Home / Medieval / The Battle of Tondibi: The Moroccan Conquest of the Songhay Empire
The Battle of Tondibi: The Moroccan Conquest of the Songhay Empire
By Comer Plummer, III

An army of sheep led by a lion would defeat an army of lions led by a sheep.—Arab proverb[1]

On Tuesday morning, April 12, Judar Pasha woke well before dawn.[2] Like many men, he had passed a fitful night. Outside, he could hear the sound of the camp breaking up. Crabby animals. Anxious men. The air in the tent was heavy. There was a shaft of lighter darkness from the flap. Otherwise, the blackness was absolute.

Judar’s eyes refused to adjust. He began to grope, for his chain mail vest, for his cloak. After a few moments, he managed to locate his boots, rearranged by his nocturnal perambulations. As Judar emerged from his tent, his servants moved in to begin packing up.

He waved away the proffered tea. In a moment, he gestured. Taking several steps toward the river, Judar relieved himself while scanning the emerging landscape. The land he surveyed was a nondescript tract of desert named Tengodibo, near Tondibi, about fifty kilometers north of Gao, in the east of present day Mali. It was the transitional time of day. Comfortable. The mosquitos had drunk their fill and retired to digest, and the sandflies were not yet up. The first streaking rays of light revealed the few features, the great artery, pale and uninterrupted, a few clusters of acacias, and, of course, great stretches of sand. Cooking fires revealed misty air. Somewhere beyond, out in the murkiness, the Songhay were also stirring. He was grateful they had not attempted a night attack. Such had been his greatest fear. Had the Songhay rushed them en masse they might have been overwhelmed. But, Alhamdulillah, the askiya, as the African king was called, had opted for a daytime confrontation.

Still, Judar’s anxiety was great. He had lost fully half of his men on the 135-day desert crossing. He had barely fifteen hundred soldiers fit for duty, along with a few hundred support personnel, against Allah only knew how many blacks. And, should they prevail, what then? They had been told of riches, he had promised his men great sums of booty. Nobody much believed it anymore. They had seen enough in the three weeks they had been in the Western Sudan—everywhere sand, flies, rude mud shacks, filth. Had they been duped, or would they have to march a yet untold leagues to find the famous gold fields of the Bilad al-Sudan, the Land of the Blacks?

Gold. The entire business was about it. The architect of the invasion of the Western Sudan was the Moroccan sultan Moulay Ahmad al-Mansur (1578-1603). Al-Mansur, the fifth ruler of the Saadian dynasty, was a man considerable ambition. While ruler of an agrarian state of quarrelsome tribes, he sought nothing less than to become the caliph of the west and rival to the Ottoman sultan. He even dreamed of building a blue water navy and joining the colonial venture in the New World. His principal impediment to these ends was money.

It was not that Morocco was a particularly poor country; and its geography provided certain advantages. For centuries the regional economy of northwestern Africa revolved around the caravans. This economy, with Morocco at its center and intermediary between Europe and the Western Sudan, was vibrant. While the goods exchanged involved everything from horses and marmalade to books and slaves, at its core it revolved around a triad of gold, sugar, and salt. The West Africans had gold, the Berbers of the Sahara had salt, and the Moroccans had sugar. According to this system, the gold was exchanged for salt and finished goods from Europe; the gold monetized the Moroccan and European economies; Moroccan sugar allowed that country to retain some of the gold by providing a replacement commodity to trade with Europeans. It was an archaic, deeply interdependent, and highly profitable system.

It was also a fragile structure, since most oases and salt mines were very lightly defended. The system’s best defense was the enormous and harsh expanse of the Sahara Desert. Only once before, in the eleventh century, did a Moroccan dynasty, the Almoravids, succeed in crossing this wasteland to raid and plunder.

Only a man of great ambition would have tried to not only traverse the desert, but to conquer and rule both sides of the great divide. Ahmad al-Mansur dreamed big. He determined to emulate his father, Mohammad ash-Shaykh, in his pursuit of leadership of the ummah, or Muslim community, in Africa.

Al-Mansur came to the throne under propitious conditions, having won in a stroke his crown and a windfall of prestige and resources (captives) on the battlefield. In August 1578, Sultan Moulay Marwan Abdelmalek, his brother, defeated a Portuguese-led invasion of Morocco at the of Battle of Ksar el-Kébir, and he had the good graces to die and leave Ahmad to claim the credit and the honorific al-Mansur (The Victorious). These were rare circumstances that offered the new sultan an opportunity to breakout of Morocco’s traditional seclusion. Too soon, however, al-Mansur’s prodigal ways—lavish court costs, a new palace, along with onerous military expenditures—exhausted the ransoms and the profits of his sugar mills and left the sultan frustrated and unfulfilled.

