A History of Africa
Chapter 6: THE FOREST KINGDOMS, PART I
1415 to 1795
This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:
Prince Henry's Captains
In the 14th century, Europeans knew as little about Africa as they did in Roman times. The southwestern corner of the world known to them was Cape Nun on the Moroccan coast, so called because it seemed to say "No!" to sailors; many believed that no man could live beyond that point. The Arabs, however, knew considerably more, since the northern third of the continent had been converted to Islam by this time, and as we noted, their trading ships routinely sailed down the east coast as far as Mozambique. Because there were Moslem states like Mali on the upper and middle portions of the Niger River, they were familiar with much of West Africa, too.
The Niger follows a peculiar course: it starts in Sierra Leone, only about fifty miles from the Atlantic, but blocked from a direct westward course to the ocean by the mountains that give Sierra Leone its name, it flows east instead. In Mali, when the Niger meets one of its tributaries, the Bani, it forms a very unusual feature, an "inland delta"; the river splits into several smaller streams and lakes, which fan out over a 200-mile-area before coming together again at Timbuktu. Then the river turns southeast, and finally south, to pass through Nigeria on the final leg of its journey to the Atlantic. The Arab geographers did not know where the Niger ended, because the natives of West Africa's forest zone were still animists, so they came up with some peculiar ideas about that. The most popular theory was that the Niger was a branch of the Nile. They believed that the Niger, which they called the "Nile of the Negroes," flowed into and out of Lake Chad, and then eastward into the Sudd of Nubia, where it joined the northward-flowing "Nile of the Egyptians." It was a bit farfetched, but it made more sense than the other theories floating around at the time. Alternatives suggested that the Niger flowed west, not east, or that the Niger was not a river but an arm of the sea; both of these ignored the facts.
The fifteenth century opened with a series of vast Chinese naval expeditions. The ships were big (some displaced nearly 2,000 tons) multi-masted junks, and they traveled in fleets that carried thousands of sailors and soldiers, visiting every country that touched the Indian Ocean. While these voyages couldn't be called true exploration--the Arabs had been going to the same places for centuries--the distances covered and the number of ports where they dropped anchor was impressive. In 1417 the Chinese fleet came to East Africa. It collected some souvenirs, including a giraffe (the Chinese called it a "celestial unicorn"), but this and the small amount of trading conducted couldn't have covered costs. The last expedition entered the Red Sea in 1431, and went as far as Jiddah, allowing a group of Chinese Moslems to visit Mecca. Then the Chinese went home and didn't come back, now that their curiosity and pride were satisfied.
The European exploration of Africa began with the rediscovery of the Canary Islands. This was done in 1334 by French navigators; ten years later Pope Clement VI awarded the islands to Castile (the largest Christian state in Spain), but they were not settled until 1402. As for the African coast, Cape Nun had been passed at some time during the fourteenth century, for the next prominent landfall, Cape Bojador, appears on the Catalan map of 1375, but beyond that point no one wanted to take the risks of the unknown sea.(1)
When it came to exploring the Atlantic, Portugal would lead the way; with few opportunities or resources on land, it was only natural that the Portuguese would look to the sea for their future. Here the real mover and shaker was Prince Henry, the third son of the king of Portugal. As the owner of a monopoly in Portugal's tuna-fishing fleet, Prince Henry was interested in sailing from the start, and the profits from the tuna boats would finance his first expeditions. He became interested in Africa at the age of twenty-one, when he led 200 ships in Portugal's first overseas venture, the seizure of Ceuta, the port on the Moroccan side of the Strait of Gibraltar (1415). From his interrogation of Moorish prisoners he learned quite a bit about the trans-Saharan traffic in gold and slaves. But he was motivated by God as well as by Mammon. Besides getting Africa's wealth, he also wanted to convert the heathen and find Prester John, a mythical Christian king of great power (see Chapter 5). Like his ancestors during the Crusades, Prince Henry hoped that Europe and Prester John would join in an alliance to rid the world of Islam once and for all.
When he returned from Morocco in 1418, Prince Henry was seen as a conquering hero by all Christians in Europe. Pope Martin V invited him to take command of the Papal army; not long after that he received similar flattering offers from his own cousin, Henry V of England, from John II of Castile, and from the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund. Such invitations had no charm for Henry. Refusing them all, he retired to the promontory of Sagres, in the southernmost province of Portugal, where his father now appointed him governor. That lonely and barren rock, protruding into the ocean, had long ago impressed the imagination of Greek and Roman writers; they called it the Sacred Promontory, and supposed it to be the westernmost limit of the habitable earth. There the young prince proceeded to build an astronomical observatory, the first that his country had ever seen, and to gather about him a school of men who were willing to learn and eager to learn the mysteries of map-making and the art of navigation. There he spent the greater part of his life; from there he sent forth his captains to plow the southern seas; and when the weather-beaten ships returned from each venturesome pilgrimage, the first glimpse of home that greeted them was likely to be the beacon-light in the tower where the master sat poring over problems of Archimedes or watching the stars. For Henry--whose motto was "Desire to do well"--would throw himself wholeheartedly into whatever he undertook, and the study of astronomy and mathematics he pursued zealously until he was an expert in them as well.
Prince Henry saw that the conquest of Morocco's deserts and mountains was beyond the power of a small country like Portugal. But he had a number of inventions that would allow him to accomplish his goals by sea. Portugal had a new ship design, the caravel, that had more than one mast to catch as much of the wind as possible, and combined the traditional square sails of European vessels with the more versatile triangular sails of Arab dhows. The caravel was smaller than the Chinese oceangoing junks (displacing no more than 200 tons), but it was just as seaworthy and a lot cheaper to run; Prince Henry was confident that caravels could make voyages of exploration pay. He also had two new navigational tools, the astrolabe and the compass, which allowed navigators to determine their location even when sailing beyond the sight of land. Surely, he reasoned, wouldn't it be possible to sail around Africa to where the gold came from and cut out the Moorish middlemen?
Easier said than done. For sixteen years none of Prince Henry's captains were willing to sail any farther than Cape Bojador. What frightened them was the way the winds of the cape always blew from the north; it just didn't seem possible for a ship to make it back against a wind as steady as this. In addition to the physical obstacle, there were psychological ones. Many sailors believed that in the tropics, high temperatures would boil the seas and burn any vessel sailing across them. Others feared they would come to a land inhabited by monsters instead of men. Finally, it was believed by many that Africa was joined to a huge southern continent called Terra Incognita, which ran all the way to the edge of the earth, making it impossible to sail around Africa in the first place.
Despite these superstitions, the Portuguese got valuable experience from their brief expeditions. In the open Atlantic, away from the African coast, they found more favorable winds for the return trip, so there they learned the techniques needed to sail into a headwind. They also discovered Madeira (1420) and the Azores (1431), both of which were soon settled.(2) In 1433 Prince Henry ordered one of his commanders, Gil Eanes, to try Cape Bojador. He failed, giving the usual excuses about what was expected beyond the cape, and Prince Henry exclaimed, "In truth, I marvel at these imaginings that have possessed you all!" Then he sent Eanes off again, telling him to "Strain every nerve to pass that cape!" The shamed Eanes did it (1434), sailing 125 miles past the dreaded spot before returning home.
Once that mental barrier was broken, ships could proceed south, cautiously exploring a little more of the coast each time. The expedition of 1436 found a beach with human and camel footprints on it (a definite morale-booster), narrowly escaped an attack from human warriors with spears, hunted seals on another beach, and brought back the first valuable cargo, several thousand sealskins. Four years later, another expedition returned with a more sinister cargo--a dozen Africans. Prince Henry was mainly interested in what they knew about the lands ahead, but others saw in them a solution to the labor shortage that had afflicted Portugal since the bubonic plague struck Europe in the mid-fourteenth century--black slavery.
In 1445 a ship reached Cape Verde, the continent's westernmost point. Now that the expeditions were producing a handsome profit, Prince Henry finally had the argument he needed to silence his critics. In 1448 an outpost was set up on Arguin Island, off the Mauritanian coast, and from there the Portuguese could buy gold directly from the tribes that produced it. Ominously, the ships that built the outpost came back to Portugal with 200 slaves, starting the inhuman trade whose legacy still haunts us today.(3)
Prince Henry died in 1460, the year that his ships reached Sierra Leone, and exploration stopped for nearly a decade, until the king found someone else to lead the expeditions. In 1469 he granted a five-year monopoly of all commerce beyond Arguin Island to a Lisbon merchant named Fernão Gomes. In return, Gomes had to pay an annual fee of 500 cruzados into the royal treasury, and explore 400 miles of Africa's coast every year. Gomes may have thought the crown was getting the better part of the deal, but not for long--in 1471 his captains reached the Akan coast, the largest source of West African gold, and Gomes' fortune was assured.(4)
In the tradition of a true capitalist venture, the lands Gomes discovered were named after their primary products: the Pepper Coast (Liberia)(5), Ivory Coast, Gold Coast (formerly Akan, now Ghana), and the Slave Coast (Nigeria)(6). None of the other expeditions produced a return on the scale of the one that found the gold, but it was still exciting. Between Liberia and Cameroon the coast runs due east; at the rate the ships were going it would only take a few more years before they reached the Indian Ocean and the riches of Asia. Unfortunately the last voyage under Gomes' contract showed it wasn't going to be as easy as that; beyond the island of Fernando Póo (named after Fernão do Po, the navigator who spotted it) the coast turned sharply south. That expedition turned back at Cape Santa Caterina (Gabon), and it dispelled another old myth, by crossing the equator without burning up.
