In 1591, a small Moroccan force of about 4000 musketeers very easily defeated a much larger Songhai army, and brought down the West African Songhai Empire. Songhai was the last of the three wealthy West African empires (Ghana, Mali, Songhai) that dominated the Sahel region before the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade became a major factor on the coast. At the March 1591 Battle of Tondibi, the Moroccans routed a Songhai force at least five times greater, conservatively estimated at 25,000; other sources claim the Songhai army numbered 80,000, and yet others go as high as 104,000.
How did this happen? How could such a small force crush an army of sub-Saharan Africans that vastly outnumbered it? The standard answer is that the Moroccans, who had 2,500 Spanish mercenaries with them, were armed with guns, and the Africans were not. This answer is the ready-made reason produced by many people for the negative outcomes of the historical conflicts/ meetings between Europeans and Africans during slavery and colonization. It is often taken as a self-evident truth and nearly everyone repeats it, from the ordinary black person around the world, to some white scholars. The Jamaican-British reggae band Steel Pulse captured this popular sentiment in the song “Soldiers”:
We’ve got our spears,
We’ve got our shields
But their guns were greater
Prepare for a slaughter
The belief that it was a simple matter of having guns or not having them goes well beyond reggae musicians. In an interview with Christopher Wise, translator of the Tarikh al Fattash, the Timbuktu scribe and historian al-hajj Salem Ould says that “the biggest mistake the Askiyas [the kings of Songhai] made was not investing in firearms. They ignored the development of superior military armaments in the north. They could very well have bought rifles [sic]. This would have been easy for them. Kano bought rifles from the Turks…”
This view is wrong. It is not the destructive power of guns and their superiority over spears, arrows and swords that defeated the Songhai army; there are other more important factors that will be discussed later.
It seems to me that many don’t know what the guns of the time were like, and what it took to operate them. In discussions and debates with my African friends about European possession of guns before and during slavery, I often got the impression they think the guns of those days were like today’s multiple-barrel 6,000 rounds-a-minute Gatling guns, capable of sweeping a crowded street clear at the push of a button (think what the American Little Bird assault helicopters did in Mogadishu in October 1993, portrayed in the movie “Black Hawk Down.” )
But the guns of the 16th century were nothing like that. Not even remotely close. They were not even like the guns you see in Westerns, which the cowboys fire indiscriminately and never seem to have to reload. And the firearms of 1591 were not even “rifles” (Salem Ould’s words as translated by Christopher Wise). We will get to that later.
The Moroccans invaded Songhai because the treasury of the Mulay Ahmad al-Mansur, Sultan of Morocco, was empty, and he needed to replenish it. He knew that there was a wealthy kingdom to his south where there were rich gold, silver and salt mines. So in December 1589 He sent a letter to Askia (emperor) Ishaq II of Songhai, demanding that a regular tax on the lucrative salt mine in Taghaza, Songhai, be paid into his treasury as compensation for the “protection” Mulay Ahmad’s army was providing Songhai. Yes, the protection racket is as old as humankind—Ahmad claimed that were it not for him and his army, the Christian infidels from Europe would have overrun Islamic Songhai.
Askia Ishaq II rudely told him where to go. Now note that in this first letter, Mulay Ahmad clearly spelled out what he would do if Ishaq failed to comply—he would invade to force compliance. This means that Ishaq had some 13 months to prepare for the coming attack. Did he? It appears not. During a meeting with his counselors to discuss the threat, someone halfheartedly suggested filling up with stones all the water wells along the way from Marrakesh to Timbuktu, but that strategy was rejected. As it should because the Moroccan expeditionary force came with its own water supplies. It seems that Askia Ishaq II depended on nothing but the considerable number of warriors he called up for the coming war.
Now what about the Moroccans? What was the composition of the expeditionary force sent by Mulay Ahmed? According to the report of The Anonymous Spaniard, believed to be a spy for Phillip II of Spain living in Marrakesh, the force consisted of 1,000 renegade Christian musketeers, 1000 Andalusian musketeers from Granada, 500 mounted renegade musketeers and 1000 native Moroccan “lancers.” (The descendants of these invaders can be found in modern Mali today where they are known as the Arma, and their ancestry is West African, Spanish, Portuguese, Irish, French and Italian.) The total force of combatants plus support troops came up to 5,000, according to this report, and they were commanded by Mulay Ahmed’s Spanish-born slave eunuch, Judar Pasha. In essence, these mercenary invaders were more European than North African.
The Spanish/ Moroccans were likely armed with harquebuses and/ or matchlock muskets, the long guns of the day. These are not “rifles.” While rifling—the making of spiral grooves within a gun barrel to make a ball or bullet spin and therefore travel straighter and more accurately—was available, it was such a difficult process before the Industrial Revolution that very few rifles were made, and it is highly unlikely that the Moroccans had any. What most armies had up until 1700 were smooth-bore muzzle-loading matchlock muskets that had to be reloaded after one shot.
