The Negro, by W.E.B. Du Bois, , at sacred-texts.com
The Arabian expression "Bilad es Sudan" (Land of the Blacks) was applied to the whole region south of the Sahara, from the Atlantic to the Nile. It is a territory some thirty-five hundred miles by six hundred miles, containing two million square miles, and has to-day a population of perhaps eighty million. It is thus two-thirds the size of the United States and quite as thickly settled. In the western Sudan the Niger plays the same role as the Nile in the east. In this chapter we follow the history of the Niger.
The history of this part of Africa was probably something as follows: primitive man, entering Africa from Arabia, found the Great Lakes, spread in the Nile valley, and wandered westward to the Niger. Herodotus tells of certain youths who penetrated the desert to the Niger and found there a city of black dwarfs. Succeeding migrations of Negroes and Negroids pushed the dwarfs gradually into the inhospitable forests and occupied the Sudan, pushing on to the Atlantic. Here the newcomers, curling northward, met the Mediterranean race coming down across the western desert, while to the southward the Negro came to the Gulf of Guinea and the thick forests of the Congo valley. Indigenous civilizations arose on the west coast in Yoruba and Benin, and contact of these with the Mediterranean race in the desert, and with Egyptian and Arab from the east, gave rise to centers of Negro culture in the Sudan at Ghana and Melle and in Songhay, Nupe, the Hausa states, and Bornu.
The history of the Sudan thus leads us back again to Ethiopia, that strange and ancient center of world civilization whose inhabitants in the ancient world were considered to be the most pious and the oldest of men. From this center the black originators of African culture, and to a large degree of world culture, wandered not simply down the Nile, but also westward. These Negroes developed the
original substratum of culture which later influences modified but never displaced.
We know that Egyptian Pharaohs in several cases ventured into the western Sudan and that Egyptian influences are distinctly traceable, Greek and Byzantine culture and Phœnician and Carthaginian trade also penetrated, while Islam finally made this whole land her own. Behind all these influences, however, stood from the first an indigenous Negro culture. The stone figures of Sherbro, the megaliths of Gambia, the art and industry of the west coast are all too deep and original evidences of civilization to be merely importations from abroad.
Nor was the Sudan the inert recipient of foreign influence when it came. According to credible legend, the "Great King" at Byzantium imported glass, tin, silver, bronze, cut stones, and other treasure from the Sudan. Embassies were sent and states like Nupe recognized the suzerainty of the Byzantine emperor. The people of Nupe especially were filled with pride when the Byzantine people learned certain kinds of work in bronze and glass from them, and this intercourse was only interrupted by the Mohammedan conquest.
To this ancient culture, modified somewhat by Byzantine and Christian influences, came Islam. It approached from the northwest, coming stealthily and slowly and being banded on particularly by the Mandingo Negroes. About 1000-1200 A.D. the situation was this: Ghana was on the edge of the desert in the north, Mandingoland between the Niger and the Senegal in the south and the western Sahara, Djolof was in the west on the Senegal, and the Songhay on the Niger in the center. The Mohammedans came chiefly as traders and found a trade already established. Here and there in the great cities were districts set aside for these new merchants, and the Mohammedans gave frequent evidence of their respect for these black nations.
Islam did not found new states, but modified and united Negro states already ancient; it did not initiate new commerce, but developed a widespread trade already established. It is, as Frobenius says, "easily proved from chronicles written in Arabic that Islam was only effective in fact as a fertilizer and stimulant. The essential point is the resuscitative and invigorative concentration of Negro power in the service of a new era and a Moslem propaganda, as well as the reaction thereby produced." 1
Early in the eighth century Islam had conquered North Africa and converted the Berbers. Aided by black soldiers, the Moslems crossed into Spain; in the following century Berber and Arab armies crossed the west end of the Sahara and came to Negroland. Later in the eleventh century Arabs penetrated the Sudan and Central Africa from the east, filtering through the Negro tribes of Darfur, Kanem, and neighboring regions. The Arabs were too nearly akin to Negroes to draw an absolute color line. Antar, one of the great pre-Islamic poets of Arabia, was the son of a black woman, and one of the great poets at the court of Haroun al Raschid was black. In the twelfth century a learned Negro poet resided at Seville, and Sidjilmessa, the last town in Lower Morocco toward the desert, was founded in 757 by a Negro who ruled over the Berber inhabitants. Indeed, many towns in the Sudan and the desert were thus ruled, and felt no incongruity in this arrangement. They say, to be sure, that the Moors destroyed Audhoghast because it paid tribute to the black town of Ghana, but this was because the town was heathen and not because it was black. On the other hand, there is a story that a Berber king overthrew one of the cities of the Sudan and all the black women committed suicide, being too proud to allow themselves to fall into the hands of white men.