While most of the fleet was building Elmina, two ships under the command of Diogo Cão were sent off to see what lay south of the equator. Each carried in its cargo hold a padrão, a short column topped by a cross, with an inscription stating that King John II had ordered Diogo Cão to discover these lands "in the year 6681 of the creation of the world and 1482 of the birth of our Lord Jesus." These would be used to mark the most important landmarks.(8)
The first thing Cão found that was worth a padrão was the mouth of the Congo River, which he named the Rio de Padrão (Pillar River). His second padrão went up 600 miles farther south, at Cape Santa Maria in Angola. From there he hurried home with the news that he had reached the end of Africa and found the way to the Indies.
Why Cão did this is a mystery; perhaps he went bonkers from spending too much time in an unknown world. His follow-up voyage in 1485-86 soon showed how wrong he was. After a side trip up the Congo to visit the king of Kongo (the most powerful kingdom in equatorial Africa), he continued down the coast. A third padrão was left at Monte Negro, a little more than 200 miles past Cape Santa Maria. This must have looked to him like the point where the continent would be rounded, but while the coast became more arid, it still ran more south than east. He died just past the place where he placed his fourth padrão, a point near Walvis Bay that is still known as Cape Cross.
King John wasn't discouraged, because he had a new plan for his explorers. About the time that Diogo Cão was visiting the tribes on the Congo, the king of Benin (see below) sent an embassy to King John, with a request to send missionary priests to Benin. We think that the king was courting an alliance with the Portuguese; perhaps he thought European "witch doctors" could be used against his enemies. The envoy told King John that a thousand miles or so east of Benin there was a great sovereign who ruled over many subject peoples, and at whose court there was an order of chivalry whose badge or emblem was the cross. At least this was King John's interpretation of the envoy's words, and he jumped to the conclusion that this African king must be Prester John. To find Prester John would be a major step toward reaching golden Cathay and the Spice Islands, so the king rose to the occasion, and attacked the problem by both land and sea. He sent two emissaries, Pedro de Covilha and Afonso de Paiva, to Egypt, and he sent Bartholomew Dias with three fifty-ton caravels, to make one more attempt to find an end to the Atlantic coast of Africa.
Bartholomew Dias started in August 1486, and after passing Cape Cross, spent another month on the Namibian coast, battling winds and currents that seemed determined to prevent him from making progress. Finally, he gave the order to move out to open sea, in the hope of finding better sailing conditions, and instead ran into a storm that drove him due south for thirteen days. At the end of this bad weather he turned his prows eastward, expecting soon to reach the coast. But he had passed the southernmost point of Africa, so no land appeared before him; after a while he steered northward and when he found the coast, it ran to the northeast. If there was any doubt that he had rounded Africa's southern tip, the case was closed by a warm tropical current flowing from the northeast, not from the Atlantic. He reached the Great Fish River (Kwaaihoek) before his men said this was enough and forced him to turn back. On the return trip he saw the cape he had missed in the storm, which is marked by an impressive mesa, South Africa's famous Table Mountain. Dias named his discovery the Cape of Storms, but the optimistic king renamed it the Cape of Good Hope.(9)
The two emissaries had journeys full of interesting experiences. Pedro da Covilha was instructed to go to India and Arabia and discover where the spices came from that the Moslem merchants sold in the West for exorbitant prices. Afonso de Paiva's mission was to resolve the question of where Prester John lived. The two men traveled together to Aden and separated, Covilha crossing the Arabian Sea, Paiva going into East Africa.
Disguised as a Moslem merchant, Covilha found his way to Calicut, an important seaport on the west coast of India. Here he saw the Indian and Far Eastern ships that brought porcelain and silks from China, spices from Indonesia, and gemstones from Burma and other parts of India. Riding as a passenger on the dhows that took on this precious cargo in Calicut, Covilha sailed west to the Persian Gulf and then went down the East African coast all the way to Sofala, becoming an advance scout for the next Portuguese naval expedition. In Sofala he also heard about Madagascar, and though he didn't go there, he reported that the first Portuguese captain who enters the Indian Ocean should keep an eye out for an unusually large island.
When he returned to Cairo in 1490 he gave his report to a Portuguese envoy. He got bad news in return; Paiva died while he was searching for Prester John, and the king now wanted Covilha to complete Paiva's mission. He got to Abyssinia, but there was no sign of Prester John and the Abyssinian king, who was a Christian, informed him that no foreigner who entered the kingdom could ever leave. However, he liked Covilha, and made his stay more comfortable by giving him land, slaves and vassals, in effect promoting him to the status of a feudal lord, something he had never been back in Portugal.
When Dias returned to Lisbon the Portuguese had mixed feelings, because the trip around Africa had turned out to be so much longer than expected. Was his eight-month journey worth repeating? Could anyone make a profit over distances like these? It took the news of Christopher Columbus discovering new lands across the Atlantic to decide the argument; if Spain could find a fortune overseas, Portugal could too.
The following years weren't really wasted; when the Portuguese Indies expedition finally set out in 1497, it was better planned and equipped than any before it. This time there were four ships. Two of them were caravels; the larger of the two was a supply ship for the rest of the fleet. The other two ships were a new design called a naos; sturdier than a caravel, they were the first vessels to carry guns, mounting ten cannon each. The naos was a silent testimony to the Portuguese expectation of a fight when they reached their destination.
When Pope Alexander VI drew a line 100 leagues (300 miles) west of the Azores to divide the non-Christian world between Spain and Portugal, King John persuaded him to move the line west another 270 leagues, giving Portugal nearly all of the south Atlantic. He did this because he had a new plan for navigating around Africa. To avoid the headwinds that Dias faced, the plan was to sail due southwest, where the winds and currents are more favorable; then they would pick up the strong west winds that blow constantly below latitude 40o south (the so-called "roaring forties") and make a beeline for the Cape of Good Hope. This idea probably came from Dias, who was in charge of building and equipping the fleet. Unfortunately Dias did not get to go because he was a commoner, and command of an expedition as important as this had to go to an aristocrat. A courtier named Vasco da Gama was picked as the most qualified blue blood for the job.
After making a brief stop in the Cape Verde Islands, da Gama followed the planned course. He turned a bit too soon, and landed on the African coast a hundred miles north of the Cape, but his long roundabout voyage proved that this was the best way to do it; it cut travel time to the Cape by half.
The next time they made landfall, da Gama broke up his biggest caravel and distributed its supplies and crew between the other three ships, before sailing on. When he got past Kwaaihoek, he named the newly discovered territory Natal, because Christmas Day arrived at that time. He missed the first East African trading post, Sofala, but found the next, Quelimane, and so entered the Indian Ocean trading network. Most of the Moslems he met were understandably hostile, especially at Mozambique, Kilwa and Mombasa; individual Europeans like Covilha were not seen as a threat, but shiploads of Europeans were a different story. Fortunately, da Gama's bad experience at those ports endeared him to a rival, the sultan of Malindi, who provided an Indian pilot to guide the expedition the rest of the way to Calicut. It had taken them ten months to get from Lisbon to India. Another eleven months and they were back in Lisbon again.
As soon as da Gama returned, King Manuel of Portugal, who had succeeded John in 1495, began preparing another expedition. This one would be much larger than the others (13 ships and 1,200 men), and was commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral. Leaving in 1500, Cabral sailed farther west than da Gama did, hoping this would allow him to bypass the storms around the Cape of Good Hope. In fact, he sailed so far west that he sighted Brazil. He went ashore, claimed the new land for Portugal, and sent a ship back to Lisbon with the news before continuing the journey. When the time came to make the critical turn to the east, Cabral delayed it long enough to clear the Cape completely, but he still lost four ships in a storm. Upon reaching India, he established Portugal's first trading post in Asia.
Cabral's only contribution to African exploration was adding Madagascar to the world map. One of his ships, that of Diogo Dias (Bartholomew's brother), got separated from the fleet in the storm at the Cape, and ended up on Madagascar's shore, becoming the first European ship to reach that island. Dias named it Ilha de São Lourenço (St. Lawrence Island) and went on his way. This discovery wouldn't be followed up; the natives were too numerous and hostile, and the Europeans had already discovered enough new lands to keep them busy for a good long time. Some shipwrecks occurred along the coasts, and at least one group of Portuguese castaways survived for a few years before the Malagasy wiped them out, but not until the mid-seventeenth century was any effort made to found a colony.
