Traditional clothing of West Africa:

  1. A woman in ceremonial dress (Benin)
  2. Dancers in traditional wear (Ashanti-Ghana)
  3. Girl in traditional dress (Burkina Faso)
  4. Woman in traditional dress (Togo)
  5. Woman in traditional dress (Fulani-Gambia)
  6.  A women in traditional clothing (Itsekiri-Nigeria)
  7. Girl in traditional dress (Niger) 
  8. Girl in traditional dress (Songhai-Mali)
  9. A group of women in traditional dress (Senegal)
  10. Woman in traditional clothing (Mauritania)

If you have any corrections, please notify me directly as opposed to reblogging it or else I may not see it. 

Sunni Ali Ber - King of Songhai 15th Century AD

In the sixteenth century the Songhay land awoke. A marvelous growth of civilization mounted there in the heart of the African Continent. And this civilization was not imposed by circumstances, nor by an invader, as is often the case even in our day. It was desired, called forth, introduced and propagated by a man of the Negro race.
—Félix Dubois, Tombouctou, la mystérieuse
Gao was established by the Songhai people at about the same time as the Soninke established Ghana. Gao never flourished as Ghana did and, after the fall of Ghana, Gao became a vassal state of Mali. In 1335, Gao became independent of Mali.

It was not until Sunni Ali Ber, a member of the Sunni dynasty, ascended to the throne in 1464, that the rulers of Gao looked beyond the confines of the Niger valley. In 28 years he turned the kingdom of Gao into the Songhai empire, which stretched from the Niger in the east to Jenne in the west and from Timbuktu in the north to Hombori, the wide arch formed by the Northern Niger bend, in the south. Songhai ultimately developed into the greatest of the Sudanic empires and, like Mali and Ghana, was strategically located along trans-Saharan trade routes.

Sunni Ali Ber’s reign was one military campaign after another, extending the frontiers of his kingdom through conquest. Sunni Ali Ber built a well-organized army, which consisted of infantry, cavalry and a powerful navy—a fleet of ships manned by Sorko fishermen—which patrolled the Niger. Sunni Ali Ber cut a wide swath across the Western Sudan and punished his enemies mercilessly.

In 1468, supposedly invited by the people of Timbuktu, Sunni Ali Ber embarked on his military career by invading Timbuktu to oust the Tuaregs, who had wrested control from Mali in 1434. Timbuktu fell easily as Akil, the Tuareg chief, fled to Walata. Sunni Ali Ber looted and burned the city and is said to have murdered most of the priests and scholars there. Sunni Ali Ber then headed south and, in 1473, captured Jenne after a siege reputed to have lasted seven years, seven months and seven days. By contrast, Sunni Ali Ber was merciful at Jenne.

Sunni Ali Ber regarded the Mossi as a serious threat to his burgeoning power. In 1480, he encountered them after they had sacked Walata. He hounded them throughout the Western Sudan and succeeded in driving them back to their home. Next, he defeated the Fulani of Massina. Sunni Ali Ber had an intense hatred for them as he did all foreigners. In 1483, he went to war with the Mossi, repulsing them again and finally ending the Mossi threat in 1486.

In 1492, Sunni Ali drowned while returning home after a victory against the Fulani of Gurma.

In the same year Christopher Columbus, harbinger of the Atlantic slave trade, set sail for the New World.

During his reign, Sunni Ali Ber showed little respect for the Muslim religion. He kept up the outward appearance of a Muslim, primarily for political purposes, as parts of his kingdom practiced the faith. He neither relinquished the traditional Songhai religion, or did he recognize Islam as the state religion.

Although it is purported that he ruled from horseback, Sunni Ali Ber did establish an effective system of government. He turned the conquered states into provinces, with a combination of his choices and extant rulers as governors. Consequently, Songhai became a centralized state dominating the entire Niger region. Special organizational arrangements were made for Timbuktu and other Muslim provinces. Additionally, he installed a commander-in-chief for his navy.

