Notes on Slavery in the Songhay Empire
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This paper is an attempt to assemble and, so far as is possible, to analyse the information available on the institution of slavery in a single African state. Although there was a Songhay state from as early as the eighth century in all probability, virtually nothing is known of its history and institutions until the time when it expanded from its nucleus in Songhay proper1 to become an imperial power in the second half of the fifteenth century, asserting its complete domination over the Middle Niger “from Kanta to Sibiridugu”2 and raiding and exacting tribute from a much wider belt of the Sahel from the R. Senegal to the Air massif and northern Hausaland.3 Slavery, of course, existed in the area long before the fifteenth century and continued to exist long after the destruction of the Songhay empire by the forces of the Sa‘dian sultan al-Mansur. But the particular interest in restricting this inquiry to the epoch of imperial Songhay (roughly the period 1450-1600) lies in the light such an inquiry may throw on the social and economic institutions of a single cohesive and highly organised African state and of the ways in which Islam may have affected traditions of slavery and servitude in such a state. The period is treated as a unity despite the change of dynasty from the Sunnis to the Askias in 1493. The change appears to have had no influence on slavery as an institution, except in so far as the enslavement of Muslims under the Askias was much less common.