Because they were not rifled, the guns of the time were terribly inaccurate—Kenneth Chase, author of Firearms: A global history to 1700, writes that the bullet could stray up to five feet from where it is aimed from a distance of 200 feet. Obviously it was not possible to be a sharpshooter with such a weapon. Chase says that the matchlock was only effective against massed infantry: when enemies attack in a block and present a wide target, the inaccuracy of the weapons is no longer an issue. He also says that they were useless against cavalry unless the musketeers were protected by pikemen armed with long pikes to keep the horses at bay.
To make matters worse, loading and firing the musket involved a 28 step process that included pouring gunpowder down the barrel and putting the bullet or ball in through the front of the barrel. It was a very unwieldy procedure that took thirty seconds to a minute to complete. It was also a dangerous operation that involved applying to the firing pan the “match” of the matchlock, a two or three feet long smoldering rope lit at both ends that had to be kept away from any gunpowder that was not in the muzzle. Because of this, an inexperienced musketeer was a potential hazard to his comrades.
Here is Chase describing the process as published in a Dutch drill manual from 1607:
“The match was kept lit at both ends, in case one end went out, so one end would be held between the pinkie and ring fingers of the left hand, and the other end between the ring and middle fingers of the same hand. Soldiers followed elaborate procedures to keep the match always as far from the gunpowder as possible.
Specifically, after firing his musket, a soldier had to (1) hold the gun up with his left hand, (2) remove the match from the lock with his right hand, (3) put the end of the match back in his left hand, (4) blow any sparks out of the priming pan, (5) put priming powder in the pan (6) shut the pan, (7) shake any powder off the lid of the pan, (8) blow any remaining powder off the lid of the pan, (9) pick up the gun in both hands, (10) transfer the gun to his left side, (11) open a [gunpowder] flask with his right hand, (12) insert the powder and bullet into the muzzle (13) draw the ramrod out of the stock, (14) adjust his grip on the ramrod (15) ram home the bullet and powder, (16) pull out the ramrod, (17) adjust his grip on the ramrod, (18) return the ramrod to the stock, (19) hold the gun up with his left hand, (20) grasp the gun with his right hand, (21) transfer the gun to his right side, (22) take one end of the match in his right hand, (23) blow on the match, (24) insert the match in the lock, (25) adjust the match in the lock, (26) blow on the match again, and (27) level the gun, before he could finally (28) pull the trigger again.” For a demonstration of how to load a matchlock musket see this video.
And after all this, the guns could misfire for various reasons not the least of which was damp gunpowder. Clearly, the guns of those days were not the great advantage some people imagine them to be. In fact, at the time of the Battle of Tondibi, the English were still debating whether guns were better than the redoubtable English longbow. The English soldier Sir John Smythe argued that the longbow had a higher rate of fire, and that archers could fire four or five arrows in the time it took a musketeer to fire one bullet, and that the bow was more reliable because guns could overheat and crack.
The guns also required a high degree of regular drill and practice to make them second nature to the users. To overcome the problem of everyone firing at once, then having to spend perhaps thirty to sixty seconds reloading—during which time the enemy would be among the musketeers—the Dutch invented the technique of volley fire, where the musketeers were divided into a number of units or ranks in which one unit fired and stepped back to reload while another stepped forward to the firing line, after which it too went behind to reload thus keeping up a steady rate of volleys. But this method was devised by the Dutch in the 1590s, so it is very likely that the Spanish/ Moroccans did not practice it. *
The Anonymous Spaniard says that the Moroccan expeditionary force also came with “4 small cannons, and 10 mortars for projecting stone balls against towns.” It is important to recognize that these are not cruise missiles or 240 mm howitzers capable of flattening large buildings. The cannon of the era were just as primitive as the long guns carried by soldiers—they did not fire explosive shells, but solid stone or iron cannon balls. They were more roar than bite, and the damage they did would be laughable today.
For example, just three years before the Battle of Tondibi, the Royal Navy faced the Spanish Armada in the English Channel in July 1588. The English had bigger guns on their ships, and their gunners unleashed a 2,000 cannonball barrage at the mass of Spanish ships, which presented a target two miles long. They hit practically nothing. Like the long guns, they too were inaccurate at a distance of 300 yards which is where the English were firing from.
