Post-classical history

Chapter Fourteen


“Many Nations”

In the twelfth century, Muslim kingdoms occupy the center and east of the African continent, and lie side by side with much older traditions until the two come into conflict

THE ALMOHAD EMPIRE that had spread across the north of Africa was not the only Muslim kingdom on the African continent. In the center of Africa, just west of Lake Chad, a Muslim king named Dunama ruled over the state of Kanem.

Kanem was, in the words of the tenth-century Arab geographer al-Muhallabi, a kingdom of “many nations”: a mix of peoples.* The nomadic Zaghawa, who had migrated south from an increasingly hostile Sahara Desert perhaps four hundred years before, had settled near Lake Chad and adopted some of the customs of the villagers there; in Kanem, farmers and seminomadic herdsmen seem to have existed side by side. Their wealth, al-Muhallabi notes, “consists of livestock such as sheep, cattle, camels, and horses. The greater part of the crops of their county is sorghum and cowpeas and then wheat. . . . Their means of subsistence is crops and the ownership of livestock.”1

In the tenth century, Kanem still held to its native customs: “Their religion is the worship of their kings,” al-Muhallabi writes, “for they believe that they bring life and death, sickness and health.” But by Dunama’s day, Islam had come to the shores of Lake Chad. Dunama’s father Humai had been tutored by a Muslim scholar, from whom he learned the basics of the faith; the Girgam, the royal chronicle of Kanem’s rulers, says that Dunama himself made two successful hajjes, sacred pilgrimages to Mecca.

Kanem’s chronicle is unusual. Oral tradition is the only guide we have to the early history of the majority of African states, and many have no written history until the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century. But the Girgam, like most king lists, is not a neutral document. It preserves what appears to be a much older oral king list, stretching back at least eleven generations before the conversion of Humai. But among those kings is the biblical patriarch Abraham, apparently a Muslim gloss on the native past; and the list also displays a clearly Arab desire to identify the earliest Kanem kings as Arab, rather than as African. The eighth king of Kanem, the list assures us, was “as white silk,” and the first king identified as “a black man, a warrior hotter than fire” is the thirteenth-century ruler Dunama II.2

But the first Dunama was undoubtedly black, most likely Zaghawa in ancestry. His dynasty, the Saifawa, ruled from the capital city Njimi, the exact site of which is still unknown. Humai’s Muslim tutor, and the conversion of the Saifawa to Islam, came by way of the trade routes to North Africa.

Those trade routes, crossing the Sahara, had existed since 600 BC. Even with camels, used since the first century, the passage across the desert took three months or more. From the west and center of the continent came gold, kola nuts, ivory, copper, and salt, which was for centuries the most valuable African export, mined at the desert towns of Taghaza and Bilma. The later traveler Ibn Battuta described Taghaza as “the most fly-ridden of places,” a hideous village where

houses and mosques are built of blocks of salt, roofed with camel skins. There are no trees there, nothing but sand. In the sand is a salt mine; they dig for the salt, and find it in thick slabs. . . . No one lives at Taghaza except the slaves of the Mesufa tribe, who dig for the salt; they subsist on dates imported from Dar’a and Sijilmasa, camels’ flesh, and millet.3

The slaves at Taghaza were most likely prisoners of war, taken captive and sold by their African captors to African purchasers. Since ancient times, the defeated were enslaved and sold, and not just within Africa; slaves were another major export, sold to Arab merchants along the trade route. Since Islam forbade the enslavement of fellow Muslims, the African tribes outside the Muslim world provided a valuable source of labor.4

Three major routes served the merchants who traded in African goods and slaves. The western route passed through Taghaza and led down to the Niger river; the central route ran from Tunis down towards the inland bend in the Niger. Under Dunama I, Kanem took control of the easternmost trade route, the one that passed by Lake Chad, up through Bilma, and ended in Tripoli.


14.1 Many Nations of Africa

The trade route made Kanem wealthier, and Dunama I increased his own fortunes by doing a brisk trade in slaves. This had long been a privilege of the king: “He has unlimited authority over his subjects,” wrote Al-Bakri in the eleventh century, “and enslaves from among them anyone he wants.” A Muslim king could not enslave Muslim subjects, but apparently the conversion of Kanem had not yet trickled down from palace to peasant; Dunama had plenty of non-Muslim subjects to enslave. On both his first and second pilgrimages to Mecca, the Girgam relates, he took three hundred slaves to sell in Cairo. He intended to do the same on his third pilgrimage, but drowned on his way across the Red Sea when his ship sank.5 Kanem would not come fully into the fold of Islam until the reign of Salmama I at the end of the century, three generations later.

