Chapter 3

“I Can See the Horsemen”

The Strivings of Islam in Africa

December 20: Sonni Ali the Great of Songhay dies.

He can have been only five or six years old when his family joined the flood of refugees from Granada, but al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Wazzan always called himself “the Granadine.” His exile was the beginning of a life of travel, first as a fugitive, then as a merchant, later as an ambassador, and later still as the captive of Christian pirates. He claimed unconvincingly to have been as far as Armenia, Persia, and the Eurasian steppes. He certainly knew much of the Mediterranean and of West and North Africa at first hand. His spiritual journeys were equally far-reaching. As a prisoner in Rome, he became a Christian, a papal favorite, and under the name of Giovanni Leone—or “Leo Africanus,” as most title pages say—was the author of the most authoritative writings on Africa in his day. When invaders sacked Rome in 1527, Leo fled back to Africa and to Islam.

His most spectacular itineraries were across the Sahara to what he and his contemporaries called the Land of the Blacks. He could never quite make up his mind about black people, for he felt torn between conflicting literary traditions that clouded his perceptions. Prejudices about black people were routine in Morocco and other regions of North Africa where black slaves arrived as common items of trade. Leo inherited those prejudices from Ibn-Khaldūn, the greatest historian of the Middle Ages, whose works he plundered. “The inhabitants of the Land of Blacks,” he wrote, “…lack reason…and are without wits and practical sense…. They live like animals, without rule or law.” Leo found, however, “the exception…in the great cities, where there is a little more rationality and human sentiment.” Blacks generally, he concluded, were:


The northwest Africa of Leo Africanus.

people of integrity and good faith. They treat strangers with great kindness, and they please themselves all the time with merry dancing and feasting. They are without any malice, and they do great honor to all learned men and all religious men.1

This disposition was the key to the slow but sure success of Islam in the region, seeping gradually south of the Sahara, into the Niger Valley and the Sahel, the great savanna.

By his own account, Leo went twice to the Sahel—once as a boy, and later as an envoy of the ruler of Fez, where he spent part of his childhood and adolescence. He had to cross the Atlas Mountains, narrowly escaping robbers—on his first journey—by excusing himself in order to pee and then disappearing into a snowstorm. He must have seen the white peaks of the Sierra Nevada from his home in Granada, but after shivering nearly to death in the Atlas he hated snow for the rest of his life. He crossed a ravine over the Sebou River in a basket strung on pulleys. In retrospect, it made him sick with terror. He reached Taghaza, the flyblown mining town that produced the salt Sahelian palates craved. Here, where even the houses were hewn from blocks of salt, Leo joined a salt caravan, waiting three days while the gleaming slabs were roped to the camels.

The object of the journey was to exchange salt for gold, literally ounce for ounce. You can live without gold, but not without salt. Salt not only flavors food but also preserves it. Dietary salt replaces the vital minerals the body loses in perspiration. Dwellers in the Niger Valley and in the forests to the south, where there were no salt mines and no access to sea salt, lacked a basic means of life. The Mediterranean world, meanwhile, had adequate supplies of salt but needed precious metals. From the northern shores of the Mediterranean, the source of the gold could be glimpsed only with difficulty across the glare of the Sahara. Even the Maghrebi merchants who handled the trade were unsure of the location of the mines, secreted deep in the West African interior, in the region of Bure between the headwaters of the rivers Niger, Gambia, and Senegal, and, farther west, around the middle Volta.

The gold came north along routes secret to the traders who handled it along the way. “Dumb trade” procured it, according to all the accounts Europeans had at their disposal, written perhaps from convention rather than conviction. Merchants supposedly left goods—sometimes textiles, always salt—exposed for collection at traditionally appointed places. They then withdrew, and returned to collect the gold that their silent, invisible customers left in exchange. Bizarre theories circulated. The gold grew like carrots. Ants brought it up in the form of nuggets. It was mined by naked men who lived in holes. It probably really came from mines in the region of Bure, around the upper Gambia and Senegal, and perhaps from the middle Volta.

In the mid–fourteenth century, Ibn Battuta, the most-traveled pilgrim in the Islamic world, joined a southbound trading caravan at Sijilmassa, where the gold road began, and headed south in search of the place of origin of the trade. His motive, he claimed, was curiosity to see the Land of the Blacks. He left an unsurpassed description of the terrible journey across the desert, between “mountains of sand…. You see them in one place. Then you look again, and they have shifted to a new position.” Blind men, it was said, made the best guides, because in the desert visions were deceptive, and devils amused themselves by misleading journeyers.

It took twenty-five days to reach Taghaza. The water here, though salty, was a precious commodity that the caravanners paid dearly for. The next stage of the journey usually involved ten days with no possibility of replenishing water supplies—unless perhaps occasionally by extracting it from the stomachs of dead animals. The last oasis lay nearly three hundred kilometers from the caravan’s destination, in a land “haunted by demons,” where “no road is visible,…only the drifting, wind-blown sand.” 2

Despite the torments of the road, Ibn Battuta found the desert “luminous, radiant,” and inspiring—until his caravan reached an even hotter region, near the frontier of the Sahel. Here they had to travel in the cool of the night, before at last, after a journey of two months, they reached Walata, where black customs officials were waiting and vendors offered sour milk laced with honey.

Here, at the southern end of the Golden Road, lay the empire of Mali, renowned as the remotest place to which gold could reliably be traced. Mali dominated the middle Niger, controlling, for a while in the fourteenth century, an empire that included all three great riverside emporia—Jenne, Timbuktu, and Gao. The power of the Mande, the West African elite who ran the empire’s affairs, extended over great stretches of the Sahel and southward into the edges of the forest. They were a commercial and imperial people, strong in war and wares. The merchant caste, known as Wangara, thrust colonies beyond the reach of the empire’s direct authority, founding, for instance, a settlement inside the forest country, where they bought gold cheaply from the local chiefs. It was frustrating to be so close to the source of such wealth while having to rely on middlemen to supply it.

But they never succeeded in controlling production of the gold, for the mines remained outside their domains. Whenever they attempted to exert political authority in the mining lands, the inhabitants resorted to a form of passive resistance or “industrial action”—downing tools and refusing to work the mines. Mali, however, did control the routes of access to the north and the points of exchange of gold for salt, which tripled or quadrupled in value as it crossed Malian territory. The rulers took the gold nuggets for tribute, leaving the dust to the traders.

