World History 2 36 - 3.2.2 The Reign of Askia the Great

On the death of Sunni Ali in 1492, his son Sonni Baru came to the throne but reigned less than a year. Muhammad Ture, one of Sunni Ali’s generals and provincial governors, challenged Sonni Baru, and when the two met in battle in April 1493, Sonni Baru was defeated. Muhammad Ture then usurped the throne and took power as Askia Muhammad, later known as Askia the Great. His reign marked the beginning of the Askia dynasty.

Askia the Great strengthened the Songhai Empire and made it the largest in West Africa’s history by adding tributary lands to the east and to the west. At its height, the Songhai Empire stretched from Kano in Hausaland in the southeast (present-day Nigeria) to Taghaza with its valuable salt mines in the north, and modern-day Senegal on the Atlantic coast (Figure 3.11). One of Askia’s primary objectives was to control access to the major trade routes across the Sahara. His success in doing so was rapid: by 1512, it is chronicled that even the mansa of Mali was paying tribute to Askia.

Two maps are shown. The map to the right shows the continent of Africa. Many cities are labeled and a red portion is highlighted in west Africa. The map on the left shows a zoomed-in view of west Africa. A circular area in western Africa is labeled ‘Ghana Empire.’ A pink area is labeled “Mali Empire” and stretches from the Atlantic to the middle of the map. The region overlaps with most of the region labeled “Ghana Empire.” A blue area is labeled “Songhai Empire.” It overlaps with the southeastern half of the Ghana Empire” and most of the Mali Empire. The Songhai Empire stretches beyond these empires farther north and east.
Figure 3.11 This map shows the different polities of medieval West Africa. The Songhai Empire was the largest and wealthiest of the three great Sudanic empires; the other two were Ghana and Mali. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Askia the Great also transformed the nature of Songhai rulership. Under Sunni Ali, Songhai administration at the provincial level had been left in the hands of traditional rulers. Askia abandoned this model in favor of designating royal family members or trusted servants. As appointees of the king, these provincial governors were entirely dependent on the ruler and had to remain in his favor. The governors were invested with a great deal of authority, however; they could, for example, raise their own armies to collect local taxes. Abandoning the use of traditional rulers had the effect of strengthening the centralizing tendency of the state under Sunni Ali. Whereas before such provincial officials might take advantage of dynastic struggles to assert their authority and form a breakaway region or state, the placement of royally appointed officials closely aligned with the king dramatically curtailed this risk. That the state remained intact despite frequent dynastic struggles during Askia’s later reign speaks to the success of this policy.

Islam was crucial to Askia the Great’s consolidation of control. Not ethnically Songhai and thus unable to rely on traditional institutions and rituals to legitimate his rule, Askia instead based his authority on Islam and quickly set out to establish Songhai as a Muslim kingdom. In 1498, he declared a holy war against the non-Muslim Mossi to justify his incursions into their territory. He also recognized the importance of Islam to trans-Saharan trade and used his post-accession pilgrimage to Mecca to advertise his concern for the faith. During his stopover in Cairo, Askia convinced Egypt’s caliph, its spiritual and secular leader, to recognize him as caliph of the whole of Sudan. While in Mecca he spent lavishly, contributing some 100,000 gold pieces to charity and related almsgiving programs. He did not force his subjects to convert, however, and most retained their traditional religious beliefs.

Dueling Voices

The Great Ruler of Songhai: Askia Muhammad

The following sources were written by observers of the Songhai Empire. The first, called the Epic of Askia Muhammad, is a written rendition of a tale told by a griot (a West African oral historian, poet, musician, storyteller, and praise-singer) and describes how Askia the Great established his empire. In the excerpt, Askia Muhammed is told how he can repent for having killed his uncle. The second excerpt is from Leo Africanus’s Description of Africa, which he wrote in the sixteenth century and describes the city of Gao and the tactics of Askia Muhammad.

Go home and start a holy war,
So that you can make them submit until you reach the Red Sea. [. . .]
[Askiya Muhammed] went home to Gao.
It is at this time he gathered together all the horses.
He took all the horses.
He began by the west. [. . .]
Early in the morning, they pillage and they go on to the next village . . .
The cavalryman who goes there,
He traces on the ground for the people the plan for the mosque. . . .
The people build the mosque.
It is at that time,
Mamar Kassaye [Askiya Muhammed] comes to dismount from his horse.
He makes the people—
They teach them verses from the Koran relating to prayer.
They teach them prayers from the Koran.
Any villages that refuse, he destroys the village, burns it, and moves on. [. . .]
Until that day [. . .] he arrived at the Red Sea.

—Nouhou Malio, “The Epic of Askia Mohammed”

The Town and Kingdom [Songhay] of Gao

Here are very rich merchants and to here journey continually large numbers of blacks who purchase here cloth from Barbary [North Africa] and Europe. . . . Here also is a certain place where slaves are sold, especially upon those days when merchants assemble. A young slave of fifteen years of age is sold for six ducats [gold coins] and children are also sold.

