Flora Louise Shaw Lugard.

A tropical dependency : an outline of the ancient history of the western Sudan with an account of the modern settlement of northern Nigeria online

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kingdom of Melle, it becomes clear how greatly he had
modified his opinion with regard to the inhabitants of the
Soudan since he first crossed the frontier at Aiwalatin.

He remained a month at Gago, the capital of Songhay,
which he describes as " one of the finest cities of the
blacks." It evidently occupied in his estimation a far
higher position than Timbuctoo. It was, he said, one of
the largest and one of the best-supplied towns in the
Soudan. Food was very plentiful, especially rice, milk,
fowls, fish, and he mentions a particular kind of cucumber,
which he held to be "unequalled.' The currency amongst
the natives in the market both here and at Melle was still
in cowries. He mentions a " white man's mosque," and
gives a list of distinguished persons from whom he received
attentions and hospitality.

Gago and Aiwalatin were evidently regarded as the
extreme limits east and west of Melle proper. The
authority of INIelle was respected vaguely to the south in
the country of the cannibals and amongst other minor
kingdoms of some importance, which are confusingly
enumerated under different names by different authors.
Amongst these Mossi was one of consequence enough
to inflict very heavy blows upon Melle itself at a later
date. Borgu was another which had preserved its inde-
pendence from a period of great antiquity. Nupe, on
the opposite bank of the river, was, as we have seen, also
an independent native state of importance, though practi-
cally unknown to the Mohammedans of the West. Melle,
however, never extended beyond the limits of the Niger


in the East. Haussaland and Bornu drew their civiHsation
more directly from Eastern sources, and belong to another
chapter of history, with which we have yet to deal.

The Mellestine took a wider extension as it spread
north into the desert, and Tekadda, which is on nearly the
same parallel as Aiwalatin, may perhaps be taken as
forming, at the end of the fourteenth century, its most
easterly development in the desert. Here, as will be
seen, the frontier of the Mellestine trenched upon the
territory of Gober and the Haussa States, and the autho-
rity claimed over Tekadda was at a future period the
cause of the friction.

Ibn Batuta, who confined his journey entirely to the
Mellestine, went from Gago north-eastward to Tekadda,
where he gives some description of the copper mines. At
Tekadda he received an order from the new Sultan of
Morocco, who had succeeded Abou el Ha^en, to return
to court and give an account of his wanderings. He
turned his steps north-westward, abandoning the Tripoli-
Fezzan road where it branched off towards Ghat, and
made his way with a friendly caravan to Touat, thus
reversing the road which the Emperor Musa had followed
on his famous pilgrimage. From Touat the road to
Sidjilmessa and Fez was easy, except for the incident
of a very heavy snowstorm which overtook the caravan
shortly after leaving Sidjilmessa ; and having seen
practically the whole of the black empire, which at first
he so much despised as to have been tempted to turn
back on the frontier, Ibn Batuta re-entered Fez in the
early days of January 1354.

The curiosity which his travels excited at the court
of Fez was, it is said, so great that the Sultan himself
wished to hear his adventures, and after listening to him
for several consecutive nights, ordered that the whole
should be drawn up and made into a book. This was
done, and the account, as it now exists, was finished on
December 13, 1355.

This may be regarded as the period at which Melle


reached its greatest prosperity. Mansa Suleiman reigned
for twenty- four years, but he was succeeded by Mansa
Djata, a vicious tyrant, during whose reign of fourteen
years the decadence of the kingdom began. Mansa Djata,
far from practising the frugality of his ancestors, had a
passion for expenditure which he carried to madness. He
spent, it is said, in every kind of folly and debauchery,
the immense wealth which had been amassed by the kings
his predecessors. It was this king who sold the famous
nugget which was regarded, we are told, as one of the
rarest of the public treasures. He died finally of sleeping-
sickness. Ibn Khaldun describes the malady as being
very common in the country, but as this is the first instance
which we have of it historically, the symptoms as then
recognised are perhaps worth noting. It was specially
apt, Ibn Khaldun says, to attack the upper classes of the
people. It began by periodic attacks, and finally brought
the patient to such a state that he could not remain awake
for a moment. It then declared itself permanently, and
ended sooner or later in death. The King Djata suffered
for two years from periodic attacks before he died in