The Mansa, as the ruler of Mali was known, attained legendary renown because of the fame of Mansa Musa, who reigned from about 1312 to 1337. In 1324 he undertook a spectacular pilgrimage to Mecca, which spread his reputation far and wide. He was one of three Mansas to make the hajj. This alone shows how stable and substantial the Malian state was, for the journey took over a year, and few rulers in the world could risk such a long absence from their bases of power. Musa made his trip in lavish style, with conspicuous effect. People in Egypt remembered it for centuries, for the Mansa stayed there for over three months and distributed so much gold that he caused inflation. By various accounts, the value of gold in Egypt fell by between 10 and 25 percent. Musa gave fifty thousand dinars to the sultan of Egypt and thousands of ingots of raw gold to the shrines he visited and the officials who entertained him. Though he traveled with eighty camels, each laden with three hundred pounds of gold, his munificence outstripped his supplies. He had to borrow funds on his homeward journey. Reputedly, on his return to Mali he repaid his loans at the rate of seven hundred dinars for every three hundred he had borrowed.

The ritual magnificence of Mali’s court impressed visitors almost as much as the ruler’s wealth. Ibn Battuta thought the Mansa commanded more devotion from his subjects than any other prince in the world. Arab and Latin authors were not always appreciative of blacks’ political sophistication. This makes the goggle-eyed awe of the sources in this case all the more impressive. Everything about the Mansa exuded majesty: his stately gait; his hundreds of attendants, bearing gilded staves; the way subjects communicated with him only through an intermediary; the acts of humiliation—prostration and heaping one’s head with dust—to which his interlocutors submitted; the reverberant hum of bowstrings and murmured approval with which auditors greeted his words; the capricious taboos that enjoined death for those who wore sandals in his presence or sneezed in his hearing. The range of tributaries impressed Ibn Battuta, especially the cannibal envoys, to whom the Mansa presented a slave girl. They returned to thank him, daubed with the blood of the gift they had just consumed. Fortunately, reported Ibn Battuta, “they say that eating a white man is harmful, because he is unripe.” 3

This exotic theater of power had a suitably dignified stage and numerous company. The Mansa’s audience chamber was a domed pavilion in which Andalusian poets sang. His bushland capital had a brick-built mosque. The strength of his army was cavalry. Images of Mali’s mounted soldiery survive in terra-cotta. Heavy-lidded aristocrats with lips curled in command and haughtily uptilted heads come crowned with crested helmets, riding rigidly on elaborately bridled horses. Some have cuirasses or shields on their backs, or strips of leather armor worn apron-fashion. Their mounts wear halters of garlands and have decorations incised into their flanks. The riders control them with short reins and taut arms, like practitioners of dressage. For most of the fourteenth century they were invincible, driving invaders from desert or forest out of the Sahel.

Around the Mediterranean, Maghrebi traders and travelers scattered stories about the fabled realm, like grains of sand dusted from expansive hands. The image of the Mansa’s splendor reached Europe. In Majorcan maps from the 1320s, and most lavishly in the Catalan Atlas of the early 1380s, the ruler of Mali appears like a Latin monarch, save only for his black face, bearded, crowned, and throned—a sovereign equal in standing to any Christian prince. “So abundant is the gold that is found in his country,” reads the text placed alongside his picture, “that this lord is the richest and noblest king in all the land.” 4 The image might have been transferred, with little modification, to a painting of the Three Kings of Christ’s epiphany—which was the context in which European artists regularly painted imaginary black kings at the time. And the black king’s gift to the divine infant would be the mighty gold nugget the Mansa brandished in the map.

Europeans strove to cut out the middlemen and find routes of access to the gold sources for themselves. Some of them tried to follow the caravans over the desert. In 1413 the trader Ansleme d’Isaguier returned to his native Toulouse with a harem of negresses and three black eunuchs, whom he claimed to have acquired in Gao, one of the great emporia of the middle Niger. No one knows how he can have got so far. In 1447, the Genoese Antonio Malfante reached Tuat, garnering only rumors about the gold. In 1470, in Florence, Benedetto Dei claimed to have been to Timbuktu and observed a lively trade there in European textiles. Between 1450 and 1490, Portuguese merchants strove to open a route toward the Niger across country from their newly founded trading station at Arguim on the Saharan coast, and succeeded in diverting some gold-bearing caravans to trade there.

Like every El Dorado, however, Mali and its people could be disappointing to those who actually got that far. “I repented of having come to their country,” Ibn Battuta complained, “because of their deficient manners and contempt for white men.” 5 By the middle of the fifteenth century, as Mali declined, impressions were generally unfavorable. The empire was in retreat, ground between the Tuareg of the desert and the Mossi of the forest. Usurpers eroded the edges, while factions subverted Mali at the center. The emperors lost control over great marketplaces along the Niger. Cut-price successors to the famed poets and scholars of earlier generations cheapened arts and learning at the court. When European explorers at last penetrated the empire in the 1450s, they were disillusioned. Where they had expected to find a great, bearded, nugget-wielding monarch, such as the Catalan Atlas depicted, they found only a poor, harassed, timorous ruler. New maps of the region cut out the image of the sumptuously arrayed Mansa and substituted crude drawings of a “stage nigger,” dangling simian sexual organs. It was a dramatic moment in the history of racism. Until then, white Westerners saw only positive images of blacks in paintings of the magi who acknowledged the baby Jesus. Or else they knew Africans as expensive domestic slaves who shared intimacies with their owners and displayed estimable talents, especially as musicians. Familiarity had not yet bred contempt.

Disdain for blacks as inherently inferior to other people and the pretense that reason and humanity are proportional to the pink pigment in Western flesh were new prejudices. Disgust with Mali fed them. Attitudes remained equivocal, but the balance of white assumptions tilted against blacks. If white respect for black societies had survived the encounter with Mali, how different might the subsequent history of the world have been? Mass enslavement of blacks would not have been averted, for Islam and the Mediterranean world already relied heavily on the African slave trade. But the subordination of the black world would surely have been contested early and with more authority—and therefore, perhaps, with more success.

While Europeans beheld Mali’s travails with disappointment, the empire’s neighbors contemplated the same developments with glee. For the pagan, forest-dwelling Mossi, advancing from the south, Mali was like a beast felled for scavenging: bits could be picked off. For the Tuareg, raiding from the desert to the north, the stricken emperors were potential vassals to be manipulated or milked. In the last third of the fifteenth century, rulers of the people known as Songhay, whose lands bordered Mali to the east, began to conceive a grander ambition: they would supplant Mali altogether.

Historians called the ruling family of Songhay the Sonni, though that seems to have been the most commonly used of their titles rather than a family name. They were a long-lived dynasty, founded, so the legend said, by a dragon slayer who invented the harpoon and used it to liberate the peoples of the Niger from a sorcerer-serpent. Since then, by 1492, eighteen of his heirs had reigned successively, according to most traditional counts. We can recognize the legend as a typical story of a stranger-king who brings the glamour and objectivity of an outsider to power struggles he can transcend and ends up as ruler.

