The discovery of the New World opened new markets for European colonizers, as well as new sources wealth. In the Americas, the rich and abundant land meant much wealth could be generated through industries such as agriculture. The only missing factor was a cheap source of labor in order to clear and farm the land.
For this purpose, European colonizers turned to Africa. The kingdoms of Mali and Ghana were particular sources of slaves, since those kingdoms already had a system of slavery in place.
This paper examines the cultural and political history of the kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay. From this study, the paper seeks to shed light on how the system of slavery in these kingdoms differed significantly from the system of slavery in the Americas. Furthermore, the paper looks at how the African slaves sought to preserve their African heritage, despite the different system of slavery predominant in the New World.
Kingdom of Ghana
At around the 5th century AD, different Berber groups in Africa's Sahel region grouped together to form the kingdom of Ghana. This new kingdom occupied the area now composed of southeastern Mauritania. Though the area was dry and hot, the Sahel region also encompassed fertile areas and grasslands. Partly due to this geography, the major North African kingdoms grew in the flourished in the Sahel region. Furthermore, most of the later kingdoms would model themselves after Ghana, the model first used by the Berbers (Harris 52).
Under the system established by the Berbers, the Kingdom of Ghana was ruled by a king called "ghana." However, as with all Sahelian monarchies, the kingship was passed matrilineally. The heir to the throne was not the son of the king, but the son of the king's sister. In addition to being the sovereign ruler, the ghana was also the supreme judge of the kingdom (Harris 55).
Because its geographic location encompassed both fertile areas and important trading posts, Ghana grew into a major economic and regional power. By 1000 AD, Ghana had expanded into an empire (Harris 56). Conquered kingdoms were absorbed into the empire and were required to pay tribute to the ghana.
The strategic posts located throughout the empire further contributed to the kingdom's wealth. Ghana was located at the center of trade routes that went from Western Africa through Egypt and further into the Middle East. The stream of trade brought a myriad of trade products into the kingdom, from gold, copper, precious salt and in human slaves (Harris 60).
By 1000, Ghana's power began to wane as Islam began to take hold in the Northern African region. The Ghanaians did not convert to Islam, and soon found themselves locked in a holy war with Muslim Berbers called Almoravids. Historians disagree on whether the Almoravids defeated the Ghanaians or if the people of Ghana converted to Islam. However, the net result of this was that after 500 years of ruling as an empire, Ghana ceased to be a military and commercial power by 1100.
Kingdom of Mali
The Mali Empire flourished during 1240 to 1500 in the area now encompassed by Guinea, Senegal, Mali as well as parts of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. The empire has its roots in Kangaba, a small kingdom established in 900 AD by the Malinke people.
Like the Ghanaian kingdom, Mali profited immensely from its monopoly over the trade routes across Africa. The more southerly location of the Mali empire also meant that the bulk of the gold trade passed through their territory. The fact that Mali was also located on fertile land was a source of great influence in an area surrounded by desert (Harris 53).
Important Mali rules include Sundjata, a magician who rose up from the ranks of slave. Sundjata is credited with seizing the territories that controlled the gold trade and with introducing the cultivation and weaving of cotton. These two contributions cemented Mali's sphere of influence in the region.
Later rules like Mansa Musa, who ruled from 1312 to 1337 expanded Mali territory to include the city-states of Timbuktu, Gao and Djenne. The devoutly Muslim Mansa Musa also constructed mosques throughout the Mali empire and even made a pilgrimage to bring gold into Mecca (Harris 57).
Kingdom of Songhay
The decline of the Kingdom of Ghana paved the way for the Kingdom of Songhay's rise to prominence. Though Songhay dates back to the 700 AD, it did not reach prominence until 1400 to 1500. At its peak, Songhay encompassed parts of Gambia, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Gambia and Senegal. The kingdom's capital, Gao, was established along the Niger River (MacDonald).
Like its predecessor, the Kingdom of Songhay expanded through conquest and trade. According to Songhay legend, a ruler named Aliman Za used iron weapons to conquer the Gabbi and Sorko peoples who lived along the Niger River. Za then established a dynasty that would rule Songhay until the late 16th century (Stroller 54).
Though Songhay was ruled by a king, the kingdom was further divided into neighborhoods. Each neighborhood is ruled by a chief, typically a male of noble descent. These neighborhoods are further divided into the household. Depending on his wealth, a man may have more than one wife.
The chief industry in Songhay society was agriculture, as families cultivated crops such as rice, millet, cowpeas and groundnuts. The Songhay people also participated in trade by selling their surplus products (Stroller 56).
In fact, Songhay's rise to power came not as a result of its agriculture but again, by strategic geography. Songhay controlled important trade routes across the Sahara desert. As a result, traders who wished to exchange gold and other West African goods from Europe through Asia often had to pass through Songhay (MacDonald).
Also, unlike Ghana, Songhay religion combined aspects of native beliefs with Islam. Thus, mosques, ancestor worship, magic and witchcraft were all part of the unique form of Islam that was practiced in Songhay (MacDonald).
Two powerful Songhay rules, Sunni Ali and Askia Muhammad, contributed the most to the growth of the Songhay Empire. In the late 15th century, Sunni Ali conquered the important trading centers of Timbuktu and Djenne. Askia Muhammad took advantage of Sunni Ali's conquests by further expanding trade and spreading Islam throughout the Songhay Empire (MacDonald).
However in the late 16th century, the Songhay kingdom faced growing threats from their northern neighbors. The seeds of the empire's decline were planted in 1591, after Songhay was defeated by a Moroccan army at the Battle of Tondibi (MacDonald).
Concepts of slavery
The amount of human life that was traded during the colonial period is staggering. In Ghana alone, some historians estimate that "it can be said that over half-a-million people or more from northern Ghana were sold into slavery in the period 1732 to 1897 while thousands of other died or were killed in slave raids" (Der 28)
It is important to note that while the flourishing trade in the kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay included the trade of human beings, the African kingdoms had a concept of slavery that was very different from that of the European colonizers. In the Songhay empire, for example, the status of slave was acquired through owing debts or through capture in war. Slaves were then assigned to various chieftains or families. The slaves were allowed to marry and their sons and daughters do not automatically inherit the status of slave.
Another significant difference lies in the end of slave status. In the African kingdoms, slaves could earn their freedom through work.
If they satisfied their debts, they could be removed from slavery. As an example, Sundjata rose from the ranks of slave to become ruler of the Mali Empire.
Among the Songhay, slaves were treated not as outcasts, but…