Arab historians have been harsh in their assessment of Sunni Ali, as expected from his anti-Muslim stance, and have depicted him as a tyrant and despot. Nevertheless, he positioned Songhai as Sundiata did for Mali and laid the foundation for Askia Mohammed to take Songhai to its greatest heights as an Islamic state. Books
African Glory, J. C. Degraft-Johnson. Black Classic Press, 1986. Buy it in paperback:
Africans and Their History, Joseph E. Harris. Penguin USA, second revised edition, 1998. Buy it in paperback: |
Ancient African Kingdoms, Margaret Shinnie. E. Arnold. Buy it in hardcover:
Buy it in paperback:
Cambridge History of Africa, Vol. 2, J.D. Fage (ed.). Cambridge University Press, 1979. Buy it in hardcover: |
General History of Africa, Vol. IV: Africa from the Twelfth to Sixteenth Century, UNESCO. University of California Press, 1986. Buy it in hardcover: |
Buy it in paperback: |
A Glorious Age in Africa: The Story of Three Great African Empires, Daniel Chu and Elliott P. Skinner. Africa World Press, 1990. Buy it in hardcover: |
Buy it in paperback: |
The Lost Cities of Africa, Basil Davidson. Little, Brown & Co., 1959. Buy it in paperback: |
The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa, Patricia and Fredrick McKissack. Henry Holt, 1995. Buy it in hardcover:
Buy it in paperback: |
Topics in West African History, A. Adu Boahen, Jacob F. Ade Ajayi, and Michael Tidy. Addison-Wesley, 1987. Buy it in textbook binding: |
The Western Sudan: Ghana, Mali, Songhay, Kenny Mann. Dillon Press. Buy it in hardcover:
Buy it in paperback:
We must not reduce African societies to just villages. We are talking about the destruction of empires, states and nations. Even if we just talk about West Africa, Dahomey was a state; Benin was a state; Ashanti was a state. And it is important not to see Africa as just a collection of underdeveloped villages. For this is part of the European lie to claim an undeserved and untenable superiority…When the European first came to Africa, he had to pay taxes and tribute on the coast and had to stay on the coast. And in Dahomey, they made him build his houses in mud, not in stone to show how impermanent his residence was. And he exchanged ambassadors where he could. He exchanged ambassadors not only with Songhai, but also with Angola, Congo and other states. It was at first a necessary mutual respect for policy…But eventually, Africa, an old centre of civilisation, began to decline and capitalism began to rise, and you have a shift then in the balance of power. And the Europeans began to strengthen themselves on the coast. And appropriating knowledge from Africa and Asia and synthesising technique, they began to shift the balance of power. They began to go inland.
—  Maulana Karenga
March 12th, 1591 | The Battle of Tondibi

I think you could partially define the word “empire” as “a bunch of people, temporarily united in cause, stealing a lot of land, then eventually falling out, and getting face-punched into oblivion by a neighboring empire.”

Let’s take The Songhai as an example.

“The who?” I hear you ask, to which I spin the globe and tap on it with a little cane; ‘cos it looks all professor-like.

“These guys:” I respond.

And I think you would agree, familiarity with Africa or not, that this is a good chunk of turf. In fact, it’s one of the largest in Islamic and African history; they really were not playing around. So what happened to them?

Well, let’s start here:

The Niger River: As the world’s third-longest river, it’s 2,600 miles of annual-flooding, crop-boosting, awesome-fishing, fertile goodness. It would only be natural if ancient man would congregate around it in much the same way that the Egyptians did around the Nile. And that’s exactly what several groups of people did in the Gao region. Small settlements of Sorko, Do, and Gow cropped up like an anti-vaccer’s kid’s measles, and little fishing boats, rampant hippo hunting, and luscious farms became aplenty.

Which is a perfect target for a more rambunctious type of person: enter, the horse-riding Songhai, who – around the 11th Century – burst onto the scene, said “freaking hell mate, nice farm!” and then they promptly kicked the Sorko, Do and Gow in the nads and took over the joint. And as easy as that, the country of Songhai was born.

A dynasty of kings started to nurture our fledgling country into something quite respectable, and camel-riding tribes headed out of the desert to establish trading routes with other settlements. In no time at all, the Sahara is sporting trade-routes like a BOSS and wealth starts to flood in and out of the area; it quickly becomes known as the “land of gold.”

And sitting on top of this humongous pile of salt, slaves, kola nuts, leather, dates, ivory, and – of course – gold, the Songhai chiefs established Gao as a small kingdom, and turned to all of the people living along the trade routes, and said “you bitches now work for us.”