The historical record of the Sonni began in the early fourteenth century, when they were governors of Gao, as restless subordinates of Mali. Gao was an impressive city, unwalled and, said Leo Africanus, full of “exceeding rich merchants.” Hundreds of straight, long, interlocking streets with identical houses surrounded a great marketplace specializing in slaves. You could buy seven slave girls for a fine horse and, of course, swap salt for gold or sell Maghrebi and European textiles. There were wholesome wells, and corn, melons, lemons, and rice as abundant as flesh. The governor’s palace was filled with concubines and slaves. “It is a wonder to see what plentie of Merchandize is dayly brought hither,” wrote Leo Africanus in the version of his work produced by a sixteenth-century English translator, “and how costly and sumptuous all things be.” Horses cost four or five times as much as in Europe. Fine scarlet cloth from Venice or Turkey commanded thirty times its Mediterranean price. “But of all other commodities salt is the most extremelie deere.” 6

The city’s governors had plenty of opportunities for self-enrichment, and plenty of temptations to declare independence. To ensure good behavior, the Mansa Musa took the ruler’s children as hostages when he passed through Gao in 1325. But such measures could have only temporary effects. The Sonni were free of Malian supremacy by early in the fifteenth century. Probably around 1425, Sonni Muhammad Dao felt secure enough to lead a raid against Mali, reaching Jenne, seizing Mande captives, and generating legends.

The Sonni bestowed on their children such names as Ali, Mohammad, and Umar, suggesting a commitment to Islam or at least familiarity with it. For centuries, Islam had overspilled the Sahara, lapping the kings and courts of the western African bulge. As early as the ninth century, Arab visitors to Soninke chiefdoms and kingdoms noted that some people followed “the king’s religion”—some form of pre-Islamic paganism—while others were Muslims. Although Islam made little documented progress in West Africa before the eleventh century, immigration and acculturation along the Saharan trade routes prepared the way for Islamization. The main reasons for Muslims to go to the “the Land of the Blacks” were commercial, although they also went south to make war, find patronage if they were scholars or artists, and make converts to Islam. On this frontier, therefore, Islam lacked professional missionaries, but occasionally a Muslim merchant might interest a trading partner or even a pagan ruler in Islam.

A late-eleventh-century Arab compiler of information about West Africa tells such a story, from Malal, south of the Senegal. At a time of terrible drought, a Muslim guest advised the king of the consequences if he accepted Islam: “You would bring Allah’s mercy on the people of your country, and your enemies would envy you.” Rain duly fell after prayers and Quranic recitations. “Then the king ordered that the idols be broken and the sorcerers expelled. The king, together with his descendants and the nobility, became sincerely attached to Islam, but the common people remained pagans.” 7

As well as peaceful missionizing, war spread Islam. The region’s first well-documented case of Islamization by jihad occurred in the Soninke kingdom of Ghana in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This kingdom anticipated Mali and Songhay, thriving on the taxation of trans-Saharan trade and occupying a similar environment around the upper Niger, somewhat to the east of Mali’s future heartland. In the mid–eleventh century the Almoravids—as Westerners call the al-Murabitun, a movement of warrior-ascetics—burst out of the desert, conquering an empire from Spain to the Sahel. They targeted Ghana as the home of “sorcerers,” where, according to collected reports, the people buried their dead with gifts, “made offerings of alcohol,” and kept a sacred snake in a cave. Muslims—presumably traders—had their own large quarter in or near the Ghanaian capital, Kumbi Saleh, but apart from the royal quarter of the town. The Soninke fought off Almoravid armies with some success until 1076. In that year, Kumbi fell, and its defenders were massacred. The northerners’ political hold south of the Sahara did not last, but the struggle of Islam against paganism continued.

Spanish and Sicilian travelers’ reports give us later snapshots of the history of Ghana. The most extensive account is full of sensational and salacious tales praising the slave women, excellent at cooking “sugared nuts and honeyed donuts,” and with good figures, firm breasts, slim waists, fat buttocks, wide shoulders, and sexual organs “so narrow that one of them may be enjoyed as though she were a virgin indefinitely.”8 But a vivid picture emerges of a kingdom with three or four prosperous, populous towns, productive in copper work, cured hides, dyed robes, and Atlantic ambergris as well as gold. The authors also make clear the means by which Islam spread in the region, partly by settlement of Maghrebi merchants in the towns, and partly by the efforts of individual holy men or pious merchants establishing relationships of confidence with kings. Interpreters and officials were already typically Muslims, and every town had several mosques, but even rulers sympathetic to Islam maintained their traditional court establishments, and what Muslims called “idols” and “sorcerers.”

By the mid–twelfth century, Islam was clearly in the ascendant. Arab writers regarded Ghana as a model Islamic state, whose king revered the true caliph in Baghdad and dispensed justice with exemplary openness. They admired his well-built palace, with its objects of art and windows of glass; the huge natural ingot of gold that was the symbol of his authority; the gold ring by which he tethered his horse; his silk clothes; his elephants and giraffes. “In former times,” reported a scholar based in Spain, “the people of the country professed paganism…. Today there are Muslims and they have scholars, lawyers, and Koran readers and have become pre-eminent in these fields. Some of their chief leaders…have travelled to Mecca and made the pilgrimage and visited the Prophet’s tomb.” 9

Archaeology confirms this picture. Excavations at Kumbi reveal a town nearly one and a half square miles, founded in the tenth century, housing perhaps fifteen to twenty thousand people, with a regular plan and evidence of large, multistoried buildings, including what excavators have designated as nine-roomed “mansions” and a great mosque. Artifacts include glass weights for weighing gold, many finely wrought metal tools, and evidence of a local form of money.10 This magnificence did not last. After a long period of stagnation or decline, pagan invaders overran the Soninke state and destroyed Kumbi. But Islam had spread so widely by then among the warriors and traders of the Sahel that it retained a foothold south of the Sahara for the rest of the Middle Ages.

The big questions, for the history of the world, were: How tenacious would that hold prove? How far would it extend? How deep would Islam penetrate? And how would it change the way people lived and thought? For the future of Islam in West Africa, the attitude of Songhay’s rulers was critical.

For in Songhay, Islam remained superficial. The kings relied on the Muslim intelligentsia of Gao for scribes, bureaucrats, encomiasts, and diplomats at literate courts. But they also had to wield the traditional magic of their people. To rule Songhay, a leader had to combine uneasily compatible roles as a good Muslim and a good magus, both at the same time. He had to be what his people called a dali—both king and shaman, endowed with powers of prophecy, capable of contacting the spirits as well as praying to God.