The king of this region has a certain private palace in which he keeps a large number of concubines and slaves, who are watched by eunuchs. To guard his person he maintains a sufficient troop of horsemen and foot soldiers. Between the first gate of the palace and the inner part, there is a walled enclosure wherein the king personally decides all of his subjects' controversies. Although the king is most diligent in this regard and conducts all business in these matters, he has in his company counsellors and such other officers as his secretaries, treasurers, stewards and auditors.

It is a wonder to see the quality of merchandise that is daily brought here and how costly and sumptuous everything is. . . .

The rest of this kingdom contains nothing but villages and hamlets inhabited by herdsmen and shepherds, who in winter cover their bodies with the skins of animals, but in summer they go naked, save for their private parts. . . . They are continually burdened by heavy taxes; to the point that they scarcely have anything left on which to live.

Of the Province of Kano

The great province of Kano stands eastward of the river Niger almost five hundred miles . . . . [Their king] had mighty troops of horsemen at his command; but he has since been constrained to pay tribute unto the kings of Zegzeg and Casena. Afterward Askiya the king of Timbuktu [Songhay] feigning friendship treacherously slew them both. And then he waged war against the king of Kano, whom after a long siege he took, and compelled him to marry one of his daughters, restoring him again to his kingdom, conditionally that he should pay unto him the third part of all his tribute [taxes]: and the said king of Timbuktu has some of his courtiers perpetually residing at Kano for the receit [receiving] thereof.

—Leo Africanus, Description of Africa (1550)

  • How do the two accounts differ in their description of Askia the Great?
  • According to these accounts, how did Askia establish and maintain power in his empire?
  • Would you consider Askia the Great to have been a strong ruler? Would you consider him to have been a benevolent ruler? Why or why not?

Askia the Great extended his territory deeper into the desert through military conquest. The advance of Songhai’s army forced the Tuareg nomads to flee, which allowed the Songhai to capture the salt-producing center of Taghaza in the north. Askia did more to regulate trans-Saharan trade than any of his predecessors. He not only introduced the use of standardized weights and measures but also employed trade inspectors at each of the empire’s major trade centers. The Hausaland kingdoms recognized the revival of trade under the Songhai and its benefits and so came into the orbit of the Songhai Empire’s broader trading network.

The primary sources of the Songhai Empire’s wealth continued to be agricultural production centered on the Niger floodplain and taxes on trade goods, especially gold and salt, both of which had also been key to the economy of the Mali Empire. Salt remained Songhai’s currency for external trade, while cowrie shells were used for internal trade (Figure 3.12). Cowrie shells were imported from the Indian Ocean. They were thus relatively scarce and could not be counterfeited. Gold remained the primary good transported along the trans-Saharan trade routes, but enslaved captives and kola nuts were also exported. The empire imported a variety of goods, including Saharan salt, luxury goods, horses, and cloth.

This photograph shows a white oval shaped shell. There is an opening slit in the middle that is jagged at the top and bottom. The outside of the shell is smooth.
Figure 3.12 Cowrie shells were used as currency and to adorn religious objects in several African societies. Cowrie shells served a similar function in South Asia and East Asia. This shell was found with an Egyptian mummy from the fourth century BCE. (credit: modification of work “Cowrie shell” by Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Timbuktu, which had been destroyed by Sunni Ali, revived during the rule of Askia the Great. Leo Africanus observed that the city was a prosperous one filled with artisans and wealthy merchants as well as many enslaved people. According to his sixteenth-century account, in Timbuktu there were “great numbers of religious teachers, judges, scholars and other learned persons, who are bountifully maintained at the king’s expense. Here too are brought various manuscripts or written books from Barbary, which are sold for more money than any other merchandise.” By the mid-sixteenth century, public libraries had been established, and scribes and calligraphers had been hired to copy books (Figure 3.13). As Islamic scholarship once again flourished at Timbuktu, so too did higher learning. Students engaged in multiple tutorials in various fields of study with Islamic scholars and, when they achieved mastery of these subjects, went on to become teachers themselves.

A photograph of two pages from a manuscript is shown. Both pages are brown, look worn, with water marks along the top and bottom. Both have pointed and round edges with a few tears showing. The left page has two circles with a web design in the middle, with writing inside the design. There is writing surrounding the circles. The page on the right has one large circular drawing with a web design and writing inside, with writing below the circle.
Figure 3.13 Handwritten and illuminated (containing painted decoration) manuscripts preserved at Timbuktu are among the great cultural treasures of Islam. Many thousands of these graced the shelves of the mosques and private libraries throughout the revitalized Timbuktu of the sixteenth century. (credit: “Timbuktu manuscripts” by EurAstro/Elias Altmimi/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

Learn about and see pictures of the tomb of Askia the Great in Gao, Mali. You can follow links on the same page to learn about other items of historical interest in Mali.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax