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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These brothers, inspired, perhaps, by the legend of
the two other brothers to whom their dynasty owed its
foundation, resolved in their state of honourable captivity
at Melle that they would some day return and free Song-
hay from the yoke of the conqueror. Ali Kolon as he
grew up showed himself to be a man of sense and intelli-
gence, and was trusted by Mansa Musa and his successor
with the conduct of occasional raids, presumably against
the cannibals of the pagan belt, which gave him cause for
traversing the empire in various directions. He profited

by the opportunity to make himself acquainted with all



roads leading to the east, and to make deposits of arms
and provisions at important points. When the time was
ripe, he communicated to his brother his design to make
good their escape from Melle. To this end they care-
fully trained their horses, preparing them to endure long
marches, and at last boldly left the capital of Melle, riding
in the direction of Songhay. The king, hearing of their
flight, gave orders that they should be pursued and killed.
But they had doubtless prepared friends for themselves,
as well as arms and resting-places along the roads, and
with many hairbreadth escapes they eluded their pursuers,
and succeeded in reaching their own country.

They succeeded, too, in their larger design. AH
Kolon was hailed as king by the Songhays. For some
reason which is not given, possibly connected with the
uncertainty of his birthright, he caused himself to be
proclaimed by the title not of " Za " but of " Sonni," thus
founding a new dynasty — and under his leadership his
people were delivered from the yoke of Melle. This
result was achieved in 1355, nearly thirty years after he
had been taken as a child to the court of Mansa Musa.
On his death he was succeeded by his faithful brother
Suleiman ; and there were in all seventeen kings of this
dynasty, who continued to reign independently during the
gradual decadence of the Empire of Melle. But though
the Songhay kings succeeded in maintaining their indepen-
dence, and resistance to Melle became an inherited policy
of the race, there was no important extension of the limits
of Songhay beyond the immediate neighbourhood of the
capital until the last and greatest prince of the dynasty
ascended the throne. His name was the same as that
of the first of the Sonnis. He also was Sonni Ali, and
he began to reign in 1464.

At this time the Tuaregs were again in possession of
Timbuctoo. They had for a long time ravaged the country
with impunity up to its walls, and under a chief called
Akil they had been tempted by the feeble condition of
Melle to make an effort to recover their ancient town.


" A prince," says the Tarikh, " who cannot defend his
possessions, does not deserve to keep them." Melle
had accordingly been forced in 1434 to abandon Tim-
buctoo, and at the date of Sonni Ali's accession to the
Songhay throne the Tuaregs had been masters of the
town for upwards of thirty years.

Rude people as they were, their conquest does not
seem at first to have carried with it any disastrous con-
sequences to the life of Timbuctoo. There had been no
convulsion. The sovereignty of Melle had simply been
withdrawn, and the existing Timbuctoo Koi, a man of
eminent piety and learning of the name of Mohammed
Naddi, had continued to exercise his functions. It is
expressly stated that he had all powers in his hands, that
under the domination of the Sultan of Melle he was
already the chief of the city, and that his title alone was
changed by the change of government. Up to the time
of his death all went well, but shortly before the accession
of Sonni Ali, Mohammed Naddi died. A new Koi was
appointed whose authority was not respected, and Tim-
buctoo then became a prey to the "odious exactions" of
the Tuaregs. An epoch of violent tyranny ensued, during
which desolation spread within its walls.

While the Tuaregs had thus shorn Melle of power on
its desert frontier, the King of Mossi was ravaging its
territories from the south ; and the Fulanis of Massina
towards the west, forced to defend themselves against
the inroads of Mossi, were also incidentally strengthening
their independence of an empire which could no longer
give them adequate protection. Jenn6, with its 7000
villages, rich and famous as the centre of an extremely
flourishing cotton industry, remained, as ever, independent.
Aiwalatin — or Biro, as it is usually called by Song-
hay historians — was fast becoming, on the far north-
western frontier, the safest place of residence in the
empire for persons of peaceful disposition. The dis-
turbances in Timbuctoo were restoring Aiwalatin to the
distinction enjoyed by the Ghana of old days as the


nearest point of junction between the Soudan and the
civilisation of the Western world. It is accordingly to
Aiwalatin that hasty migrations of wealth and learning
are directed in the yet more troublous days about to fall
upon the once flourishing Empire of Melle.