Ahmad al-Mansur tried to remedy his money problems by asserting his control over key desert oases and salt mines, and he was confident that his army’s superiority in gunpowder weapons would ensure his success. Between 1582 and 1586, al-Mansur’s armies conducted a number of incursions into the Sahara, to the salt mines of Taghaza, into the Senegal River Valley, and to the Gourara region of central Algeria. When these efforts failed to provide sufficient revenues, the Moroccan sultan-Caliph determined to extend his control over control the last element of the gold-sugar-salt triad – the gold mines of West Africa. This entailed the conquest of the presumed custodians of said collieries, the Songhay Empire.

The Songhay represented the third and last of the great West African empires, their predecessors being the empires of Ghana and Mali. Their early history was rather murky, but it is believed that the Songhay migrated from the east to the lower Niger River in present-day Mali around the eight century, where they established their capital at Gao. In time, the chiefdom’s kings adopted the Muslim faith, which Berber traders had carried south via the caravans. After a period of Malian domination, by the middle of the fourteenth century they had thrown off their overlords. A few decades later, the Songhay had expanded upriver and added the major urban centers of Timbuktu and Djenné to their growing empire.

In 1589, Ahmad al-Mansur decided the time was right to move against the Songhay. That year an exiled Songhay courtier named Wuld Kirinfil appeared in Marrakech, claiming to be the rightful ruler of the Songhay who had been driven into exile by the usurper, his younger brother, Ishaq II—a claim that most historians later dismissed. Ishaq had come to power in a bloody civil war a year earlier and was still consolidating his power. Al-Mansur determined to use Wuld in a pretext for war over the long-contested salt mine of Taghaza. Ishaq dismissed the threat posed by Kirnifil, and he rejected al-Mansur’s ultimatum to cede him control of Taghaza. The Moroccan sultan soon had his casus belli.

Before he could proceed, the sultan felt the need for the backing of the senior religious and military leaders of the land. At a meeting at the royal palace in Marrakech, he quickly found doubters in their ranks. Many pointed to the difficulties of desert crossing and conducting military operations so far from home. They pointed to the sultan’s less-than-stellar efforts to date. They argued about the cost of maintaining an occupation force in this distant land. And several religious leaders objected to the notion of one Muslim state making an unprovoked attack against another. Al-Mansur artfully addressed each concern. In the end, he argued that the conquest would enrich his realm, both with the natural wealth of the land, namely gold, and also through vast new converts to Islam. It would make Morocco a great power among the Mediterranean states.

As usual, he had his way.

The expedition reflected certain lessons from past experiences in the desert. The soldiers and technicians, the camels, the horses, all were picked for their sturdiness and reliability; and no expense was spared in its provisioning. Accounts of the composition of the expedition vary but may be estimated at approximately six thousand soldiers and support personnel. These were sub-divided into the following: an infantry contingent of two thousand soldiers of equal parts renegades (Christian converts to Islam) and Andalusians, and all armed with the arquebus. The cavalry consisted of a corps of two thousand, the best of which were five hundred sipahis, mainly renegades, mounted on horses and also equipped with the arquebus, and another fifteen hundred mounted lancers from the most loyal tribes, probably Maqil Arabs. The support personnel included six hundred engineers, one thousand camel drivers, and an unspecified number of additional support personnel, such as cannoniers, medical staff, cooks, guides, and so forth. Wuld Kirinfil was along as the chief guide. That the army was a small one was because the sultan counted on Morocco’s advantage in gunpowder weapons, virtually unknown south of the Sahara, to be the decisive advantage.

On the other hand, the venture revealed curious choices, beginning with the commander. While the sultan had many more experienced commanders, men alongside whom he had fought past battles, he chose an untested palace eunuch, Judar, to be his commander. Second, the army was a heterogeneous group of ethnicities and language. Spanish, it would turn out, would be the lingua franca of the officer corps. The fact that Judar’s personal guard of seventy soldiers were Christian captives from Ksar el-Kébir speaks to the dubious cohesion of this mongrel army. Finally, many if not most of the soldiers were not volunteers and few had any real desert experience.[3]

Judar would have to meld this host into a fighting force. As events would show, he eventually did so, and he delivered to his master a brilliant victory, Timbuktu, and an empire along the Niger bend.

History does not leave us much about Judar Pasha. He was described as a short, blue-eyed Andalusian who was born around 1562 in Cuevas, Granada. Captured as a boy by a raiding party of corsairs, Judar was castrated and raised as a eunuch in the royal palace of Marrakech.[4] Though eunuchs were usually assigned to various the household chores and to guarding the harem, their individual talents and relationship to the sultan and his ministers often elevated them to positions of trust and influence in the government. For the ruling elite, the eunuch’s appeal was his lack of any other interest than service to the sultan. The eunuch had no family, and he was entirely dependent upon the ruler for whatever wealth and property that he might be permitted. Judar had apparently earned his way out of palace drudgeries through leading several tax enforcement missions in the countryside. Evidently, he got results, displaying enough energy, organizational skill, and ruthlessness to win his master’s confidence. By his mid-twenties, Judar had risen to the command of the Andalusian contingent of the army.[5] He was a rising star among the sultan’s favorites.