The Songhay (also spelled Songhai) tribe lived by fishing and trading in what is now eastern Mali and Niger, with their capital at Gao. Their exact origin has been disputed; the most likely theory is that they came from northwestern Nigeria, migrating upstream to found Gao. Gao is first mentioned in Arab records shortly after 800. For nearly six hundred years after that, however, Gao was a minor player, serving first as a vassal of the Almoravids, and then as a vassal of Mali, regaining its independence when each empire fell. At some point in the eleventh century, the Songhay began converting to Islam; at the nearby village of Sane is a tombstone dated to 1100 A.D., with an Arabic inscription that reads, "Here lies the tomb of the king who defended God's religion, and who rests in God, Abu Abdallah Muhammad."
Two dynasties ruled Songhay over the course of its history. The first was the Sunni dynasty, with Sunni Ali Ber (1464-92) as its most aggressive monarch. Nearly all of his 28-year reign was spent in military campaigns. The secret to his success was a well-organized, diverse force, which included infantry, cavalry, and even a fleet of former fishermen on the Niger River. Turning the tables on Mali, he conquered the key cities of Timbuktu in 1468 and Jenné in 1473, giving Songhay control over the Niger's inland delta. He also successfully waged war against the rivals of Mali: the Fulani, the Dogon, and the Mossi (the dominant tribe in Burkina Faso). Conquered areas were turned into provinces, some ruled by local princes, others by appointed governors. This made Songhay a more centralized state than Mali had been.
Today Sunni Ali Ber is a controversial figure, because the records we have of his reign, written down by devout Moslems after the Sunni dynasty was overthrown, portray him as a great warrior but an enemy of the faith. Apparently he was a religious moderate, unlike the kings after him; he recognized no state religion, treated Moslems and animists equally, and allowed them to coexist in peace. Some Songhay traditions describe him as a powerful magician-king, reminding us of Mali's Sundiata Keita, and instead of submitting to the authority of Moslem judges (the ulema), he aggressively targeted his clerical critics for exile, prison, or even death.
Sunni Ali Ber and his horse drowned in 1492, while returning home after a victory against the Fulani. His son, Sunni Baru, was also Moslem in name only, and the Moslems, who had been subdued as long as Sunni Ali Ber was alive, now staged a revolt to put a pious Moslem on the throne. Within a year they deposed the Sunni dynasty, and Askia Muhammed Toure, the governor of one of the western provinces, became the first king of the Askia dynasty.
Askia Muhammed Toure is now sometimes called "Askia the Great" because his reign (1493-1528) brought Songhay to its peak. The first thing he did was to stabilize his vast empire. Most African kingdoms up to this point were heavy on ceremony but light on administration, making them look primitive and inflexible in the eyes of non-Africans. Now Toure established a cabinet of sorts, with ministers over the armed forces, tax collection, river navigation, fishing rights, foreign affairs and infrastructure. He also set up a staff of legal experts and judges, to enforce the law impartially, and divided the realm into five provinces, with a trained governor over each. The most important governor was the one in charge of the west, known as the kurmina fari or kanfari; he acted as a vice-regent, managing the whole kingdom when the real king was away on a campaign or making a pilgrimage to Mecca. To minimize the chance of revolt when somebody got a job with this much power, Toure first entrusted it to his brother, Umar.
By 1495 the task of reorganization was complete, and Askia Muhammed Toure made the hajj, going to Mecca in a grand money-spending procession like that of Mansa Musa, more than a century earlier. Before returning home, he stopped in Cairo long enough to take part in an advanced study of Islam, and got the Abbasid Caliph to endorse him as both the spiritual and political leader of Songhay.(10) In most cases he gave the Moslem clergy, especially the ulema, everything they wanted, but stopped short of ordering the conversion of his non-Moslem subjects. Most of Songhay's population, especially outside the cities, wasn't Moslem yet, and a forced conversion of almost everybody could have led to civil war.
As a former foot soldier in Sunni Ali Ber's army, Toure continued the military tradition of his predecessor. To the east he staged a highly successful raid against the Hausa states in 1498, which sacked three of their cities (Gobir, Katsina and Zaria) and won tribute from Kano, the most important one. To the west he defeated both the Mossi and the Tuareg; the latter had been severely harassing Timbuktu over the course of the fifteenth century. By 1510 he was ruling over everything that had once belonged to Mali, making Songhay the largest state in West African history.
Around this time, Songhay got its version of ibn Battuta. At the age of seven, Al-Hassan ibn Muhammed al-Wezzani had been expelled from Granada, along with his parents and all other Moslems, when Spain conquered that city (1492). He lived in Fez, Morocco, for a while, then traveled with his uncle on diplomatic missions throughout North and West Africa and the Middle East. In 1518, while crossing the Mediterranean, he was captured by Christian pirates and sold to Pope Leo X as an exceptionally well-educated slave. Impressed by the Moor, the pope freed and baptized him, and gave him his own name; since then al-Wezzani has been known as Leo Africanus. Leo had with him a rough draft of his African travels, written in Arabic, that he had been working on before his capture, and the pope commissioned him to finish it in Italian. This travel account, The History and Description of Africa and of the Notable Things Therein Contained, was the most detailed description of Africa that most Europeans had until the nineteenth century, when Europeans began exploring the continent's interior. About 70 percent of the text had to do with Morocco, because he had spent most of his childhood there, but his description of Timbuktu is the most memorable part; though this city was somewhat past its prime, it was still a major center of learning, and Leo Africanus said that its artisans and merchants were superior to "all other Negroes in wit, civility and industry." Leo Africanus moved to Tunis sometime after 1530, reconverted to Islam, and died there in 1554.
Askia Muhammed Toure, now old and ailing, was deposed by his son Musa in 1528. Musa was in turn assassinated in 1531, and three relatively weak kings, two of them sons of Toure, ruled for the next eighteen years. Finally another son of Toure, Daoud, took charge, and he gave Songhay a reign that was long and stable (1549-82).
By this time, Songhay was in trouble. The arrival of Europeans on the West African coast meant that gold could be transported by sea, instead of by land, so cities like Timbuktu and Jenné saw their income drop dramatically, now that gold was no longer a part of their commerce. Second, there was the growing European appetite for slaves. At first, Songhay simply sold its least desirable folks--criminals and prisoners of war--but Europe still wanted more, so European traders began paying both the Songhay and the Berbers to raid and enslave their rivals. This would put a strain on Songhay's population and cause a rift within the community. When Daoud's reign ended, many subject peoples rose up in revolt, more than what Songhay's 35,000 soldiers could keep in submission. Though nearly as large as ever, the empire was but a shadow of its former self, and a small push probably could have toppled it. What it got instead was a big push, in the form of a trans-Saharan invasion from Morocco.
Kongo, the first important kingdom in the region, was founded in the fourteenth century by the Bakongo tribe, when it migrated across the Congo River and assimilated the indigenous tribes already living there. The ruler of the kingdom was called the manikongo, and he was elected by a council of six members. At its height, Kongo had six provinces that stretched from the Congo River in the north, to the Loge River in the south, and to the Kwango River in the east. Beyond this were several vassal states, so Kongo controlled northern Angola as well.
This was the situation in 1483 when Diogo Cão, the Portuguese explorer, made contact with the kingdom. The current manikongo, Nzinga Nkuwu, was favorably impressed with the visitors, and sent an embassy to Portugal in 1489. The Portuguese returned the favor with an embassy of their own, sending missionaries, soldiers and artisans to Mbanza, Kongo's capital. Shortly after that, the king accepted baptism, becoming Africa's first Catholic king and taking for himself the name Joao I.
Because of this favorable start, the next manikongo, Joao's son, had two names, Nzinga Mvemba and Alfonso I (1506-43). He also got along well with the Portuguese, and in the letters exchanged between him and Portugal's King Manuel, they addressed each other as equals. Consequently, Alfonso wanted to convert his kingdom to Christianity and raise it to the same technological level as Europe, but attempts to impose the new religion on his people met violent resistance. In the end, Kongo Christianity fell victim to syncretism; African converts modified it so it could coexist with the old animism, in the same way that Caribbean nations like Cuba and Haiti combine Catholic and Voodoo symbolism on holy days; the cross, for example, came to represent royal power and good luck. We saw a similar situation with Islam in the previous chapter, where the form of Islam practiced south of the Sahara was questionable in the eyes of theologians from Mecca and Medina.
