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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Leone, and the Gold Coast, rapidly followed. The last-
named coast was explored by two Portuguese sailors in
1 47 1, and the quantity of gold which they obtained was
so great as to give to their first landing-place the name
which it has always kept of The Mine or Elmina. Within
a few years the Portuguese had established trading stations
along the coast, and in i486, having built a first fort and
church at Elmina, the King of Portugal took the title
of Lord of Guinea. In 1481, at the moment when Sonni
Ali had driven the King of Mossi out of the province of
Walata, and was preparing to strengthen his own hold
upon the capital of that province by the construction of
a canal from Timbuctoo, the Portuguese had taken to
Lisbon and were receiving there with great honour a
certain prince of the Joloffs, or black branch of the Fulani
people, who inhabited the territory to the south of the
Senegal, lying between that river and the Atlantic coast.
This visit is interesting, as giving one of the earliest
authentic descriptions which we possess of the Fulah


in his most westerly African home. The prince, whose
name was Bemoy, is described as " a man of about forty
years of age, of a fine figure and generally well made.
He had a long and well-trimmed beard, and did not
appear to be a negro, but a prince to whom all honour
and respect were due." He was received by King John
with the utmost distinction. Fetes, bull-fights, and other
entertainments were given in his honour, and he had
many audiences of the king and queen. In these inter-
views he spoke well, and gave the king most interesting
information about Negroland, and especially about the
King of Mossi, of whose defeat by Sonni Ali he had not
then heard, and whom he described as "neither pagan
nor Mohammedan, but as conforming in many things to
the views of the Christians." Mossi was at that time
regarded by the pagans of the coast as the greatest of
the kings of the interior — so little did they know of the
life and civilisation of the Nigerian Soudan. Bemoy, who
would seem to have been himself better informed, gave
it as a proof of the important position held by Mossi that
he had not been conquered by the King of Timbuctoo.

The outcome of all this knowledge gained by the
Portuguese was that they conceived the idea of carrying
their trade from the coast to the interior of the country,
and that they desired to gain the friendship of the King
of Timbuctoo. They accordingly despatched an embassy
to Sonni Ali, asking for his permission to establish a
trading station at Wadan in the back country of Cape
Blanco, within the western borders of the Mellestine.
Sonni Ali acceded to their request, and a Portuguese
trading station was actually established within his terri-
tories at the oasis of Hoden or Wadan in the western
desert. The place was unsuitable, and it was afterwards
abandoned. The fact of its having existed for some time
with the friendly recognition of the Songhay king is an
interesting indication of the intercourse with Europe,
which might have been developed along the northern
trades routes of the Soudan, but for the approaching



events in Spain, of which the immediate result was to close
the interior of Northern Africa for four hundred years to
Christian enterprise.

At the same time that the Portuguese sent embassies
to the King of Timbuctoo they also sent an embassy to
Mossi. They wished to conciliate his goodwill for their
trade upon the southern coast. But the glory of Mossi
was at an end. After driving him from Walata in
1480, Sonni Ali devoted himself for two years to the
work of constructing the canal which was to join Tim-
buctoo with Aiwalatin. He was himself engaged in
superintending the operations at a place in the desert
called Chan - Fenez, when word was brought to him
in 1482 that the King of Mossi had assembled all his
forces, and was marching against Timbuctoo. Sonni
Ali immediately abandoned the canal, and the place
which it had reached when the news was brought to
him was, we are told, the farthest point in the desert
which it ever attained. Placing himself at the head
of his troops, he marched against Mossi, and completely
overthrew him in the year 1483. He followed up the
victory by pursuing him to the farthest limits of his
territories, and in 1485-86 he conquered the mountain
territory to the south. By this conquest he carried
Songhay arms far into the pagan belt. But the moun-
tain range in which the Niger and the Senegal have
their sources, at the back of Sierra Leone and Sene-
gambia, and which runs from west to east between the
tenth and eighth parallels of latitude, until it passes on to
become the mountains of the Cameroons in German West
Africa, would seem to have been always regarded as the
natural southern boundary of the Nigerian Soudan. On
the southern side of this range, usually known by the
name of the Kong Mountains, the country assumes that
swampy and tropical character which renders it apparently
unfit for the habitation of the higher races. Its rivers
run through belts of oil-palm and mangroves to the
coast, and it has ever been the habitation of pagans and