Unaware of the scientific advancements of the gunpowder age, and confident that the desert would protect them from the Arabs and the Berbers, the Songhay were complacent. They made little effort to gather intelligence about the Moroccan intentions. The Moroccan army departed Marrakech amid great fanfare on October 16, 1590, and they subsequently traveled down one of the busiest caravan networks. However, their arrival in Songhay lands in late February 1591 came as a complete surprise in Gao. By the time Ishaq’s order to block the desert wells was sent out, the Moroccans were already on the Niger River at Kabara, south of Timbuktu.

Moreover, the Songhay had no understanding of their foe. Had they any clue, the Songhay leaders might have considered just how ill-suited their forces were to stand toe-to-toe with the Moroccans on open ground. The Songhay weapons and tactics had not changed in hundreds of years. Their soldiers were equipped with lances, arrows, spears and cudgels; battles were always the same: a missile exchange, followed by a charge, and ending in a melee. These methods had been good enough in the past against their neighbors, so there was no impetuous to change.

Though he had to scramble, in a few weeks Ishaq managed to assemble a substantial force. The size of Songhay army cannot be estimated with any degree of reliability, since historians disagree on the numbers. According to one of the principal Songhay histories of this time, the Tarikh al-Fettash, Ishaq’s army was approximately 28,000 strong, including 18,000 cavalry and 9,700 infantry.[6] Of all the numbers advanced, this seems the most reasonable given the chaotic state of the Songhay army in the aftermath of the civil war and the haste with which the king had to assemble his forces. To level the playing field with the technologically-superior Moroccans, the Songhay king had a couple of secret weapons. His men had assembled a thousand head of cattle. Someone had determined that driving a herd before the army might shield the warriors from gunfire and perhaps break up the Moroccan formation. And the king had brought with him every shaggy fetish, shaman, magician, sorcerer, and witch doctor in Gao, and others besides. He was taking no chances.

As the sky began to lighten, the Moroccans paused for the pre-dawn prayer. On this morning it was like a crisp military drill, the rapid deployment of the ranks, the formation rising and falling in near-perfect unison to the imam’s incantations. And just as efficiently, the ceremony was over before the sun had pierced the horizon. In the early morning light, the pace of work accelerated. Troops finished packing away their prayer rugs and kits, their mouths working all the while, rolling around dried biscuit or spitting date seeds. Tea was passed around. Quartermasters squeezed their loads back onto ornery camels. Gunners prepared the small battery of artillery for the march, tying the copper tubes onto the cradles of the gun carriages. Little by little, the officers began to shepherd their men into the battle line.

Judar and his commanders had decided upon a simple and compact formation. The van of the army would be in halves, the renegades on the right wing, toward the river, and the Andalusians on the left side, toward the open desert. Behind the infantry was the mass of cavalry and the baggage train. The mounted arquebusiers were probably toward the front ranks, where they could bring their weapons to bear, with the lance-toting Arabs in reserve. Judar and his bodyguards would take up position somewhere near the center.

For the Moroccans, firearms would decide the day. This was contrary to conventional thinking. Typically, a sixteenth century army fighting a European-style battle relied upon mutual support from the pike and the firearm. The pike kept the cavalry off of the arquebusier as he manipulated his slow-loading weapon; the arquebusier protected the pikeman from being systematically picked off by enemy missile weapons. If Judar’s army included pikemen, they were very few. Ahmad al-Mansur and his general were banking on mobility and firepower to compensate for their meager numbers and their inability to hold terrain.

The arquebus gave the Moroccans a great advantage over the Songhay, but not necessarily a decisive one. Had the Songhay understood the limitations of the weapon they might have responded to the challenge differently, in terms of both strategy and tactics.

The arquebus was first introduced in Europe the previous century. It was the first shoulder-fired gunpowder weapon, a smooth bore, muzzle-loaded longarm firearm and a great improvement over the old hand cannon. The major upgrade was the matchlock mechanism. Whereas the hand cannon required a firer to manually ignite powder in the flash pan, the matchlock held a lighted fuse in place over the receptacle, thereby allowing the firer the advantage of a firm grip and careful aim before the moment of discharge. Another improvement was the tripod or trestle, which provided added stability. The weapon was, however, still notoriously slow to reload and inaccurate. An experienced marksman could fire two rounds in a minute, and he might reliably hit a target at a hundred meters. And wet weather could dampen the powder and render the weapon useless.

