The Songhai Empire

By Mary Beth Hopkins

The Songhai Empire was very important in the Atlantic World because it was the largest and most powerful empire in West Africa. It began with a series of small villages along the Niger River in the Kingdom of Mali. The Songhai people had long settled there because they used the river for transportation, hunting, fishing, and agriculture. When Mali’s government weakened, the Songhai people rebelled and took over Mali. Sunni Ali Ber, the man who directed the rebellion, became the first great ruler of Songhai. As the empire expanded through a series of jihads (holy wars), new cultures and religions were introduced and the empire developed in many different ways.

Trading was one of the most important parts of the Songhai culture and economy. They traded things like gold, slaves, and kola nuts for salt, cloth, horses, and cowries. Gao, the capital of the Songhai Empire, was a very important trading city, along with Timbuktu and Djenne. Due to the amount of trade and fertile land, many adept merchants traveled to Songhai to trade and do business with other traders. This is important because over time, trade became one of the most important parts of the Songhai Empire, and one of the things it was most famous for.
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The Government and Criminal Justice system was a monarchy, and it stayed very strong up until the end of the Songhai Empire. The empire was divided into 5 sections, and each section was ruled by a governor selected by the king. People called Qadis worked at a local level, and were positioned in important trading points. They were responsible for maintaining order by following the Sharia law. The results of a trial were announced by the town crier, and the punishments usually involved confiscation of items or imprisonment. This is important because the Criminal Justice system and Government kept order throughout the empire during its entire reign.
The economy of the Songhai Empire was very strong and very important to the kingdom. It was largely based off of trade, and economic trade spread throughout the empire. Also, independent gold fields were central to the economy. The economy had its own caste system that was based off of occupation. The middle class was made up of metalworkers, fishermen, and carpenters. The lower class people were mostly farm-working immigrants, and the highest class had noblemen, direct descendants of the original Songhai people, freemen, and traders. This is important because the economy, largely based off of trade and independent gold fields, was central to the Songhai Empire.
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The Songhai Empire had many great rulers, such as Askia Muhammad Toure. He was the successor of Sonni Ali Ber, the first great ruler of Songhai. He “centralized the bureaucracy,” and appointed governors and mayors. He created the Sharia law throughout the empire. Askia Muhammad Toure also expanded the university and built many schools. The deed that he
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is most famous for, however, is he was the first West African ruler to exchange ambassadors with other Muslim states. This is important because the actions of Askia Muhammad Toure had a huge effect on the Songhai Empire.

The main religion for the Empire of Songhai was Islam. Islam was introduced in the Sonni dynasty by one of the emperors. Islam had a huge effect on the Songhai Empire. The Government and Criminal Justice was based off of Islamic principles and had Islamic courts. Timbuktu was a great center of Islamic learning. The Songhai people used the Islamic Sharia law to maintain order throughout the kingdom. Finally, when the kingdom converted to Islam, it opened up many new opportunities with the surrounding Muslim states. This is important because the converting to the Islamic religion helped expand the empire and create new opportunities for the kingdom.
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The downfall of the Songhai Empire was caused by Morocco. Towards the end of its reign, the government of the Songhai Empire weakened. The Moroccans seized the opportunity and attacked. Although they were majorly outnumbered, the Moroccans had gunfire, which surpassed the spears and swords of the Songhai warriors. They ransacked the major cities in search of riches. However, the Moroccans could not keep a hold of the area, so after inhabiting that area for 70 years, they left. This is important because if the Moroccans had not invaded the Songhai Empire, the Songhai Empire would have lasted much longer.