cannibals. Sonni AH carried his arms no farther. The
pagans of the Gold Coast were left unmolested by his
victories, and it is probable that the naked savages who
received the Portuguese at Elmina and Achem, with
heads surmounted by the grinning masks of wild beasts,
and no other covering but a palm-leaf fringe, were as
ignorant a hundred years later of the existence of Songhay
as they were in i486. The Benins were at this time
the most powerful and the most civilised among the coast
natives, and they were known to the Portuguese as "an
extremely cruel people who lived upon human flesh."

The conquest of Mossi placed Sonni Ali in the posi-
tion of having subdued all those enemies of Melle whom
he found in arms at the time of his accession. He was
virtually the master of the Mellestine, though Melle itself
still preserved a nominal independence, and the town of
Aiwalatin enjoyed a quasi-separate position apart from the
subdued province of Walata upon the frontier. He now
turned his arms against the east. A campaign against
Borgu, which lies south of Gurma on the Eastern Niger,
was only partially successful. Details are wanting, but
the people of Borgu were able at a later period to boast
that they had never been conquered. Some other con-
quests took place, of which it is difficult to identify the
localities, and in 1492 he undertook a campaign against
the Fulani of Gurma, lying also in the bend of the
Eastern Niger, between Borgu and his capital of Gago.

This was his last campaign. Here, though success-
ful, he lost his life. He died, not as so great a soldier
would have wished to die, under the spears of his enemies,
but by a trivial accident of fate. He was drowned in
the sudden flood of a stream on his return from his vic-
torious expedition. His death occurred far from the
capital, and the hand of ancient Egypt is for a moment
visible in the circumstance that his sons, who were
present, immediately disembowelled the body and filled
it with honey, that it might be safely transported to
take its place in the tombs of his fathers.



In summing up Sonni All's military career, the
chronicle says of him : "He only suffered two reverses,
one at Duoneo^ and the other in Borgu. He surpassed
all the kings his predecessors, in the numbers and valour
of his soldiery. His conquests were many, and his
renown extended from the rising to the setting of the
sun. If it is the will of God he will be long spoken of."

^ Dounna, a mountainous country in the West, which had resisted Sonni
Ali, and afterwards fought Mohammed El Hadj so well, that neither of them
could achieve anything against its inhabitants. — Tarikh^ p. 8r.


SoNNi Ali was succeeded by his great minister, Mo-
hammed Abou Bekr — not without fighting. There was
a minority who upheld the claim of one of Sonni All's
many sons, and two great battles were fought near Gago.
The second battle decided the question without any
further doubt, and Mohammed ascended the throne,
supported by the good wishes of every important section
of the people. He seems to have felt himself fully
justified in thus taking the supreme power, and it is
said that the title by which he and the dynasty that
he founded were known for the next hundred years
had its rise in his calm acceptance of the position. After
the battle in which the fate of Sonni All's dynasty
was decided, the news of Mohammed's accession was
brought to the daughters of Sonni Ali. They received
it with a cry of "Askia!" or "the Usurper!" The
incident was related to him, and instead of showing any
resentment, he said, " By that title I will be known."
By his command his sovereignty was accordingly pro-
claimed under the title] of " Askia Mohammed Abou
Bekr," and Askia became the royal title of the Songhay
kings until their empire was overthrown by the Moors.

Sonni Ali had conquered an empire. The great
work of the Askias was to organise it, and to bring it
to a condition of peace, prosperity, and cultivation, which
was little suspected as existing in the heart of the Soudan
during that century which witnessed in Europe the
expulsion of the Moors from Spain, the crusade of
Charles V. against the Saracens, the victory of Lepanto



over the Turks, and the closing of the principal ports of
the Mediterranean to the infidels.

