Sonni Ali


OF THE SEVERAL NEGRO KINGDOMS that rose in West Africa between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries, the most notable was the Songhay, or Songhoi. This empire occupied the rich tract of land within the buckle of the majestic river Niger, whither centuries before its people had fled to escape the Mohammedan invasions from the northeast. At the height of its power it had expanded to stretch from the Atlantic Ocean across the vast width of Central Africa almost to the borders of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. In power and wealth it was the equal to any European country of that time.
Songhay had several flourishing cities, the principal being Jenny, which was strongly fortified and was one of the great commercial centers of Islam. Caravans came to it from all parts of the East, and Ibn Batuta, the celebrated traveler who visited it, tells of its grain, gold, cloth, cattle, salt markets, and of its vast wealth.
"It is very prosperous," he comments. "God has accorded all His favors to this city as a thing natural and innate. Everyone finds great profit in going to Jenny and in the acquisition of fortunes of which God alone can tell the sum."
Similarly, Félix Dubois says:

This accomplishment brings the greatest honor to the Negro race, and merits from this point of view all our attention. In the 16th century the Songhay land awoke. A marvellous growth of civilization mounted there in the heart of the Black Continent. And this civilization was not imposed by circumstances, nor by an invader, as is often the case even in our day. It was desired, called forth, introduced and propagated by a man of the Negro race.

This man was Sonni Ali, whose fame as a conqueror was outstanding in his time. Sonni Ali, whose real name was Ali Kolon, began as a common soldier in the army of Kankan Musa, Mandingo ruler of the Mellestine empire, into which, he had been impressed after the defeat and subjugation of his people, the Songhays, by Kankan Musa.
Forced even to fight his own people, Sonni Ali was overcome with rage at the cruelties of the Mellestine emperor and swore that one day he would take up arms to free them. As for the empire of Kankan Musa, it exceeded in wealth and magnificence anything he had ever imagined, and yet, common soldier that he was, he dared to feel that some day it should be his.
Kankan Musa, on a pilgrimage to Mecca, had displayed a lavish splendor never seen before in the African east. In addition to his foot soldiers, he had an escort of 60,000 mounted men. Preceding him were 500 slaves, each bearing a wand of gold weighing six pounds. Describing this pilgrimage, Houdas says:

In their annals the people of the East have told of the pilgrimage of this African monarch; they wondered at the power of his empire but did not speak of him as being good-hearted or generous. In spite of the vastness of his empire, he gave to the holy cities, Mecca and Medina, but 20,000 pieces of gold while Askia EI-Hadj Mohammed [a later Songhay emperor] consecrated 100,000 pieces of gold to the same purpose.

Sonni Ali, together with his brother Selmar Nar, laid careful plans for escape. They carefully charted all the roads that led to Jenny, and whenever Kankan Musa went on expeditions they stole away and hid supplies of food, water, and arms along the way. Finally, after an exciting chase by the guards, they managed to escape.
Rallying his people around him, Sonni attacked Jenny, capturing it by storm on January 30, 1468. Impetuously, he took city after city until the forces of Kankan Musa had been driven entirely out of Songhay territory.
Then he directed his onslaughts against Kankan's vassals and did not rest until they were decimated. The Humburi, the Mossi, the Teska, the Ghana, the Bara, all came to acknowledge him as their lord.
Next he struck at Senhadja Nounon, where he captured the Negro queen, Bikoum Kabi. The Housas, the Senhadata, the Fulbes, the Dias, and the Peuhls capitulated, and marching to Lake Debo, he destroyed the strongly fortified city of Chiddo. After these victories the empire and the power of Kankan Musa collapsed.
Master of all the territory from Timbuctoo to the blue waters of the Atlantic, Sonni Ali now turned his attention to the affairs of his new empire. For a long time he had been galled at having to pay homage to the head of the Mohammedan religion at Mecca, the priests and learned men of which were influencing the people over his head. He wanted to be absolute master in his home, and decided to strike at the Church through its own representatives. He began by ordering their religious rites to be observed in a manner that bordered on derision. Instead of having prayers said five times a day as the Koran ruled, he postponed all the exercises until the evening, when instead of an elaborate ceremony, he made five brief gestures, saying after each, respectively, "This is the morning prayer; this is the midday prayer," and so on to the fifth, concluding with, "Now you may all go home since you know your prayers by heart." Thus a ritual that once took hours was reduced to a minute or two.
The priests, the learned men, and all who made a living by religion, including the faculty of the University of Sankore, plotted against Sonni Ali, whereupon he put to death every one of his enemies within reach, and warned others to cease meddling in political affairs. Es-Saadi, Songhay historian, dwells in detail on this period. In a measure, his enemies secured revenge, for the names they invented for Sonni Ali--"The Celebrated Infidel," "The Horrible Tyrant," "The Great Oppressor"-stuck.
Es-Saadi, one of the savants, wrote:

The master-tyrant, this celebrated scoundrel, Sonni Ali, whose name is spelt with an "o" after the "s" and an "i" after two "n's" was endowed with great military skill and inexhaustible energy. Wicked, libertine, unjust, oppressive man of blood, he persecuted the learned and pious personages and put so many of them to death that God only knows the number thereof.
Those learned men and priests who kept out of politics, however, were kindly treated and given land and money. After his death, El-Mamoun, the chief judge, said, "I speak only good of Sonni Ali. He treated me well."
Sonni Ali's temper was cyclonic. At times he would send to death even his most faithful followers, and then wish they were alive. His intimates, knowing this, would sometimes stay the execution and plead for the condemned when Sonni Ali had calmed down. One of these unfortunates was his favorite secretary, El-Kadr, who had brought Sonni Ali's wrath down upon him because of a slight contradiction. Later when a book arrived from a vassal king, which no one at the court could read, Sonni Ali sighed for El-Kadr, who was then brought in alive. Overjoyed, Sonni Ali handsomely rewarded those who had saved him.
Another who escaped death this way was his favorite general, Abu Bekr, who succeeded him as Askia the Great.
After Sonni Ali had put down the priests, his insatiable desire for conquest and plunder led him again to the battlefield. Starting out, he conquered the territory eastward as far as the country of the Gomas, several hundred miles distant. Returning home, his booty-laden horse slipped and he fell into Koni River, was swept over the falls, and drowned. This was November 6, x493. To preserve his body until Timbuctoo was reached, his son removed the intestines and placed it in honey.
Of Sonni Ali, Ftlix Dubois says:

He was a soldier only, and a true Negro soldier who marches from conquest to conquest, absorbing all the population by war without thinking to organize and create a durable work. He is a plunderer, most occupied with booty and prisoners than the tributes to be had. His lance travels from east to west, tracing the grandeur of the Songhay, unknown to him, it is true. But the task is being prepared for an organizer that is to come rapidly to lead the Songhays to the heights of splendor, power, and prosperity.

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