Sonni Ali Ber—“Ber” means “Great”—who succeeded to the throne in the 1460s, had been raised in his mother’s land, around Sokoto. Here Islam had barely arrived and was hardly practiced, even in the royal court. Sonni Ali drank djitti, the magic potion that protected against witchcraft, literally with his mother’s milk. He knew something of Islam. He learned bits of the Quran in childhood. His parents submitted him to be circumcised. But he always seemed to prefer paganism: at least, that is how the sources—all written by clerics or their cronies—represent him. Some of his objectively verifiable behavior seems to match his anticlerical reputation. Rather than residing in Gao, for instance, which was cosmopolitan, and therefore Muslim, Sonni Ali preferred the second city of his kingdom, Koukya, a palace town where caravans did not come.

The way the kingdom worked bound Sonni Ali to an ancient, pagan past. Songhay was a tributary state. At Sonni Ali’s birth, tribute of millet and rice converged from around the kingdom. Forty head each of oxen, heifers, goats, and chickens were decapitated and the meat distributed to the poor. It was an ancient rite of agrarian kingship, for the king’s role was to garner food and control its warehousing, ensuring equitable shares for all and stocks against times of famine. Iron tribute arrived, forged in fires lit by the bellows of the fire god. Each smith paid a hundred lances and a hundred arrows a year for the king’s army. Of twenty-four subject peoples who supplied the palace slaves, each paid special tribute: fodder for the king’s horses, dried fish, cloth.

Dominion of the river was vital to making the system work, for the Niger was the great highway that linked the forest to the desert. But to possess the river, control over the Sahel was indispensable. Sonni Ali knew that and acted accordingly. His reputation for cruelty owed much to embellishment by his clerical foes, but something, too, to his own strategy. To conquer, he had to inspire fear. He drove back the Tuareg and Mossi—the previously unconquerable warrior bands around the upper Volta—and ruled by razzia, descending periodically on his tributaries’ lands to enforce their compliance. He built three palace garrisons around his kingdom to facilitate control.

He established a monopoly or near-monopoly of violence and cowed the kingdom into peace. Sonni Ali’s peace favored trade and especially, therefore, the elites of the Niger Valley towns. At the time, Timbuktu was the greatest of them—“exquisite, pure, delicious, illustrious, blessed, lively, rich.” Leo Africanus described the notable buildings: the houses of Timbuktu of clay-covered wattles with thatched roofs, the great mosque of stone and mortar, the governor’s palace, the “very numerous” shops of the artisans, the merchants, and especially weavers of cotton cloth. Like every vibrant urban space, the city was “very much endangered by fire.” Leo saw half of it burn “in the space of five hours” as a violent wind fanned the flames and the inhabitants of the other half of the city shunted their belongings to safety.11

“The inhabitants,” he reported, “are very rich,” especially the immigrant Maghrebi elite of merchants and scholars, who generated so much demand for books imported from the Maghreb that—so Leo claimed—“there is more profit made from this commerce than from all other merchandise.” The people, Leo declared, “are of a peaceful nature. They have a custom of almost continuously walking about the city in the evening (except for those that sell gold), between ten and one o’clock, playing musical instruments and dancing…. The citizens have at their service many slaves, both men and women. The women of the city maintain the custom of veiling their faces, except for the slaves who sell all the foodstuffs.” 12

Gold nuggets and cowrie shells were exchanged for salt, which was “in very short supply,” slaves, European textiles, and horses. “Only small, poor horses,” according to Leo, “are born in this country. The merchants use them for their voyages and the courtiers to move about the city. But the good horses come from Barbary. They arrive in a caravan and, ten or twelve days later, they are led to the ruler, who takes as many as he likes and pays appropriately for them.” 13

By Sonni Ali’s time, Malian sovereignty over Timbuktu was nominal. The city was poised between two potential masters: the Tuareg herdsmen of the desert, against whom the Malians could no longer offer protection, and the Sonni. Preserving effective independence required a careful balancing act, playing off the rivals against one another. In the early years of Ali’s reign, Muhammad Nad, the wily old governor of Timbuktu, treated the Sonni with circumspection—appeasing him with tribute and deterring him with the threat of Tuareg intervention. The magnificence of Muhammad Nad’s court was fit for a king. Leo describes him riding a camel, hearing pleas from prostrate subjects, and garnering a treasure of coins, ingots, and immense gold nuggets. This wealth paid for an army of “about three thousand horsemen and infinity of foot soldiers.” War was waged for tribute and captives: “[W]hen he has gained a victory, he has all of them—even the children—sold in the market at Timbuktu.” Still, Muhammad Nad knew how to defer when it mattered. He joined Sonni Ali in his first campaigns of conquest against the forest dwellers to the south: participation in campaigns was a rite of submission, part of the normal relationship of tributaries to their lords.

Muhammad Nad’s son and successor, Ammar, was less diplomatic. Resentful of admitting to being Songhay’s dependant, he sent a letter of defiance: “My father quit this life possessing nothing but a linen shroud. The force of arms at my disposal surpasses belief. Let him who doubts it come and count.” But it soon became obvious that he could not do without Songhayan help. When the Tuareg descended on the town and intimidated him into releasing part of the governor’s traditional income from tolls on the trade of the river, Ammar cut a deal with the Sonni. He was entertaining Akil, the Tuareg chief, in January 1468, when a cloud of dust appeared on the horizon.

“A sandstorm,” ventured the host.

“You have wasted your eyes on books,” replied Akil. “My eyes are old, but I can see the armed horsemen approaching.” 14

The Tuareg abandoned Timbuktu to Sonni Ali, who—so tradition asserted—likened the city to a woman “rolling her eyes in terror and sashaying her body to seduce us.” 15 The mullahs, however, did not join in the seductive performance or the submissive posture of the governor and merchant elite. They supported the Tuareg. It is hard to separate cause and effect: were the clergy repelled by Sonni Ali’s paganism? Or was his identification with the old gods part of his response to clerical hostility? In any event, his overtly contemptuous and vindictive treatment of them became obvious for the remaining years of his reign.

