Mansa Musa, King of Ghana (1307-1332 AD)

West Sudanese
(1000 AD- 1591 AD)
DBA III/68

By Eric Lindberg

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This list covers the African kingdoms of the Sahel region, south of the Sahara Desert, and also the area around Lake Chad, from the height of the Empire of Ghana in the 11th century until the collapse of Songhai following Moroccan raids at the end of the 16th century.  Specific states include Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Bornu, Kanem and the Hausa states.

The rise and fall of the Sahel civilizations is a fascinating and sadly little studied topic. The Sahel is a strip of arable land between the desert to the north and the less hospitable forests, jungles, and savannahs to the south. These southern regions were the source of large supplies of gold and ivory. The Sahel civilizations, such as Ghana, were able to gain tremendous wealth by controlling the trade routes from these sources to the trade cities of the Mediterranean. In return for the ivory and gold, the Sahel kingdoms amassed copper, iron, and grain.

The exact date of origin of the trans Saharan trade routes is uncertain, but they probably predate the appearance of Arab traders in the eighth century. The first of the great trading kingdoms covered by the list is Ghana. The center of this kingdom was on the western end of the Niger River Valley, in modern Mali. Ghana dominated the trade routes to Morocco, only to fall during the brief domination by the Almoravids in the eleventh century.

The Empire of Mali succeeded Ghana in the twelfth century. Based slightly to the south of Ghana, Mali was united by Sundiata, who is memorialized in Malian legends (which were used, in part, as inspiration for Disney's The Lion King). This Islamic kingdom rapidly dominated the entire Niger valley from the coast to the Niger bend (roughly to the border of modern Chad). The Mali Empire marks the height of Sahel culture. Many of the great cities of the region were built or greatly expanded at this time, including Jenne and Timbuktu. The enormous wealth of this period is exemplified by Mansa Musa's pilgrimage to Mecca, accompanied by a huge number of mounted retainers. According to Egyptian chronicles, his profligate spending caused a drop in the value of gold for years afterward. The Empire was divided into a number of provinces and semi-autonomous kingdoms owing allegience to the Emperor, or "Mansa" in Jenne. By the fourteenth century, Mali's influence had eroded to the point where Imperial control was minimal.

The Kingdom of Songhai existed on the eastern border of the Mali Empire, centered on the city of Gao. In the mid-fourteenth century, Songhai extended its control westward, eventually reaching as far as Timbuktu, and gaining an ascendancy over Mali and other Sahel peoples. Songhai rebuilt much of the old trade routes, but eventually saw their disappearance. The old trade routes in Gold and Ivory were now less lucrative as Arabs found new sources in east Africa, and Europeans bypassed the Sahara trade route via the Atlantic and discovered American gold. Ironically, the near legendary wealth of the Sahel had attracted the interest of Moroco just as it was disappearing. In 1590, Morocco launched an invasion force across the Sahara. In 1591, at the battle of Tondibi, Songhai was defeated and the city of Gao fell. Despite the legends of fabulous wealth, the Moroccan invaders conquered an empire increasingly in debt and more dependent upon trade in slaves than in gold and ivory. In little time, the invaders abandoned the region.

After the fall of Songhai, the Kingdom of Kanem-Bornu and the Hausa States continued to dominate the region around Lake Chad and the Eastern Sahel. The Western region, once dominated by Mali and Songhai, split into many rival states. The coastal peoples became increasingly dependent upon the slave trade with the Europeans.

Enemies

The enemies of the West Sudanese include the Christian Nubians (III/12), the Tauregs (III/69, the Berbers (III/74) and themselves.  The Berber list represents the Almoravid invasion of Ghana. The Moroccan army at Tondibi was too heavily armed with shot to be represented in DBA. At times, Kanem-Bornu was able to extend its power nearly to the Nile, bringing it into contact with some of the East Sudanese kingdoms, such as Darfur.