But you can’t go walking around town just wafting big fat wads of cash in people’s faces, without expecting to get shanked at some point. Once the Mali Empire saw how much phat lewts was just springing out of the ground in a constant shower of boss-drops, they were utterly compelled to drop Songhai onto their heads and steal it all. By 1430, Songhai was no more.

Except nothing is that cut and dry in history. The Mali ended up having their own infighting and bickering; rebellions cropped up, people punched people, insults were thrown, and once the dust settled Songhai were standing there at Gao, with no Mali invaders lording it over them. “Cool!” exclaimed Songhai, and a new era of the empire was born.

Their king now was Sonni Ali, and from 1464 to 1492, he ushered Songhai into prosperous times. And typically –as an empire – you do that by squishing all the little guys around you, which is exactly what these guys did. Ali was a formidable military strategist, and under his rule the Songhai reached a size of almost 900,000 square miles. And that right there is no chump change.

The Mossi to the south were elbowed to the face, the Dogon to the north were throat punched, the Mali were kicked into next week, and even Timbuktu fell under his control, and this – with its own wealthy trade routes – pumped even more cash into Songhai pockets.

After Sonni Ali came Askia the Great, which – honestly – I’m not sure how this whole moniker thing fell out of vogue, but we need to get it back.

So “Askia Awesomesauce Asskicker Look at these Abs” extended his power further north and east, and while not having the military smarts of Ali, he could hang, and the empire did pretty damn good under his rule. On top of that, he was a devout Muslim, opened up schools, constructed mosques, opened up his court to scholars, and enforced – without being intolerant of other religions – Islamic practices. Under his enlightened rule, astronomy flourished in the capital and observatories were established.

Goa was quickly becoming a freaking jewel to behold. Trade boomed, administration was refined and made more efficient, canals were built, agriculture was improved, and a standardized system of weights and measures to be used throughout trading was introduced.

But this is almost too rosy.

Askia got older, and as he did so his sons decided that it was time for them to take over. Humans man, we’re greedy little rats. In 1528 this erupted into open revolt, and Musa – one of his many sons – started strutting around like he’s king. This lasted 3 years, before renewed infighting started to ring the death knell for Songhai and the Empire.

Which is when we now get to these guys:

The Moroccans.

The Moroccans are enjoying a plum strategic spot in the world, and a good share of prestige; they are doing a-okay with things. But, like everyone else, they’re also enjoying their own little succession wars and infighting. Sultan Abu Abdallah Mohammed II has just been ousted by his uncle, Abd Al-Malik, which had the younger Abu heading over to the nearby Portuguese for assistance. Now the Portuguese were already talking about heading over to Morocco to stop the advancing Turkish military presence, so when Abu turns up in court looking for a handout, the Portuguese fell over themselves to help.

The merchants loved the idea of a Moroccan invasion, because a little gold, cattle, wheat, and sugar never hurts the bottom line. The nobility loved the idea, because they – quite literally – just wanted to get into a large scale scrap in Africa. And, finally, the King of Portugal, Sebastian I, was a religious nut and totally dug the idea of spreading Christianity to the infidels.

Sebastian gathered about 30,000 of the finest troops, 40 cannon, a small armada, and headed over to Morocco to open up a can of whoop ass. Unfortunately for him and the Portuguese, they ran face first into 50,000 very angry Moors and 10,000 cavalry. And ten thousand cavalry gets into the range of boggling the brain, but they “boggled” the Portuguese more, as they rode into the flanks and pretty much folded up the entire fucking army with very little effort.

FIFTEEN THOUSAND Portuguese were slaughtered and another FIFTEEN THOUSAND were captured, and if you are now rubbing your chin while thinking “hold on, that’s the entire army,” well you’d be correct! Only 100 survived to get back home. King Sebastian? Never found, and presumed dead. Abu Abdallah Mohammed II? Drowned in a river trying to escape.

And – perhaps oddly – Sultan Abd al-Malik of the Moroccans also died during the battle, but from natural causes, as he’d been quite ill and the ride there ultimately did him in. Which means that The Battle of Three Kings - quite literally - was also the same battle from which all three never walked away.

This guy did, though: Ahmad I al-Mansur, brother to al-Malik, he walked off the battlefield as the new Sultan and all of the prestige of 15,000 prisoners and one fine, glorious fucking battle. Once he ransomed the pioneers back to Portgual, al-Mansur found himself sitting on a fat, fat stack of gold, and what do you do what you win the lottery? You splurge it all, of course!