At any rate, the Portuguese were more interested in making fortunes for themselves than they were in giving Alfonso a hand, and now the quickest source of wealth came from the slave trade. This was the result of changing economic conditions, caused by the fifteenth century's voyages of discovery. In ancient times the institution of slavery had powered empires like Rome's, but with the introduction of feudalism, Europe seemed to outgrow it. By the end of the Middle Ages, there were still laws regulating slavery, but very few slaves in Europe; feudal lords had found that obligations could keep serfs on the land nearly as effectively as chains could hold down slaves. Consequently, when the first slave ships returned to Portugal, the slavers couldn't find customers for their human cargo and ended up reselling most of them in Morocco.
That changed when Europeans found a use for slaves on the sugar plantations they set up, first in the Canary and Azores Islands in the fifteenth century, then in the New World after 1500.(11) Plantation owners had trouble getting workers through the usual channels; Europeans didn't want to do such backbreaking labor, and when Indians were made to do it, they either died of overwork and the white man's diseases, or simply ran away. African slaves were seen as the solution to this problem; indeed, some humanitarians at the time thought that bringing over slaves was a blessing, because it meant the Indians would now be left alone. By 1500 Portugal was shipping 600 to 800 slaves from Africa every year, about the same amount as the Arabs had been buying for centuries; by 1600 the demand had increased to 5,000 slaves a year, with several nations competing with the Portuguese to transport their share. Most of the slaves went across the Atlantic on the dreaded "Middle Passage," with more than 3/4 going to Brazil or the Caribbean islands, and the rest going to Spanish colonies on the American mainland (and the English colonies in North America after 1618).
Unlike colonial America, slavery in Africa and the Middle East did not mean locking the slave and his descendants to the bottom of the social ladder, which is probably why Africans were willing to sell their neighbors at this stage. For a start, the children of slaves were automatically free. The Koran prohibited the enslaving of Moslems, so in the Islamic world a slave who converted to Islam was technically a free man. Caliphs and sultans enlisted armies of slaves, the best examples being the Mamelukes in Egypt and the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire, and there were no restrictions on how high they could rise in the ranks, so eventually they became kingmakers. A slave woman taken as a concubine could not be sold if she and her master had a child, and she automatically became free with her master's death.(12) In Africa there was no clear distinction as to who was a slave and who wasn't; convicted criminals and prisoners of war were simply classified as "wageless labor." A slave was considered a member of whichever tribe owned him, though because he wasn't related to the other members, his status was lower. On a positive note, the slave in African society had several ways to improve his situation: he could buy his freedom, he could inherit goods or be promoted to an important position without being set free, or he could marry his master's daughter.
Kongo was conveniently suited for the slave trade, being at the same latitude as Brazil and readily accessible to ships crossing the south Atlantic. Alfonso cooperated in slave raiding at first, but eventually the greed of his partners got to him. In 1526 he wrote a letter of complaint to Manuel's successor, King John III, deploring the "excessive freedom given by your agents and officials to the men and merchants who are allowed to come here." He went on to note that every day the merchants "seize upon our subjects, sons of the land and sons of our noblemen and vassals and relatives . . . and cause them to be sold; and so great, Sir, is their corruption and licentiousness that our country is being utterly depopulated."
The Portuguese did not heed this letter, and their constant slave raids played a major part in weakening Kongo and reducing the hold of the capital (renamed São Salvador) over the provinces. In 1568 the kingdom fell victim to a devastating invasion by the Jaga, a fierce group of nomads from the Lunda tribe in the east. The Portuguese helped the manikongo drive the invaders out, but after that, the Lunda kingdom made sure that Kongo would not recover. To the south, Portuguese began subverting Kongo when they seized and occupied the lands of the Ngola tribe. They founded Luanda, the future capital of Angola, in Ngola territory (1575), and Benguela farther south, in the land of the Ovimbundu tribe (1587). The purpose of these footholds was to guarantee the continuation of the slave trade, as Kongo was not the only kingdom that had become hostile to this business.
As the colony of Angola expanded it came into direct conflict with Kongo over cultivable land, and a series of conflicts and border wars occurred. In 1641, Manikongo Garcia II allied himself with the Dutch against the Portuguese, but in 1665 a Portuguese force decisively defeated the army of Kongo, and from that time onward the manikongo was little more than a vassal of Portugal. His kingdom disintegrated into several smaller states, all controlled to varying degrees by the Portuguese. A Bakongo chief continued to hold the title of manikongo until the twentieth century, but it was largely a ceremonial affair, with most of Kongo's land now incorporated in the Portuguese colony of Angola.
The next king, Matope Nyanhehwe Nebedza (1450-80), pushed the kingdom's frontier to the east coast, though he didn't conquer the Swahili city-states there. He was in turn succeeded by two sons, Mavura Maobwe and Nyahuma Mukombero. Under them, one of the provincial governors, Changamire, acquired enough power to launch a revolt. Nyahuma was killed in battle (1490), Changamire became the new king, and the capital was moved back to Changamire's home base--Great Zimbabwe. However, four years later Changamire was also killed and the crown returned to Mutota's descendants. The restored Mwene Mutapa was weaker than its predecessors; it couldn't subdue the descendants of Changamire, who now had a kingdom of their own named Urozwi, with Great Zimbabwe as its capital.
When the Portuguese arrived on the coast, they replaced the Swahili as trading partners of the two Shona kingdoms. A military expedition up the Zambezi River lost 800 out of 1,000 men, but succeeded in building two more outposts, Tete and Sena, on the sites of older Arab trading posts, to monitor the commerce in gold and ivory (1572). However, there were a few Arab merchants left in Mwene Mutapa, and they managed to kill Gonçalo de Silveira, the first Christian missionary to go there. This Portuguese priest traveled up the Zambezi in 1569, arriving lean and fever-ridden at Khami. He spent a month teaching, and succeeded in baptizing the king and more than three hundred members of his court. But then the Arabs denounced Silveira as a spy and an evil magician, and persuaded the king to strangle him in his sleep. Despite this short-term success, Moslems failed to stop Christian activity in central and southern Africa, though during the period covered by this chapter, it was confined mostly to the coast; most of the tribes of the interior were out of reach of both Islam and Christianity.
Besides becoming customers, the Portuguese also gave military aid to Mwene Mutapa. In the long run, this didn't provide much of a benefit for either party. For the Portuguese, profits from the gold trade were down to a fraction of what they got from the Gold Coast. For Mwene Mutapa, outlying parts of the kingdom broke away in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, forcing the core to become a Portuguese protectorate in 1633. Even so, European influences were changing the continent, and disrupting the old order of things; Mwene Mutapa, like Kongo, had trouble coping under these conditions. The remnant of the kingdom was overthrown by Urozwi in 1693; Urozwi managed to hold on until the Mfecane of the next chapter.
For a few years after entering the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese had the advantage of surprise. They were in an area where no war had been fought in any living person's memory, so consequently most non-Portuguese ships and ports were unarmed. In addition, the Portuguese enjoyed only a slight, recently gained advantage in military technology, but they knew exactly how to use it. The trading post Cabral established in India only lasted a year before the natives wiped it out, so in 1502 da Gama came back, this time loaded for bear with twenty ships. Once they were in the Indian Ocean, da Gama sent five ships to blockade the Red Sea and the Arabian coast, while he proceeded to India with the rest. There was a particularly nasty incident where da Gama captured the Meri, an Arab ship, and ordered the ship sunk with all of its nearly 300 passengers on board, most of them pilgrims going to Mecca. After bombarding Calicut, da Gama turned his attention back to the East African cities which had opposed his first voyage. With the cannon on his ships he destroyed Mombasa (1502), and attacked Zanzibar (1503), establishing a Portuguese trading post in the latter. Then in 1505 he turned over command to one of his lieutenants, Francisco de Almeida, who became the first Portuguese viceroy of India. Almeida gave Portugal a more permanent presence in East Africa by attacking Kilwa, and annexing Mombasa and Sofala.
Almeida didn't have enough men to keep a garrison in Mombasa, and Sofala wasn't really worth keeping (it didn't receive as much gold from Zimbabwe as it once did, and its harbor was largely silted up), so he abandoned both, moving his East African base to Mozambique in 1508. This would reflect Portugal's attitude toward empire-building. Portugal's resources were limited compared to rivals like Spain, so the Portuguese Empire was run on a shoestring budget, with Lisbon only committing enough men and ships to accomplish whatever task was next. As a result, the only place where the Portuguese tried to colonize a large stretch of territory was Brazil. Theoretically all of Africa and Asia were theirs (the pope had said so in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas), but here they merely built outposts in key spots, of which Goa in India was the most important. Like Prince Henry in Morocco, they saw that they didn't have much chance of conquering any significant part of the African or Asiatic mainland, so they didn't try; instead they ran a commercial empire, with most of the earnings going to pay the bills of the crown.
