Weapons and Fortifications

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Weapons and Fortifications


Defensive Fortifications. Fortresses, walls, ramparts, and guarded gates were built as defensive shields against invaders. The cities of Kebbi, Kano, and Djenné were fortified by walls. When invaders could not gain access to such protected cities, they often laid siege to them. The city of Djenné is said to have been held under siege by the Songhai forces of Sunni Ali (ruled 1464-1492) for more than seven years. During that long period Ali’s soldiers cultivated crops outside the walled city. In the sixteenth century the seven layers of stone walls around Kebbi ensured the successful defense of the city against mighty Songhai forces.

Military Technology. Archeological findings have revealed that iron smelting and ironworking in West Africa

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date back as early as 500 B.C.E. By that time the people of Nok had mastered ironwork technology. Early West African weaponry included spears, swords, cowhide shields, bows and arrows, clubs, and knives. Poisoned arrows were important weapons in the arsenal of West African armies. The kanta (king) of Kebbi was killed with a poisoned arrow in 1513. New technology over the years spurred military reforms. Similarly, changes in the economy and culture affected military preparedness and warfare. Sometimes, particular weapons proved militarily decisive. Ghanaian troops’ use of swords against neighbors who fought with bars of ebony was a major factor in its successful territorial expansion in the eighth through tenth centuries. The Moroccans’ use of cannons against the army of Songhai in 1590-1591 was the deciding factor in the fall of that great empire.

Mobility. The mobility of troops was enhanced by horses, camels, and canoes. On the Niger River, Lake Chad, and other major waterways of the region, naval flotillas were used in warfare. The Mande used hórsemen during their territorial expansion. The military prowess of Sundiata (reigned 1230-1255), the great ruler of Mali, was enhanced through his acquisition of horses from the rulers of Mema and Mossi. In the epic 1235 battle at Kirina, Sundiata’s cavalry gave him superiority over Sumanguru. The horses enhanced mobility, and the noise made by the galloping horses and clashing swords created terror and panic among Sumanguru’s foot soldiers. The Songhai cavalry had a similar effect in 1609, when it terrified Moroccan troops so much that the whole army turned and fled. According to Cheik Anta Diop, “What frightened the Moroccans most in this encounter was the noise of the shields pounding against the legs of the horses when they were galloping.” Once the Moroccans realized the source of the sound, however, they returned to the battlefield.

Firearms. When Portuguese sailors visited Benin in 1486, some Portuguese soldiers accompanied Oba Ozalua of Benin on military campaigns and demonstrated the efficacy of firearms. As a result, the oba became interested in acquiring such weapons, and in 1514 he sent an emissary to King Manuel of Portugal asking for Christian missionaries and cannons. Manuel sent a Christian cleric and a letter promising,

When we see that you have embraced the teachings of Christianity like a good and faithful Christian, there will be nothing within our realms with which we shall not be glad to favor you, whether it be arms or cannon and all other weapons of war for use against your enemies; of such things we have a great store, as your ambassador Dom Jorje will inform you.

European and North African soldiers used firearms against West African fighters before West African kingdoms such as Benin and Bornu obtained European-made guns and used them to wage wars against other West African states. In 1590-1591 Moroccan troops used 31,000 pounds of gunpowder in its defeat of the Songhai Empire. As Sultan al-Mansur of Morocco said to counselors who were trying to dissuade him from attacking Songhai, “today the Sudanese have only spears and swords, weapons which will be useless against modern arms. It will therefore be easy for us to wage a successful war against these people and to prevail over them.” At the battle of Tondibi a Moroccan army of about 1,000 men easily defeated a Songhai army of 18,000 cavalry and 9,000 infantry. West African historian ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sa’di (1569-1655) provided a glimpse of the destruction which the Moroccan invasion of West Africa left in its wake: “security turned to fear, luxury was changed into affliction and distress, and prosperity became woe and harshness. People began to attack one another throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom, raiding and preying upon property, [free] persons and slaves. Such iniquity became general, spreading and becoming ever more serious and scandalous.”


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