In the west the Moslems first came into touch with the Negro kingdom of Ghana. Here large quantities of gold were gathered in early days, and we have names of seventy-four rulers before 300 A.D. running through twenty-one generations. This would take us back approximately a thousand years to 700 B.C., or about the time that Pharaoh Necho of Egypt sent out the Phœnician expedition which circumnavigated Africa, and possibly before the time when Hanno, the Carthaginian, explored the west coast of Africa.
By the middle of the eleventh century Ghana was the principal kingdom in the western Sudan. Already the town had a native and a Mussulman quarter, and was built of wood and stone with surrounding gardens. The king had an army of two hundred thousand and the wealth of the country was great. A century later the king had become Mohammedan in faith and had a palace with sculptures and glass windows. The great reason for this development was the desert trade. Gold, skins, ivory, kola nuts, gums, honey, wheat, and cotton were exported, and the whole Mediterranean coast traded in the Sudan. Other and lesser black kingdoms like Tekrou, Silla, and Masina surrounded Ghana.
In the early part of the thirteenth century the prestige of Ghana began to fall before the rising Mandingan kingdom to the west. Melle, as it was called, was founded in 1235 and formed an open door for Moslem and Moorish traders. The new kingdom, helped by its expanding trade, began to grow, and Islam slowly surrounded the older Negro culture west, north, and east. However, a great mass of the older heathen culture, pushing itself upward from the Guinea coast, stood firmly against Islam down to the nineteenth century.
Steadily Mohammedanism triumphed in the growing states which almost encircled the protagonists of ancient Atlantic culture. Mandingan Melle eventually supplanted Ghana in prestige and power after Ghana had been overthrown by the heathen Su Su from the south.
The territory of Melle lay southeast of Ghana and some five hundred miles north of the Gulf of Guinea. Its kings were known by the title of Mansa, and from the middle of the thirteenth century to the middle of the fourteenth the Mellestine, as its dominion was called, was the leading power in the land of the blacks. Its greatest king, Mari Jalak (Mansa Musa), made his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, with a caravan of sixty thousand persons, including twelve thousand young slaves gowned in figured cotton and Persian silk. He took eighty camel loads of gold dust (worth about five million dollars) to defray his expenses, and greatly impressed the people of the East with his magnificence.
On his return he found that Timbuktu had been sacked by the Mossi, but he rebuilt the town and filled the new mosque with learned blacks from the University of Fez. Mansa Musa reigned twenty-five years and "was distinguished by his ability and by the holiness of his life. The justice of his administration was such that the memory of it still lives." 1 The Mellestine preserved its preëminence until the beginning of the sixteenth century, when the rod of Sudanese empire passed to Songhay, the largest and most famous of the black empires.
The known history of Songhay covers a thousand years and three dynasties and centers in the great bend of the Niger. There were thirty kings of the First Dynasty, reigning from 700 to 1335. During the reign of one of these the Songhay kingdom became the vassal kingdom of Melle, then at the height of its glory. In addition to this the Mossi crossed the valley, plundered Timbuktu in 1339, and
separated Jenne, the original seat of the Songhay, from the main empire. The sixteenth king was converted to Mohammedanism in 1009, and after that all the Songhay princes were Mohammedans. Mansa Musa took two young Songhay princes to the court of Melle to be educated in 1326. These boys when grown ran away and founded a new dynasty in Songhay, that of the Sonnis, in 1355. Seventeen of these kings reigned, the last and greatest being Sonni Ali, who ascended the throne in 1464. Melle was at this time declining, other cities like Jenne, with its seven thousand villages, were rising, and the Tuaregs (Berbers with Negro blood) had captured Timbuktu.