This was the general position of the western portion
of the Soudan when Sonni Ali, last of his race, but first
of the great Songhay kings of modern times, ascended
the throne. He was one of the born soldiers of the world,
and the moment was favourable to the gratification of
military ambition.

The hereditary enemy of his country, attacked by
rude and vigorous foes on all her borders, was paralysed
by internal decay, and a great sceptre -was falling from
a hand too weak to hold it. A lesser mind might perhaps
have been content to join the ranks of the enemies of
Melle, and revenge old wrongs by helping forward a work
of sheer destruction, but Sonni Ali would seem to have
had wider views. Whether, as is probably the case with
many a constructive genius, his work grew under his hand
till he himself was surprised at the dimensions it assumed,
or whether he knew from the first at what he aimed, the
result is the same. The Empire of the Soudan was the
heritage which the petty kings in revolt against Melle
purposed to divide. Sonni Ali resolved to keep it intact,
and to take it for himself. To this end it was necessary
to overthrow, not only Melle, but all her foes.

He early perceived the strategic value to him who
would rule the Soudan of that command of the water
which on wider fields has brought about the creation
of great navies. The Niger was the ocean of the desert,
and his first object was to possess himself of its shores.
Fortune favoured his desires. Shortly after his accession
an incident occurred at Timbuctoo which gave him the
opening that he required. It was the custom, as has
already been mentioned, for the Koi to receive one-third
of the taxes. The Tuareg Chief Akil, who was growing
old and infirm, forbade this third to be paid. "Who is


the Timbuctoo Koi ? " he contemptuously asked on one
occasion of the puppet of his own creation. "What is
the meaning of him? What good is he to me?" And
he distributed among his followers the revenue which
had been set aside for the Koi. The town was already-
seething with discontent, and the Koi, now at the end
of his endurance, sent secretly a messenger to Sonni Ali
informing him of the condition of affairs, and promising
to deliver the town into his hands if he would march
against Timbuctoo. Timbuctoo is on the north side of
the river. In marching across country from Gao, boats
were needed to transport an army across the stream.
These it would seem that the Timbuctoo Koi undertook
to provide. Sonni Ali richly rewarded the messenger
who brought him the welcome invitation, and marched
upon the town. But for some reason the Timbuctoo Koi
was unable, or at the last moment unwilling, to fulfil his
promise of delivering Timbuctoo into Sonni All's hands.
The boats were not ready, and the first approach from
the south side of the river was unavailing. A second
attack had to be made from the direction of Haussaland,
on the north bank of the river, where no crossing had to
be effected and no boats were needed. By the time this
could be done, the town had had full warning of Sonni
Ali's approach. Opinion was much divided as to the
gain likely to result from a change of rulers. Measures
were apparently taken for defence, and there was a great
exodus of the learned and cultivated towards the haven of

The Tuareg Chief Akil making, it is said, no attempt
to defend himself, headed a caravan of a thousand camels
with which went, besides much valuable property, the
greater number of the jurisconsults of the university.
Eminent names are mentioned in the lists, and some
who lived to return at a later period to Timbuctoo, and
to lead lives of high distinction under the succeeding
reign, took part in the exodus as children of only five and
six years old. The craven Koi fled also to Aiwalatin.


In connection with the departure of this caravan,
scenes are described which throw a curious light upon
the habits of the learned in the remote universities of
the Soudan at that day. " On the day of departure,"
it is said, " there were to be seen bearded men of middle
age trembling with fright at the prospect of having to
bestride a camel, and falling helplessly off as the animal
rose from its knees." This came, we are told, from the
custom which existed amongst the "virtuous ancestors"
of the people of Timbuctoo of " keeping children so
close to their apron-strings, that, having while they
were young never learned to play, they grew up with-
out knowing anything at all of the affairs of life. Now
games in the season of youth," the chronicle gravely
continues, "form the character of man and teach him
a very great number of things." After the exodus to
Biro this was recognised. " Parents regretted from this
time to have acted as they had done, and when they
afterwards returned to Timbuctoo they relaxed the con-
straint which they had been accustomed to impose, and
the children of the learned were allowed the time to