The lately subjected portions of Askia Mohammed's
empire not unnaturally seized the opportunity of a change
of dynasty to rebel, and in the course of the long reign
which lay before him he fought perhaps as many cam-
paigns as Sonni Ali. Nevertheless his reign was, to
the majority of his people, a reign of peace. Almost
his first act was to issue orders for the organisation of a
standing army — a scheme which had no doubt been long
matured — and by this separation of the fighting element
from the people he saved the country, says his chronicler,
from the desolating effects of war. The industrial and
learned life of the towns went on without interruption,
and one end of the empire hardly knew whether the
other end was at peace or war. Simultaneously with
his reform of the military forces of the empire, he gave
his attention to the Church. The orthodox and pious,
whose voices had not been heard during the late reign,
now came from their obscurity. Mohammed consulted
frequently with the heads of the Mussulman communities
in all the towns, and everything that could be done to
improve the religious position of the country was under-
taken. Schools were founded, mosques were rebuilt. A
new activity was felt throughout the empire.

Sonni Ali died in November of 1492. Mohammed was
occupied for nearly three years with these first necessary
reforms, and with the subjugation of outlying and rebellious
populations. But though he had accepted with such
apparent calm the irregularity of his own position, it is
clear that he was not indifferent to the importance of
affirming his power by a sanction stronger than that of
popular acclamation. As soon as the immediate neces-
sities of the situation had been dealt with, and it was
possible for him to contemplate a temporary absence
from the country, he appointed his favourite brother to
be regent in his place, and proceeded to Mecca to make
the pilgrimage and to seek at Cairo a formal investiture


at the hands of the Caliph of Egypt. The Turks had,
it will be remembered, long since overthrown the political
supremacy of the Caliphs, and had affirmed their own
position by the taking of Constantinople in 1453. But
the Caliphs of Egypt still kept their position as the
religious head of the Mussulman world.

This pilgrimage of Askia Mohammed, which has kept
a place in the annals of the country side by side with the
pilgrimage undertaken nearly two hundred years before
by Mansa Musa, was made the object, like that earlier
pilgrimage, of the display of some magnificence. But
there is a distinct progress observable in the nature of the
display. The pilgrimage of Askia Mohammed does not
involve the march of an army of 60,000 persons, accom-
panied by a baggage train of thousands of camels, to be
moved in a slow royal progress round the empire. The
king went accompanied by a brilliant group of the principal
notables and the most holy and learned men of the Soudan.
It is probable that he moved with some state, for both
Marmol and Leo Africanus inform us that he kept a mag-
nificent and well-furnished court. But a military escort of
500 cavalry and 1000 infantry was considered sufficient for
the protection of his caravan, and there is no mention that
he caused himself to be preceded, like Mansa Musa in pro-
cession across the desert, by slaves dressed in silk brocade
and carrying golden wands. Neither did he take with
him eighty camels laden with gold dust. Three hundred
thousand gold pieces are mentioned as his more portable
and convenient provision for financial necessities. It was
not in barbaric splendour like that of Mansa Musa that
the fame of Askia's pilgrimage consisted, but rather in
the distinction of the persons who accompanied him, of
whom Ahmed Baba gives us some of the biographies,
and in the great number of learned doctors and noble
friends whom Askia had the opportunity of meeting in
Cairo and in the Holy Cities. The friendships which
were here formed lasted for the rest of his life, and cor-
respondence with some of the most distinguished men of


letters of the East, which was at this time entered into,
was never dropped.

Es Soyouti, the famous Arabian encyclopedist and
scholar, was one of those who met Askia Mohammed
during this visit to the East, and with whom the Songhay
king continued to correspond. It is said that he never
afterwards undertook a reform of importance in the State
without previously consulting Es Soyouti. All who met
the king were impressed with the keen interest which he
displayed on many subjects, his readiness to listen to the
best opinions, his diligent discussion with the learned, and
his anxiety to acquire information on practical questions.
Askia Mohammed remained for two years in the East,
during which period he devoted much time to study.
Amongst subjects named as arresting his special atten-
tion we find : " Everything that concerned the govern-
ment and administration of peoples ;" "principles of taxa-
tion, and especially land tax and the tithe or tribute to
be taken from newly conquered peoples ; " " verification
and inspection of weights and measures, regulation of
trade, laws of inheritance, laws for the suppression of
fraud, customs duties ; " " laws for the suppression of
immorality, and measures to be taken for the introduction
of better manners among the people." The limits of re-
ligious tolerance and persecution also appear to have
occupied his mind, and it is mentioned of him by one
or two of his biographers that he allowed himself to be
influenced by orthodox marabouts in the direction of the
persecution of the Jews.