Farther to the east, the island nation of Kilwa was already thoroughly Muslim.

Like Kanem, Kilwa has a written royal chronicle. Around the tenth century, according to the Kilwa Chronicle, an Arab prince named Ali ibn al-Hassan was driven from his home in the prosperous city of Shiraz, just east of the Persian Gulf. He came to Kilwa with his six brothers and his father, sailing in seven ships. Swahili peoples lived on the island, and on the nearby coast; Ali bought Kilwa from them in exchange for cloth and settled there as the island’s king, founding the Shirazi dynasty.6

It is impossible to know how much of this story actually dates from the early history of Kilwa, since the oldest surviving version of the Chronicle is a sixteenth-century Portuguese translation done by the explorer João de Barros. There is no proof that Ali ibn al-Hassan, whose coins still survive, came to the Swahili lands from the outside; like the details of the Kanem king list, the tale might be rooted in the Arab assumption that a civilized, organized Muslim kingdom could not have been founded by native Africans. And archaeological investigations suggest that Ali himself probably lived closer to the twelfth century than to the tenth. But ruins of mosques and prayer rooms do suggest that, by the tenth century, Arab merchants were not only trading with but also settling into the Swahili villages of Kilwa and the coast.7

Although the chronology of the Shirazi sultans is difficult to pin down, around 1150 Kilwa was probably ruled by Dawud b. Sulayman, who boasted the title “Master of the Trade.” He controlled a kingdom that encompassed the islands of Pemba, Zanzibar, and Mafia, as well as Kilwa itself, and stretched to the coast of the mainland.8

This Kilwa empire flourished through trade. Song pottery along the coast testifies to sea trade with the southern dynasty of China; ivory from the south passed through Kilwa on its way north. Dawud b. Sulayman’s greatest achievement was to negotiate a monopoly in the trading of gold through the city of Sofala. From the middle of the twelfth century on, merchants coming to the eastern coast of Africa for gold traded through Kilwa’s increasingly wealthy port cities.9

IN THE WEST OF AFRICA other dynasties ruled over kingdoms and tribes that had not yet been touched by Islam. But because written chronicles came with Islam, the history that we have of these dynasties remains in the realm of legend, shading into myth and then imperceptibly into history.

East of the Volta river and west of the Niger lay the city of Ife, one of the most splendid in Africa. Ife had existed for hundreds of years as a smallish village, since, perhaps, the fourth century BC. Around 700 it had begun to grow. By the ninth century AD, Ife was a walled city with a palace and court, paved streets lined with elaborate sculptures of terra-cotta and bronze.10

The Yoruba peoples claimed Ife as the origin not only of their civilization but of all the peoples of the world. Oral tradition preserves the legend of their creation: One day, the creator god Ólodùmarè looked out from the lower heavens over the endless waters below and decided to create the earth. He descended to the surface of the waters by climbing down a chain, holding a gourd of earth and a five-toed chicken. He piled the dirt onto the water and set the chicken on top of it; the chicken, scratching in the dirt, scattered it across the surface of the water and created the earth. Then Ólodùmarè granted the power to create life to another deity, Obatala (an orisha, a manifestation of one of the facets of Ólodùmarè himself). Obatala made man and gave him power, and then his sixteen sons spread out among the peoples of the earth and established sixteen kingdoms among them.11

Like all origin stories, this one (which has many variations) reflects the world of its makers. The Yoruba, united by a common language, were never a single state; there were many rulers, many chiefs, many centers of Yoruba power. Ife held pride of place among all Yoruba cities, but never dominated the political life of the Yoruba.