The middle-aged professors who tumbled off their
camels because they had not practised athletics in their
youth, must have suffered considerably on the road to
Aiwalatin, which was a rough ride of 500 miles across
the desert. Their children — still the degenerate children
who had not learned to play — were carried the whole
way on the backs of faithful slaves. But, having arrived
safely at Aiwalatin, the members of the caravan had
reason to congratulate themselves upon their flight, and
upon the safety of such precious books and manuscripts
as they had brought with them.

For Sonni Ali, enraged at the unexpected resistance
of the town, took it by assault, sacked and burnt the
principal buildings, and put many of the leading inhabitants
to death.

Three times in the course of its native history Tim-


buctoo, says the Tarikh, has suffered the horrors of being
taken by assault. Once by the Sultan of Mossi before it
passed into the safe keeping of Mansa Musa, once by
Sonni Ali, and once more again when at the end of its
period of prosperity it was sacked by the Moors in 1591.
The author of the Tarikh, whose account of the siege
we are following, was the historian of the Askias, and as
such was bound to justify them at the expense of Sonni
Ali. A distinct bias is observable in all that he has to
say of him, and the actions of that " tyrant and libertine,"
as he usually calls him, receive no merciful interpreta-
tion at his hands. Of the three assaults which Tim-
buctoo had to sustain, this, he says, was the worst.
Sonni Ali spared neither age nor sex, and "seemed to
take pleasure in destroying or dishonouring all that was
most cultivated in Timbuctoo." It was perhaps the better
classes of Timbuctoo who had inspired and organised
the resistance of the town, and it was upon them that
Sonni Ali determined to let his vengeance fall.

He took the town in 1468, and it is said that for
three years he continued to persecute the learned. Many
succeeded in leaving Timbuctoo, and all the members of
the university who had remained during the siege fled
to Aiwalatin. Others were not so fortunate as those who
went with the first caravan. On one occasion the new
Timbuctoo Koi appointed by Sonni Ali was ordered to
pursue and destroy a flying caravan, and a massacre took
place at Tadgit in which some of the most eminent lost
their lives. The same fate overtook many of those who
fled to different towns. It seemed for a time as though
the conqueror had determined to extirpate learning from
the Soudan. But after three years the persecution
ceased, and the theory that it was intended as a punish-
ment for a definite offence is supported by the fact,
admitted even by the author of the Tarikh, that not-
withstanding the persecutions which Sonni Ali caused
the learned to endure, he did, nevertheless, recognise
their merits. He was heard to say that " without learn-


ing life would have neither pleasure nor savour," and
"if he injured some, he did great good to many, and
loaded them with favours." Amongst other favours, in
keeping with the rude character of the conqueror, was
the presentation on one occasion to the more favoured
"notables, saints, and sages" of Timbuctoo of a number
of Fulani women whom he had captured in a military-
expedition against a settlement of this people in the
north of Gurma. One of the favoured was the Imaum of
the cathedral mosque, the great-great-grandfather of the
author. To him was sent a very charming Fulani girl
of the name of Aicha, whom, contrary, it would appear, to
the usual custom of Sonni Ali and his profligate favourites,
he married. From this marriage, as has been already
stated, was descended the family of Es-Sadi.

The conqueror's religion was no more orthodox than
his morals. He was the son of a pagan woman of the
neighbourhood of Sokoto, and was deeply imbued, it is
said, with the superstitions of the race. He was nominally
Mohammedan, and like Henry IV. of Navarre, knew the
value of a mass. But he cared nothing for these things.
In private he habitually left his five daily prayers to be
said when it was convenient, either in the evening, or
perhaps not till the following day. He would even pro-
fanely call the prayers one after another by their names,
and without more ceremony dispose of them, saying : " You
know my sentiments, you can divide them between you."
His temper was violent, and he would order men to be
executed for trifling offences ; sometimes this would happen
even to those who were his best friends and to whom he
was most attached. In such cases he frequently repented,
and in his court it became the custom, when the order
appeared unreasonable, to hide the victim of his indig-
nation for a time, and when the fit of remorse followed
upon anger to produce the culprit.