Sonni Ali was a soldier and began his career with the conquest of Timbuktu in 1469. He also succeeded in capturing Jenne and attacked the Mossi and other enemies on all sides. Finally he concentrated his forces for the destruction of Melle and subdued nearly the whole empire on the west bend of the Niger. In summing up Sonni Ali's military career the chronicle says of him, "He surpassed all his predecessors in the numbers and valor of his soldiery. His conquests were many and his renown extended from the rising to the setting of the sun. If it is the will of God, he will be long spoken of." 1
Sonni Ali was a Songhay Negro whose father was a Berber. He was succeeded by a full-blooded black, Mohammed Abou Bekr, who had been his prime minister. Mohammed was bailed as "Askia" (usurper) and is best known as Mohammed Askia. He was strictly orthodox where Ali was rather a scoffer, and an organizer where Ali was a warrior. On his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1495 there was nothing of the barbaric splendor of Mansa Musa, but a brilliant group of scholars and holy men with a small escort of fifteen hundred soldiers and nine hundred thousand dollars in gold. He stopped and consulted with scholars and politicians and studied matters of taxation, weights and measures, trade, religious tolerance, and manners. In Cairo, where he was invested by the reigning caliph of Egypt, he may have heard of the struggle of Europe for the trade of the Indies, and perhaps of the parceling of the new world between Portugal and Spain. He returned to the Sudan in 1497, instituted a standing army of slaves, undertook a holy war against the indomitable Mossi, and finally marched against the Hausa. He subdued these cities and even imposed the rule of black men on the Berber town of Agades,
a rich city of merchants and artificers with stately mansions. In fine Askia, during his reign, conquered and consolidated an empire two thousand miles long by one thousand wide at its greatest diameters; a territory as large as all Europe. The territory was divided into four vice royalties, and the system of Melle, with its semi-independent native dynasties, was carried out. His empire extended from the Atlantic to Lake Chad and from the salt mines of Tegazza and the town of Augila in the north to the 10th degree of north latitude toward the south.
It was a six months' journey across the empire and, it is said, "he was obeyed with as much docility on the farthest limits of the empire as he was in his own palace, and there reigned everywhere great plenty and absolute peace." 1 The University of Sankore became a center of learning in correspondence with Egypt and North Africa and had a swarm of black Sudanese students. Law, literature, grammar, geography and surgery were studied. Askia the Great reigned thirty-six years and his dynasty continued on the throne until after the Moorish conquest in 1591.
Meanwhile, to the eastward, two powerful states appeared. They never disputed the military supremacy of Songhay, but their industrial development was marvelous. The Hausa states were formed by seven original cities, of which Kano was the oldest and Katsena the most famous. Their greatest leaders, Mohammed Rimpa and Ahmadu Kesoke, arose in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The land was subject to the Songhay, but the cities became industrious centers of smelting, weaving, and dyeing. Katsena especially, in the middle of the sixteenth century, is described as a place thirteen or fourteen miles in circumference, divided into quarters for strangers, for visitors from various other states, and for the different trades and industries, as saddlers, shoemakers, dyers, etc.
Beyond the Hausa states and bordering on Lake Chad was Bornu. The people of Bornu had a large infiltration of Berber blood, but were predominantly Negro. Berber mulattoes had been kings in early days, but they were soon replaced by black men. Under the early kings, who can be traced back to the third century, these people had ruled nearly all the territory between the Nile and Lake Chad. The country was known as Kanem, and the pagan dynasty of Dugu reigned there from the middle of the ninth to the end of the eleventh century. Mohammedanism was introduced from Egypt
at the end of the eleventh century, and under the Mohammedan kings Kanem became one of the first powers of the Sudan. By the end of the twelfth century the armies of Kanem were very powerful and its rulers were known as "Kings of Kanem and Lords of Bornu." In the thirteenth century the kings even dared to invade the southern country down toward the valley of the Congo.
Meantime great things were happening in the world beyond the desert, the ocean, and the Nile. Arabian Mohammedanism had succumbed to the wild fanaticism of the Seljukian Turks. These new conquerors were not only firmly planted at the gates of Vienna, but had swept the shores of the Mediterranean and sent all Europe scouring the seas for their lost trade connections with the riches of India. Religious zeal, fear of conquest, and commercial greed inflamed Europe against the Mohammedan and led to the discovery of a new world, the riches of which poured first on Spain. Oppression of the Moors followed, and in 1502 they were driven back into Africa, despoiled and humbled. Here the Spaniards followed and harassed them and here the Turks, fighting the Christians, captured the Mediterranean ports and cut the Moors off permanently from Europe. In the slow years that followed, huddled in Northwest Africa, they became a decadent people and finally cast their eyes toward Negroland.
