in Edo, which also gives the kingdom the dual moniker of the Edo Empire.

Human sacrifice was a large part of the Benin spiritual world, and also played a part in its decline. By the 1700s the Oba, or king of Benin and his family began to war with each other making them ripe for attack. To repel the kingdom's adversaries they relied more on human sacrifice as spiritual protection. Unfortunately, in the 1800s Benin was taken over by the Britis, included in what was to become British Nigeria.

Mask of Oba
Mask of Benin Oba

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