All this gave occasion for great horror and dismay
in those circles of Timbuctoo where it was felt that in
exchanging the nominal rule of the Tuaregs — accompanied


though it had been with occasional outbreaks of disorder
— for the heavy hand of Sonni Ali, they had exchanged
freedom for a yoke which was almost too heavy to be

The only circumstance which rendered their fate toler-
able was the interposition of Sonni Ali's prime minister,
a man for whose counsels he had a great regard, and who
acted as a moderating influence upon him. This man,
whose name was Mohammed Abou Bekr Et-Touri, was
a pure-blooded black of Songhay. He was born of well-
known parents in the island of Neni, a little below Sinder,
in the Niger, and though he first made his fame as a
soldier, being one of the most distinguished generals of
Sonni Ali's army, he was more remarkable for the quali-
ties which usually characterise great civilians. He appears
to have been a man of liberal principles and large views,
naturally humane, and disposed to temper justice with
mercy, more than usually cultivated, active, wise, and
firm. He had been fortunate in the circumstances of his
youth. He came of good stock. His father was a man
universally respected. His mother was a woman of re-
markable piety, who brought up her children with care.
A brother of his is mentioned by Leo Africanus — who
was by no means disposed to be a gentle critic — as "black
in colour but most beautiful in mind and conditions."
Mohammed himself had been brought up in the strictest
orthodoxy, and throughout his life he adhered closely
to the faith of his youth. He took no part in the luxuries
and the loose living of Sonni Ali's court. Possibly the
purity of his life contributed no less than the well-balanced
power of his mind to the creation of the remarkable
friendship which existed between him and the wild
monarch, so unlike himself in every particular, except
that of a certain greatness which they had in common.
Sonni Ali, with all his faults, had qualities which won him
friends. When his name was mentioned with blame before
them, they would say, " He has been good to me ; I will
speak neither praise nor blame." His prime minister would


seem to have been one of these. For thirty years their
friendship, though often severely strained, never gave
way. The minister would seem to have had the rare
power of understanding the strength and the weakness
of the character with which he had to deal. He ap-
preciated the genius of Sonni Ali, and entered into his
great designs. His constant care was to assist him in
carrying them out. At the same time he endeavoured
to save both him and the country from the consequences
of the madness with which in this case genius seems to
have been closely allied.

It was this minister who instituted at Sonni Ali's
court the practice of concealing for a time culprits capri-
ciously condemned to death. He had the courage
frequently to disobey the unjust orders of his master,
and thus, while he risked his own life, stood between
the monarch and the defenceless people over whom he
ruled. He was enabled to do this, says his chronicler,
because God had endowed him with a special force of

He had the wishes of the people on his side, and
often, when his struggles with the conqueror became
critical, his mother, it is said, would cause prayers to
be offered in Timbuctoo that the Almighty would sustain
him in his opposition. The picture is curious, of a
prime minister sustained by public prayer in opposition
to a friend and tyrant whose lightest word had power
to end his life. It serves to illustrate the typical relation
of Mohammedan to pagan greatness in the country where
each commands, even to this day, its own form of respect.
Sonni Ali, though nominally Mohammedan, was in truth
of the pagan type. He was the last of the great
pagans, and in the double strain of conflict and affec-
tion which existed between him and his minister, may
be seen reflected the conflict between enlightenment
and natural instinct, between law and tyranny, between
reason and force, which form the elements of the eternal
conflict between the higher and the lower life of peoples.


Yet through all the conflict it reflects also the natural
affection of man to the race from which he springs, to
the customs amongst which he was born, to the aims
and aspirations which are the aims and aspirations of
his blood. Standing as they do side by side on the
field of history, Sonni Ali and his great minister must
be taken as representing in the Soudan the genius of
paganism and the genius of Islam clasping hands in a
last salute before their respective roads cross and part.