Given such limitations, ancient weapons were still relevant. The bow might have been on its way out as the missile weapon of choice, but it could be just as effective as a man-ported gunpowder weapon in the right hands. Its rate of fire was far greater: an experienced archer could reload his weapon as much as thirty times faster than an arquebusier. It was a more portable weapon, more easily operated in close quarters, and it was all-weather as well. Of course, the bow too had its limitations. An arrow could not penetrate armor, and the bow required strength and stamina, and few men could sustain a high rate of fire for very long. And accuracy, especially at long ranges, took a man years to develop. Nonetheless, a short downpour of arrows onto a densely packed and largely unprotected mass of troops might have been fatal, had it been tried.

About mid-morning, the Moroccans began to move south. The morning haze was almost gone now, and the sun no longer blinded them, but the visibility was still poor. The wind had begun to pick up, and airborne sand reduced their vision to several hundred meters. They continued to follow the river, the wind subsiding, the heat rising. In a short time, they began to make out the sound of drums. Then, gradually, the great African host emerged on the plain.

Judar and his men had expected a horde, but the sight of so many Songhay soldiers was un-nerving nevertheless. Yes, the Moroccans had firearms, cannon, and experience, and so they were the superior force. But still… The Songhay vastly outnumbered them, by at least twenty to one. The African lines pulsated with life—black forms stretched along their front, a forest of bobbing spears; gyrating, furry fetishes, some in outrageous wooden faces, all set to the steady beat of massive kettle drums and the blaring of kakaki horns. Strangest of all was a mass of cattle that had been assembled in front of the African army. Was this some kind of shield?

A short distance away, Ishaq appraised the advancing Moors. The sun illuminated their lines quite well now. One could even make out the features of the front ranks, white faces with dark facial hair. Their numbers were fewer than he had expected, but they were still an unsettling sight. The infantry moved in measured cadence, their long fire weapons cradled against their shoulders. Beyond the mass of marching men could be seen a large group of camel-mounted soldiers. Along the battle lines, a few ranks from the front line, were sprouts of colored banners here and there. The largest group was in the center of the marching men, a collection of green and white standards. Presumably, this marked the army commander. The Moors looked too controlled, too quiet. Not that the king could hear anything through the cacophony of his own troops. African armies resorted to such theatrics in part to intimidate the enemy and also to rouse themselves to action. The Moors did not appear to be fazed. Were his men ready?

Ishaq sat atop his horse among his thirty palace guards, eunuchs all, and surveyed his army one last time. He was anxious to give the command to start the battle. To his immediate front was the vanguard, consisting of the about eight thousand of the best troops of the regular infantry and the Sounna. The latter were the askiya’s elite troops, identified by the gold amulets they wore, who were pledged to fight to the death for their sovereign. The mass of the foot soldiers, including thousands of tribal levies, were to his left, right, and rear. The cavalry was on the flanks. In front of the vanguard were the cattle, hemmed in for the moment by dozens of handlers. The beasts wagged their heads, eyes wide and white, clearly agitated by the awful racket. They were as anxious as the army to get underway.

The Moors were almost within arrow shot now, and Ishaq signaled for the advance to begin. The tenders unleashed their long sticks on the bovine haunches, shouting and waving and creating a surging forward. Behind them, the Sounna let out a war cry and started to advance.

The idea was to break the Moroccan lines by driving cattle into their center. Such also would have shielded the Songhay troops from gunfire as they closed with their enemy. It was not a success, though what transpired is unclear. According to one contemporary account, the Moroccan lines opened and allowed the cattle to pass through.[7] This is improbable, since such would have required a complex and potentially fatal maneuver by the Moroccan army. The Tarikh al-Fettash had the Moroccans firing into the herd and stampeding it back into the Songhay lines.[8] The more likely response would have been the natural one: the Moroccans simply leveled their weapons and fired into the approaching cattle, dropping dozens of head and causing the rest of the heard to stampede off to the flanks. Had the Songhay any experience with gunpowder weapons, they might have anticipated this reaction.

Their bovine shield stripped away, the vanguard was now exposed to the fury of gunfire. Moroccans volley fired, each rank discharging their weapons in turn, then dropping low as the succeeding rank rose to fire. The field guns and mortars had been deployed on a rise; they began to drop shells and stones onto the throbbing host. Songhay soldiers watched in horror, and some in fascination, the grizzly theater of war in the gunpowder age—bodies ripped apart, heads exploding, limbs blown off, the sheer volume of blood. The Sounna regrouped, apparently deciding the set the example. Advancing to within range they dropped their shields, they fell to one knee and began to expend their arrows. Many Moroccan soldiers wore chain mail over their tunics, some had helmets, but it was poor protection. The arrows began to strike home, each hit marked by a terrible shriek and convulsion in the ranks. The soldiers worked their firearms ever more furiously.