There is evidence from elsewhere in Africa that guns of the time were not the game changer some of us think they were. There are situations where Africans without guns defeated Europeans, or at least gave them trouble. For example, in the same century, during English slave trader John Hawkins’ second and third slave raiding expeditions to West Africa (1564-65, and 1567-68) his men were armed with harquebuses, a similar weapon to the musket. They were successfully attacked and driven off by Africans armed with machetes and poisoned arrows, who killed 7 Englishmen and wounded 27 in the first voyage, and killed 8 in the second while wounding an unknown number. (See Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America, Vol I 1441-1700, edited by Elizabeth Donnan)
It is clear from all the above that what mattered then isn’t so much the military hardware as the people using them, and the fighting culture they came from. Africans could buy guns, as Salem Ould pointed out, and we know that the kingdom of Kanem-Bornu to the East did. That they had guns did not matter if they did not have a fighting culture that taught them how to use the weapons effectively. It is the “software” of culture, military and otherwise, that made the difference.
Europeans/Westerners usually win in confrontations between them and Africans/ others around the world because they have a long history of highly developed and organized military lethality. They come to war to systematically kill as many as possible as efficiently as possible. Not only are they constantly developing techniques and technologies for more effective killing, they are constantly revising and updating tactics for more efficient use of new killing technologies.
As far back as the ancient Romans, the Mediterranean empire’s deadly seriousness about war surprised many of the tribal peoples it fought and conquered. The Romans had honed their legions into highly efficient killing machines, and did not come to war to frighten their opponents, or prove their valor, or go home singing and holding aloft a few trophy heads; they aimed to kill as many as possible, and trained to use their swords to most lethal effect by stabbing at vital organs of the body. They actually counted enemy dead because the number determined the size of the triumph or victory parade the victorious Roman general could hold back in Rome. Roman culture promoted war, and their boys trained and drilled for it. The worst carnage happened in the civil wars the Romans fought where two highly skilled Roman armies faced off.
A lot of this approach to war is now part of today’s European/ Western (cultural) DNA. It is no joke at all when European nations confront one another. The most destructive wars in human history have been between European nations—the prime example being the Germans vs the Soviet Russians, 1941-1945, where two supreme killing machines, the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, massacred each other in four absolutely brutal years (recent estimates put German military dead on the Eastern Front at 4 million, and Soviet at 8.7 million).
Yes, the guns the European/ Moroccans came to Tondibi with in 1591 were very primitive affairs, and were extremely complicated to use, but this forced the users to develop drills and training for their use that demanded and inculcated organization and discipline in combat, and forbearance under fire. This is what defeated the Songhai rather than the actual destructive power of the guns. When African armies were in much later times defeated by much smaller European forces, it is this factor more than the killing power of guns that made Europe win.
The accounts of the Battle of Tondibi suggest that the Songhai behaved as traditional warriors would, while the Spanish/ Moroccans behaved as an organized, regularly drilled, and disciplined force would. The descriptions suggest that at some point early in the conflict, the Songhai broke and ran—they were defeated “in the twinkling of an eye,” as al Sadi’s Tarikh al Sudan put it. Other more detailed accounts say that the battle commenced with the mounted Moroccan musketeers charging the Songhai: according to one account, the Moroccans killed 47 Songhai, while the Songhai wounded 13 Moroccans. Askia Ishaq II then sent herds of cattle toward the Moroccan infantry to absorb their bullets. The Moroccan musketeers stood firm, “dropped to their knees,” and fired a volley at the cattle; the cattle became panicked at the thunder, turned around and stampeded back toward the Songhai, crushing many warriors under their hooves. This is when the Askiya decided, or was persuaded, to flee, because “he could fight another day,” and as he fled the battlefield, his warriors turned and ran as well.
Thus, what defeated the Songhai was not the guns of the Moroccans per se, but the irresolute behavior of the Askiya and his men, who like many traditional and pre-modern people, are prone to abandon the field when confronted with a minor reversal and a resolute enemy that presents them with unexpected difficulties.
If the Songhai warriors had been organized and well prepared in advance of the invasion, if they were trained and resolute, if they had worked out better tactics to neutralize the largely ineffectual weapons of the Moroccans, there is no reason why 25,000 warriors armed with poisoned arrows and spears could not have made short work of 2,500 Spanish musketeers, and 1000 Moroccan lancers. Unfortunately, it is rare for traditional societies to develop that kind of military preparedness and training, and thus the defeat of the Songhai was really not a surprise.
* Some parts of this post have appeared verbatim in a web post I made on a history forum a couple of months ago.
SELECT SOURCES AND BOOKS YOU MIGHT WANT TO READ.
Firearms: A global history to 1700 by Kenneth Chase
The Illustrated History of Guns: From first firearms to semiautomatic weapons by Chuck Wills
War Made New: Weapons, warriors and the making of the modern world, by Max Boot
Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America, Vol I, 1441-1700, by Elizabeth Donnan.
Timbuktu and the Songhai Empire by John Hunwick
Tarikh al Fattash, translated by Christopher Wise and Hala Abu Taleb