Ancient Nigeria

The cultures of West Africa created some of the most powerful empires that inhabited the sub-Saharan regions of this continent, including the Songhai and the Benin.

West African Warrior
The Ancient Kingdoms of West Africa

Ivory Pendant Mask, Iyoba, Court of Benin 16th century

In West Africa, trade was giving rise to towns. There, on the fringes of the Sahara, arose a kingdom and empire that its rulers called Wagadu. The people of this kingdom were the Soninke – black people who spoke the language of Mande. Their king was called Ghana, and Ghana became the name by which this kingdom and empire became known – ancient Ghana rather than the modern state also called Ghana. The kings of ancient Ghana were authoritarian. They inherited rule through their mother’s side of the family – matrilineal rather than patrilineal as with kings in Europe at the time – and they claimed descent from an original ancestor whom they believed had first settled the land. Ghana’s king was the leader of a religious cult that was served by devoted priests, and the king’s subjects were obliged to view him as divine and as too exalted to communicate directly with them.

The Kings of Ghana

A Yoruba sculpture

Ghana’s kings had enhanced their power and enriched themselves by exploiting the trade passing through their territory. From the perspective of merchants they were not unlike highway bandits, forcing from tradesmen a tax on the gold they carried. But the tax was shrewder than robbery: a continual robbery would have ended the arrival of tradesmen carrying gold.

As Ghana’s kings grew richer they conquered, forcing obedience from the kings of other tribes, from whom they exacted tribute. They extended their rule to the gold producing regions to their south, and they imposed a tax on gold production.

Ghana’s major competitor was the Berber dominated city of Awdaghost to the northwest – a city with an ample supply of water, surrounded by herds of cattle and where millet, wheat, grapes, dates and figs were grown. The Berbers who dominated that city had wanted to make it the major point of passage for caravan trading across the western Sahara. But in 990 Ghana conquered the city, putting Ghana at the peak of its power.

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Muslim Incursions

Djingareiber Mosque in Timbuktu

During Ghana’s days of glory, Muslim tradesmen were coming south in caravans from places like Sijilmasa, Tunis and Tripoli. From Sijilmasa the caravans had been going through Taghaza to Awdaghost. From Tunis and Tripoli they had been going to Hausaland and the Lake Chad region. They had been bringing salt southward, and they also carried cloth, copper, steel, cowry shells, glass beads, dates and figs. And they brought slaves for sale.

The Muslims were literate while the Soninke and their kings were not. The Soninke left no record of the doings of their kings. It was through Muslim writers that modern historians would gather what information they could about Ghana. The Muslims were offended to find people worshiping their king as a divinity rather than worshiping Allah. The Muslims complained of people believing their kings to be the source of life, sickness, health and death. The Muslim writer al-Bakre described a Ghana king as having an army of 200,000 men, 40,000 of whom were archers. And he described the presence in Ghana of small horses.

Among the Soninke, the town of Kumbi had become a commercial center alongside a town of round mud-brick huts. Muslim tradesmen living there built stone houses and a number of mosques. Some Muslims there served as ministers at the king’s palace, and the town of Kumbi became an intellectual center for western Africa.

Muslim writers described one king of Ghana as renowned for his great wealth and the splendor of his court. The king held audience wearing fine fabrics and gold ornaments and bedecked his animals and retainers in gold. People in the north of Africa spoke of the king of Ghana as the richest monarch in the world.

But the power of the kings of Ghana was destined to end. Muslims in western Africa united behind the Almoravids – a Muslim dynasty that ruled in Morocco and Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries. A religious movement among the Muslims known as the Sanhaja inspired the Almoravids and others to a jihad (holy war), and Muslim Berbers in the Sahara joined an effort toward conversions and war against Ghana. The leader of the Sanhaja movement and army in the Sahara area, Abu Bakr, captured Awdaghost in 1054. And in 1076, after many battles, he captured the city of Kumbi.

Almoravid domination of Ghana lasted only a few years, but the Almoravids held onto control of the desert trade that had been dominated by Ghana. Without control of the gold trade, the power of Ghana’s kings declined further. They had, meanwhile, converted to Islam – while holding onto the religious rituals and myths that justified their rule to their subjects. Ghana’s kings allowed Berber herdsmen to move into Soninke homelands, and these herdsmen began overgrazing Ghana’s lands. Ghana’s agricultural land became worn and less able to support as many people as before. Subject kings and tribes broke away from Ghana’s rule. The king of the Sosso people, in neighboring Kaniaga, turned the tables on Ghana, and in 1203 the Sosso overran Ghana’s capital city, Kumbi.