With the Sounna standing their ground and exchanging blows with the enemy, the rest of the army began to surge forward from the flanks. The Moroccan cavalry flared out to intercept them, and the battle began to spread laterally toward the river and into the desert. The Songhay numerical superiority began to assert itself. The Moroccan infantry was unable to reload fast enough to keep the enemy at bay and soon hand-to-hand fighting engulfed the battle line. One of the renegade standards even passed briefing into the Songhay hands, but was quickly recaptured. The suspense was short-lived. The Songhay did not press home the attack, and after an hour or so it began to peter out.[9]

At this crucial juncture, a dose of leadership was required to stiffen the Songhay resolve. But in the eyes of the leaders, the battle was already lost. Legend has it that Bukar Lanbaru, the imperial secretary, was a key contributor to this defeatism. According to the Tarikh al-Fettash, Lanbaru was a Moroccan agent. As the battle reached its critical point, he reportedly grabbed the bridle of the king’s horse and yelled, “Fear God! Do not go unto death, do not kill your brothers; do not cause all the Songhay to die at the same time in this spot! God will ask you for a reckoning of all those are killed here today, for it is you who have caused their deaths if you do not flee!” Perhaps realizing he had gone too far, Lanbaru hastened to add, “After that, we will reflect on what must be done, and tomorrow we will return to determined combat, if God wills it.”[10]

The Sounna did not have the luxury of escape. They were tied together, ankle-to-ankle, “as one does in the Barbary to restrain camels,” as described by a contemporary source.[11] Their example was lost in the spasmodic Songhay attack. Eventually, the bulk of the army lost heart and began to draw off, resigned to slinging arrows from a distance. The Moroccan arquebusiers focused on the Sounna, tethered in neat rows and almost immobile. It was a shooting gallery. In a matter of minutes, the dead lay all about, like broken links in a chain. Judar signaled the Moroccan formation to advance. Firearms became clubs, and swords appeared to finish off what remained of the vanguard. Many of the Songhay tried to appeal for mercy. “We are Muslims!” They pleaded. “We are brothers in religion!”[12] It did them no good, perhaps because the entreaty was in Songhay, which few, if any, of the Moroccan troops understood. Not that it would have made a difference if they had. Such carnage was beyond bloodlust; it was the venting of the past seven months.

His best troops slaughtered, and his trump cards played to no effect, after about two hours Ishaq had seen enough. He decided to heed his chamberlain’s advice. The king turned and sped off to Gao in the company of his eunuchs, leaving what was left of the army to fend for itself.

Shortly after Ishaq fled, the battle sputtered to an end. The remaining Songhay troops retreated, and the Moroccans let them go. The dead and dying lay across the sandy plain in a strangely quantifiable display—another peculiarity of desert warfare.

The casualties of the Battle of Tondibi were never recorded. Certainly, the Songhay got the worst of it, but given the lack of sustained close combat and the inaccuracy of early firearms, the losses must have been relatively low. Accounts of Moroccan troops massacring hundreds, perhaps thousands of Songhay troops, shooting them down or cutting their throats as they sat passively upon their shields, is almost certainly exaggerated. That kind of butchery was more Turkish in style. Certainly, some units suffered grievous losses, such as a contingent of ninety-nine Sounna who, according to the Tarikh al-Fettash, sacrificed themselves to the last man. Most of the Songhay forces, however, escaped to fight another day.[13] The Songhay army probably suffered two to three thousand killed; the Moroccans likely suffered losses of around two to three hundred dead. Of course, there were many more injured on both sides.

Riding hard, Ishaq reach the capital that night and proceeded to the palace. As his wives and children rubbed the sleep from their eyes, the king and his retinue began to pack. He gave orders that the capital be evacuated, and that nothing of value to the enemy was to be left behind. The king’s family was incredulous, and his wives and young children began to wail. Panic soon spread beyond the palace. Such a thing had never occurred in the Songhay capital. The city had no defenses, no plan for such a contingency, and no time to make one. The Moroccans might be hours away. It was sauve qui peut. Chaos. Few residents had horses or camels, so the river was their best means of escape. Some two thousand water craft of various sizes clogged the river front, but four hundred belonged to the palace, and what remained was perhaps enough for the women and children and the aged. Much of the baggage would have to be abandoned or destroyed. At the river a few officials and soldiers tried to manage the throng, or at least keep the people from the king’s boats. In the bedlam, many people fell into the river and were drowned.

