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The Horse in West African History

Published in History Today

The Horse in West African History

By Robin Law

Oxford University Press for the International African Institute, 1980; 224 pp.

The climate and terrain of West Africa do not lend themselves very easily to the breeding and maintenance of horses. Robin Law's excellent book shows that, though there was a local tradition of horsemanship in the region from very early times, it was only around the fourteenth century AD that the horse came to be used as a cavalry mount, and thus became an important element in military and political affairs. This medieval tradition was founded upon the importation of horses from the Arab north, horses much larger than the native breed, and on the development of more effective accoutrements and armour.

It was in the empire of Mali, according to Law's evidence, that this change may first be observed. Two of its contemporary chroniclers from the Arab lands were the Moroccan globe-trotter Ibn Battuta and the Syrian geographical encyclopaedist al-'Umari. Ibn Battuta went to Mali; al'-Umari considered West Africa from a distance. But both wrote about many other regions of the world as well, and it is worth noticing that among those regions were the Mongol Empire and the Dehli Sultanate, each of them realms in which political power was crucially dependent on the ability to mobilise effective cavalry forces. The comparisons and contrasts are illuminating.

The Mongol Empire provides the most conspicuous success story of all the great nomad empires of Central Asia. During the first eight decades of the thirteenth century the Mongols had conquered the bulk of the Eurasian land-mass from Hungary to Korea. These conquests had been made militarily possible, above all else, by the Mongols' total mastery of the techniques of the light cavalry archer. The Mongol horse was the standard animal of the steppe, not a specially-bred beast. It was small and extraordinarily hardy. It could survive in the bitterest climatic conditions. The Turks of the earlier empire of the seventh and eighth centuries had possessed an elite armoured aristocracy which rode superior chargers, carefully bred, and fed on hay and grain from the cultivated oases of the Orkhon river in Mongolia. The Mongols seem to have had nothing of this kind. They needed an enormous number of horses which could ride anywhere and live off the land. Each Mongol soldier went on campaign with a string of these horses – five or more – and rode them in turn. Where the Mongols failed to make permanent conquests (as in Syria or Eastern Europe), it was due as much as anything to lack of sufficient grass for their horses. The horse of the steppes was a native, superbly well suited to its military role, a role which grew naturally from its place in the nomadic peacetime economy.

The Dehli Sultanate, an empire of Turkish slave soldiers planted in alien soil, was a different matter. The Sultanate's success in warfare was based, not on any major technical supremacy over its Hindu enemies, but on its superior control of the supply of horses (as well as of elephants). Horses were imported, by sea from the Persian Gulf and Arabia, by land from the North-West Frontier, Central Asia and the Himalayas. As in West Africa, the locally-bred horse was not regarded as a suitable mount for a cavalryman. The Sultan's horsemen were paid (unlike the early Mongol soldiers, whose military function was deemed to be an unsalaried extension of everyday life), but they were expected to find and maintain their own horses: the supply was safeguarded, but horses (unlike elephants) were not a royal monopoly.

The Mongols, then, mounted themselves naturally and inevitably as a cavalry army. In India the Dehli sultans relied a good deal on horses, but imported them into a land where, except in the north-west and extreme north-east, they do not really flourish. In West Africa the problems were greater still. Cavalry horses were kept in towns, each of them fed and maintained by several slaves; they were very subject to local diseases and their life expectancy was short. So it was that when Ibn Battuta left Mali, he rode or a camel 'because horses are expensive'. The whole business was enormously costly.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the cavalryman in West Africa ultimately lost out to the musketeer. Firearms were not only, eventually, a more efficient arm of warfare: they were also very much cheaper than horses. The same happened in Asia, of course: but perhaps not quite so inevitability. For a very long time firearms were inferior both in range and rate of fire to the Turkish compound bow. The Tatars of the Crimea were still, in the seventeenth century, raiding effectively in Eastern Europe against the opposition of field artillery and troops armed with muskets. And western writers on Ottoman expansion have tended to lay too much emphasis on the Janissaries – infantry musketeers – as against the Ottomans' more significant light cavalry. But gunpowder had nevertheless sounded the death-knell of the mounted archer's invincibility. In West Africa the heyday of the cavalryman lasted for a much shorter period than in Asia – not more than five centuries. To this and other horsey matters Robin Law's book is a fascinating and scholarly guide.

By D.O. Morgan

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