For the Swahili, Portugal's arrival was a disaster. Most of them escaped falling under Portuguese rule, but their trade monopoly had been destroyed. The Portuguese disrupted the trade network between the coast and the interior, and ruined a way of life that had thrived for more than five hundred years. After this, cities like Kilwa and Zanzibar declined catastrophically, becoming commercial backwaters whose most important export was no longer gold or ivory, but slaves. Peter Garlake, a British archaeologist who worked at Ife and Kilwa in the 1970s, described the decline this way: "The civilizations of the coast and southern plateau were almost entirely extinguished."
Meanwhile, Islam won a victory in a place that no European had yet seen--upper Nubia. The last Christian kingdom of medieval Nubia, Alodia (also spelled Alwa), fell to the Abdallabite Arabs in 1504. The Abdallabites had previously been a clan of the Juhayna, the Arab tribe that had moved south from Egypt in the fourteenth century. They were soon joined by the Funj, an animist tribe that was moving down the Blue Nile to get away from Abyssinia. They clashed, and the Funj won; the result was a kingdom containing both tribes, stretching from the sixth cataract south to Sennar. King 'Amara Dunqas of the Funj ruled from Sennar, but he allowed an Abdallabite viceroy, Abdullah Jemma, to manage the north. This arrangement worked better than you might expect because the Funj converted to Islam in the sixteenth century, removing the main difference between them and their Arab subjects.
Abyssinia might have been the next Christian kingdom to go, had not the Portuguese found it in the nick of time. Convinced by the reports from Covilha and Paiva that Prester John was in the Abyssinian highlands, Portugal sent an embassy to meet him. Sailing into the Red Sea, and making a grueling overland march of six months, they reached their destination on October 20, 1520. Dom Rodrigo de Lima, the captain of the expedition, wrote: "We saw . . . to our great joy the tents and camps of the Prester John." At the center of this tent capitol, in a red pavilion guarded by warriors wearing lion skins and by lions on leashes, the envoys beheld Lebna Dengel Dawit II, the negus negusti (king of kings) of Abyssinia. Nothing much came of the meeting, for the king and his people had never even heard of Prester John, but this did not bother the Portuguese at all; they were simply overjoyed to have found him at last. They also received a surprise welcome from Pedro da Covilha, who had lived there for thirty years and now was too old to want to go back to Europe.
It was at this time that Ferdinand Magellan became the first explorer to sail around the world. Born in Portugal, he had taken part in the 1509 and 1511 campaigns that conquered Malacca, Southeast's Asia's most important port. Then he came home, and in 1513 he battled the Moors in Morocco. Soon after that he fell out of favor with the king of Portugal, being accused of financial irregularities on the Moroccan campaign. The king canceled a promotion Magellan had earned for his valor against the Moors, and later denied his request for a fleet to prove that Asia could be reached by sailing west. Magellan renounced his Portuguese citizenship, went to Spain, became a Spanish citizen, and sold the king on his idea of another west-sailing expedition. True, previous explorers like Columbus had discovered some large land masses in the way, but it still might be possible to sail past them, and who knows, it could be a quicker, less costly route to Asia than the one blazed around Africa.
Magellan's expedition (1519-22) proved once and for all that the world is round, and also that the path he took was far from being the most practical way to circumnavigate the globe. Most of the details of that voyage are beyond the scope of an African history series; we'll just point out that by the time the expedition reached the Indian Ocean, most of its crew of 270 were dead, including Magellan, who was killed in the Philippines, and only one of the five ships, the Victoria, was left. Juan Sebastian del Cano, the captain of the Victoria, took command of the expedition after Magellan's death.
Del Cano's biggest challenge was to cross the Indian Ocean without passing near any Portuguese outposts. He went to great lengths to avoid the Portuguese, since they would recognize him as an intruder in their empire. Instead of taking the usual route past Malaya, India and the East African coast, he made a beeline from Indonesia to South Africa, making no landfalls along the way. Sailing against the "roaring forties," it took them seven weeks to get past the Cape. Suffering from scurvy, and a lack of water and rations, twenty-two of the sixty men aboard died before the Victoria entered the Atlantic; the Victoria was also demasted after a series of violent storms.
Fear of the Portuguese may have kept del Cano away from the African mainland, but he had to stop somewhere to get more supplies, so he went to the Cape Verde Islands. He landed by night, and told his men to pretend they had been blown off course, on a journey from the Caribbean to Spain. The fishermen they encountered were sympathetic and gave them rice and fresh water. Unfortunately, or stupidly, a bag of Indonesian cloves was sent back as payment. A Spanish ship bringing spices from a Portuguese colony! This gave the game away; the troops in a nearby fort were alerted, and the Victoria had to cut and run, leaving thirteen crewmen in Portuguese hands for the Spanish government to negotiate their release of at a future date. The remaining eighteen men were barely able to handle a ship designed for a crew of fifty. The final two months of the voyage were the hardest, the men were exhausted, and several had to work the pumps day and night to keep the ship above water. Finally on September 6, 1522, nearly three years after leaving, the Victoria arrived in Spain, still carrying enough cloves to pay for the whole expedition.
Europe's winning streak ended in the second decade of the sixteenth century, because the strongest Moslem power, the Ottoman Empire, entered the game.(13) At first the Ottoman Turks were more concerned about Moslem opponents--the Safavids in Iran and the Mamelukes in Egypt--until Sultan Selim I won a crushing victory against the former (1514) and completely conquered the latter (1517). Technically Nubia belonged to whoever had Egypt, so the Turks advanced as far as the third cataract, annexed the Moslem Nubian state there (Dotawo), and turned Lower Nubia into two provinces, controlled by garrisons at Qasr Ibrim and Sai (an island in the Nile). Because the Portuguese were a threat to Mecca as long as their ships could enter the Red Sea (Portugal had a base on the island of Socotra for a while), Selim built a fleet to oppose them at Suez, Egypt.
Selim's activities allowed his son and successor, Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66), to turn his attention to the Christians. In Europe he advanced from Belgrade to Vienna, only stopping when the weather proved to be a more determined adversary than the Austrians. In Africa he imposed his authority on the Bedouins of Cyrenaica (1521), and gained control over the Maghreb, except for Morocco, through two proxies, the Barbarossa brothers. In the Red Sea he improved on what Selim had done by setting up two garrisons to guard the Red Sea's entrance, at Zeila (1520) and Aden (1538). When the Turks acquired arquebusses they supplied soldiers trained in their use to Adal, the rival of Abyssinia, allowing Adal's sultan, Imam Ahmad Ibrahim al-Ghazi(14), to launch a war against Abyssinia in 1527. Because the Abyssinians didn't have guns yet, he won a victory in 1529 that devastated his Christian opponents, and then invaded the highlands; King Lebna Dengel was forced to flee from one mountain to another, with no part of his kingdom safe. The worst blow came in 1539, when the Moslems captured and looted the royal Amba of Geshen, the high place where the king kept all princes except for his heir, and two and a half centuries of accumulated treasure. The king sent an agent to Lisbon, asking for help, but died in 1540, a few months before the Portuguese arrived.
For the Portuguese this was a deep disappointment. Maybe they could control their forts along the Atlantic, and the Swahili cities on the east coast, with only a thousand or so men, but they needed an ally on the mainland to accomplish any more than that. Instead, now they were going to have to rescue the man they thought was Prester John, when their medieval ancestors had expected Prester John to rescue them! And this mission would require a campaign in the African interior, something they had avoided doing to this point.
Accordingly, Stephen da Gama (a son of Vasco da Gama) took a fleet to the port of Massawa in February 1541, and the Abyssinian ambassador told him that all the bad stories he heard were true, so a force of 450 musketeers, led by Christopher da Gama, the younger brother of the admiral, arrived in July. The outcome would be typical of colonial ventures later on; the Europeans and their native allies did well at first, then blundered into an embarrassing defeat, but went on to win the war. In this case half of the Europeans were lost in a battle in August 1542, and the younger da Gama was captured and executed. However, six months later the survivors saved the day by killing the sultan in another battle near Lake Tana, and the Moslems were totally routed.
Previously the aggressor state in the Horn of Africa, the Sultanate of Adal now became the victims of raids from its neighbors, especially the Galla tribe. In 1577 the capital was moved from Harar to the Aussa oasis in the Danakil depression--by relocating to the nastiest spot in Africa, the sultanate prolonged its existence, until the ruling dynasty was overthrown by the Danakil in 1647. As for Abyssinia, Galawdewos, the son of the late king, was able to reestablish the kingdom on a firmer footing. In response, the Ottoman Turks occupied Massawa in 1557, blocking Abyssinia from further European reinforcement.
However, soon there was a falling out between King Galawdewos and his Portuguese benefactors, when he refused to declare himself a Catholic. By this time a group of Jesuit missionaries were in the country, based at Fremona (near Adowa); they found themselves oppressed and neglected, but were not actually expelled until 1633. The king at this time, Fasiladas (1632-67), also gave Abyssinia its first permanent capital in centuries, when he set up his camp at Gonder in 1636 and kept it there. The religious controversy between Monophysites and Catholics, and the Ottoman blockade of Eritrea, both worked to isolate Abyssinia for the next 200 years.