Judar was in no hurry. He would take several days before resuming his advance upon Gao.[14] The purpose for the delay is, as many details of these events, unrecorded. But it is not hard to imagine the reason. The physical state of his army must have been quite low, despite the rest at Kabara. Malnourished from weeks of hard marching, the meat of dozens of cattle shot down at Tondibi improved their morale, but no amount of protein could help some sick men recover the strength that disease was sapping from their bodies. A tide of sickness had washed over the army. Dysentery from poor water sources was common enough, though at a certain point an incontinent soldier was no longer a joke. Less windy, but no less disagreeable, were the proliferating symptoms of nausea, fever, chills, headaches, and aching muscles. No one knew the cause or the cure. The horses too were wheezing and sick, and they began to lay down and die in numbers. Many years later, men would discover insect-transmitted parasites—yellow fever and malaria spread by mosquitos, trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, spread by the tsetse fly; and surra, another parasite carried by the horsefly. The Army of the Niger was afflicted by them all. And after Tondibi they had many wounded men, and the additional health problems of blood poisoning, infected wounds, and gangrene.

The Moroccans finally march into the Songhay capital toward the end of April. More than two months in this bug-infested, godforsaken land had scuttled their expectations. Despite Judar’s promises, as they drew near to the city the troops were as morose as before. They had no expectation of cresting the next rise to find the hanging gardens of Babylon awaiting them. And yet the sight of Gao was deeply disappointing. This was the capital of the great empire of the Songhay? Why, it was no more than a larger version of a hundred villages they had passed along the way.

Judar was no less disappointed, though summoned himself to conceal his emotions. As they entered the outer ring of grass huts, a small delegation, headed by a local notable, Mahmud Darāmī, stood to the side, an obvious welcoming committee. Darāmī salaamed the general and his officers and welcomed them to the city. Judar replied cordially as he studied the surroundings, still wary of a trap. The old man, sensing this, advised that the city was mostly abandoned. The askiya and his court had fled across the river days earlier. Judar returned his attention to the speaker and the delegation. He decided that they were harmless enough, probably scholars and merchants who were too old to run away.

That afternoon, as the troops went about their business, Darāmī gave Judar Pasha and his officers a feast. After they had eaten, Judar requested a tour of the king’s palace. The mud brick walls, dirt floors, the stink of dung, it was the crowning insult. Gao, he concluded, was a myth, and quite possibly the Island of Gold as well. Meanwhile, the troops, at least those fit enough, rummaged about. Their scavenger hunt yielded foodstuffs, namely rice, butter, and honey, as well as a few household items, such as carpets—but not a trace of gold. For many of them, the amulets harvested from the Sounna dead would be the only gold they would see during the expedition. Such was the “sack” of Gao.[15]

Within a short time of his arrival in the capital, Judar received a messenger from Askiya Ishaq appealing for terms. Judar sent a delegation headed by a trusted associate, Ahmad ben el Haddad el-Amir, to meet with the Songhay king at a site across the Niger. El-Amir returned to report Ishaq’s offered concessions. He would recognize Moroccan suzerainty and provide a substantial quantity of gold and slaves. The amount of each is widely disputed but may have amounted as many as 100,000 pieces of gold and a thousand slaves.[16] Moreover, he agreed to furnish an annual tribute in both commodities, and to waive taxes on salt, and to allow the Moroccans exclusive trade rights in cowrie shells (the local currency). All he asked in return was that the Moroccans go home. Judar mulled it over and then wrote back that being only a “docile slave,” he could not render a decision. They would have to await his master’s reply.[17]

It was an appealing offer. The more Judar thought it over, the more he liked it. Yes, it contradicted his instructions from the sultan, which had been to overthrow the Songhay and to garrison their capital. But circumstances had changed. Like every man in the army, Judar had become disenchanted with the whole illusory affair—the desert, the Sudan, with its poverty and awful climate, the insects, the sickness and misery, everything. And all to reach a so-called city that was not worth the price of a good camel. Al-Mansur was unaware of any of this. He had thought this land was going to make him rich, but the opposite was the more likely outcome. Whatever wealth could be wrung from these wretched people would in no way compensate for the cost of doing business here. On the other hand, if the Songhay paid tribute, the sultan would reap the financial rewards without further expense to himself and suffering to his soldiers. And his soldiers were in a bad way. In Gao, the diseases finally ran their courses. Grave digging parties were at work every day. Scores of men—four hundred according to one source—perished of sickness during the seventeen days the army stayed at Gao.[18] This figure is probably inflated, but it speaks to the dire physical state of the Moroccan forces at this point of the campaign. Transport animals were also dying, and almost just as fast.[19] Judar, who was not feeling too well himself, was of the same mind as his men: the mission was accomplished, and it was time to head home.