It seems more convincing to see his attitude as part of the power play that balanced factions in Timbuktu than to suppose that he practiced anticlericalism out of pagan devotion or principled detestation of the mullahs. Anticlericalism and piety are not incompatible, and Ali’s religious views and sentiments seem to have been much more deeply imbued with reverence for Islam than clerical propaganda made out. Sonni Ali performed the holiday prayers of Ramadan year by year during his campaigns. “Despite his ill treatment of scholars,” reported a late but generally fair chronicler, “he acknowledged their worth and often said, ‘Without the clergy the world would no longer be sweet and good.’” 16 Muhammad Nad’s sons and grandsons, by contrast, were lax in performing Muslim rites. Yet they incurred much less clerical obloquy.

On the other hand, evidence of Sonni Ali’s hostility toward the city patriciate of Timbuktu is ample, especially in an intense period of mutual distrust from 1468 to 1473. Muhammad Nad had been a great friend to the city’s elite, as Leo Africanus observed. “There are in Timbuktu numerous judges, teachers and priests, all properly appointed” by Muhammad Nad, who “greatly honors learning.” 17 Ali abjured this attitude, treated the city with disdain, and rarely paused there on his progresses around the kingdom.

His conquest provoked a massive exodus of the elite. A caravan of one thousand camels took the exiles to Walata, where they could rely on Tuareg protection, while Ali killed, enslaved, or imprisoned the children of one of the chief judges of the city, And-agh-Muhammad al-Kabir. He humiliated—the chroniclers are not explicit about the details—the family of the other, al-qadi al-Hajj, and massacred a party of them who tried to flee to Walata. His policy was not solely to do with vengeance, but was also designed to contain potential opposition within Songhay, for al-Hajj was close to the family of Sonni Ali’s lieutenant and most successful general, Askia Muhammad—the only possible rival to the Sonni’s supremacy. Rebellion, massacre, and a further exodus followed in 1470 or 1471. The feud between Ali and Timbuktu was beginning to damage the kingdom. The new refugees sewed martyrdom stories among exiles and initiated the implacably hostile scholarly tradition against Ali. Worse for the Sonni’s revenues, the decline of the city disrupted trade.

By now, however, Sonni Ali was beginning to feel secure. In 1471 (or perhaps a little later—the chronology of the sources is confused), he conquered Jenne, despite the fire ships the defenders launched against the Songhayan fleet. Jenne was the last and largest of the great river ports of the Niger, where the call from the great minaret, so it was said, echoed in seven thousand places. Ali had now constructed an empire comparable in extent to Mali at its height. Consolidation rather than conquest became his main aim. From about 1477, for eight or nine years, he tried to rebuild his relationship with Timbuktu’s patricians and scholars, and reinvigorate the kingdom’s trade. He projected a canal from Niger to Walata, though he never got around to building it. To the office of chief judge of Timbuktu, he appointed a descendant of a sage whom Mansa Musa had brought to the Sahel: it was an emphatic gesture of deference to tradition. He sent women captured on campaigns against the Fulani as a present to the scholars of Timbuktu—though some of the recipients treated the gift as an insult. If Ali’s intentions were good, they were too little too late. Renewed war with the Mossi interrupted his plans for reconstruction and provoked him into a new bout of repression.

In 1485 he dismissed Muhammad Nad’s son from the governorship of Timbuktu and installed a nominee of his own. Probably in 1488, he ordered what the chroniclers call the “evacuation” of Timbuktu.18 Other evidence does not support clerical sources’ picture of a devastated and depopulated city; so this was probably just the expulsion of suspect families. The clergy intensified their countercampaign of propaganda. Sonni Ali became a bogeyman for the godly. In Egypt his rise was reported as a calamity for Islam, comparable to the loss of al-Andalus to Christian conquerors. In 1487, mullahs in Mecca raised imprecations against him. A Maghrebi jurist later denied that Ali was a Muslim at all.19 Meanwhile, back in the Sahel, Ali’s priority for war continued to shift power from the mullahs and merchants to warrior chiefs.

Askia Muhammad Touray was the greatest of them. As one of Ali’s closest companions, commanders, and counselors, he evinced total loyalty, but the Sonni’s opponents naturally cast him as their potential champion, or at least as an intermediary whose favor they needed. Askia Muhammad’s popularity and success were vexing to Sonni Baro, the heir to the throne. Baro tried to arouse in his father suspicions against Muhammad by alleging that the general’s Muslim piety implied alliance with traitorous clergy.

The charges had some credibility. Muhammad had tried to save massacre victims in Timbuktu and had used his influence to moderate Sonni Ali’s anticlerical excesses. In consequence he had a powerful constituency of admirers and partisans, especially in the city that regarded him as its protector. Sonni Baro, by contrast, was a hateful figure, identified with all his father’s most obnoxious traits—his adherence to pagan forms, his humbling of the clerics, his oppression of Timbuktu. By December 1492, when news arrived that Sonni Ali had died, many of the mullahs and merchants were ready to incite rebellion. Askia Muhammad was in Timbuktu when news of the king’s death broke there on January 1, 1493.

One of the elite messengers, trained to spend up to ten days in the saddle and cross the entire kingdom, arrived with a breathless message:

Ali the Great, your master and mine, king of Songhay, star of the world, shining sun of our hearts, terror of our enemies, died ten days ago…. He was on his way back to Gao from an expedition…. As he was crossing a small tributary of the Niger, a sudden swell arose and carried off our lord, his horse, his baggage, and his train in the surging waves. The army watched powerless from the shore. I was there. We could do nothing. It all happened so fast.20

The citizens of the town came out of their dwellings and raised the cry: “The tyrant is dead! Long live King Muhammad!” But their hero cut short a preacher who denounced the memory of “the impious and terrible tyrant, the worst oppressor ever known, the destroyer of cities, of hard and cruel heart, who killed so many men whose names are known to God alone and who treated the learned and godly with humiliation and contempt.” 21 Muhammad’s display of loyalty to his dead master only increased his devout reputation and the clamor for him to be king. Chroniclers gilded his iron ambition with the gleam of piety.

He was reluctant—so it was said—to accept the throne. The people besought him; the army acclaimed him. Messengers from the old king’s deathbed assured him that Ali had wanted him to save the kingdom from Sonni Baro’s impiety or incompetence. The truth is that Muhammad dared not defer to Sonni Baro. For too long, they had been rivals in the old king’s esteem, and contenders for influence over him. Muhammad marched against Baro, claiming to demand from him accession to the true faith. It was an old and enduring pretext for violence: jihad against an alleged apostate.

