Songhai Empire: Trade & Government

Instructor: Jeffery Keller

Jeff has taught US and World History at the high school and college levels for nearly ten years and has a master's degree in history.

During the European Middle Ages a mighty empire arose in West Africa. In this lesson, you will learn about the origins of the Songhai Empire, the way the Songhai governed their empire, and their trade.

Origins of the Songhai Empire

Imagine trying to build an empire in the midst of the harsh environment of the Sahara Desert. For one kingdom in Africa, the challenges of such a feat were all too real. In the mid-fourteenth century, dynamic and inventive leaders of this kingdom took control of the remnants of the great empire of Mali and transformed it into the Songhai Empire.

Sunni Ali: Founding Father of Songhai

The Songhai Empire had its origins as far back as the mid-800s when small bands of farmers and fishermen united together to create a small independent kingdom. Over time, more and more small communities joined the growing kingdom as it transformed into an empire. Funded by the lucrative gold-for-salt trade that dominated the Trans-Saharan trade network, Songhai was well on its way to becoming one of the most powerful empires in Western Africa.

Songhai took its biggest leap forward under the leadership of Sunni Ali, whose rule spanned from 1464 to 1492. Using bold military tactics and a strong cavalry, Sunni Ali annexed the wealthy cities of Timbuktu and Jenne. However, Sunni Ali was not a devout Muslim and his lack of respect for the religion of Islam brought criticism from Islamic leaders who controlled many of the cities in his growing empire. Upon his death, a new dynasty came to power that would put Islam at the center of life in the Songhai Empire.

The Askiya Dynasty and Reforms to the Government

After Sunni Ali, a new ruler named Muhammad Ture came to power. Like his predecessor, Ture, also known as Muhammad the Great, was a bold fighter and tactician. However, Ture had another tool in his toolbox: he was a devout Muslim. Ture used his religion to gain the support of skeptical leaders and individuals in his newly acquired territory. Islam became the unifying cultural and legal force for the expanding empire.

Administering the Empire

The new dynasty quickly set about to establish the government on a firm foundation. The wealthy trading post of Gao became the administrative capital of the empire. Here, the emperor sat as the head of the government and the army. Surrounding him were advisors, military and religious leaders, and the royal family. Although these individuals acted as advisors, the emperor had the final say on all matters including enacting law, making treaties, and appointing government officials. A large bureaucracy was responsible for ensuring the operation of the treasury, military, domestic affairs, matters of religion, and agriculture.

Life Outside of the Capital

To ensure control over his growing territory, Muhammad Ture also reorganized the empire. He divided the lands of the empire into districts, each containing at least 35 wealthy cities. Each territory had a strong governor who was responsible for recruiting soldiers from the local population and for collecting taxes. These governors and the agents under their control were carefully selected based on their loyalty to the king.

Territories that were further away from the capital and lacked urban centers were ruled through a sort of feudal arrangement. Feudalism is a way of ruling in which the emperor gives ruling authority to a loyal appointee. In return for the right to rule, the chosen official pledges to provide military service and taxes to the emperor. You might be familiar with this concept from Medieval European or Japanese history.

Gold and Salt

The Songhai Empire grew very wealthy thanks to its control of trading posts along the Trans-Saharan Trade Route, including Jenne and Timbuktu. This trade route connected North Africa to South and West Africa. Across these routes, a variety of goods including foodstuffs, cloth, cowrie shells, and kola nuts flowed. Traders also transported slaves from West Africa north across the desert to slave trading posts in North Africa. Here they would be sold to Muslim traders from across the Islamic World or to European slave traders.

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