This was practically the end of the kingdom of Melle.
The Songhay kingdom had already asserted its inde-
pendence in 1355, within two years of Ibn Batuta's visit.
The Tuaregs took Timbuctoo in 1434. In 1468 the
overthrow of the empire was begun by Sonni Ali, the
Songhay precursor of the great dynasty of the Askias,
and the conquest of Melle by the Songhays was com-
pleted in a twelve years' war carried on by Askia the
Great, from 1501 to 1513. It is interesting to note that
in this very year, 15 13, a map was published in Strasburg
in which the kingdom of Melle appears under the title of
Regnum Musa Melle de Ginovia.



It has been said that civiHsation flowed to the Soudan
from two sources. There was a civilisation of the East,
and a civiHsation of the West. The two streams flowed
in from different ends of the country, and there was a
point at which they met and overlapped. We have now
come to that very interesting point.

We have seen in the fall of Ghana under Mohammedan
influence the final extinction at its most westerly limit of
an order of civilisation which belonged to a different epoch
of the world's history. It is probable that the civilisation
of Ghana may have drawn its original inspiration also from
the East. But historical documents are wanting. The
care of students has not been devoted to this point, or
if it has, the results of their labours have been unfortu-
nately lost in the many holocausts made by ignorant
conquerors of learned libraries. The Christians dis-
tinguished themselves in Spain by destroying Arab
libraries wherever they conquered Arab towns, and at a
later period their example was unhappily imitated in the
Soudan by Moors and Fulahs in relation to the docu-
ments of local learning.

Hence of the antique civilisation which preceded that
of the Middle Ages under the Tropic of Cancer in West
Africa we know but little. What we know either by
document or direct tradition is first connected with the
rise of the Songhay people, and it is at a point farther
east than Ghana, and at a period subsequent to the
Mohammedan domination of that town, that the advancing


waves of West and East may be discerned as clearly meet-
ing each other in the Soudan. In the shock and amalga-
mation of the two forces, black civilisation attained the
greatest height which it has ever reached in modern
Africa. The gentle nature of the Soudanese black,
inoculated with intellectual germs from a long for-
gotten civilisation, would seem to have allied itself in
the Songhay race with the virility of the Arab, and
a result was produced unlike anything which the world
had seen.

The sixteenth century, so full of interest to contem-
porary Europe, was the period of fulfilment of this
development. The halcyon days of the modern Song-
hay Empire lay between the years 1492 and 1592. The
rise of the Songhay people dates, however, from a
much earlier period. Though in the order of the great
kingdoms of the Soudan as they came into touch with
the outer world Songhay succeeds to Melle, it was as a
matter of fact a far older kingdom. The first true chapter
of its history, though lost to us, had been lived in the
aspiration and the efforts of its people, and had resulted
in its own conquest, long before modern influences had
reached it, of a level of civilisation higher than that of
any of the surrounding countries.

Hitherto we have taken the historians of the Western
Arabs for our principal guides. In opening this new
chapter of the history of the Soudan we abandon them
and turn to local literature. From this point onward the
Soudan has its own historians. Chief amongst them in
regard to the history of Songhay is the author of the
TarikJi-es-So2idan, or " History of the Soudan," which has
within the last few years been translated into French by
M. Houdas, the eminent French Professor of the Oriental
School of Languages. The book is a wonderful docu-
ment, of which the narrative dealing mainly with the
modern history of the Songhay Empire relates the rise
of this black civilisation through the fifteenth and sixteenth


centuries, and its decadence up to the middle of the seven-
teenth century, Barth, who obtained some fragments of
an Arabic copy when he was on his way to Timbuctoo,
goes so far as to say that the book forms " one of the most
important additions that the present age has made to the
history of mankind." But it is not merely an authentic
narrative. It is for the unconscious Hght which it sheds
upon the life, manners, politics, and literature of the
country that it is valuable. Above all it possesses the
crowning quality, displayed usually in creative poetry
alone, of presenting a vivid picture of the character of
the men with whom it deals. It has been called the
"Epic of the Soudan." It lacks the charm of form, but
in all else the description is well merited. Its pages
are a treasure-house of information for the careful student,,
and the volume may be read many times without extract-
ing from them more than a small part of all that they