While by the exertions of Mohammed Abou Bekr the worst
evils which might have resulted from Sonni Ali's adminis-
tration were averted, the military genius of the monarch
himself extended the limits of this administration year by
year. To meet the requirements of the army he imposed
a general military service upon the people, and his reign
of nearly thirty years was one long series of campaigns.
From Timbuctoo he marched on Jenne. That town, which
had successfully resisted, it is said, no less than ninety-nine
sieges from Melle, cost him a siege of seven years, seven
months, and seven days, during which time his army camped
and cultivated the fertile fields by which Jenne is sur-
rounded. At the end of the siege the town yielded by
honourable capitulation. No injury of any kind was done to
its inhabitants, and the seven days which are added to the
period of the siege were consumed, it is said, by festivities
on the occasion of the marriage of Sonni Ali with the
widow of the ruler of the town, who had died during the
siege. Thus, after about four hundred years of separation,
Jenne became once more a portion of the Songhay Empire.
The exact date of the fall of Jenne is not given, but it
was presumably towards the year 1477, and in the mean-
time the troops of Sonni x\li had not been idle. The entire
course of the Middle Niger was in their general's hands.
From Gago to Jenne he commanded the great highway of
the Soudan. He had repulsed Mossi in the south. He
had conquered Hombori in the Bend of the Niger, and
Kanta, and other countries in the east. A little to the
north of Jenne on the west, and again to the south of Gago


on the east, he had successfully encountered the semi-
independent Fulani rulers, on whom he had imposed his
suzerainty. Either at this time or later — I have been
unable to ascertain the exact date — he constructed and
placed upon the Niger a great fleet under the supreme
command of an officer of high naval rank, corresponding
to an admiral, whose headquarters were at the port of
Kabara near Timbuctoo. In 1477-8-9 we find him free
to devote his principal efforts to the western province and
to encounter his chief enemy, the King of Mossi, who,
having been driven from the Bend of the Niger, had
crossed the river, and, to the terror of the unhappy pro-
fessors of Aiwalatin, was making his way over the ravaged
territories of Melle towards that town. The campaign
which ensued in the province of Walata practically placed
Melle in the hands of Sonni AH, although in the year 1480
Aiwalatin was taken and occupied for a month by the King
of Mossi. Mossi was unable to hold it, and was compelled
to withdraw and to abandon the booty which he had seized.
The result of the fighting would seem to have convinced
Sonni Ali of the difficulty of holding and defending a
frontier town in the isolated position of Aiwalatin as
a part of an empire of which the river Niger was the
base, for he conceived and put into partial execution the
daring scheme of connecting Aiwalatin by water with
Timbuctoo by means of a canal which he proposed to
construct across the desert.

The fame of Sonni Ali by this time had spread beyond
the limits of the Soudan. He was recognised in Northern
Africa as the most powerful of the black sovereigns of the
West, and he is mentioned in European annals under the
name of Sonni Heli, King of Timbuctoo, whose power
was acknowledged as extending to the West Atlantic

It was a moment in which African affairs were be-
ginning to be regarded with interest by European powers.
The Portuguese, under Prince Henry the Navigator, had
in the early part of the century begun that career of ex-


ploration and settlement which was to lead to the discovery
of the passage of the Cape of Good Hope, and so to
revolutionise European history. A curious theory still
prevailed amongst the ignorant that at the Equator the
sea ran dry, and that the passage of ships would be found
barred by sand. No sailor having as yet dared like
Columbus to put boldly out to sea, the Portuguese move-
ment crept round the African coast, and the sandbanks
of the West African harbours served during the early
explorations to confirm the common view. Each was
taken in turn to represent the last step which could be
safely made. It was considered a great feat when a man
in Prince Henry's service courageously doubled Cape
Bogador, and two others explored the coast at Angra de
Cintra in 1435. ^^^ Cape Blanco followed in 1441.
The banks of Arguin were discovered in 1443, and Cape
Verde and the mouth of the Senegal in 1444 and 1445.
Trade was opened on the Senegal with the natives, and
after this the Portuguese discovery of Gambia, Sierra

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 14 of 41)