World History 2 43 - 3.4.1 The Role of Kanem-Bornu

In about 900 CE, an empire called Kanem arose in the Central Sudan, located to the east of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, and confined initially to the northeast of Lake Chad. The accession of Humai I to the throne of Kanem in 1087 marked the beginning of the Muslim Sefuwa dynasty. Around the same time, a fixed capital was established at Njimi, east of Lake Chad. Over the course of the next century and a half, the mais (kings) of Kanem established their control over the region. As in Ghana, the key to establishing and exercising this power was control over the desert caravan routes (Figure 3.20).

A map of north western Africa is shown. 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. The cities of Timbuktu and Gao are labeled and located in the overlap between the Mali Empire and the Songhai Empire. A green area is highlighted in the central part of northern Africa and labeled ‘Kanem-Bornu Empire.” There are red dashed lines going up, down, and across from the Kanem-Bornu Empire to northern Africa as well as to an eastern portion of the Songhai Empire.
Figure 3.20 Trans-Saharan trade routes (red dotted lines) were a key factor in the development of the Kanem-Bornu Empire, which resulted from the expansion of the Kanem Empire south into Bornu along the western shore of Lake Chad. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

It was under Dunama Dibbalemi in the thirteenth century that Kanem reached the height of its power and influence. Commanding a cavalry force of some forty thousand, Mai Dunama II gained control of the Lake Chad basin and extended the state’s control over the trans-Saharan trade northward as far as the Fezzan (southern Libya). Before the end of his reign, he established diplomatic relations with the kings of North Africa, especially in Tunis, thus ensuring the safety of caravans journeying to the distant south from the Mediterranean coast. This achievement guaranteed an increase in cross-Saharan traffic.

Although the Kanuri, the people of Kanem, mainly exported ivory and ostrich feathers, they also specialized in the selling of captives to the Muslims of North Africa and later to Europeans, notably the Portuguese who paid in guns and horses. The raids that produced these captives were justified in the name of jihad or holy war against unbelievers, a practice that led to conflict between Kanem and its neighbors.

By the mid-thirteenth century, Kanem dominated the Central Sudan. The empire extended as far west as the Niger River, as far east as the Wadai Sultanate (in eastern Chad), and north to the Sahara Desert. Crowning the Kanuris’ achievement during this period was the establishment of a tributary state in Bornu, southwest of Lake Chad. Over the course of the next century, however, Kanem became overstretched and weakened by wars and quarrels over succession, notably between the ruling Muslim Sefuwa dynasty, its sons, and the non-Muslim Bulala pastoralists east of Lake Chad.

Between 1376 and 1400, the rebellious Bulala, who opposed the imposition of strict Islamic rule under the Sefuwa, managed to assassinate five of the six Sefuwa kings. The result of this strife was a destabilized empire, which forced Mai Umar ibn Idris to abandon the capital at Njimi altogether. He led many of the empire’s Kanuri to Bornu, in the savanna region on the western shore of Lake Chad, where they permanently settled (Figure 3.21). Bornu was better situated to give the kings of the Sefuwa dynasty access to a wider trading network, and it already had established vital trading links with the Hausa kingdoms to the west.

A map of the northwestern Africa is shown. A circular area in the western portion of Africa is indicated in dashed lines and labeled ‘Ghana Empire.’ An area encompassing most of the Ghana Empire and extending south and east is indicated by dashed lines and labeled ‘Mali Empire.’ An area encompassing most of the previous two labeled empires and extending east and north is indicated by dashed lines and labeled ‘Songhai Empire.” The cities of Timbuktu and Gao are labeled and located in the overlap between the Mali Empire and the Songhai Empire. A kidney shaped area in the eastern portion of the map is highlighted green and labeled ‘Kanem-Bornu Empire.’ West of the middle of the Kanem-Bornu Empire is a light blue area labeled ‘Bornu territory.’
Figure 3.21 The kingdom of Kanem-Bornu was less a kingdom than the conjoining of two city-states, Kanem and Bornu. The longest-lived of all the African kingdoms, Kanem-Bornu depended primarily on trade in the enslaved, whom it acquired by raiding neighboring states. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The early decades of the sixteenth century witnessed a revitalization of the Sefuwa dynasty. Under Mai Idris Katakarmabe, who ruled from 1507 to 1529, the Sefuwa were able to defeat the Bulala. The Sefuwa also strengthened their grip on the people of Bornu as they entrenched their rule, prompting a series of internal revolts by the non-Muslim peasant population that they ruthlessly suppressed. The dynasty established firm control over the peasants of Bornu who, once they submitted to Islam, were no longer subjected to raids.

The prosperity of Kanem-Bornu was tied to the trans-Saharan trade in enslaved people destined for the markets of North Africa and the Atlantic coast. By the end of the fifteenth century, Kanem-Bornu was trading about five thousand captives annually. During the second half of the sixteenth century, Mai Idris Aloma strengthened his army by importing firearms from North Africa. While the Songhai army failed to modernize, the rulers of Kanem-Bornu established strong relations with the Ottoman Empire in North Africa and gained access to Turkish mercenaries and advisers, who were brought in to train their new army (Figure 3.22). These changes, combined with the empire’s position on the frontier of Islam in Central Sudan, enabled it to make deeper slave-raiding incursions against its non-Muslim neighbors.

The drawing shows a man on a horse on the right. He is wearing flowing cloths, is barefoot, and holds a spear. On the left there are three men wearing masks and cloth wrapped around their waists, holding spears and shields. A crowd of similarly dressed people are in the background holding spears. The bottom of the drawing says, “Group of Kanem-Bu Warriors.”
Figure 3.22 Kanem warriors in the sixteenth century routinely raided nearby communities in Central Sudan to capture prisoners they sold to European slave traders. This image comes from The Earth and Its Inhabitants, published in Europe in the 1890s. (credit: “Group of Kanem-Bu warriors” by New York Public Library Digital Gallery/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Kanem-Bornu peaked under Aloma, whose administrative and military reforms survived to sustain the empire for more than one hundred years. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, the empire’s power had begun to fade. A century later, the state’s capacity to maintain its territorial integrity had diminished so severely that the king’s rule extended effectively only westward, into Hausaland (present-day northern Nigeria). In the space of a hundred years, Fulani from West Africa had made significant inroads against Bornu, and in 1808, they seized the capital of Ngazargamu. The last Sefuwa king was killed in 1846, but Africa’s longest-lived empire managed to continue under new rulers until nearly the end of the nineteenth century.

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