The Fall of the Songhai Empire

Instructor: Katie Streit

Katie has a PhD in History. She has taught middle school English and college History.

This lesson examines the reasons why the Songhai Empire collapsed after arising as one of the most powerful and wealthy empires in the West Africa savanna during the 16th century.

Why Do the Mighty Fall?

How could one of the most powerful empires in the medieval world crumble? This question drives our lesson today on the Songhai Empire of West Africa. At its zenith in the 16th century C.E., Songhai seemed to have it all - control over the lucrative trans-Saharan trade routes and West African gold, world-renowned Islamic schools at Timbuktu, and prosperous trade centers at Gao and Jenne (or Djenné). In order to figure out what went wrong, we will need to learn more about the leadership of Songhai. Numerous succession disputes tore apart the empire from the inside and left it ripe for invasion in the 1590's.

The Rise of the Songhai Empire

The state of Songhai arose in the West Africa savanna in the 9th century C.E. as inhabitants of the city of Gao along the Niger River expanded into the Middle Niger region. Songhai flourished from river commerce centered upon the exchange of agricultural produce, fishing, hunting, and iron-working technology. Songhai's power and prosperity grew further from its participation in the trans-Saharan trade. Gold, salt, ivory, hides, copper, and other goods were exchanged between Berber traders from North Africa and producers from the West African forests.

Berber traders headed to Timbuktu
Berber Traders

Songhai's prosperity drew the attention of the powerful Mali Empire, which incorporated the state in the 14th century. As Mali weakened, leaders of the Sonni Dynasty reclaimed Songhai's independence and began to expand its borders in the 15th century. Sonni Ali led Songhai's cavalry and canoe fleets to defeat neighboring Tuareg and Mossi forces and conquer the prosperous cities of Timbuktu and Jenne by 1473.

Mossi cavalry defeated by Songhai forces

Leadership Problems

Dynastic and succession disputes repeatedly undermined the stability of the Songhai Empire. Despite his military successes, Sonni Ali's legitimacy was disputed by the ulama - Islamic scholars - who disliked that Sonni Ali combined traditional religious practices with Islam. The influence of urban Muslim traders and scholars had grown considerably during the era of the Mali Empire, and their wealth was critical to the success of the Songhai Empire. Following Sonni Ali's death in 1492, Muhammed Ture (or Askia Muhammad) overthrew Sonni Ali's son and successor (Sonni Baru) with the support of the ulama to form the Askia dynasty. Songhai reached its zenith during the Askia dynasty with its borders stretching from the Atlantic coast to Mali, Niger, and Nigeria.

The Songhai Empire
Songhai Empire

Turmoil, however, plagued the Askia dynasty. Askia Muhammad was overthrown by his son (Askia Musa) in 1528. The reigns of Askia Muhammad II (1531-37), Askia Isma'il (1537-39), and Askia Issihak I (1539-49) followed. Askia Dawud brought relative peace and prosperity to the Songhai Empire during his rule from 1549 to 1582. His death, however, precipitated a new round of disputes and a civil war.

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