Its chief author, Abdurrahman Es-sadi, was a black of
Timbuctoo, who was born in that town in the year 1596.
He came of learned and distinguished ancestors, and his
genealogy is interesting because he united in his own
person three of the most important strains of blood in
the Soudan. His mother was a Haussa woman. His
great-great-grandfather, he tells us, was the first white —
that is, Berber — Imaum of Mansa Musa's mosque, and
succeeded that Katib Moussa whose remarkable longevity
and health were mentioned in a previous chapter. This
ancestor married a Fulani woman, and from the combina-
tion of Berber and Fulani blood his father was descended
on the maternal side. Es-sadi was himself Imaum of the
university mosque in Timbuctoo, but he also exercised
the functions of a notary at Jenn^, where he would seem
generally to have lived. In this capacity he was frequently
called upon to prepare state papers. He was also entrusted
on various occasions with public missions, and seems to
have had very special opportunities for acquiring informa-


tion. He first relates as an historian the history of the
country up to the period of his own manhood, and from
that time continues to write as a contemporary of the
events which he records up to the year 1656, when pre-
sumably he died. But a great part of the charm of the
Tarikh consists in the fact that it is not the work of one
hand alone. Nor is it always easy to distinguish when
Es-sadi has ceased to write and has given place to some
other distinguished contemporary. Among those whose
chronicles are thus incorporated with his own is Ahmed
Baba, the well-known historian of the Soudan, who at the
period of the overthrow of the Songhay Empire by the
Moors was carried as a captive into Morocco, but was
so profoundly respected there for his learning and philo-
sophical demeanour that he was allowed in 1607 to
return to Timbuctoo, where he died twenty years later.
Though an older man than Es-sadi, Ahmed Baba was
writing in Es-sadi's lifetime, and his work is so freely
incorporated in the Tarikh that when Barth had the
book in his hands in Gando he took it to be the work
of Ahmed Baba.

From Ahmed Baba, who was the descendant of a
long line of learned ancestors, we get some charming
biographical sketches ; amongst them many of his own
family, which enable us perfectly to reconstruct for
ourselves the cultivated and dignified life of letters in the
palmy days of Timbuctoo, when Sultans, however great,
felt themselves to be honoured by the presence of the
learned, and to do justice was recognised as the first
quality of a gentleman. Ahmed Baba tells us of his father
that he had " a fine and sagacious mind and a sensitive
heart," that he was as firm in his dealings with kings as
he was with other men, and so earned their profound
respect, that he had no hatreds and did justice to all.
He was widely read, and very fond of books. His well-
furnished library contained many rare and precious works,
and "he lent them willingly." This last-mentioned form


of generosity, greater in that day than we can easily now
imagine, is frequently noted in relation to the rich and
learned men of Timbuctoo. Indeed, Ahmed Baba con-
fesses that it sometimes amazed him to observe to
what extent it was carried. " But this," he adds,
"they did for the love of men." His father died in
1583, and the son mentions that he had studied under
him for some years, and had obtained from him his
diplomas as a licentiate in several subjects. He was
himself born in 1556, His life and that of Es-sadi,
therefore, cover a hundred years of a very important
period of the history of the Soudan, of which they
were able to write as contemporaries.

We turn now to the people with whom the Tarikh is
principally concerned. The ancient capital of the Songhay
Empire stood where Gao now stands upon the Eastern
Niger, and was generally called Kaougha or Kaukau by
the ancients. It was situated within the edge of the
summer rains upon the course of the river, where, having
turned southward from its most northerly extension, the
Niger flows steadily from west, south-eastward towards
the Gulf of Guinea. The Tarikh tells us that, according
to tradition, it was from this town that Pharaoh obtained
the magicians who helped him in the controversy
which is related in the Twentieth Sourate of the
Koran as having taken place between him and Moses.
Barth, travelling through this neighbourhood in the
middle of the nineteenth century, also heard at Burrum,
a little town near Gao, that it had once been a resi-
dence of the Pharaohs. An older authority than either
the Tarikh or Barth also, it will be remembered, speaks
of a city in this place inhabited by black dwarfs, not, it
is true, at a date so remote as that of Moses, but still at
a period of very respectable antiquity ; for it is here that
the young men of the adventure related by Herodotus
found a city built upon a river which flowed from the
west towards the east.


