Post-classical history

Chapter Eighty-Three



Between 1370 and 1399, Kanem becomes Bornu, and seven states on the Niger see a new frontier

FOR MORE THAN A CENTURY, the hawkish empire of Kanem had perched at the center of Africa, its core just east of massive Lake Chad, its edges diffusing outward. “The empire [of Kanem] commences on the Egyptian side at a town called Zella and ends on the other side at a town called Kaka,” writes the fourteenth-century historian al-‘Umari. “A three-month journey separates these two towns.” Zella, all the way up in the northern Sahara, and Kaka, far southeast of Lake Chad in central Africa, were some twelve hundred miles apart; but Kanem was not a European empire, collecting tax and vassalage oaths from its subjects, and the king of Kanem did not control all of the land in between.1

Instead, he took charge of keeping the trade routes clear. Kanem’s prosperity depended on trade through the Sahara, along the eastern trade route that led to Tripoli, and along a less-traveled and rougher road that led, more directly, to Egypt. Salt, ivory, ostrich feathers, and grain went north from Kanem’s mines, fields, and forests; war horses, wool, copper, and iron weapons came south. The monarchs of Kanem did not feel the need to force the northern Saharan tribes to pay homage, but they desperately wanted safe roads to the Mediterranean markets. Kanem’s borders were a commercial reality, not a political one; this made them a little more difficult to define, and even more difficult to defend.

Sometime around the beginning of the fourteenth century, Kanem’s eastern border began to suffer raids from a neighboring people. Known to later chroniclers as the Bulala, they were farmers and shepherds who had drifted westward, possibly from the highlands of the Nile, ahead of Arab settlement. They still held to their traditional religious practices, and their hatred may have been motivated by Kanem’s trading practices; salt and alum, says the Arab chronicler al-Idrisi, were two of Kanem’s biggest exports, but slaves captured from nearby tribes were traded north as well. Although a relatively small part of Kanem’s trade, slavery was still lucrative. And since Islamic law forbade one Muslim to sell or own another, the unconverted tribes nearby were Kanem’s only source of slaves.2

The attacks went on for decades, but by 1370, Bulala raids had multiplied into all-out war. Tradition says that the last six rulers on Kanem’s throne all died in battle, fighting against the Bulala. Sometime around 1380, the Kanem king ‘Umar ibn Idris made the drastic decision to abandon the lands east of Lake Chad and to move away from the capital city Njimi. He chose to settle himself west of the lake, placing it between his people and the Bulala threat. The land to the west of the lake was known as Bornu. It had probably been an independent kingdom at some time long past; the memory of that separate existence was almost gone, but survived in the ongoing tendency of the Kanem kings to claim the title “King of Kanem and Lord of Bornu.”3

Most of ‘Umar ibn Idris’s people followed him, glad to move away from fear, and for some decades the dislocated kingdom struggled to right itself. Apart from Lake Chad, Bornu had no natural borders. It bled imperceptibly down into the southern countryside, where seven kingdoms had built mud walls around their own royal centers.

These little states were known, later, as the Hausa kingdoms. Each was centered around a mud-walled city where soldiers were based and where trade was carried out. They traded up towards Tripoli: gold, ivory, leather, and ostrich feathers traveling north to the Mediterranean, paper and parchment, weapons and armor making their way back down south. There were seven Hausa kingdoms: Kano and Rano, known for trading indigo; warlike Gobir; Zaria, whose wealth was built on slaves; Biram, Daura, and Katsina. They had existed in the wide fork of the Niger as small settlements, some of them for centuries. The oral tradition belonging to Kano puts the first Kano ruler around ad 1000, the completion of the city’s walls sometime around 1150. By the end of the century, Kano was attempting to conquer nearby peoples and had launched a war against its neighbor Zaria; at that time, Katsina had just appeared on the scene as a tiny unprotected village.4

A later legend about the origin of the Hausa preserves a journey from the east. Bayajidda, son of the “king of Baghdad,” quarreled with his father and left home. He came to Bornu, where he married a Bornu princess; and then he quarreled in turn with his father-in-law and left this kingdom too. Continuing west, he came to Daura and there found the people afflicted with a problem: an enormous snake in the village well, which allowed the people to draw water only on Fridays. He killed the snake, married Daura’s queen, and had seven sons, who scattered out to found the seven kingdoms.5

The variations on this story are many and complicated, and it was not written down until much later. In the fourteenth century, the Hausa kingdoms were not yet Muslim, and Bayajidda’s origin is clearly a later gloss, intended to give the Hausa kingdoms an origin that is both Muslim and royal. What does emerge, from all versions of the legend, is a clear link between the Hausa kingdoms, forged by some ancient tribal relationship.6


83.1 The Hausa Kingdoms

The snake in the well suggests another connection. The villagers in Daura had tried to pacify the monster by sacrificing black chickens, black he-goats, and black dogs. But only Fridays (the Muslim holy day) and the sword of the Muslim prince could block it from its prey.7

When the Kanem king shifted to the west, he brought with him the entire array of Islamic government: soldiers and settlers, scholars and imams. For the first time, the full panoply of a Muslim court hovered just north of the walled Hausa cities; they now shared a common frontier between traditional ways and the people of the Prophet.


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