FOUNDER OF THE EMPIRE OF TIMBUCTOO (d.1493)
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
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,
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
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
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
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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