Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

The Man Who Would Be Caliph: A Sixteenth-Century Sultan's Bid for an African Empire

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

The Man Who Would Be Caliph: A Sixteenth-Century Sultan's Bid for an African Empire

Article excerpt

Introduction

In the early months of 1591, local villagers from the West African Songhay Empire spotted an unusual sight.1 Moving at a steady pace across the desert was an army of some 3,000-4,000 soldiers, armed with cannons and muskets.2 If the villagers had not known better, they surely would have thought themselves to be the victims of a desert mirage. But this surprising vision was no trick of light reflecting off the golden sands of the Sahara. Within days, the Moroccan army had reassembled itself on the banks of the Niger River and would soon defeat a hastily constructed Songhay force of between 28,000-50,000 men at the Battle of Tondibi (March 13, 159 1).3 West Africa would never be the same again.

It was the Sa" di sultan Mulay Ahmad al-Mansur who undertook this risky venture, which no other Moroccan ruler has attempted before or since. In 1590, al-Mansur launched a full-scale invasion of the Songhay Empire, after seeking to gain control over the region for a number of years. The Moroccan sultan claimed he undertook this attack to unify the Muslim lands of western Africa under one leader. And who could be a better choice as monarch than al-Mansur himself, the sharifian descendent of the Prophet and the legitimate leader of the entire Muslim world? Although this claim to right of sovereignty would have been vigorously disputed by the Turkish sultan in Istanbul, the Ottomans had not been able to extend their empire into West Africa and could do nothing to assist the Songhay in their predicament.

What were al-Mansur' s motives for invading West Africa? The reasons given by Mulay Ahmad himself derive from his claim to be the divinely-appointed caliph over the international Muslim community; and thus he asserted his right to secure the submission and proper defense of Islamic lands. However, most historians believe that al-Mansur's considerations were more material than spiritual when he undertook his controversial assault upon a fellow Muslim dynasty.4 They maintain the sharif had an insatiable desire to gain full control over the prosperous gold trade that had been carried on for centuries in West Africa.5 Indeed, the influx of gold into Morocco, a direct result of this invasion, earned al-Mansur the title of "al-Dhahabi" ("The golden one").

Those who argue that greed was the principal motive for the invasion can point to a number of primary sources that seem to support their charge. And yet, careful consideration of all the historical evidence reveals this interpretation to be overly simplistic. A complex and extraordinarily ambitious man, Mulay Ahmad had a vision far greater than simply stuffing his coffers with Songhay gold. The Moroccan sultan saw his conquest of Songhay as the first step in a grand scheme to unite Islamic Africa under a revived Arab caliphate, this time arising from the west rather than the east. His goals were no less than to challenge the mighty Ottoman Empire itself. Al-Mansur' s claims represented an attempt by an Early Modern monarch to reinvigorate an institution (the caliphate) that had been important during the earliest centuries of Islam, but which had vanished in all but name after the decline and fall of the Abbasid Empire.6

The Fight for North Africa

By 1591, Morocco's international position had improved dramatically over a period of fifty years. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the country was on the brink of being divided among several foreign powers. The Portuguese had made considerable inroads into Morocco by subjugating a series of ports on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts.7 Fresh from its final conquest of al-Andalus, the newly powerful Spanish state was beginning to show interest in the Maghrib as well, capturing Mediterranean ports in modern-day Algeria and Tunisia. And the Ottoman dynasty also threatened from the east, having recently established footholds in eastern and central North Africa, from where it battled Spain for Mediterranean supremacy. …

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