Kwasi Konadu

Songhay Empire and Slavery

African History 360Kwasi KonaduComment

The Tarikh al-Fettash fi akhbar al-buldan wa ‘l-juyush wa-akabir al-nas (“Chronicle of the researcher into the history of the countries, the armies and the principal personalities”) is a well-known, locally produced manuscript on the history of Songhay and the western Sudanic region. It was composed by Ibn al-Mukhtar, based on the notes and researches of his grandfather, Mahmud al-Kati (ca. 1510-1593), in addition to other written and oral sources. Mahumd al-Kati was well established in the sixteenth century court of the great Askias or rulers of the Songhay Empire, and thus a crucial eyewitness. The excerpts from the Tarikh al-fattash reveals the widespread but distinct forms of captivity and servitude—and the distribution of power and wealth—in the territorially vast Songhay Empire (ca. 1468-1600). At first glance, these passages strongly suggest a hierarchical ordering of settlements under the management of an empire that stretched from the Atlantic coast to the savanna and Sahel lands north of the tropical rain forest, but interspersed with highlands and plateaus and the Senegal, Gambia, and Niger rivers. At second glance, however, we see interlocking but not necessarily vertical forms of subordination, power, and wealth. In this web of power relationships, some of the captive plantation workers, including the “overseers” or fanafi, were very wealthy, and they too held or managed captive peoples.

The fanafi, in turn, were “placed under the orders of a chief called Missakoulallah,” who served the “prince” and who served or followed the dictates of the “owner” of the land and the provider of the seed—the Askia. Among these relations of power and people on the one hand and between common peoples, their labor, and the land on the other were nuanced social relationships and a social order maintained by interdependencies. The fanfa was not simply an estate manager, an overseer, an owner of the boat used to transport crops, or a likely captive person himself—he was all the above. But his loyalty, and the sense of belonging and identification created among those ranked above and below him, was facilitated by “offerings” and “presents” made by the fanfa leader, Missakoulallah, to each fanfa. Likewise, the Askia’s offering of valuable commodities in cloth, salt, and kola nuts to Missakoulallah only lubricated the joints on which the empire was structured. And in that structure, the poor, the student, the widow, and the unfortunate had a place, and they too reaped from the harvest. The web of sociopolitical relations, however exploitative, provided all a sense of security and belonging built on kinship networks.

Glossary: ‘ulama or ‘ulima (Islamic scholar); guissiridonke (title of an office); Rissala (a Malekite treatise; Maliki is one of four schools of religious thought/law within Sunni Islam)

Askia Dawud [ruler of Songhay, ca. 1549-82] was a redoubtable, eloquent king, skillful in his government, generous, liberal, happy, friendly, and lover of jokes. God assured him a great leisure. He was the first to construct depots for permanent civil servant members and libraries, he had scribes who copied manuscripts for him, and he often offered copies of them to the ‘ulama. The guissiridonke Dako, son of Boukar Fata, told me that this prince knew the Qur’an by heart and that he had studied the Rissala in its entirety under the direction of a professor who came and gave him a lesson every day at noon for about an hour.

The foodstuffs whose harvest he received from the harvests of his lands were so abundant that one would not know how to evaluate them or number their quantity. He had, in effect, plantations in all the lands under his authority…. The product which he received from these lands exceeded in some years, four thousands sacks of grain.

In each of the villages situated in the lands that we have listed, without a single exception, the prince had slaves and a fanfa. Under the orders of certain of his fanfa were found 100 slaves employed in the cultivation of the soil; while in others there were only 60, 50, 40 or 20. The word fanfa, which is fanafi in the plural, designates a chief of slaves, but it is also used to designate the owner of a boat.

[T]his prince owned . . . [a] plantation was occupied by 200 slaves with 4 fanfa, who were placed under the orders of a chief called Missakoulallah. . . . The custom was that, only the askia [ruler of Songhay] provided the seed destined for that plantation as well as the hides that were used to make the sounnou [a unit of measure]. The boats used to transport that product to the residence of the askia numbered 10. By the envoy charged with placing the harvest in the sounnou, the

askia sent 1000 gouro [kola] nuts to the chief of the fanfa, a whole salt bar and a black boubou [an item of clothing], also a great cloth for the wife of that chief: this was the custom fixed by the askia, as well as his successor. When the day came, the fanfa sent to tell their chief Missakoulallah that the moment had come to gather the harvest, which was ripe, but they would not lay a hand on the sickle until he came himself and see the field, he went out for three days and did a tour of all four sides, and once he returned, gave them the order to make the harvest.

A certain year, the envoys of the fanfa having arrived to advise him that the grain was ripe and ready to harvest, he took his canoe, according to the custom, with his drums and his followers; arriving at the plantation, he saw that the grain was ripe and spent about three days touring the field. Then he went to a village near the plantation called Denki Doumde and sailed to the port of that place. Then he sent for the imam of the village, the students, the poor and the widows, as soon as they arrived, he said to them, “Who has the right to the product of this plantation?”

“Who then,” they replied to him, “would have rights beyond the owner, that is, the askia?” “It is I,” replied Missakoulallah, who personally has the right for this year and I would like to make an offering which will profit me in the other world and make me right with God. I will make an offering to you for the love of God; cut and harvest that field: that for the poor and unfortunate among you who are not able to obtain canoes reaped the first heads of grain that fall from your sickles, to the owners of the great canoes give the center of the field. God will agree on this offering of mine!” He returned then to his village and gave a present to each of the fanfa, from what he possessed himself, from a field that provided for his subsistence.

Source: Ibn al-Mukhtar, Tarikh al-Fettash fi akhbar al-buldan wa ‘l-juyush wa-akabir al-nas, eds. and trans. Octave Houdas and Maurice Delafosse (Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1913–14), 177–81.