There can be little doubt that to a man of his age,
having had already thirty years of practical acquaintance
with affairs, but having now for the first time the sense
of security in his own position and of power to carry his
views into operation, the visit under the circumstances
which seem to have accompanied it must have been one
of extraordinary interest and importance. Mohammed
Abou Bekr was already a distinguished soldier at the
time of the conquest of Timbuctoo in 1468. He cannot


have been less than fifty years of age in 1495. He
had been educated in an island of the Niger, and such
portion of his life as had not been spent in attendance
upon Sonni Ali at one or other of his rough courts had
been spent in the hardest form of active campaigning in
the tropics. It throws a remarkable light upon the vigour
of his mind and the natural distinction of his character,
that at this age, and having lived the life which he had
lived, he was able to apply himself with the eagerness of
youth to the sources of learning, and, undeterred by dif-
ferences of colour, to form friendships on equal terms with
men of the orreatest enlio-htenment and hia-hest intellectual
activity which a centre of civilisation like that of Egypt
could produce.

The phases of development of a despotic monarch
have a wide-reaching influence, and it is hardly too much
to say that the course of history in the Soudan was pro-
foundly modified by this visit of its sovereign to the East.

He accomplished the political and religious purposes
for which he went. The cities of Mecca and Medina
were visited, and vast sums given in charity in both towns.
In Mecca he bought a garden and established a charitable
institution for the benefit of all future pilgrims from the
Soudan. In Cairo he received investiture at the hands of
El Motawekkel the Fourteenth, Abbasside Caliph of
Egypt. The ceremony included a solemn abdication on
Askia's part for three days of the Songhay throne. On the
fourth day the Caliph appointed him to the position of
Lieutenant of the Abbasside Sultans in the Soudan, and
invested him, in sign of this authority, with a turban and
cap. Thus politically, but far more intellectually, was
Songhay restored to its ancient position as a child of


It is an interesting coincidence that 1493, the year
in which Askia formed the resolution to seek the religious
sanction of the head of the Mohammedan Church to his
occupation of the throne of the Soudan, was the year in
which, in consequence of the discoveries made by Columbus


in the western hemisphere, and the differences which
had arisen between Spain and Portugal with regard to
their respective rights in the new world opening to ex-
ploration, the two great powers of Southern Europe
resolved to settle their controversy by reference to the
head of the Christian Church. Already, under a Papal
Bull of Martin V., Portugal had acquired supreme rights
over all non-Christian territories which she might discover
between Cape Bogador and the Indies. Greek and
Arabian geographers, although so well informed on the
general geography of the eastern hemisphere, had, up to
the period of the discoveries of Columbus, laid down the
dictum that the "Ocean Sea" which washed the western
borders of Europe and the eastern borders of Asia, sur-
rounded one-half of the world without interruption, and
that in it there existed absolutely no habitable land. This
view was accepted by enlightened opinion in Europe.
The claim was therefore put forward by John II. of
Portugal — the same king who, in i486, had received the
Fulani Prince Bemoy with so much honour in Lisbon —
that Columbus, in sailing westward till he came to land,
was likely to trespass upon territories already granted to
Portugal in the east. To obviate the difficulties which
might arise from such undetermined rights, Ferdinand
and Isabella appealed to the Pope to give the sanction
of the Church to their occupation of lands discovered in
America; and, in response to their request, Pope Alexander
VI. issued, in May 1493, the famous Bull by which all
territories, not already in the possession of Christian
powers, and situated to the east of an imaginary line drawn
from pole to pole through what was then believed to be
the immovable point of non-variation of the compass,
were given to Portugal, and similar territories to the west
of it were granted to Spain. The grant was accompanied
by an injunction to subdue and convert the barbarous
nations with whom either power should come in contact,
and plenary indulgence was accorded for the souls of all
those who should perish in the conquest. The exact


position of the dividing-line was decided by a commission
which met at Torde^illas in January 1494, and after much
discussion the point through which the Hne should pass
was fixed at 370 leagues west of Cape Verde.

