Fall of Africa’s Greatest Empire

The Battle of Tondibi, which resulted in the defeat of the Songhay army, took place on 13 March 1591.

The tomb of Emperor Askia Toure at Gao, Mali. Alamy.

The Songhay Empire would not be the first military power to set too much store by its cavalry. Founded in 1464 out of the ruins of the Malian Empire, Songhay was the largest of the indigenous empires in Africa. At its zenith, it covered around 540,000 square miles, stretching east-west for 1,200 miles along the River Niger with the Sahara to the north and the Sudan savannah to the south. Although it incorporated the great centre of Islamic learning and culture at Timbuktu, its capital was sited further east at Gao.

Internally, its biggest problem was succession. While some emperors, such as Askia Toure (1493-1528) and Askia Dawud (1549-82), were able to secure their thrones and rule successfully, the succeeding periods were characterised by fratricidal rivalries and rifts. 

But it also had a powerful enemy. In January 1590 the Moroccan sultan Al-Mansur sent Emperor Askia Ishaq II an ultimatum. Ishaq sent back spears and horseshoes; a sign that his horsemen would prevail. Besides, if Moscow had its winter to defend it from Napoleon, Songhay had the Sahara. Al-Mansur was undeterred. He had arquebuses and cannon on his side. The Songhay were so disdainful of the new technologies of war it is said that they threw captured Moroccan firearms into the Niger.

The 4,000-strong Moroccan army entered the Sahara in late December, provisioned by 10,000 camels and 1,000 pack horses. Meanwhile, Ishaq’s army – at least 40,000 strong, although possibly more than twice that – was assembled too slowly to attack the invading army as it emerged exhausted from the desert.

These then were the circumstances of the Battle of Tondibi, not far from Gao, which was fought on 13 March 1591 (though some reports suggest it may have been the day before.) One report says that Ishaq’s plan was to break the Moroccan line by driving hundreds of stampeding cattle into it. But, terrified by the noise of the cannon, the cattle turned and crashed into the Songhay army instead. Their ranks scattered; Ishaq himself fled. In the end only a small group of Songhay warriors, who had roped themselves together, were left standing. They fought to the last.