Army Composition

1 x 3Kn or 3Bd (Gen) King and his Royal Guard, or Yam Lifida, with mail or quilted armor, shield and short spear
2 x 3CV or 2Lh Yan kwarbai or lightly armored cavalry with javelins.
2x 3Bw Yam baka - massed bowmen with shortbows.
5x 3Bw or 3Ax Yam mashi (foot with shield and javelins) or Yam baka.
1x 3Ax or 4Sp or 3Bd or 2Ps Yam baka, yam assigiri (foot with metal spears), yam fate (foot with straight sword and shield) or skirmishers.
1x 2Ps Skirmishers.

Gone from the DBA 2.2 West Sudanese list are the Tuareg camelry commonly used as mercenaries by Sahel civilizations and stampeded cattle, which were used several times, notably by Tondibi, with disasterous results.

Variant Army Lists

The Sahel and Chadian region has a long and varied history. It would be hard to believe that the entire area can adequately be covered by one army list. Here are a few proposals for other army lists. Most are admittedly little more than educated guesses, pieced together from occasional second or third hand descriptions of the various peoples. If anyone has further suggestions for any of these lists, I'd be very happy to hear them!

  • Ghana (c. 900- c. 1400) -- 1 x 3Cv or 4Bd, 2 x 3Cv, 2 x 2LH, 2x4Sp, 2 x 3Bw, 2 x 2Ps, 1 x 3Cm or 2Ps

  • Mali (c. 1300- c. 1500) -- 1 x 3Kn or 3Cv, 3 x 3Cv, 2 x 2LH, 3 x 3Bw, 1 x 3Bw or 2Ps, 1 x 4Sp, 1 x 4Cm or 2LH or 2Ps

  • Songhai (c. 1350-1591) -- 1 x 3Kn or 3Cv, 2 x 3Cv, 3 x 2LH, 4 x 3Bw, 1 x 4Sp or 3/4Bd, 1 x 3Bw or 3Cm or SC

  • Tuareg (c. 900- c. 1800) -- 6 x 3Cm, 3 x 3Cm or 3Wb, 2 x 3Ax or 2Ps, 1 x 3Cm or 2LH

  • Mossi (c. 1300- c. 1600) -- 1 x 3Cv or 2LH, 5 x 2LH or 2Ps, 3 x 2Ps, 3 x 3Aux

  • Senegambia (c. 1100- c. 1600) -- 1 x 3Cv or 3Bd, 2 x 2LH, 2 x 3Bw, 3 x 3Aux, 4 x 2Ps

  • Kanem-Bornu and Hausa (c. 1100- c. 1800) -- 2 x 3Kn or 3Cv, 2 x 3Cv, 2 x 2LH, 2 x 3Bw, 2 x 4Sp, 2 x 2Ps or 3Aux

Notes:  I have assumed that Ghana was less reliant on cavalry, since they would not yet have access to a large supply of Arab horses. (Or maybe they did. As with just about everything in West African history, there is some dispute about this.) I have replaced some of the bow with psiloi, since the dense formations of bow really only seem to be appropriate for later eras.

The Malian army is, if anything, more dependent upon cavalry than the later forces. This is based mostly on Arabic chronicles and descriptions in the West African epics, which might be biased towards the horse-riding noblemen.

The Tuaregs acted both as raiders and as mercenaries for the Sahel region. At one point, Songhai hired two entire Tuareg armies to launch raids against Morocco.

The Mossi were described by one Malian to an Egyptian acquaintance as "The Tartars of Africa" because of their heavy use of archery and raiding. They also excelled in mounted combat by the 15th century. Whether these represent a large nation to the south of Mali is debatable. The term "Mossi" might be a Malian catch-all term meaning "southern barbarians." Or the name might have been applied indescriminately by Arabic commentators. Or perhaps relatives of the modern Mossi people really did establish a small empire to the south of the Sahel.

The Senegambia list covers a number of people of the western coastal region. The region is defined by the Senegal and Gambia river deltas. Ghana, then Mali, and then Morocco dominated the region, but the people here were occasionally able to exercise some independence when these empires were weak or still growing.

The Hausa States and Kanem-Bornu dominated the east Sahel and the area around Lake Chad, respectively. They were never completely submerged into Mali or Songhai, and remained independent. Even into the nineteenth century, European exploreres were impressed by the large number of well-armed horsemen the Hausa could muster. Both the Hausa States and Kanem-Bornu survived in some form until Colonial times.