On the eastern side of the Yoruba lands, the Yoruba peoples blended into the Edo: hunters and farmers, living in small villages that had slowly grown and spread towards each other, their walls finally meeting to form a sprawling honeycomb of a city. This city was Benin, ruled by a king with the title Ogiso and made prosperous by a northward trade in cotton cloth, salt, pottery, and copper. Edo oral tradition preserves the names of thirty-eight Ogisos; the last Ogiso king, Ogiso Owodo, ruled sometime between 1100 and 1200.* His rule was a disaster, and after forty-one years on the throne he was driven from his country by his own subjects. For seven or eight decades, Benin fell apart into mini-kingdoms ruled by local nobility.12

Finally, fed up with the interregnum and with the tyranny of their overlords, the people of Benin sent a messenger to Ife, asking for a prince of the Yoruba to come and rule over them. A younger royal son named Oranmiyan answered the call; arriving in Benin, he married the daughter of one of those tyrannical local nobles, sired a son, and tried to govern the city. The effort turned out to be unrewarding: “This,” he is said to have exclaimed, “is a land of vexation!” In Yoruba, the phrase is Ile-Ibinu, from which the name Benin is derived.13

He installed his son Eweka as ruler of Benin and left the city, returning to his home in Ife. Thus Yoruba blood entered the royal line of the Edo, and Eweka became the founder of the Second Dynasty of Benin, establishing Benin City as his capital and building a palace there. He claimed a new royal title for himself: Oba, the king with a link to the divine. By tradition, Eweka’s dynasty has continued unbroken until the present day, and the Oba of Benin (in 2011, Erediauwa I, a Cambridge graduate and onetime Gulf Oil employee crowned in 1979) claims to represent all of the Edo people.

AS THE SECOND DYNASTY began in Benin, the kingdom of Ghana, home of the Soninke people, was already declining.

Ghana had no written history of its own, but stories of the kingdom had filtered north along the trade routes since at least the tenth century. In 1068, the Cordoban scholar Abu Abdulluh al-Bakri had combined the work of Arab geographers and travelers’ tales into his Book of Highways and Kingdoms. He described Ghana as a kingdom suspended halfway between Islam and native custom, where African Muslims and traditional priests existed side by side:

The [capital] city of Ghana [Kumbi-Saleh] consists of two towns situated on a plain. One of these towns, which is inhabited by Muslims, is large and possesses twelve mosques, in one of which they assemble for the Friday prayer. There are salaried imams and muezzins, as well as jurists and scholars. . . . The king’s town is six miles distant from this one. . . . Around the king’s town are domed buildings and groves and thickets where the sorcerers of these people, men in charge of the religious cult, live. . . . When the people who profess the same religion as the king approach him they fall on their knees and sprinkle dust on their heads, for this is their way of greeting him. As for the Muslims, they greet him only by clapping their hands.14

But Ghana had barely entered written history before the kingdom fell on hard times. Almoravid troops invaded in 1076, hoping to seize control of the lucrative western trade route, and occupied the capital of Kumbi-Saleh; Ghana’s king, driven out, lost control first of the edges of his empire and then of its heartland. The Soninke began to migrate outwards from the enemy-controlled center, and Soninke nobles established their own small kingdoms in Ghana’s outer reaches.

One of these kingdoms was controlled by the Sosso clan of the Malinke tribe. Even before the fall of Kumbi-Saleh, the Sosso had resisted both Islam and royal control. Almoravid intervention allowed them to claim independence, and then to whip the surrounding clans into obedience. By 1180, the Sosso clan leader Diara Kante commanded enough troops to invade Kumbi-Saleh itself and drive the Almoravids out. In 1200, Diara Kante was succeeded by his son Sumanguru Kante, who took up both his crown and his sword.15

In the next century, Sumanguru would prove to be a fierce opponent both of the slave trade and of Islam, foreshadowing, in his fears, the coming threats to Africa’s own ways.


* Medieval African history is complicated by the multiple identities that any one African could claim. For the purposes of this narrative, I will use “people” to refer to a linguistic group (the Zaghawa people all spoke the same Saharan language; this is sometimes called “ethnicity” and sometimes “tribal identity”); “tribe” for a group united, however loosely, by blood relationships; “clan” for an individual family group; and “kingdom” for a political unit. A citizen of the Kanem kingdom might belong to either the Zaghawa or the Sao linguistic group, as well as having a separate tribal and clan identity. In African history, the term “tribe” is particularly difficult to define; it is used by different scholars to indicate blood relationship, political unity, linguistic unity, etc. In this history, it will always imply blood ties.

* Benin’s early history is impossible to date with precision. Most reconstructions are based solely on the work of the Benin historian Jacob Egharevba, who collected the oral traditions and put them down in writing in the twentieth century—long, long after the fact. Stefan Eisenhofer provides a useful overview and discussion in “The Benin Kinglist/s: Some Questions of Chronology,” History of Africa 24 (1997): 139–156.

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