The seventeenth century saw a new flowering of Ethiopian culture, as Abyssinia was exposed to styles of art from Europe and the Middle East. This was especially the case during the reign of Iyasu I (1682-1706), who built some of the country's most beautiful churches. However, parking the capital in Gonder also proved to be a mistake; because the king could no longer quickly move to any trouble spot, Gonder was the only city where he had firm control. None of the kings after Iyasu were as strong as he was; the throne frequently changed hands between factions in different parts of the country, and the area around Addis Ababa became independent as the state of Shoa, ruled by another branch of the Solomonid royal family. For the rest of the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century, the only unifying force in Abyssinia was the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
The other reason for trouble was Europe, particularly the rising star of the two Iberian empires. The Europeans had the advantage because they controlled the seas, meaning that all the battles would take place on Moroccan soil. For the next forty years after taking Ceuta, the Portuguese failed to conquer any additional Moroccan territory, but by encouraging revolts, they made sure that the sultans couldn't have the ports they attacked, either. Then when Constantinople fell in 1453, Portugal's King Alfonso V ("Alfonso the African") and Castile's King Henry V, fearing further Turkish advances into Europe, agreed to pool their resources in an anti-Moslem crusade; Henry would finish off the Moors in Granada, while Alfonso would conquer Morocco.
In 1458, Alfonso began to fulfill his part of the agreement by shipping 25,000 men across the Strait of Gibraltar. At first he planned to go after Tangiers, but was persuaded to march inland against another city, Qasr al-Saghir (also spelled Alcazarquivir or Alcazar el Kebir). He captured it and fortified it with 32 cannon, a weapon that was expensive and uncommon at this early date, showing that Portugal intended to stay. Then he attacked Tangiers, but the battle was a disaster; the king barely escaped with his life. For nearly a decade he didn't want to risk another military campaign. Finally, in 1468, the Portuguese destroyed Anfa (Casablanca), and three years later, now leading an army of 30,000, Alfonso took Arzila and Tangiers. Meanwhile at home, Castile united with Aragon, and ground down Granada; then the new Spanish state got involved in Morocco as well, taking Melilla in 1497.
Next, Spain struck to the east of Morocco, sending ships and men across the Mediterranean to capture Oran in 1509, and Bougie, Tunis and Tripoli in the following year. In 1511 the Spaniards took control over Penon, an island offshore of Algiers, and thus blockaded Algiers and forced it to pay tribute. However, they did not try to occupy the hinterland between the ports, because they feared being ambushed in a country that was overwhelmingly unfriendly, and because there were few conquistadors interested in North Africa, once reports reached Spain about how much wealth the New World had for the taking. On top of all that, France was trying to conquer Italy, and the Pope needed Spanish soldiers to keep that from happening, so North Africa had to be put on the back burner for now.
For much of the Middle Ages, piracy had been a way of life in the Mediterranean, due to the polarization between Christendom on that sea's northern shore and Islam on the southern shore. After the fall of the Almohads in the thirteenth century, there was no strong Moslem state in the Maghreb or Spain, so the Islamic response to Christian advances was to bring in more pirates. City governments on what would soon be called the Barbary (Berber) Coast began to hire corsairs--pirates who were in their service, as opposed to buccaneers who sailed under nobody else's flag and kept all the loot for themselves. The typical operation called for seizing merchant ships, holding their crews and cargo for ransom, and selling the crew into slavery if the ransom wasn't paid.
In desperation, the people of Algiers called on the Ottoman sultan for help against the Christians. The sultan's response was to send two corsair brothers, 'Aruj and Khayr ad-Din; Christians called them the Barbarossas, meaning "Redbeards." They were given permission to recruit sailors in Turkey and arm their ships with Turkish cannon. The older brother, 'Aruj, had already made a name for himself as a pirate leader, having used the Tunisian island of Jerba as his base since 1505. In 1516 they drove the Spaniards off Penon, and took Tlemcen, the capital of Algeria under the Zayyanids. Then in 1518, 'Aruj was killed in battle when the Spaniards tried to take Tlemcen, and Khayr ad-Din took his place.
After that the Turks had the initiative. In his achievements Khayr ad-Din outshone his brother, by defeating the Spanish army that tried to capture Algiers in 1529, and taking that city for himself. Two years later, he also took Tunisia, forcing the Hafsid caliph, Muhammed Hasan, to flee. Suleiman the Magnificent called the younger Barbarossa back to Constantinople in 1533, and bestowed on him the highest honors: grand admiral of the Ottoman navy, governorship of the new Algerian province, the title of Beylar Bey (Commander General), and access to whatever resources he needed from the empire to build up the fleet. All this would be used to combat Christian ships in the Mediterranean, who were now making threatening advances under a Genoese admiral, Andrea Doria. While Suleiman was busy in the east conquering Iraq, Barbarossa recovered Korone and Lepanto, two Greek ports recently captured by Doria, and went on to plunder the coasts of Italy and Spain. In 1537 he seized most of the islands and forts Venice still owned in the Aegean Sea, and a year later, at the battle of Preveza, he defeated a combined fleet of Spanish, Venetian, and Papal ships, thereby establishing Ottoman supremacy in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean.
Back in North Africa, Muhammed Hasan turned to the Spaniards to get his throne back, and a Spanish expedition recaptured northern Tunisia and installed him as its puppet ruler in 1535. Otherwise, the Turks still had everything their way. Algeria was too far away from the rest of the Ottoman Empire to govern as anything but an autonomous province, but the size and effectiveness of its corsair fleet made it a regional power in the western Mediterranean. Accordingly, in 1536 the king of France, Francis I, secretly proposed an alliance with Suleiman against their common enemy, Charles V of Spain. Suleiman didn't think the French were reliable or even very useful as allies, but when the next war with Spain broke out, he went ahead and sent his nearest agent to France, namely Barbarossa. The corsair/admiral arrived at Marseilles in 1543, with 110 galleys and 40 sailing ships. He had some choice words with the French captains about the condition of their ships and the behavior of their men, while his own men conducted themselves with perfect discipline, even though they were technically pirates. Together they sacked Nice, which at the time belonged to the small Italian state of Savoy; Francis' cooperation with Barbarossa in this raid was seen by other Christians as a deal with the devil. On the way back to Constantinople in 1544, Barbarossa bombarded Barcelona and pillaged the coasts of Italy and Sicily.
That was Khayr ad-Din's last adventure; in 1546 he died at his palace in Constantinople, and his son Hasan Pasha succeeded him in Algiers. By now the Ottoman Empire was close to its peak, but it managed a few more victories before its expansion on three continents stopped. Another corsair, a Turk named Turghut, captured Tripoli in 1551 and took back Jerba in 1560, massacring the Spanish garrison that had been recently planted there. By 1555 all of Algeria except Oran had been pacified. Spain and the Italian states put together another Christian fleet, and they destroyed the Ottoman navy in the eastern Mediterranean at the critical battle of Lepanto (1571), but still the Turks completed their conquest of Tunisia in 1574. Finally in 1581 King Phillip II of Spain signed a truce with the Turks which included giving up his claims to any territory the Turks also claimed, which was reasonable since by this time only Oran and Melilla were left. Across North Africa, except for Morocco, Ottoman authority was triumphant.
In Morocco, the Portuguese advance was only momentarily stopped by the discoveries of Dias and da Gama. It resumed in 1505; the Portuguese took Marrakesh in 1515, and by 1521 they controlled the entire west coast. Even worse for the Wattasids, a rival dynasty, the Sa'dids, rose up in the south in 1511. The Sa'did leader, Ahmad al-A'raj, entered Marrakesh in 1524, and that became his capital. His brother and successor, Muhammad al-Mahdi, defeated the Portuguese at Agadir in 1541, and conquered Fez, the Wattasid capital, in 1549. Al-Mahdi's son, al-Harran, invaded Algeria in the same year, getting as far as Tlemcen before the Ottoman Turks and their Berber allies threw him back. The Ottoman army retaliated by taking Fez and installing a Wattasid, Abu Hassan, as their vassal (1554), but shortly after that he was killed in a battle with the Sa'dids, and his army fled, enabling al-Mahdi to retake Fez.
The Portuguese got a new king named Sebastian in 1557. Because he was only three years old, Morocco quieted down, but the situation still looked good for Portugal when he came of age. Accordingly, he dreamed of a great crusade, and he saw an opportunity to do better than his predecessors when the Moroccan sultan, Muhammad al-Mutawakkil, was deposed by his uncle, Abdul-Malik al-Ghazi, in 1576. Though Pope Gregory XIII and Spain's King Philip advised against it, in 1578 the young king led an army across the sea to Morocco. This was no elite unit of a few hundred musketeers, like we saw in the East African and Asian campaigns, but a fully equipped force of 26,000 men, mostly mercenaries. The plan was to conquer Morocco by proxy, with the army marching to Fez and reinstating the pro-Portuguese Muhammad, the way the Turks had installed a puppet of their own a few years earlier.
