World History 2 37 - 3.2.3 The Decline of Songhai

Under Askia the Great, the Songhai Empire flourished. Religious scholars and poets flocked to cities like Timbuktu and Djenné. Islam became more widely practiced. The state embarked on an ambitious infrastructure development scheme, including the construction of canals to enhance agricultural production. Trans-Saharan trade thrived. However, as Askia grew older, his personal power declined, and he relied heavily on his palace officials to manage the affairs of the empire. This alienated his family members, who grew resentful of the power of Askia’s head chamberlain, Ali Fulan.

In 1528 Askia’s sons revolted, deposed him, and declared one of the brothers, Musa, king. Askia Musa’s accession was not smooth, however, and civil war erupted. As Askia Musa waged battle against his kin to retain his position, dozens of his relatives were killed. Musa himself fell victim to this strife and was killed by his brothers in 1531, deepening the crisis and further destabilizing the state. As successive rulers’ attempts at governing the empire failed, political chaos consumed the ruling class and military as they vied for control. Without effective administration from the center, Songhai weakened, and external groups began eyeing an opportunity to intervene and seize control of the lucrative trans-Saharan trade in salt and gold. This was particularly the case for the Saadi dynasty of Morocco.

In 1578, the Saadi had repulsed an invasion by the Portuguese, but only at an enormous cost, draining the imperial coffers. To stave off bankruptcy, Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur Saadi cast about for new resources. All this unfolded just as a sense of stability and calm had returned to Songhai under the reign of Askia Ishaq II, which began in 1588. However, this revival of Songhai’s fortunes proved short-lived; the Saadi invaded in 1591. Although it was greatly outnumbered by the forces of Songhai, the Saadi army had an insurmountable advantage: a stockpile of guns, ammunition, and cannon supplied by Queen Elizabeth I of England, who hoped to make Morocco an ally against Spain. The Saadi army also contained many Spanish Muslims. In 1502, the Spanish monarchs had ordered all Muslims in Spain to convert to Christianity, and many Muslims had fled the country. Outmatched, the larger Songhai army was defeated at the Battle of Tondibi, and Askia Ishaq II was killed.

Following their victory on the battlefield, the commander of the Saadi army, an enslaved Spanish eunuch named Judar Pasha, moved on the key cities and trading centers of the empire. The Saadi sacked and pillaged Djenné, Gao, and Timbuktu, burning them to the ground. To seal their victory, the invaders filled in water wells and destroyed fields of crops. They spared few, not even women and children. The Songhai Empire’s power was rendered ineffective after the looting and destruction of these cities. A decade later, the empire was shattered, its provinces divided into several smaller kingdoms and territories.

This lesson has no exercises.

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