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The Mandingo Empire

The great leader of Mali, Masa Musa in a medieval manuscript

The great leader of Mali, Masa Musa in a medieval manuscript

After their victory over Ghana, the Sosso expanded against the Mandingo (or Mande) – a people who spoke Mande and lived on fertile farmland around Wangara. The Sosso king, Sumaguru Kante, put to death all of the sons of the Mandingo ruler but one, Sundjata, who appeared to be an insignificant cripple. But Sundjata rallied the Mandingo. A guerrilla army built by Sundjata overwhelmed the Sosso and in 1235 killed their king, Sumaguru Kante. Sundjata annexed Ghana in 1240, and he took control of the gold trade routes. Merchants moved out of Kumbi to another commercial city farther north: Walata. And in small groups the Soninke people began emigrating from what had been their homeland.

The empire that Sundjata created, called Mali, controlled the salt trade from Taghaza and the copper trade across the Sahara. The gold trade was a source of wealth for Mali, and so too was trade in food: sorghum, millet and rice. And regarding trade, Mali dominated the town of Timbuktu, nine miles north of the Niger River, which had risen a century or two before as a point of trade for desert caravans.

After Sundjata’s death in 1255 more conquests were made by his successors – Mansa Uli and then Sakura. Sakura had been a freed slave serving in the royal household and had seized power after the ruling family had become weakened by quarreling among themselves. It is surmised that Sakura was responsible for Mali’s expansion to Tekrur in the west and to Gao in the east.

By the 1300s, Mali’s kings had converted to Islam, which gave them advantages of good will in diplomacy and commerce. But, again, the pagan rituals and artifacts that were a part of the ideology and justification of rule were maintained. And the king’s loyal subjects continued their traditional prostrations and covering themselves with dust to display their humility.

By the 1300s, Muslim Mandingo merchants were trading as far east as the city-states in Hausaland and beyond to Lake Chad. Islam was spreading with the trade of its merchants, and it appears that in the 1300s or 1400s the kings of Hausaland converted to Islam. But when a Mali king tried to pressure people in the gold mining region around Wangara to convert, a disruption in the production of gold was threatened, and the pressure to convert was withdrawn.

One well known Mali emperor who was Muslim was Mansa Musa, who ruled from 1312-1337. On record is Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca, his entourage described as including 500 slaves with gold staffs and 100 camels each with 300 pounds of gold. Mansa Mura is described as spending lavishly in the bazaars of Cairo and his spending is said to have increased the supply of gold to an extent that its price depreciated on the Cairo exchange. And, as usual, scholars were not immune from being influenced by wealth, Mansa Musa bringing a collection of them back with him from Mecca. Mali was literate, but only insofar as it employed Muslim scribes at the court of its kings. As in Europe, the common people of Mali were not yet expected to read and write.

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The Songhai Rebellion and Mali's Decline

The ancient Djenne Mosque was built at the height of the Mali empire

Mali reached its peak in fame and fortune in the 1300s. Then weak and incompetent kings inherited power. Late in the 1300s the old problem of dynastic succession brought quarrels that weakened the Mali kingship and gave others opportunity.

The others in this instance were the Songhai people, who lived along the middle of the Niger River and monopolized fishing and canoe transport there. Trade at Gao had brought Islam to the Songhai. Some Songhai royalty had converted to Islam, as had an unknown percentage of Songhai commoners. Mali control over the Songhai capital, Gao, had always been tentative, and the spirit of independence had not died among Songhai kings. A Songhai king led his people in rebellion. The rebellion disrupted Mali’s trade on the Niger River. Mali’s empire suffered as the Songhai sacked and occupied Timbuktu in 1433-34. In 1464 a Songhai king, Sonni ‘Ali took power, and again Timbuktu was attacked, Sonni ‘Ali capturing the city after a great loss of life. Five years later, Sonni ‘Ali conquered the town of Jenne which had been thought impregnable. In his twenty-eight years of military campaigning, the victorious Songhai king won the title King of Kings. He dominated trade routes and the great grain producing region of the Niger river delta. Sonni ‘Ali’s competitor, the Mali empire, was deteriorating, and the Mali empire was to die in the 1600s

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Great Benin

A bronze head of a King form Benin

Most of the great West African Empires and Kingdoms flourished in the open savannahs that make up vast areas of its hinterland, with their strategic trading position between north and coastal Africa, and the openness that supported cavalry based military adventure, huge empires rose and fell in this area over the centuries. By contrast the political structures of the coastal regions consisted primarily of City-States and loose confederacies, one of the few exceptions to this rule was the Benin Kingdom.

Located almost wholly with within what is now Nigeria, the Benin Kingdom at its zenith stretched from Lagos in the west, along the coast of Nigeria to the River Niger in the east and area that equates to about a fifth of Nigeria’s current geographic area.

The Benin Kingdom dynasty is believed to have been founded in the 13th century and has a direct lineage from the founders to the current Oba (King) of Benin – Solomon Erediauwa II, who still holds considerable political, albeit unofficial, influence in the Edo and Delta states of Modern Nigeria.

The actual genesis of the kingdom is shrouded in uncertainty, but some traditional accounts have it that the Edo people who inhabit the Benin area invited Prince Oranmiyan of Ife (one of the Yoruba states) to rescue them from the tyranny of the ruling Osigos. Alternative versions of this account portray Oranmiyan as leading a Yoruba invasion of Benin and forcibly removing the Osigos who had ruled from about 355BC. What is generally agreed is that Oranmiyan’s son, Eweka I became the first Oba of Benin.

A terracotta mask showing the high degree of realism developed under the artisans of Benin

A terracotta mask showing the high degree of realism developed under the artisans of Benin

In early stages of the Kingdom’s emergence the power rested with the council of chiefs, the Uzama, with the Oba at its head, however by the reign of Oba Ewedo in the late 13th century the balance of power had begun to move firmly into the hands of the Oba. By the 15th century under Oba Ewuare (Ewuare the Great), the Oba had become paramount within the kingdom. To consolidate the Oba’s power Oba Ewuare instituted hereditary succession. He further diluted the power of the Uzama by creating more categories of chiefs. In addition to formalizing the political structure of the kingdom, Oba Ewuare is credited for turning Benin City, the capital of the Kingdom, into a military fortress protected by moats and defensive walls. It was from this bastion that he launched his extensive military campaigns and began the expansion of the Kingdom from its Edo-speaking heartlands.

Oba Ewuare is viewed by many historians as the first Oba in what was Benin golden age, a succession of Obas strengthened and expanded the Kingdom and some of the most famous were Oba Ozolua (Ozolua the Conqueror), son of Ewuare, and his son Esigie. During their reign Lagos was established by Benin as a garrison for their troops and Benin had begun the exchange of ambassadors with the Kingdom of Portugal.

Over the next three centuries Benin thrived as the Kingdom set up an extensive trading network with the Portuguese and later with other European nations. The trade was primarily in ivory, palm oil, and pepper, but latter, as with most coastal powers in Africa, the trade in slaves became prominent.

Benin was a large city for its time – a walled city several kilometers wide in a forested region inland from where the Niger River emptied into the Atlantic. In the mid-1400s the ruler of Benin, Ewuare, built up his military and began expanding. Captives taken in battle he traded to the Portuguese. Benin’s empire reached about 190 miles (300 kilometers) in width by the early 1500s. Then it stopped expanding, and with this it had no more captives to sell as slaves, while selling slaves to the Portuguese was being taken up by others.

A cast bronze panel showing a war chief of Benin

A cast bronze panel showing a war chief of Benin

By the 19th century however the prosperity of the Benin Kingdom was under threat. The British had begun to establish their colonial presence to the south, constant wars with the Yoruba states to the west, Islamic Jihads and the Nupe kingdom’s to the north, as well as internal civil wars all conspired to weaken the Kingdom.

The final blow to the Kingdom came in February 1897. The British had an established what they termed a protectorate over the Nigerian coastline and in order to ensure the viability of this colony where keen to force Benin into British dictated trade relations. An officer of the British Army stationed on the Nigerian coast, Lt. James Phillips requested for and received permission to depose the Oba Ovonramwen for his opposition to trade with Britain on their terms. Lt. Phillips wrote to the Oba stating his intention to travel to Benin City, on receiving no reply he set off uninvited.

The arrival of the British convoy was treated by the Oba as an act of war and the ensuing hostilities result in the Benin soldiers wiping out the British detachment including Lt. Phillips. Britain responded by sending over 10,000 soldiers to Benin, where they massacred many civilians and razed the city to the ground, in the process looting countless pieces of art and antiques. The Oba was exiled to Calabar a town in the far eastern part on Nigeria, and the Benin Kingdom was incorporated into the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria. With Independence it has re-established its cultural significance within the Republic of Nigeria, but the political power is no more.

Probably the greatest legacy of the ancient Benin Kingdom is their glorious Bronze Sculptures many of which reside in the British Museum in London. At the height of its greatness, Benin’s Obas patronized craftsmen and lavished then with gifts and wealth, in return for the depiction of the Oba’s great exploits as fabulous and intricate bronze sculptures. Today a strong campaign is being waged to have these antiques returned to their rightful home in Nigeria.

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Timbuktu and the Rise of Islam

Djingareiber Mosque in Timbuktu

Timbuktu is a city in Tombouctou Region, in the West African nation of Mali. It is home to the prestigious Sankore University and other madrasas, and was an intellectual and spiritual capital and center for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its three great mosques, Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahya, recall Timbuktu’s golden age. Although continuously restored, these monuments are today under threat from desertification. Timbuktu is primarily made of mud.

Timbuktu is populated by Songhay, Tuareg, Fulani, and Mandé people, and is about 15 km north of the Niger River. It is also at the intersection of an east–west and a north–south Trans-Saharan trade route across the Sahara to Araouane. It was important historically (and still is today) as an entrepot for rock-salt from Taoudenni. Its geographical setting made it a natural meeting point for nearby west African populations and nomadic Berber and Arab peoples from the north. Its long history as a trading outpost that linked west Africa with Berber, Arab, and Jewish traders throughout north Africa, and thereby indirectly with traders from Europe, has given it a fabled status, and in the West it was for long a metaphor for exotic, distant lands: “from here to Timbuktu.”

Timbuktu’s long-lasting contribution to Islamic and world civilization is scholarship. Timbuktu is assumed to have had one of the first universities in the world, with 25,000 students back in the 1400s. Local scholars and collectors still boast an impressive collection of ancient Greek texts from that era. By the fourteenth century, important books were written and copied in Timbuktu, establishing the city as the centre of a significant written tradition in Africa.

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The Yoruba

A Yoruba woman

The Yoruba people live on the west coast of Africa in Nigeria and can also be found in the eastern Republic of Benin and Togo. Because the majority of the slaves brought to the Americas were from West Africa Yoruban descendants can also be found in Brazil, Cuba, the Caribbean, and the United States. There are also many Yoruba currently living in Europe, particularly Britain, since Nigeria was once a British colony. The Yoruba are one of the largest cultural groups in Africa. Currently, there are about 40 million Yoruba world-wide. The Yoruba have been living in advanced urban kingdoms for more than 1,500 years. They created a strong economy through farming, trading, and art production. Their outstanding and unique artistic traditions include woodcarving, sculpture, metal work, textiles, and bead work.

West Africans, such as the Yoruba, have lived in urban societies and have produced extraordinary art work since the 5th century BC. During this time, the Yoruba began to use iron to create metal tools and weapons such as machetes, axes, and hoes. These tools made it easier for the Yoruba to farm the land. They planted crops including yams, their staple food. They also harvested the seeds from the palm oil tree. The seeds from this tree produce a vegetable oil that is used for cooking. Kola nuts were also grown and harvested. Soon the Yoruba began trading with neighboring areas for rice and sorghum. Due to increased agriculture, the Yoruba community began to grow in size and large towns were created. They arranged their communities by clan lines, or extended families. Families who had the same ancestors lived next door to each other in large compounds. An elder was put in charge as the head of the compound. Towns became organized by the type of work that people did.

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Yoruba Kingdoms

A beautifully carved Yoruba drum

A beautifully carved Yoruba drum

There were about 20 Yoruba kingdoms at one time with a different king ruling over each one. Ife was known as the center of cultural and religious life. Oyo was the strongest kingdom with the largest military and political system. The kingdom of Oyo was close to the Niger River. The rich soil in Oyo allowed the people to grow more crops than they needed. This helped the kingdom of Oyo to easily trade with neighboring groups. They also created a strong military. Oyo was in control of 6,600 towns and villages by the end of the 18th century. Internal wars and fighting with neighboring groups, along with the beginning of the slave trade, eventually led to the decline of these great kingdoms.

In the 18th century, European countries were beginning to create colonies all over the world. Europeans were taking villagers from West Africa and bringing them to the New World to be slaves in the new colonies. The British came to Yorubaland in 1852. By 1884 European nations were meeting to discuss how they would break-up Africa into different colonies. The British were granted the right by the other European nations to colonize Yorubaland, and in 1893 Yorubaland became part of a larger colony known officially as Nigeria.

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