The expedition got as far as Qasr al-Saghir, where it met a larger army under Abdul-Malik. Though the defenders were short on provisions and suffering from the heat, they won a total victory on August 4, 1578. This showdown is known as the battle of Alcazarquivir or the battle of the three kings, because Sebastian, his puppet sultan Muhammad, and Abdul-Malik all died before it was over. Few battles have changed the course of history on two continents as abruptly as this one did. For Portugal it was a disaster; 8,000 Portuguese were killed, 15,000 were captured and held for ransom (that by itself nearly bankrupted Portugal), and only 3,000 managed to escape. Because Sebastian was childless, his senile uncle, Cardinal Henry, ran the country until he died in 1580; then Philip II took the crown, uniting Spain and Portugal for the next sixty years after that. By contrast, Morocco instantly gained enough prestige to make everyone else stop messing around with it. Even losing the sultan didn't matter much; Abdul-Malik was replaced on the spot by a very capable brother, Ahmad al-Mansur. Al-Mansur means "The Victorious," and next we'll see how he earned that title.
The fuel which powered the capitalist engine was money, and al-Mansur thought that the quickest way to catch up would be to put a double dose of West African gold into the treasury. His predecessors had staged some raids which captured Taghaza, the largest salt production center in the Sahara, in 1557, so now he proposed a more ambitious expedition, one that would strike at the heart of Songhay. His advisors were unanimously against the idea, but al-Mansur went ahead and prepared the army anyway. Due to the logistics of crossing the desert, the expeditionary force only had 5,000 soldiers when it departed from Marrakesh in October 1590, and half of them were left when it arrived at the Niger River four months later. Still, that was enough. They occupied Timbuktu and Gao, and at the battle of Tondibi (March 1591) they won a victory against a larger native force, due to their unfamiliar weapons (the Moroccans had muskets while most of the Songhay were armed with spears and bows), and because the Songhay king was persuaded by a treacherous advisor to leave the battlefield early, causing the defenders to panic.
Morocco now took over the whole Songhay empire, except for Dendi, a small province on the Niger downstream from Tondibi. In Dendi the Songhay got a new king, Nuhu, and he kept his independence because the region was infested with swamps full of mosquitoes, which caused much suffering when the Moroccans tried to invade that area in the mid-1590s. Thus, the Songhay managed to last in the region where their kingdom had originated, with their kings still using the traditional title of Askia, until French colonial authorities extinguished Dendi in 1901. Back in Timbuktu, the sultan appointed two administrators, Judar and Zargun, to handle the conquered territories, and the rivalry between them prevented further Moroccan expansion.
A civil war followed al-Mansur's death in 1603; his three sons split the kingdom, and the pashas (governors) of Timbuktu found themselves on their own, though they claimed to be under Morocco's authority until the 1630s. By that time, Morocco had dissolved into a patchwork of petty kingdoms. The area of the sultan's effective rule was limited to the Atlantic plains and the capital, called the bled el-maghzen ("government country"), while Berber tribesmen ruled the mountains of the interior (the bled el-siba or "land of dissidence"). Across the Sahara, the pashas of Timbuktu lost control of everything except for the great bend in the Niger River, from Jenné to Gao. In Morocco, the 'Alawids, a family that had moved from Arabia in the twelfth century, seized Fez in 1631 and challenged the Sa'dids. The two dynasties fought until 1659, when the last Sa'did was assassinated at Marrakesh.
Peace returned under the next two sultans, ar-Rashid (1664-72) and Moulay Isma'il ibn Sharif (1672-1727). They are worth remembering because they founded the 'Alawid dynasty (also called the Alaouite or Filali), and claimed descent from Mohammed--definitely a plus if you are Moslem, and an even bigger plus if you are a Shiite Moslem. Ar-Rashid began by ruling just the Tafilalt oasis, became the official sultan when he took Fez two years later, spent the rest of his reign subjugating rival chiefs, and died after falling from a horse. Moulay Isma'il, ar-Rashid's half-brother, enjoyed the longest reign in Moroccan history, and was definitely a warrior king; he built up the army until it numbered 150,000 men, and defeated three Turkish invasions. He also had a reputation for cruelty; he began his reign by displaying the heads of 400 enemies in Fez, and it is estimated that during the next fifty-five years he killed 30,000 people (not counting the deaths from battles). Finally, he qualifies for the "Father of the Year" award if it is ever given to historical figures, for he sired more children than anyone else on record; reports on the number of his progeny range from 888 to 1,171. Skeptics have asserted that having children on this scale can't be done, so recently computer simulations were conducted to show that it would have been possible, if he had sex once every day for thirty-two years.
Because Moulay Isma'il was so prolific, he left no shortage of heirs, and the squabbling among them made sure that after his reign ended, Morocco went back to being a confederation with little unity. In addition, four ports (three Spanish, one Portuguese) remained in European hands. It was Muhammad III (1757-90) who finally pulled the country back together, suppressing Berber revolts and expelling the Portuguese from their last outpost. To replace the Portuguese he opened foreign trade with Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom and France. He also was the first foreign leader to recognize the United States, sending friendly letters to the new nation across the Atlantic as early as 1777.(17) Thus, the 'Alawid dynasty created enough stability to outlast the dynasties that preceded it; in fact, it still rules Morocco today. However, his successors felt differently about the outside world. One of them, Sulayman (1793-1822), saw foreigners as a source of rebellion, so he closed the interior of Morocco to outsiders and did not permit his own people to leave the country, keeping Moroccan culture alive by putting it in a state of "frozen medievalism" that lasted until the twentieth century.
The collapse of Songhay created a vacuum that was mostly filled by the Fulani. When we saw them in the previous chapter, they had started moving out from Senegal, looking for new pastures for their herds. Under Songhay they had spread everywhere that Songhay ruled. By the time Songhay fell, they had reached as far south as Guinea and as far east as Lake Chad, making them the most widespread ethnic group in West Africa.
From about 1660 onward, the Fulani also zealously promoted Islam, through use of the jihad against rival tribes and against the unconverted among themselves. This was in part a reaction against the increasing European presence, especially the growing slave trade. The founder of the movement, Nasir al-Din, was a Moorish cleric who denounced those kings who took part in the slave trade, and called for a Moslem theocracy, one which made no compromise with pre-Islamic tradition. Unlike previous Moslem missionaries, he concentrated his attention on the common people, combining religion with a popular political message, rather than appealing to the rich and the powerful. He and his followers (mostly Berbers from southern Mauritania) crossed the Senegal River and launched a jihad in the Senegambia region, but he was killed in battle in 1674, and his successor 'Uthman was killed fighting the Wolof, so the movement fizzled. Then in 1690, Maalik Sy, a Fulani, renewed the holy war, until the Soninke chief of Gujaaga gave him permission to establish a confederation of villages, united by religion; this became the state of Bundu, between the Senegal and Niger Rivers.
The activities of Nasir al-Din and Maalik Sy inspired another Moslem revolution in Guinea, where Karamaxo Alfa (1727-51) founded a second theocratic state, Futa Jallon. Two more Fulani states, Futa Toro and Khasso in Senegal, arose between 1776 and 1786. All of them introduced a purer form of Islam than what Black Africa had seen so far. When the Scottish explorer Mungo Park passed through Bundu in 1795, he reported that it faithfully followed the Islamic law code, the Shari'a, though the current ruler was Moslem in name only:
"Their government differs from that of the Mandingoes chiefly in this, that they are more immediately under the influence of the Mahomedan laws: for all the chief men (the king excepted) and a large majority of the inhabitants of Bondou, are Mussulmans, and the authority and laws of the Prophet are everywhere looked upon as sacred and decisive."
However, the animists of the upper Niger managed to enjoy one more fling before they succumbed first to the Fulani, then to the Europeans. Mamari Kulubali (1712-55) defeated his rivals to become chief of the Bambara tribe, and he founded the kingdom of Segu, which eventually stretched along the banks of the Niger from Bamako to Timbuktu. His defeated opponents moved two hundred miles northwest, into southeastern Mauritania, and there they founded a second Bambara state, Kaarta. The growth of both states must have been helped when Tuareg raiders destroyed the Pashalik of Timbuktu in 1787. That marked the end of Timbuktu's glory days as a city of wisdom; when a French visitor came to Timbuktu in 1828; he reported that raids had turned the once-proud city into a "mass of ill-looking houses built of earth."
When we last looked at the Lake Chad region, there were rival states on opposite sides of the lake, Kanem in Chad and Bornu in northeast Nigeria. A long period of political instability followed the creation of Bornu, lasting more than seventy years, until the reign of Mai Ali 'Gajideni (1472-1505). He restored order by capturing Nijmi, the old Kanem capital, and built a new capital for Bornu at Ngazargamu. Ali 'Gajideni's reign overlapped with those of Sunni Ali Ber and Askia Muhammed Toure, the two great kings of Songhay, so when Songhay declined afterwards, Bornu saw its golden age.
