The SONGHAI EMPIRE (also transliterated as Songhay) was a state that dominated the western Sahel in the 15th and 16th century. At its peak, it was one of the largest States in African history.
In ancient times, there were several groups of people that collectively formed the SONGHAI identity. Among the first people to settle in the region of Gao were the Sorko people, who established small settlements on the banks of the Niger River. The Sorko fashioned boats and canoes from the wood of the Cailcedrat tree and fished and hunted from their boats and provided waterborne transport for goods and people. Another group of people that moved into the area to live off the Niger’s resources was the GOW people. The GOW were hunters and specialized in hunting river animals such as crocodile and hippopotamus.
The other group of people known to have inhabited the area were the DO people. They were farmers who raised crops in the fertile lands bordering the river. Sometime before the 16th century, more powerful, horse-riding SONGHAI speakers who established control over the area subjugated these early settlers. All these groups of people gradually began to speak the same language of which the country eventually became known as the SONGHAI.
During the second half of the 13th century, GAO and the surrounding region had grown into an important trading center and attracted the interest of the expanding MALI EMPIRE. Mail conquered GAO towards the end of the 13th century. GAO would remain under Malian hegemony until the late 14th century. As the Mali Empire started to disintegrate, the SONGHAI reasserted control of GAO. SONGHAI rulers subsequently took advantage of the weakened Mali Empire to expand SONGHAI rule.
Sunni Ali was the first king of the SONGHAI EMPIRE and the 15th ruler of the Manay dynasty. He worked his hardest to get the SONGHAI EMPIRE out of its Rocky start. The Muslim leaders of Timbuktu asked him to drive out the invaders. Once Sunni Ali drove them out, he took this chance and took over Timbuktu. Soon, he had almost all the trading cities along the Niger River. He ruled from 1464-1492 followed by his son Sonni Báru who ruled between 1492-1493 who had an unsuccessful rule and was conquered by one of his father generals Askia the Great (1493-1528) one of the longest reign ever in the rulers line.
The common languages spoken are Songhai, Malinkè, Mandinka, Fulani, Bozo, Soninke, Hausa, and Moore.
Economic trade existed throughout the Empire, due to the standing army stationed in the provinces throughout the empire. Central to the regional economy were independent gold fields. The Julia (merchants) would form partnerships, and the state would protect these merchants and the port cities of Niger. It was a very strong trading kingdom, known for its production of practical crafts as well as religious artifacts.
SONGHAI flourished from river commerce centered upon the exchange of agricultural produce, fishing, hunting and iron- working technology. SONGHAI’s power and prosperity grew further from its participation in the trans-Saharan trade. The currency being used then was (cowry shells, and gold coins).
Upper classes in the society converted to Islam while lower classes often continued to follow traditional religions. Sermons emphasized obedience to the king. Timbuktu was the educational capital. Sonni Ali established a system of government under the royal court, later to be expanded by Askia Muhammad, who appointed governors and mayors to preside over local tributary states, situated around the Niger valley. Local chiefs were still granted authority over their respective domains as long as they did not undermine SONGHAI policy.
Askia ishaq ll (1588-1591) ascended to power in a long dynastic struggle following the death of Askia Daoud. He would be the last ruler of the empire. In 1590, Al-mansur took advantage of the recent civil strife in the empire and sent an army under the command of Judar pasha to conquer the SONGHAI and to gain control of the trans-Saharan trade routes. After the disastrous defeat at the battle of Tundibi (1591), The SONGHAI EMPIRE collapsed. The Dendi kingdom succeeded the empire as the continuation of SONGHAI culture and society.