Thus it happened that while Spain was about to expel
the Moors entirely from her dominions, and to close the
ports of the Mediterranean, so far as lay in her power,
against them, Portugal was invested by the Pope with
supreme authority over those territories of the Western
Soudan which the Spanish Arabs had always regarded as
their natural though unconquered appanage in Africa.

As the resolution conceived by Askia in 1493 was not
carried out till 1495, it is possible in point of time that
he may have been already acquainted with the move-
ments that were taking place in the Western world, and
that his investiture by the Egyptian Caliph was part of
a general drawing together of the Mussulman forces in
the East. But of this, if it was so, we have no trace.
I have been unable to find any allusion to interest ex-
pressed or felt in the Soudan in the great discoveries of
Columbus and Vasco da Gama. Rather it would seem
that the conquest of the Moors by Ferdinand and Isabella
in 1492, shortly followed as it was by the total expulsion
of that people from Europe, must be regarded as closing
the connection of the Moors, and through them of the
Soudan, with the progressive life and science of the West.

Yet it was from Cairo, only a few years before the
visit of Askia, that news had been sent to King John II.
of Portugal of a south Cape of Africa with which Arabian
mariners, who had long been accustomed to the use of
compass, quadrants, and sea-charts, were well acquainted.
It was a matter of common knowledge to their seamen
that the African continent terminated with a cape, and
that there was no difficulty in the way of sailing round
it to the west. Two Jews took the information to King
John that it could be easily doubled from the west, and
to prove their statement took also with them an Arabic
map of the African coast. In consequence of this infor-


mation, King John was preparing the expedition of Vasco
da Gama at the time that Askia was in Cairo. The
interest aroused by the discoveries of Columbus must
have been great in Arabian as well as European circles.
The geographers of the East must have believed that he
had reached the eastern shores of Asia, and as they were
well acquainted wMth the geography of Asia to the farthest
limits of China and Japan, they must have been greatly
exercised to account for the discrepancy apparently dis-
played in the size of the world as long since measured
by the astronomers of India, and corrected and accepted
by the scientific observations of Greeks and Arabs. These
matters must have been subjects of discussion in intelli-
gent circles in Cairo during the visit of the Askia, and he
must presumably have shared in the general interest which
they excited.

He returned to the Soudan in 1497, too early to have
heard of the result of the expedition of Vasco da Gama,
which in November of that year attained the object for
which it was despatched, and succeeded in doubling the
Cape of Good Hope. This last event was one of supreme
importance to the history of the Soudan, for it opened
the passage of the Atlantic to European commerce ; and,
in conjunction with the almost simultaneous closing of
the northern ports of Africa to Christian intercourse, it
determined the fact that the subsequent approach of
Europe to West Africa should be from the south by sea,
instead of, as in all the previous chapters of Soudanese
history, from the north by land. The frontage of the
Soudan upon civilisation was reversed.

But, as has been seen, the southern portion of West
Africa, following the sinuosities of the Gulf of Guinea,
is cut off from the healthier uplands by a swampy belt
of densely wooded malarial jungle, backed by a con-
tinuous range of hills. This swampy belt was, at the
end of the fifteenth century, as it had been from im-
memorial antiquity, the habitation of pagans, who, in
the estimation of their Arab chroniclers, represented the


lowest types known to humanity. They were for the
most part cannibals, idolaters, and barbarians ; their
country had been for centuries the place of exile for all
that was basest in the Arabian Soudan ; their people,
from the earliest ages of history, had been regarded as
the lawful prey of the slave-hunter, only differing by

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 15 of 41)