Painting Guide

I have yet to find any really impressive figures for this region. Irregular has a few. Some Arab, Berber, or even Ancient Nubian figures might be substituted for rank and file troops, but good luck finding West African cattle or an authentic griot.

Knights -- Armored in mail. The horses would be wearing padded barding. The decoration on the command figure should naturally include a great deal of gold. Riders usually wore flowing robes, similar to Berber styles. Sundiata is described as having led his troops wearing a white robe and turban. Any self-respecting leader would be accompanied by a griot, a West African bard, probably carrying a lute-like instrument.

Cavalry -- More lightly armored than the knights, with mailed armor appearing in Malian times. Horse barding would also be rare, except in later eras.

Light Horse -- These could be armed with javelin or bow, without armor, and dressed in robes and turbans.

Archers -- These would be extremely variable in organization. Some might be regular infantry in padded armor, robes, and turbans, similar to cavalry, and carrying iron spears. At the other extreme would be local levies without armor or any defensive weapons, carrying short bows normally used for hunting.

Other Infantry -- Like the archers, these are also extremely varied. Ordinary levies would tend to be armed with spears and hide shields. More organized troops could include swordsmen or spearmen in padded armor.

Tuareg Camelry -- Warriors in blue robes and veils, armed with iron spears and longswords, carrying white hide shields. The camels should be off-white to light brown.

Stampeded Cattle -- I'm sure that someone manufactures 15mm West African cattle, but I haven't found them yet.

Banners in many different colors were carried by each clan. Muslim banners might also include Koranic quotations in Arabic.

Tactics

The official list is well built to take on mounted armies. Maneuverable light horse and powerful bow can perform the roles of flanking and pinning forces. Against a blade-heavy army, the heavy cavalry can act as a maneuverable pinning force.  The Malian epic, Sundiata describes a number of battle formations, usually involving heavy cavalry in the center, flanked by the infantry.

Camps and BUAs

Camp subjects include a rough log pallisade, a brush boma, and a herd of cattle.  BUA subjects could span from a simple African hut or village to elaborate mud-walled cities. The picture at right is a samolo, or mud-brick house with thatched roof found in Burkina Faso.  Such a building could contain 20 or more rooms, including separate sleeping chambers for multiple wives.

Historical Sources

General History of Africa, UNESCO, California Press. UNESCO is in the process of producing the most complete general history of Africa, in seven volumes. Volumes III and IV cover the period of the West Sudanese list.

West Africa Before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850, Basil Davidson, Addison-Wesley. Davidson has been writing accessible histories of pre-colonial Africa for the last thirty years. Many of these are now out of print. The above is a.) the most recent, b.) the most complete, c.) available. Sadly, it is also d.) expensive.

Government in Kano, 1350-1900, M.G. Smith, Westview Press. This is on my list of books to read. Kano was one of the central cities of the Hausa States.

Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, D. T. Niane, translator, Addison-Wesley. This is the most famous of the epic legends of West Africa. Well worth the read both for literature and military history.

The Penguin Atlas of African History, Colin McEvedy, Penguin. Like most Penguin historical atlases, this gives a good overview of history, but is lacking in detail maps.

There are a few other odd sources of information. As always, I consider travel books to be one of the least consulted resources for miniatures players. At the very least, you'll get an idea of what traditional houses and the local livestock look like. African-American interest in the pre-colonial Africa has inspired a large collection of juvenile literature on the subject since the sixties. While quality and accuracy are wildly variable, one thing you can count on is lots of pictures! Check the juvenile section of your local library. Finally, your local natural history or art museum may have a wealth of data.


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Last Update:  19 Oct. 2004

My thanks to Eric Lindberg for contributing this essay.  I have updated it for DBA 2.2 by updating the army list and descriptions, adding the historical enemies and tactical notes, as sprucing up the layout with some pictures

Questions, comments and suggestions welcome.
Send feedback to Chris Brantley at IamFanaticus@gmail.com.