First we have to pimp out the army, maybe snag us some new cannon from England, then we better set up a kick-ass spy network, incase those bastards come back again, and then – of course – we need to live the fucking life of a Sultan (“drinks are on me!”), and – the pièce de résistance – a new fucking crib to make all of those bitches jelly! Thus the grand palace of Marrakesh was constructed.

But all of this also drained the royal coffers, and Morocco was quickly looking at bankruptcy.

If only there was somewhere close by, dripping in cash, and maybe having a few internal problems to make them real easy pickings …

Al-Mansur figured that he knew where the gold mines of Songhai were, and he fancied a little slice of that action. So he called over his most trusted eunuch, Judar of Granada, slapped on the title of “Pasha” and said “be a good chap, take some of our finest men and go and kick those chaps in the soft spot, ta very much.”

Pasha Judar was very much the man for the job, but the task was not a straight forward one; what lay ahead was an intimidating trek through the Sahara with a small army, and a need to arrive at the other end with enough strength and numbers to be able to fight the formidable Songhai forces.

He handpicked 3,500 of his very finest men; the type of guys with balls of steel and biceps bigger than your head. The force was heavily drawn from the multiple cultures available, with Spanish Moors providing power and structure. The only Moroccans were 1,500 light cavalry, with 1,000 arquebusiers,  500 horse-mounted arquebusiers, 500 other footmen, 6 cannon, and a scattering of mortars just rounding off a little tiny fist of face destruction.

Now, the arquebus was a pretty primitive weapon in this period; its inaccuracy, terrible load time, and tendency to kill the wielder vs. who it was being pointed at, all meant that the Moroccans would probably only get off one volley before battle was joined. The lynch pin here was the cannon … these were guaranteed to wreak some major flesh-shredding among the enemy. But an important note is that the Moroccan force had a solid knowledge of advanced military tactics, training, and coordination.

Finally, Pasha Judar selected ten captured European Kaids (lieutenants), a private bodyguard of eighty Christians, and organized an army train of eight thousand camels, one thousand horses, and six hundred sappers.

And they set off.

They followed a path very similar to the established trade routes, but it was an extremely long, and arduous 135 days in the desert. Despite being well supplied and water wells not being ruined in advance of their arrival, the army started to suffer debilitating losses.

Finally, they emerged near Gao, which was completely news to the Songhai, because they expected the invading force to veer off toward Timbuktu. Askia Ishak, the current king of Songhai at this point of their dynasty wars, shouted out to all of the clans and tribes to send their warriors … which was met by the sound of crickets, because no one turned up. As far as the tribes were concerned, no army could get through the desert, so Askia must have been smoking some form of crack pipe.

Askia had to withdraw to Tondibi, a large cattle pasture outside of Gao. Here he formed up what men he did have, which – in all truth – was a staggering count of 20,000 men, over half of which were cavalry. Even without reinforcements, he had the invaders drastically outnumbered, especially in light of the attrition the Moroccans had suffered in the desert.

Never-the-less, Pasha Judar formed up, and when I say “formed up,” I mean something like this:

That’s the military training for you. It was a freaking wall of lead and iron hurling, bone-splitting, misery-making, hell. And Askia could see that, so here he drew out his ace card: 1,000 cows.

Yup, cows.

The plan was actually as genius as it was simple: drive the cattle towards the Moroccan lines and use the weight of the cattle to break the formation apart. Dust would be kicked up behind them, in which the Songhai cavalry and infantry would advance, masked from any possible incoming fire. With the Moroccan lines broken, they’d be easy meat for the 4-to-1 larger force, now battling them hand-to-hand.

Except …

When the cattle were driven forward, the Moroccan’s opened with all manner of uncompromising fire: cannon exploding and thousands of arquebus launching a cacophony from the depths of the abyss.

The cows? They’d never fucking heard anything like that in their life! So what did they do? They turned tail and fucking ran as fast as their little legs could carry them. Right back into, and through, the Songhai lines.

By the time there was a second volley, the Songhai were now the ones to be broken and in disarray, and they were instantly tore into with a furious tsunami of “bits of metal, where metal really shouldn’t be.” They, too, were completely unfamiliar with such weaponry, and – with cannon balls pulverizing heads and torso alike, or just skipping on by exuding all manner of intimidation – they instantly broke and ran.

Except there was a fucking 1,000 strong cattle herd in their way.