The surviving chronicles, which are uniformly favorable to Askia Muhammad, portray Sonni Baro preparing for battle in drugged ecstasy, communing with his idols, especially Za Beri Wandu, the god who begot the river Niger. A sorcerer conjured for Baro a vision of his father’s spirit. Baro saw the ghost’s lips move but heard nothing. The medium gave him the message: “[T]he king rejoices in your valor and urges you to combat Islam courageously.” Sonni Baro, meanwhile, treated Muhammad’s emissary, an old sheikh who brought the insulting demand for repentance and conversion, to a display of magic. A fakir disgorged a chain of pure gold. Another made a tree shake in a windless landscape. When the sheikh tried to escape the scene of devilry, Sonni Baro himself rose and beat him almost to death. “I reign by right of birth,” he cried, “and the protection of the gods.” 22

To the chroniclers who recorded or constructed this scene, it was a double blasphemy, for only Allah conferred kingship. False auguries deceived Baro, even at the height of the battle that followed. The decisive element in Muhammad’s victory, however, seems not to have been supernatural intervention, but the Tuareg allies who descended from the desert in his support.

It was one of the great decisive battles of the world—though Western tradition has forgotten or ignored it. Sonni Baro owed nothing to the mullahs and had every reason to arrest the spread of Islam south of the Sahara. Had he triumphed, Islam might have been stopped at the edge of the Sahel. Askia Muhammad, on the other hand, owed his throne to Muslims and invested heavily in practicing and promoting their religion. In 1497, he reenacted the most ostentatious of the displays of piety of the Mansas of Mali by making a pilgrimage to Mecca with one thousand foot soldiers and five hundred horse, bidding to emulate the Mansa Musa’s dazzling retinue. He legitimized his usurpation of power in Songhay by submitting his claim to the throne to the Sharif of Mecca. On his return to Songhay in 1498, he adopted the title of caliph—the most ambitious claim any ruler could make to the legacy of the Prophet.

Muhammad’s reason for arrogating the title to himself perhaps owed something to regional power struggles: Ali Ghadj, the redoubtable king of Bornu—the state that straddled the Sahel around Lake Chad—used the same title until his death in 1497. Bornu was a warrior state, exchanging slaves for horses. Ali Ghadj’s successor, Idris Katakarmabi, was on the throne when Leo Africanus turned up. He found Bornu rich in rare kinds of grain and with wealthy merchants in the villages, but the highland people were naked or clad in skins. “They embrace no religion at all,…living in a brutish manner, and having wives and children in common.” Still, Bornu had three thousand horsemen, and huge numbers of infantry, maintained by a tithe of the people’s grain and the spoils of war. Though stingy with merchants—so merchants said—“the king seemeth to be marveilous rich; for his spurres, his bridles, platters, dishes, pots, and other vessels…are all of pure golde: yea, and the chaines of his dogs and hounds are of golde also.” 23 Bornu, in short, was a major regional power against which the parvenu Songhayan state had to measure itself. In any case, the style of caliph fitted Muhammad’s Muslim self-projection. When he made war, he called it jihad.

Islam’s progress was now irreversible. That does not mean that it was uncontested or unlimited. Paganism, though bloodied and bowed, survived. In the long run it was ineradicable, subsisting as a form of popular religion or “alternative” subculture, and always polluting Islam with syncretic influences. When conspirators deposed the aging Askia Muhammad in 1529 and confined him to an island in the Niger, his heirs slid back into ambiguous practices reminiscent of those of Sonni Ali.

Moreover, even while Sonni Ali died in the Niger, a newly arrived religion was intruding in sub-Saharan West Africa. As a rival to Islam, Christianity had one big advantage: its adherents carried it by sea. They could outflank Islam and dodge the forests, reaching directly deep into tropical Africa via the coasts.

The first outpost was the fort that Portuguese explorers founded in 1482 at São Jorge da Mina, on the underbelly of the African bulge, near the mouths of the rivers Benya and Pra, about a hundred kilometers from the Volta. For over half a century, the Portuguese had justified their slave raids and trading ventures on the coast of the African Atlantic as part of a crusade to spread Christianity. The ambitious prince Dom Henrique, whom historians call “the Navigator” (rather misleadingly, as he made only two short sea trips), sponsored the voyages until his death in 1460, with support from successive popes, and sent expeditions as far as what is now Sierra Leone; but he never honored his promises to send missionaries to the region. Spanish friars strove to fill the gap, but the Portuguese detested them as foreign agents, and they made little or no progress. The merchants and private entrepreneurs who ran the Portuguese effort from 1469 to 1475 had no reason to waste hardnosed investment on spiritual objectives.

In 1475, however, the crown took over the enterprise, perhaps in order to confront Spanish interlopers. West African navigation became the responsibility of the senior prince of the royal house, the infante Dom João. Henceforth, Portugal had an heir and, from his accession in 1481, a king committed to the further exploration and exploitation of Africa. He seems to have conceived of the African Atlantic as a sort of “Portuguese main,” fortified by coastal trading establishments. Numerous informal and unfortified Portuguese outposts already dotted the Senegambia region. Freelance expatriates set most of them up, “going native” as they did so. Dom João, however, had a militant and organizing mentality, forged in the war he waged against Spanish interlopers on the Guinea coast between 1475 and 1481.

When he sent one hundred masons and carpenters to build the fort of São Jorge, therefore, he was doing something new: inaugurating a policy of permanent footholds, disciplined trading, and royal initiatives. The natives could see and fear the transformation for themselves. A local chief said that he had preferred the “ragged and ill dressed men who had traded there before.” 24 Another prong of the new policy was the centralization of the African trade at Lisbon, in warehouses below the royal palace, where all sailings had to be registered and all cargo stored. An even more important element in João’s plan was the cultivation of friendly relations with powerful coastal chieftains: the Wolof chiefs of Senegambia; the rulers—or “obas,” as they were called—of the lively port city of Benin; and ultimately—much farther south—the kings of Kongo. Conversion to Christianity was not essential for good relations—but it helped. In Europe, it served to legitimize Portugal’s privileged presence in a region where other powers coveted the chance to trade. In Africa, it could create a bond between the Portuguese and their hosts.

Dom João therefore presided over an extraordinary turnover in baptisms and rebaptisms of rapidly apostatizing black chiefs. In one extraordinary political pantomime in 1488, he entertained an exiled Wolof potentate to a full regal reception, for which the visitor was decked out with European clothes and the table laden with silver plate.25 Farther east along the coast, Portuguese missionary effort was still feeble, but the fort of São Jorge was Christianity’s shopwindow in the region, contriving an attractive display. Its wealth and dimensions were modest, but mapmakers depicted it as a splendid place, with high fortifications, pennanted turrets, and gleaming spires—a sort of black Camelot. It had no explicit missionary role, but it did have resident chaplains, who became foci of inquiries from local leaders and their rivals, who realized that they could get help in the form of Portuguese technicians and weapons if they expressed an interest in Christianity. The obas of Benin played the game with some skill, never actually committing to the Church but garnering aid like supermarket customers targeting “special offers.” Not much came of any of the contacts, in terms of real Christianization, and in competition in the region neither Christianity nor Islam was very effective at first. But West Africa had become what it has remained ever since: an arena of spiritual enterprise in which Islam and Christianity contended for religious allegiance.