Bornu reached its zenith under Mai Idris Alooma (1571-1603). He began his reign with a pilgrimage to Mecca, and on the way back, he stopped in Tripoli to hire a unit of Turkish musketeers. These came in handy when Idris Alooma went to war to reestablish the empire's former authority; with their help he ended the old rivalry across Lake Chad by conquering Kanem, took back the Fezzan district of the Sahara, and launched successful jihads against both the Hausa states and his non-Moslem subjects.
In southwest Chad, the kingdom of Bagirmi (also spelled Baguirmi) was founded in 1522. Like the other Sahel kingdoms, it started out animist, and later accepted Islam; in this case it converted during the reign of 'Abdullah (1568-1608). Around this time it was also absorbed into Bornu ('Abdullah ruled at the same time as Idris Alooma), but it kept its dynasty of rulers, and managed to break free in the seventeenth century. The sultans after that built a palace and court for Bagirmi at Massenya, near modern N'Djamena. By this time the nearest kingdoms were in a period of weakness, so the sultans acted imperialistic, gaining control over the small tribes on their borders and forming alliances with those tribes they couldn't control. In the mid-eighteenth century, Bagirmi was returned to tributary status under Bornu. Then both Bornu and Bagirmi fell into decay; after 1800 Bagirmi was threatened by the nearby kingdom of Wadai (see below), but eventually paid tribute to receive Wadai's help in putting down internal unrest.
Between Lake Chad and the White Nile, Darfur emerged as an independent sultanate, after the death of Bornu's Idris Alooma. Its rulers were Arabs, and thus Moslem, while most of the subjects belonged to the Fur tribe and were not entirely Moslem.(18) Another sultanate named Wadai, in southeastern Chad, broke away from Darfur in 1635. The two states made a living by mining copper, and by catching slaves and selling them to Egypt; they coexisted until Egypt interfered in the region in the nineteenth century. The eastern part of Darfur, Kordofan, was annexed by Funj around 1750, and recovered by Darfur in 1790; both states completed the conversion of this area to Islam.
1. In 1346 an Aragonese ship captain, Jacme Ferrer, sailed a galley from Majorca down the Atlantic coast, with the intention of finding Africa's "river of gold." He never returned; not only was he in a ship ill-suited for the Atlantic Ocean, but Europeans did not yet have the skills needed for such a voyage.
One European who must have been familiar with the Catalan map was a Frenchman named Anselm d'Isalguer. In 1413 he came home from a long stay in Africa and settled in Marseilles and Toulouse, bringing with him an African princess as his wife and a retinue of African servants. One of the servants had been trained as a doctor, and French doctors were extremely annoyed when the Dauphin Charles, the prince whom Joan of Arc later made king of France, became his patient.
2. One of the ship captains who colonized the Azores, Bartholomew Perestrelo, had with him a female rabbit, which littered on the voyage. She and her young were turned loose at Porto Santo, whereupon they demonstrated the fearful rate of multiplication which organisms can achieve when introduced to an alien environment with no natural enemies. The rabbits swarmed all over the island and devoured every green plant, nearly turning it into a desert. Prince Henry's enemies, who didn't want to see money wasted on exploration and the building of colonies, were thus furnished with a wonderful argument. They maintained that God had created those islands for beasts, not for men!
3. Prince Henry did not discourage the slave trade. To him slavery was first and foremost a means for converting pagans; by bringing black men and women to Portugal to be taught the true faith and the ways of civilized people, they would be prepared to someday return to their native land and instruct their heathen brethren. The kings of Portugal expected to have a Christian empire in Africa, and maybe Asia, so converting the natives was a logical step toward making them good, loyal subjects. Accordingly, a special message was sent to Pope Eugenius IV, informing him of the discovery of a barbarous people beyond the limits of the Moslem world, and asking for a perpetual grant to Portugal of all heathen lands that might be discovered in further voyages beyond Cape Bojador, even as far away as the Indies. The request was granted by Eugenius, and confirmed by the popes after him.
4. The Portuguese got their geography a bit mixed up; they thought Akan was the original kingdom of Ghana, the "land of gold." Fortunately for us, Ghana's name came out as Guinea after it was translated into Portuguese, so it wasn't difficult to distinguish between Ghana and Guinea until modern times; today we have three nations using the name of Guinea, and the country located on the site of Akan calls itself Ghana. Dahomey renamed itself Benin in 1975 for the same reason--to claim a part of pre-colonial Africa's heritage for itself--though the original Benin was actually in Nigeria.
5. African pepper comes from the Malaguetta plant. It is inferior in quality to Southeast Asia's black pepper, but to the merchants of the day, it was still marketable.
6. The Nigerian coast would also be called the Bight of Benin, because the important African kingdom by that name was nearby.
7. Early in the next century, the Portuguese would build two more forts near Elmina, to strengthen their hold on the Gold Coast: Axim in 1503 and Shama in 1526. In addition, they made the island of São Tomé a dumping ground in 1485, relocating convicts and exiled Jews there. Finally, an effort was made to settle Fernando Póo as early as 1474, but the torrid equatorial climate and malaria kept this from being a very successful venture.
8. The two captains of Cão's ships would eventually overshadow him and become great explorers in their own right: Bartholomew Dias and Christopher Columbus.
9. Like Diogo Cão, Dias carried a padrão on each ship, and he planted the first two at Luderitz (in Namibia) and Kwaaihoek. The third went to the Cape of Good Hope, naturally.
10. The great Abbasid dynasty, which had briefly ruled the whole Islamic world in the mid-eighth century, became extinct at the hands of the Mongols in 1258. A few years later, the Mameluke sultan of Egypt found someone who claimed to be related to the last Caliph in Baghdad, allowing the Mamelukes (see Chapter 5 of this series and Chapter 12 of my Middle Eastern history) to perpetuate the Caliphate in Cairo. However, they only wanted the Caliph to act as the sultan's mouthpiece, so they kept him a virtual prisoner. When the Ottoman Turks conquered Egypt in 1517, the last "Abbasid" became their prisoner as well, and they hauled him off to Constantinople.
11. However, the first black man reported in the New World was free, and he sailed under the flag of Spain, not Portugal. His name was Juan de Garrido, and he took part in Juan Ponce de Leon's expedition that conquered Puerto Rico (1508). Later he followed de Leon to Florida, and went to Mexico with Hernando Cortez. In 2010, DNA testing of bones found in the cemetery of La Isabela, Dominican Republic (the town Christopher Columbus founded on his second expedition to the Americas), identified two to seven skeletons as probably Afro-American, meaning that even Garrido may not have been the first; Columbus now appears to have had some black crewmen.
12. Isma'il as-Samin, one of Morocco's most successful sultans, was the son of such a concubine, and he staffed his army, palaces and the government with as many black slaves as he could find.
14. Some books give the sultan the nickname of Gran, meaning lefthanded, because Europeans noted that he habitually fought with his sword in his left hand.
15. Leo Africanus, Description de 1'Afrique, 2 vols, trans. P. Epaulard (Paris 1956),1: 27-30 and 40-41.
16. Ibn Khaldun, the Arab historian who lived in fourteenth-century Tunisia, knew that the Renaissance was changing Europe, but even he didn't see any reason to be concerned: "We learn by report that in the lands of the Franks on the north shores of the sea, philosophical sciences are much in demand, their principles are being revived, the circles for teaching them are numerous, and the number of students seeking to learn them is increasing." Quoted by Peter Mansfield in The Arabs, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK, Penguin Books, Ltd., 1976, pg. 102 (1992 edition used).
17. Muhammad III proposed a treaty of friendship, allowing US ships to visit Moroccan ports without fear of being attacked or boarded by the Barbary pirates. However, the Americans dragged their feet on this, being busy with many other matters, especially their war for independence. Finally, in 1784 the exasperated sultan got the Americans' attention by capturing an American ship, the Betsey, and holding it and its crew hostage in Tangiers for nine months, until Thomas Jefferson and John Adams arrived in Europe and began negotiations for the treaty.
18. For that matter, Darfur's Islam wasn't pure either. Muhammad al-Tunisi, a member of the ulema in Cairo, visited Darfur in the early nineteenth century and noted that the African tradition of treating kings like living gods persisted there. He reported the sultan taking part in a planting ritual that would have looked familiar to the pharaohs of Egypt:
"At the beginning of the planting season the Sultan rides out in great pomp, escorted by more than a hundred young women, by his slave boys and by a troop of flute-players. When he reaches the open fields, he dismounts from his horse, takes different kinds of seeds, and sows them, while a slave hoes the ground." (From Voyage ou Darfour, pg. 159)
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