The first step was to be gone from Gao, while there was still an army to repatriate. Ishaq took note of the situation, and he suggested that the Moroccans retire to Timbuktu and a more salubrious climate to await the sultan’s reply. He even offered to assist in supplying horses. Judar readily accepted. The army left the capital at the end of April and marched in “twenty stages” back upriver to Timbuktu, where it arrived on May 30.[20] Being advised of the locals’ aversion to soldiers being quartered in the blessed city of scholars, Judar decided to camp in the desert. There it remained for over a month as the troops recovered and their commander took stock of the state of affairs.[21]

It was Judar’s unenviable task to pour cold water on the master’s ambitions. He wrote to al-Mansur of what had transpired and of the condition of the army. The most delicate subject was that nature of the Western Sudan, but Judar held nothing back. It was essential that the sultan see the truth. When describing Gao, he wrote that the misery of the place was such that “the house of a chief mule driver in Morocco is worth more than the palace of the askiya.”[22] Having gone that far, Judar concluded with his own opinion. In his view, the askiya’s offer was a reasonable one and quite in the sultan’s interests.

Judar realized that his letter would be a source of considerable controversy back in Marrakech after the celebrations had died down. He knew what the sultan had ventured in this project, in money and in prestige. So, to cushion the blow, the general sent with his messenger an escort and booty in the sum of 10,000 mitqals of gold and two hundred slaves.[23] Somehow, he had managed to steal or extort this wealth, most likely from the people of Timbuktu. It was not much, but it would at least give his master’s propaganda people something tangible to show off to the court and to the public.

The booty worked as intended. The sultan regaled the court with the exotic loot. He sent messengers to every corner of the realm to convey the happy news. For the more skeptical religious elite of Fez, who had been most vocal in their opposition to his project, he drafted a special missive. Had he ever read the letter, Judar would have wondered if it had all been a nightmare. One passage went as follows:

[The Sudan] is furnished abundantly with those things useful and necessary in life; the traveler sojourns there with pleasure; it has an unlimited expanse and one cannot reach its ends. It is a meeting place for people, a garden of swarming of human life...It suffices as proof of the riches of this land that is it traversed by the Nile, river of paradise, reservoir of God's mercy. Its waters flow by a garden, refreshing continually the inhabitants and growing an abundance of fruits and cereals. Added to this the commodities of the markets and villages that follow one another like pearls on a necklace. This country, in a word, is a marvel that exists only in dreams.[24]

Dreams indeed, for reality never entered into the picture. It could not. Telling the truth in some circumstances, as the proverb went, is helplessness.[25] Profits and losses were irrelevant at this point, something Judar could not comprehend. What mattered was the map of Africa, or rather the new map of the Western Caliphate. “And so”, the sultan’s slavish scribe, Abd al-Aziz al-Fishtȃlî, exulted, “the authority of al- Mansur was recognized in all the lands between Nubia and the Atlantic Ocean that adjoins Morocco.”[26] Victory declared, the sultan announced three days of celebration in Marrakech.[27]

Despite the propaganda, Ahmad al-Mansur was less than satisfied with the inconclusive results of the campaign, and he was furious with his commander. Judar’s retreat from Gao and his treating with the askiya were in direct contravention of his orders. He promptly sacked Judar and replaced him with another Andalusian, Mahmoud Zarqun.

The new viceroy resumed hostilities with the Songhay, routing them in a second battle at Bamba and retaking Gao. Ishaq was ousted and killed shortly thereafter. The sultan sent Mahmoud Zarqun reinforcements from Morocco, one of several contingents he would send in the following years, along with thousands of horses and several river craft that were carried in pieces by camel across the desert and reassembled on the Niger. With these resources, and a few boats he had constructed locally, Zarqun conducted a number of downriver campaigns to locate and destroy the rebel army. But the Songhay merely retreated into their traditional fief of the Dendi, where a new ruler, Askiya Nūh organized an effective resistance. Over the next few years, Nūh’s men learned to use space and favorable terrain to their advantage. Using hit and run tactics, the Songhay foiled several Moroccan invasions. By 1610, the Moroccans, weakened by ambushes, their exertions, and wracked by disease, conceded the Dendi to the rump Songhay kingdom.

Judar, who had outlived Mahmoud Zarqun and several other pashas, remained in the Western Sudan in a supporting role, eventually resuming the viceroyalty in 1598, just before being recalled to Marrakech. There, he would take up new military duties. He would be killed in 1606, in the early stages of the civil war that followed al-Mansur’s death.

The Western Sudan became a quagmire for Morocco, a fact all too obvious to all but the author of the project. Al-Mansur never accepted, let alone understood, the military challenge the Western Sudan represented. His few forces, despite their technological superiority, had no chance of controlling so vast and open a landscape. Their only hope in supplanting the Songhay lay in cultivating alliances, but this al-Mansur refused to consider. So they antagonized everyone and spent their time fighting instead of looking for the gold fields. The Moroccans never came close to finding them; they were in fact looking in the wrong places. The gold fields were far to the west, at Bouré on the upper Niger and at Bambouk, on the Senegal River, and to the southwest, at Lobi, along the Black Volta River.