Farther south, where Portuguese ships reached but where Muslim merchants and missionaries were unknown, was the kingdom of Kongo. Here people responded to Christianity with an enthusiasm wholly disproportionate to Portugal’s lackluster attempts at conversion. The kingdom dominated the Congo River’s navigable lower reaches, probably from the mid–fourteenth century. The ambitions of its rulers became evident when Portuguese explorers established contact in the 1480s. In 1482, battling against the Benguela Current, Diogo Cão reached the shores of the kingdom. Follow-up voyages brought emissaries from Kongo to Portugal and bore Portuguese missionaries, craftsmen, and mercenaries in the reverse direction.

In Kongo, the rulers sensed at once that the Portuguese could be useful to them. They greeted them with a grand parade, noisy with horns and drums. The king, brandishing his horsetail whisk and wearing his ceremonial cap of woven palm fiber, sat on an ivory throne smothered with the gleaming pelts of lions. He graciously commanded the Portuguese to build a church, and when protesters murmured at the act of sacrilege to the old gods, he offered to put them to death on the spot. The Portuguese piously demurred.

On May 3, 1491, King Nzinga Nkuwu and his son, Nzinga Mbemba, were baptized. Their conversion may have started as a bid for help in internal political conflicts. The laws of succession were ill defined, and Nzinga Mbemba, or Afonso I, as he called himself, had to fight for the succession. He attributed his victory to battlefield apparitions of the Virgin Mary and St. James of Compostela—the same celestial warriors that had often appeared on Iberian battlefields in conflicts against the Moors and would appear again on the side of Spain and Portugal in many wars of conquest in the Americas. Kongo enthusiastically adopted the technology of the visitors and embraced them as partners in slave raiding in the interior and warfare against neighboring realms. Christianity became part of a package of aid from these seemingly gifted foreigners. The royal residence was rebuilt in the Portuguese style. The kings issued documents in Portuguese, and members of the royal family went to Portugal for their education. One prince became an archbishop, and the kings continued to have Portuguese baptismal names for centuries thereafter.

The Portuguese connection made Kongo the best-documented kingdom in West Africa in the sixteenth century. However Afonso I came to Christianity in the first place, he was sincere in espousing it and zealous in promoting it. Missionary reports extolled the “angelic” ruler for knowing

the prophets and the gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ and all the lives of the saints and everything about our sacred mother the church better than we ourselves know them…. It seems to me that the Holy Spirit always speaks through him, for he does nothing but study, and many times he falls asleep over his books, and many times he forgets to eat and drink for talking of Our Lord,…and even when he is going to hold an audience and listen to the people, he speaks of nothing but God and His saints.26

Thanks in part to Afonso’s patronage, Christianity spread beyond the court. “Throughout the kingdom,” the same writer informed the Portuguese monarch, Afonso

sent many men, natives of the country, Christians, who have schools and teach our saintly faith to the people, and there are also schools for girls where one of his sisters teaches, a woman who is easily sixty years old, and who knows how to read very well and who is learned in her old age. Your Highness would rejoice to see it. There are also other women who know how to read and who go to church every day. These people pray to Our Lord at mass and Your Highness will know in truth that they are making great progress in Christianity and virtue, for they are advancing in the knowledge of the truth; also, may Your Highness always send them things and rejoice in helping them and, for their redemption, as a remedy, send them books, for they need them more than any other things for their redemption.27

Afonso may have loved books. His own priority, however, was to ask for what we would now call medical aid—physicians, surgeons, apothecaries, and drugs—not so much in admiration of Western medicine as in fear of the link between traditional cures and pagan practices, for, as Afonso explained to the King of Portugal,

we always have many different diseases, which put us very often in such a weakness that we reach almost the last extreme; and the same happens to our children, relatives and natives owing to the lack in this country of physicians and surgeons who might know how to cure properly such diseases. And as we have got neither dispensaries nor drugs which might help us in this forlornness, many of those who had been already confirmed and instructed in the holy faith of Our Lord Jesus Christ perish and die; and the rest of the people in their majority cure themselves with herbs and spells and other ancient methods, so that they put all their faith in the said herbs and ceremonies if they live, and believe that they are saved if they die; and this is not much in the service of God.28

Not all Afonso’s efforts to convert his people were entirely benign. The missionaries also commended him for “burning idolaters along with their idols.” How much the combination of preaching, promotion, education, and repression achieved is hard to gauge. Portugal stinted the resources needed to Christianize Kongo effectively. And the rapacity of Portuguese slavers hampered missionary efforts. Afonso complained to the king of Portugal about white slavers who infringed the royal monopoly of European trade goods and seized slaves indiscriminately. “In order to satisfy their voracious appetite,” they

seize many of our people, freed and exempt men, and very often it happens that they kidnap even noblemen and the sons of noblemen, and our relatives, and take them to be sold to the white men who are in our Kingdoms; and for this purpose they have concealed them; and others are brought during the night so that they might not be recognized. And as soon as they are taken by the white men they are immediately shackled and branded with fire…. And to avoid such a great evil we passed a law so that any white man living in our Kingdoms and wanting to purchase goods in any way should first inform three of our noblemen and officials of our court whom we rely upon in this matter,…who should investigate if the mentioned goods are captives or free men, and if cleared by them there will be no further doubt nor embargo for them to be taken and embarked. But if the white men do not comply with it they will lose the aforementioned goods. And if we do them this favor and concession it is for the part Your Highness has in it, since we know that it is in your service too that these goods are taken from our Kingdom.29

Despite the limitations of the evangelization of Kongo, the dynamism of Christianity south of the Sahara set a pattern for the future. The region was full of cultures that adapted to new religions with surprising ease. Until the intensive missionary efforts of the nineteenth century, Christianization was patchy and superficial, but Christians never lost their advantage over Muslims in competing for sub-Saharan souls.