The slaughter was terrible and the Songhai army was utterly smashed; Pasha Judar had earned him a solid victory. He pressed on into Gao itself, expecting gold covered streets and baskets of jewels, but instead he got something more like this …

“The palace of the Askiya is not equal to the house of the chief muleteer of Marrakesh.”
~ Judar Pasha

Judar was mightily unimpressed. So they sacked and destroyed the city anyway, ‘cos: “we’re here now, we may as well.”

Askia Ishak – who had survived the battle - offered the Moroccans 100,000 pieces of gold and 1,000 slaves in exchange for “please just fuck off,” in response to which, Al-Mansur – back home – went into a rage. You see, he was in a bit of a tight spot, because the country was slowly being driven into the ground, taxes necessary to support the army were making for an unhappy populace, and if he didn’t show something solid from this expedition, he’d be done for; a few coins were not going to cut it.

His response? He sent off another army, just as bad ass, just as tooled up as the other one, and seven weeks later it was raising everything in sight in order to find the elusive gold mines. A large battle at Gurma saw the Songhai defeated again, and this time Askia Ishak was brutally cut down.

Al-Mansur never did find the gold. What he didn’t know was that the location of the gold mines was only known to one, secret village, and in time he had to call it quits. Morocco remained partially in control of the area for the next seventy years, but with their sacking of Gao, and the richer trading centers of Timbuktu and Djenné, the Songhai never recovered.

As for al-Mansur; he made it until 1603, plague swept through the region, saw him off, and heralded in a fresh age of succession wars. Soon all that was left of his legacy was Marrakesh; local warlords, the Portuguese, and the Spanish took over the rest.

History, it’s a bitch.

 Faden Disclaimer: A small note here, folks; in reading about Tondibi from numerous sources, a couple of things became apparent: the start date was kind of up in the air, the number of forces present, and the casualties sustained. But I like to think that the following is a good, accurate blend of the source materials. Still, if you come to me and say “hey, the start date is wrong,” I’m not exactly going to argue with you, because doubtlessly there’s a paper or book somewhere that would agree with you.

More Cows to the Face:

Wait … What?


Empires of Medieval West Africa (Ghana, Mali, and Songhai)

Medieval West Africa: Views From Arab Scholars and Merchants

The Invasion of Morocco in1591 and the Saadian Dynasty [J. Michel]

Sunni Ali Ber - King of Songhai 15th Century AD

When Sunni Ali Ber came to power, Songhay was a small kingdom in the western Sudan. But during his twenty-eight-year reign, it grew into the largest, most powerful empire in West Africa.
Sunni Ali Ber built a remarkable army and with this ferocious force, the warrior king won battle after battle. He routed marauding nomads, seized trade routes, took villages, and expanded his domain. He captured Timbuktu, bringing into the Songhay empire a major center of commerce, culture, and Muslim scholarship.

Patricia and Fredrick McKissack~The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa. EXCELLENT book for introducing young children to the great urban empires of Medieval West Africa. The people, wars, culture, architecture, international commerce, religion etc. This book provides alotta info on this much ignored epoch. #books #MedievalAfrica #AfricanHistory #Mali #Songhay #Songhai #Ghana #Sundiata #MansaMusa

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These cavaliers of the Bornu tribe were renowned for their skill in battle, and used as literally knights for the Mali and Songhai empires. The two present were one of the largest and wealthiest nations on the planet during their time. They flourished under the trans Saharan trade in which salt and other goods from the north were traded for gold in the great trading cities of Timbuktu and Gao. Three great Islamic (except for Ghana) empires arose from this trade route that had been present since the dawn of Rome: Ghana, Mali and Songhay.

Hermann Wagner, Schilderung der Reisen …Eduard Vogel in Central-Afrika (Leipzig, 1860), p.16

My Civilization V Kindle screensaver series: Askia of the Songhai.

If you love Civ, you’ll hopefully like this: Final Education, A Novel of Empires Both Vapid and Grand - FREE on the Kindle and Kobo until Saturday the 10th of September. It’s a Civ/AOE/RTS-inspired novel that stands alone from any specific game, which has unfortunately made it a bit hard to market. Please share the below links with anyone you think might be interested. =D

If you don’t have an e-reader, you can still read Kindle books at, or else use the iPhone/Android Kindle and Kobo apps. ;) 

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