Eventually, the enterprise cost the sultan some 23,000 men, most of whom either died or never returned to Morocco.[28] He also lost thousands of costly firearms and mounts, as well as dinars by the ton. For this massive investment, he got little in return. While the initial flow of booty, mostly gold and slaves, had been promising, it soon slowed to a trickle as traders shifted their business south, to the Portuguese coastal trading post of El Mina, where it was safer to conduct business. The Moroccans were left stranded in a few river enclaves, contemplating their isolation. In the words of one writer has observed: “Al-Mansur thought the Songhay Empire would open the door to world conquest; instead it became a cul-de-sac in which Morocco was condemned to wander until its energies were exhausted.”[29]

Given the geography involved, the separation of mother country and colony was inevitable. The first step came in 1612 when a Moroccan commander deposed the sultan’s viceroy and named himself pasha. The Saadians, consumed in a civil war of succession between al-Mansur’s sons, were powerless to respond. By 1618, when the domestic situation had calmed, a Moroccan sultan sent an emissary to Timbuktu to assess the state of affairs in the colony. The report was sufficiently pessimistic—political fragmentation, military rebellion, economic decline, and general insecurity—to convinced the sultan to decide to cut his losses with the colony. And so, after twenty-eight years, Morocco quietly abandoned direct control over its Sudanese colony. Ahmad al-Mansur’s great project was, for all intents and purposes, over.

While the Saadians refused to invest further in the colony, until the very end the descendants of the Moroccan conquerors continued to associate themselves with Marrakech, such was the sense of isolation. Beyond the sexual, the Moroccan soldiers did not condescend to integrate with their environment. Some married local women, and many kept concubines, but they remained otherwise aloof from the ways of the Sudan. They and their offspring of mixed race Andalusian-Moroccan-Sudanese people came to the called the ar-rumah (fusiliers), or simply, the Arma. When the Saadian dynasty collapsed in 1659, the pasha replaced the sultan’s name in the Friday prayer with his own, and he declared himself the Commander of the Faithful. But the rise of a new Moroccan dynasty, the Alaouites, a few years later rekindled the bond.

The Pashalik of Timbuktu, as the former colony became known, evolved as a kind of military republic, a collection of semi-autonomous enclaves along the Niger bend unified by a pasha elected from the various military contingents. The Arma were a governing caste, and they guarded their power and their traditions. Each February 28, they celebrated the occasion of Judar’s arrival at Kabara.

Much of the Pashalik’s history was spent fighting wars with hostile tribes that encroached upon its borders. For a time, the Arma’s technological superiority prevailed, but eventually their military prowess declined, and their enemies learned how to exploit their weaknesses. The end finally came in 1833 at the Battle of Diré, when the last of 167 pashas of Timbuktu went down to defeat at the hands of the Fulani chief, Seku Amadu, founder of the Massina Empire. With this defeat, the Arma’s preponderant position in Timbuktu and in the great cities of the Niger bend was broken. Thereafter, they figured as only another clan among those bouncing between Fulani and Tuareg alliances, just another ethnic group, whose leaders were courted by both sides and not much respected by either.

The disappearance of the Pashalik obscured the impact of the Moroccan conquest of the Songhay Empire. It was certainly one of the more significant events in the history of early-modern Africa. It altered the West African landscape, disrupting the thousand-year-old political and economic structures. It removed the regional hegemon, and ushered in a period of intense tribal conflict. It fundamentally undermined the economy of the entire region, favoring over the caravans a predatory economic system in which slavery played an ever great role. It left African states less able to deal with a series of natural disasters that plagued the land over the following two centuries—drought, famine, and disease—that swept away perhaps half of the population of the Niger River Valley. The cumulative effect of these calamities was to leave West Africa wide open to an even more devastating phase of continental exploitation—the Atlantic slave trade.

The Arma survived, though as a dwindling ethnic group. Over the years, many lost or gave up their affiliation. Today, there are only about 25,000 people living along the Niger bend who self-identify as Arma.[30] This is probably not far from the number of Moroccan settlers and their descendants in West Africa at the end of the Saadian dynasty. In Mali, a country of more than seventeen million people, the Arma barely register, but they do. In their distinctiveness, their separateness, the Arma are living history. They are the legatees of Ahmad al-Mansur’s caliphal dreams.

* * *

Show Notes

* * *

© 2024 Comer Plummer, III.

Published online: 05/23/2017.

Written by Comer Plummer. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Comer Plummer at: comer_plummer@hotmail.com.

About the author:
Comer Plummer is a retired US Army Officer.  He served from 1983 to 2004 as both an armor officer and Middle East/Africa Foreign Area Officer.  He is currently employed as a DoD civilian and living in Maryland with his wife and son.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.

An error has occurred. This application may no longer respond until reloaded. Reload 🗙