By adhering to Christianity, the Kongolese elite compensated, to some extent, for the isolation and stagnation of Christian East Africa at about the same time. Christianity had been the religion of Ethiopia’s rulers since the mid–fourth century, when King Ezana began to substitute invocations of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” for praise of his war god in the inscriptions that celebrated his campaigns of conquest and enslavement. The empire’s next thousand years were checkered with disaster, but Ethiopia survived—an aberrant outpost of Christendom, with its own distinctive heresy. For the Ethiopian clergy subscribed to the doctrine, condemned in the Roman tradition in the mid–fifth century, that Christ’s humanity and divinity were fused in a single, wholly divine nature. In the late fourteenth century, in near-isolation from contact with Europe, the realm again began to reach beyond its mountains to dominate surrounding regions. Monasteries became schools of missionaries, whose task was to consolidate Ethiopian power in the conquered pagan lands of Shoa and Gojam. Rulers, meanwhile, concentrated on reopening their ancient outlet to the Red Sea and thereby the Indian Ocean. By 1403, when King Davit recaptured the Red Sea port of Massaweh, Ethiopian rule stretched into the trade route along the Great Rift Valley, where slaves, ivory, gold, and civet headed northward, generating valuable tolls.


Map redrawn from Fra Mauro’s Venetian Mappamundi of the 1450s, showing how well informed Latin Christendom was about Ethiopia.
Fra Mauro’s Ethiopia map from O. G. S. Crawford, Ethiopian Itineraries, circa 1400–1524 (Cambridge, 1958). Courtesy of The Hakluyt Society. The Hakluyt Society was established in 1846 for the purpose of printing rare or unpublished Voyages and Travels. For further information please see their website at:

Yet by the time of the death of King Zara Yakub, toward the end of the 1460s, expansion was straining resources, and conquests stopped. Saints’ lives are a major source for Ethiopian history in this period. They tell of internal consolidation rather than outward expansion as monks converted wasteland to farmland. The kingdom began to feel beleaguered, and rulers sought outside help, looking as far as Europe for allies. European visitors were already familiar in Ethiopia, for Ethiopia’s Massaweh Road was a standard route to the Indian Ocean. Italian merchants anxious to grab some of the wealth of the Indian Ocean for themselves would head up the Nile as far as Keneh, where they joined camel caravans across the eastern Nubian desert for the thirty-five-day journey to the Red Sea. Encouraged by these contacts, Ethiopian rulers sent envoys to European courts and even flirted with the idea of submitting the Ethiopian church to the discipline of Rome. In 1481, the pope provided a church to house visiting Ethiopian monks in the Vatican garden.

The kingdom was still big enough and rich enough to impress European visitors. When Portuguese diplomatic missions began to arrive—the first, in the person of Pedro de Covilhão, in about 1488; a second in 1520—they found “men and gold and provisions like the sands of the sea and the stars in the sky,” while “countless tents” borne by fifty thousand mules transported the court around the kingdom.30 Crowds of two thousand at a time would line up for royal audiences, marshaled by guards on plumed horses, caparisoned in fine brocade. To the ruler of Ethiopia, Negus Eskendar, Covilhão was immediately recognizable as a precious asset, whom he retained at his court with lavish rewards.

Ethiopia, however, had already overreached its potential as a conquest state. Pagan migrants permeated the southern frontier. Muslim invaders pressed from the east, building up the pressure until within a couple of generations they threatened to conquer the highlands. Ethiopia barely survived. The frontier of Christendom began to shrink.

Meanwhile, beyond Ethiopia, the east coast of Africa was accessible to Muslim influence but cut off from that of Christians. In the sixteenth century the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope brought Portuguese merchants, exiles, and garrisons to the region. Here, however, Christianity never had the manpower or appeal to compete with Islam, while the inland states remained largely beyond the reach of missionaries of either faith.


Diogo Homem’s map of West Africa (1558) shows São Jorge da Mina (topped with five-dotted flag), indigenous slave-raiding, and the ruler of Songhay, extravagantly behatted.
Diogo Homem’s map of West Africa from J. W. Blake, Europeans in West Africa, I (London, 1942). Courtesy of The Hakluyt Society.

The greatest of these states were at the far end of the Rift Valley, around the gold-strewn Zambezi. The productive plateau beyond, which stretched to the south as far as the Limpopo River, was rich in salt, gold, and elephants. Like Ethiopia, these areas looked toward the Indian Ocean for long-range trade with the economies of maritime Asia. Unlike Ethiopia, communities in the Zambezi Valley had ready access to the ocean, but they faced a potentially more difficult problem. Their outlets to the sea lay below the reach of the monsoon system and, therefore, beyond the normal routes of trade. Still, adventurous merchants—most of them, probably, from southern Arabia—risked the voyage to bring manufactured goods from Asia in trade for gold and ivory. Some of the most vivid evidence comes from the mosque in Kilwa, in modern Tanzania, where fifteenth-century Chinese porcelain bowls—products Arabian merchants shipped across the whole breadth of the ocean—line the inside of the dome.

Further evidence of the effects of trade lie inland, where fortified, stone-built administrative centers—called “zimbabwes”—had been common for centuries. In the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the zimbabwes entered their greatest age. The most famous, Great Zimbabwe, included a formidable citadel on a hill 350 feet high, but remains of other citadels are scattered over the land. Near stone buildings, the beef-fed elite were buried with gifts: gold, jewelry, jeweled ironwork, large copper ingots, and Chinese porcelain.

In the second quarter of the fifteenth century, the center of power shifted northward to the Zambezi Valley, with the expansion of a new regional power. Mwene Mutapa, as it was called, arose during the northward migration of bands of warriors from what are now parts of Mozambique and KwaZulu-Natal. When one of their leaders conquered the middle Zambezi Valley, he took the title Mwene Mutapa, or “lord of the tribute payers”—a name that became extended to the state. From about the mid–fifteenth century, the pattern of trade routes altered as Mwene Mutapa’s conquests spread eastward toward the coast. But Mwene Mutapa never reached the ocean. Native merchants, who traded at inland fairs, had no interest in a direct outlet to the sea. They did well enough using middlemen on the coast and had no incentive for or experience of ocean trade. The colonists were drawn, not driven, northward, though a decline in the navigability of the Sabi River may have stimulated the move.

The events of 1492 hardly affected the remote interior and south of Africa. But the death of Sonni Ali Ber in the waters of the Niger, the consolidation of Portuguese influence that followed the baptism of Nzinga Nkuwu in Kongo, and the renewal—which was going on at about the same time—of Ethiopia’s diplomatic contact with the rest of Christendom were decisive events in carving the continent between Islam and Christianity. With Askia Muhammad’s triumph in Songhay, the accession of Afonso I in Kongo, and the success of Pedro de Covilhão’s mission to Ethiopia, the configurations of the religious map of Africa today—where Islam dominates across the Sahara and in the Sahel, as far as the northern forest belt, and along the Indian Ocean coast, with Christianity preponderant elsewhere—became, if not inevitable, highly predictable.

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