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The Sahelian kingdoms were a series of kingdoms or empires that were centered on the sahel, the area of grasslands south of the Sahara. The wealth of the states came from controlling the trade routes across the desert. Their power came from having large pack animals like camels and horses that were fast enough to keep a large empire under central control and were also useful in battle. All of these empires were also quite decentralized with member cities having a great deal of autonomy.
The Sahel states were limited from expanding south into the forest zone of the Ashanti and Yoruba as mounted warriors were all but useless in the forests and the horses and camels could not survive the heat and diseases of the region.
There were integrated kingdoms and empires, with substantial cities and significant towns; and less organised territories with large scattered populations. People practised agriculture, stock-rearing, hunting, fishing, slaving, and crafts (metalworking, textiles, ceramics). They navigated along rivers and across lakes, trading over short and long distances, using their own currencies. Like in many other regions across Africa, powerful indigenous kingdoms along the Bight of Benin relied heavily on a long established slave trade. The Ashanti Confederacy exploited their military predominance to bring slaves to coastal forts established first by Portugal after 1480, and afterwards by the Dutch, Danish, and English. The slaving network quickly expanded deep into the Sahel, where the Mossi diverted an ancient slaving trade away from the Mediterranean Sea towards the Gold Coast. The Sahelian and Saharan towns of the Mali Empire were organized as both staging posts in the long-distance caravan trade and trading centers for the various West African products. At Taghaza, for example, salt was exchanged; at Takedda, copper. Ibn Battuta observed the employment of slave labor in both towns. During most of his journey, Ibn Battuta traveled with a retinue that included slaves, most of whom carried goods for trade but would also be traded as slaves. On the return from Takedda to Morocco, his caravan transported 600 female slaves, suggesting that slavery was a substantial part of the commercial activity of the empire.
History of Sahel Kingdoms
- The first major state to rise in this region was the Kingdom of Ghana. Established in c. the 8th century, it was centered in what is today Senegal and Mauritania, it was the first to benefit from the introduction of pack animals by Arab traders. Ghana dominated the region between about 750 and 1078. Smaller states in the region at this time included Takrur to the west, the Malinke kingdom of Mali to the south, and the Songhai centred around Gao to the east.
- When Ghana collapsed in the face of invasion from the Almoravids, a series of brief kingdoms followed, notably that of the Sosso; after 1235, the Mali Empire rose to dominate the region. Located on the Niger River to the west of Ghana in what is today Niger and Mali, it reached its peak in the 1350s, but had lost control of a number of vassal states by 1400.
- The most powerful of these states was the Songhai Empire, which expanded rapidly beginning with king Sonni Ali in the 1460s. By 1500, it had risen to stretch from Cameroon to the Maghreb, the largest state in African history. It too was quite short-lived and collapsed in 1591 as a result of Moroccan musketry.
- Far to the east, on Lake Chad, the state of Kanem-Bornu, founded as Kanem in the 9th century, now rose to greater preeminence in the central Sahel region. To their west, the loosely united Hausa city-states became dominant. These two states coexisted uneasily, but were quite stable.
- In 1810 the Fulani Empire rose and conquered the Hausa, creating a more centralized state. It and Kanem-Bornu would continue to exist until the arrival of Europeans, when both states would fall and the region would be divided between France and Great Britain.
- Edward Brynn, Slavery in the Sahel, University of North Carolina
- Candice Goucher, Charles LeGuin, and Linda Walton, Trade, Transport, Temples, and Tribute: The Economics of Power, in In the Balance: Themes in Global History (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998)