But the history of the dwarfs is hidden from us as
completely as the history of the magicians. If the dwarfs
of the Coni^o forest ever did inhabit the vicinity of Gao,
all that we know of them now is that, in common with
other lower types of black humanity, they were driven
by superior pressure from the north, backwards and south-
wards towards the equator. As for the magicians and
the link which they may have been supposed to establish
between the contemporary history of Kaougha and the
Egypt of the Pharaohs — if the tradition of this is pre-
served in the annals of Egypt, it is all that we have.
Knowledge of the country in which they lived vanishes,
alas, in that chapter of Songhay civilisation which is lost
to us. The religion of Egypt, the art of Egypt, the
intellectual fertility of Egypt, even the policy of Egypt,
while they are at times to be traced as a tradition carried
in the blood of this half of the Western Soudan, and
expressing itself unconsciously in customary life, offer
yet a scarcely more definite outline to description than
the impression of a ghostly hand laid by the past upon
the present, and visible in short glimpses only to the
eyes of faith.

It is perhaps most continuously observable in the
physical characteristics of the Songhay race. Their skin
is black like that of the negro, but there is otherwise
nothing negroid in their appearance. A modern writer,
who has had ample opportunity for observation, describes
them thus:^ "The nose of the Songhais is straight and
long, pointed rather than flat ; the lips are comparatively
thin, the mouth wide rather than prominent and thick ;
while the eyes are deeply set and straight in the orbit.
... It is to the south of the island of Philae that we
find a similar race."

In speaking of the people of ancient Egypt, Herodotus
informs us that they were " black, with curly hair " ; and
though modern investigations of Egyptian monuments
have led to the conclusion that there were three races,

' Felix Dubois, " Timbuctoo the Mysterious," p. 97, Eng. trans.


of which one was probably red, Hke the still existing red
races of the Soudan, and another yellow, or practically
white, we yet draw from the history of that Ethiopian
people who dwelt to the south of Philas a very different
conception of the possibilities of black achievement from
any furnished by our knowledge of the negroid native
of Africa. The language of the Songhay is also different
from that of the dialects of the Western Soudan, and gives
proofs of Nilotic extraction.

The modern history of this people is supposed to
date from about the year 700 a.d., and it is with this
alone that the historian can deal.

The story which the Songhay s themselves tell of the
period which preceded this, and included the foundation
of the first recorded dynasty of this era, is that at a
period when they were still pagans and worshipped a
river-god, there arrived one day at their city two brothers
out of the East. They were weary, travel-stained, and
in so piteous a condition that they had almost lost their
human form. Their nakedness was only hidden by the
skins of wild beasts thrown upon their shoulders, and
to the question whence they came, the reply was made
by one brother for the other: '' Dia men el Yemen''
(he comes from Yemen). This by the Songhays, who
did not speak Arabic, was taken to be a proper name,
and the elder stranger was known by the name of Dia,
afterwards corrupted to " Za " al Yemen. He was,
according to the legend, a prince who had left his native
land, attended only by his brother, with the intention of
travelling over the world. Destiny had brought him to
Gao. He accepted the decree of fate and remained in
the city. But perceiving that his hosts were the wor-
shippers of false gods, he killed the river-god, and "was
himself worshipped in its place." This was the beginning
of the dynasty who, like their founder, were all known
by the tide of " Za."

I give the legend as commonly repeated in Songhay.
It is perhaps worth mentioning in connection with it the


tradition preserved in the history of Egypt that when
the descendants of Misraim divided the land of Egypt
between them, a territory which stretched from the present
position of Alexandria to the borders of Tripoli fell to
the portion of a well-beloved younger son called " Sa."
"Sa" devoted himself with the greatest interest to his
kingdom, and made it very prosperous. He built towns
full of marvels ; he constructed baths ; he had palaces
with stained glass windows and exquisite gardens. He
erected statues bearing burning-glasses, and other marvels,
along the Mediterranean coast. His explorations ex-
tended to the Atlantic on the west, and far into the desert
on the south.

Macrizi, writing in the fifteenth century, says of the
towns which he constructed in the desert : " The dwell-
ings have disappeared, their inhabitants are scattered,
but the vestiges remain ; and all travellers who have
penetrated into those regions relate what they can still
see among those marvellous ruins."

This kingdom of "Sa" covered the Tripoli-Fezzan
caravan road into the desert. If we may judge from all
that is related of its monuments, it must have endured
for many generations. It is no more difficult to believe
that two of the princes of this Egyptian house of " Sa "
should have reached Gao by marching southwards through
the desert, than to accept the story that they came from
the still more distant Arabia. The change of sound from
" Sa " to " Za " is less than from " Dia " to " Za."

Whatever was their origin, the " Zas " reigned for
many generations over Songhay, and "none of them
believed in God," till in the year 1009 ^.d. Za Kosoi
accepted Islam. It will be observed that this was nearly
a hundred years before Islam was generally accepted
throughout the Soudan.

The fact is corroborated by El Bekri, who, writing
in 1067, says that the inhabitants of Kaougha were then
Mussulman, though the surrounding populations were


Under the pagan " Zas " Songhay influence extended
as far west as the town of Jenne, which was founded by
them in the eighth century, though afterwards cut off
from their possessions and isolated on the westerly frontier
of the "Bend of the Niger" by the Morabite invasion
of the Soudan. Jenn6, it will be remembered, maintained
its paganism until the twelfth century in the midst of sur-
rounding Islam, and, though tributary to Melle, kept the
independence of the town until, as will be seen, it was once
more incorporated with the Songhay Empire in or about
1477. The most westerly manifestation of the influence
of ancient Egypt in the Soudan is placed by the talented
author of " Timbuctoo the Mysterious" in this town of
Jenn6, where, when he visited it at the end of the nine-
teenth century, he found, to his amazement, "a colony
of ancient Egypt " in the heart of the Soudan. He
describes the architecture of Jenne as '* neither Arabic
nor Byzantine, Greek nor Roman, still less Gothic nor
Western." "At last," he says, " I recall these majestically
solid forms, and the memory is wafted to me from the
other extremity of Africa. . . . It is in the ruins of ancient
Egypt, in the valley of the Nile, that I have seen this
art before."

Jenne may be taken as marking the limit of pagan
Songhay development, though at a later period of con-
quest the dominion of the Songhays included the whole
of the Western Soudan from the Atlantic to Lake Chad.
The Songhay kingdom flourished exceedingly under the
Mohammedan Zas. Their capital was, of all the cities of
the blacks, that which had most gold. It had also abund-
ance of cotton and rice, and it is at this period that
Idrisi says of it that " it was populous, commercial, and
industrial, and that in it was to be found the produce of
all arts and trades necessary for its inhabitants."

After Za Kosoi there were twelve more Moham-
medan "Zas" before the country was conquered by Mansa
Musa, and the two sons of the reigning Za Yasiboi were
taken by him to be educated at his court. After that



four more Zas were allowed to occupy the throne, pre-
sumably in the position of tributaries of Melle, while the
young princes grew up at the court of the Mansas. The
elder of the young princes, Ali Kolon, was destined to
throw off the yoke of Melle and to found the new dynasty
of the Sonnis upon the throne of Songhay.


When, on his return from his great pilgrimage in 1326,
Mansa Musa stopped at Gago and ordered the construc-
tion of a cathedral mosque, he took away with him,
according to the custom of the kings of Melle in dealing
with the children of vassal potentates, the two young
sons of Za Yasiboi, the conquered sovereign, to finish
their education at his court. These boys, of whom the
elder was called Ali Kolon, were the sons of two sisters,
wives of Za Yasiboi, and were both, as it happened, born
in the same hour on the same night. But being both of
them in the darkness laid side by side, and not washed
until the morning, it was never certain which of the two
came actually first into the world. Ali Kolon was, how-
ever, the first washed, and therefore it was determined
that he should have the honours of the firstborn. By
all he was accepted as the elder, and by none with more
faithful devotion than by his younger brother Selman, or

Online LibraryFlora Louise Shaw LugardA tropical dependency : an outline of the ancient history of the western Sudan with an account of the modern settlement of northern Nigeria → online text (page 13 of 41)