The Moors in Morocco had come to look upon the Sudan as a gold mine, and knew that the Sudan was especially dependent upon salt. In 1545 Morocco claimed the principal salt mines at Tegazza, but the reigning Askia refused to recognize the claim.
When the Sultan Elmansour came to the throne of Morocco, he increased the efficiency of his army by supplying it with fire arms and cannon. Elmansour determined to attack the Sudan and sent four hundred men under Pasha Djouder, who left Morocco in 1590. The Songhay, with their bows and arrows, were helpless against powder and shot, and they were defeated at Tenkadibou April 12, 1591, Askia Ishak, the king, offered terms, and Djouder Pasha referred them to Morocco. The sultan, angry with his general's delay, deposed him and sent another, who crushed and treacherously murdered the king and set up a puppet. Thereafter there were two Askias, one under the Moors at Timbuktu and one who maintained himself in the Hausa states, which the Moors could not subdue. Anarchy reigned in Songhay. The Moors tried to put down disorder with a high hand, drove out and murdered the distinguished men of
[paragraph continues] Timbuktu, and as a result let loose a riot of robbery and decadence throughout the Sudan. Pasha now succeeded Pasha with revolt and misrule until in 1612 the soldiers elected their own Pasha and deliberately shut themselves up in the Sudan by cutting off approach from the north.
Hausaland and Bornu were still open to Turkish and Mohammedan influence from the east, and the Gulf of Guinea to the slave trade from the south, but the face of the finest Negro civilization the modern world had ever produced was veiled from Europe and given to the defilement of wild Moorish soldiers. In 1623 it is written "excesses of every kind are now committed unchecked by the soldiery," and "the country is profoundly convulsed and oppressed." 1 The Tuaregs marched down from the desert and deprived the Moors of many of the principal towns. The rest of the empire of the Songhay was by the end of the eighteenth century divided among separate Moorish chiefs, who bought supplies from the Negro peasantry and were "at once the vainest, proudest, and perhaps the most bigoted, ferocious, and intolerant of all the nations of the south." 2 They lived a nomadic life, plundering the Negroes. To such depths did the mighty Songhay fall.
As the Songhay declined a new power arose in the nineteenth century, the Fula. The Fula, who vary in race from Berber mulattoes to full-blooded Negroes, may be the result of a westward migration of some people like the "Leukoæthiopi" of Pliny, or they may have arisen from the migration of Berber mulattoes in the western oases, driven south by Romans and Arabs.
These wandering herdsmen lived on the Senegal River and the ocean in very early times and were not heard of until the nineteenth century. By this time they had changed to a Negro or dark mulatto people and lived scattered in small communities between the Atlantic and Darfur. They were without political union or national sentiment, but were all Mohammedans. Then came a sudden change, and led by a religious fanatic, these despised and persecuted people became masters of the central Sudan. They were the ones who at last broke down that great wedge of resisting Atlantic culture, after it had been undermined and disintegrated by the American slave trade.
Thus Islam finally triumphed in the Sudan and the ancient culture
combined with the new. In the Sudan to-day one may find evidences of the union of two classes of people. The representatives of the older civilization dwell as peasants in small communities, carrying on industries and speaking a large number of different languages. With them or above them is the ruling Mohammedan caste, speaking four main languages: Mandingo, Hausa, Fula, and Arabic. These latter form the state builders. Negro blood predominates among both classes, but naturally there is more Berber blood among the Mohammedan invaders.
Europe during the middle ages had some knowledge of these movements in the Sudan and Africa. Melle and Songhay appear on medieval maps. In literature we have many allusions: the mulatto king, Feirifis, was one of Wolfram von Eschenbach's heroes; Prester John furnished endless lore; Othello, the warrior, and the black king represented by medieval art as among the three wise men, and the various black Virgin Marys' all show legendary knowledge of what African civilization was at that time doing.
It is a curious commentary on modern prejudice that most of this splendid history of civilization and uplift is unknown to-day, and men confidently assert that Negroes have no history.
28:1 Frobenius: Voice of Africa, II, 359-360.
30:1 Ibn Khaldun, quoted in Lugard, p. 128.
31:1 Quoted in Lugard, p. 180.
32:1 Es-Sa’di, quoted by Lugard, p. 199.
34:1 Lugard, p. 373.
34:2 Mungo Park, quoted in Lugard, p. 374.