The Art of War in pre-modern Africa


Forum Staff
Oct 2009
While the Zulus and Masai are marginally well-known in popular history, the warriors of many other African peoples - from forest tribes, to empires and kingdoms - have gone largely unnoticed in history.

As I understand it, the tsetse fly was the primary reason for the relative lack of cavalry fielded by many African peoples. But apparently the kingdoms of medieval West Africa, influenced by the Arab and Berber states to their north, fielded heavily-armored horsemen.

What else can be said of warfare, weaponry, battle tactics, and the cultural view of war in pre-20th Century Africa, with special emphasis on the kingdoms of West Africa?
Aug 2011
Well my people of south west Cameroon used "dummies" to temporarily distract enemies during battle and these things were done in the days of old which is what means very long ago way before the 20 century. Also some tribes in forest regions of Africa had female warriors. Yaa asantewaa of Ghana who was a queen herself resulted to fighting the British when the man of the Ashanti tribe had given up she is famously known in one of her speeches for implying that if men are afraid to face the white man then it is up to the women to. The Ashanti also had battles with the British in which some of them were won by the Ashanti. But from my observations of my people and many other tribes in the forest regions is that during wars we look at the actions of our "fathers" or ancestors. In some African literature depicted during the white mans coming the men of society commonly refer to the days before the coming of the Europeans and how their fathers would't have allowed this (oppression) to happen to them.

[ame=""]Yaa Asantewaa - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia[/ame]


Forum Staff
Oct 2009
Very interesting etamaze.

On the topic of female African warriors, the King of Dahomey had a bodyguard unit of women, called 'amazons' by white observers.
Mar 2012
This is right up my alley..

From Wiki, I don't have the book in question below but a friend of mine does and he assures me the Wiki info is accurate..

The Mino were recruited from among the ahosi ("king's wives") of which there were often hundreds. Some women in Fon society became ahosi voluntarily, while others were involuntarily enrolled if their husbands or fathers complained to the King about their behaviour. Membership among the Mino was supposed to hone any aggressive character traits for the purpose of war. During their membership they were not allowed to have children or be part of married life. Many of them were virgins. The regiment had a semi-sacred status, which was intertwined with the Fon belief in Vodun.
The Mino trained with intense physical exercise. Discipline was emphasised. In the latter period, they were armed with Winchester rifles, clubs and knives. Units were under female command. Captives who fell into the hands of the Amazons were often decapitated.

European encroachment into west Africa gained pace during the latter half of the 19th century, and in 1890 King Behanzin started fighting French forces in the course of the First Franco-Dahomean War. According to Holmes, many of the French soldiers fighting in Dahomey hesitated before shooting or bayoneting the Mino. The resulting delay led to many of the French casualties.
However, according to at least two easily-identifiable sources, the French army lost several battles to them—not because of French "hesitation," but due to the female warriors' skill in battle that was "the equal of every contemporary body of male elite soldiers from among the colonial powers"
Ultimately, bolstered by the Foreign Legion, and armed with superior weaponry, including machine guns, as well as cavalry and Marine infantry, the French inflicted casualties that were ten times worse on the Dahomey side. After several battles, the French prevailed. The Legionnaires later wrote about the "incredible courage and audacity" of the Amazons. The last surviving Amazon of Dahomey died in 1979.
[ame=""]Dahomey Amazons - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia[/ame]

Mar 2012
Horses seem to have been important in the Sahel regions in Africa.


[He] Gives an audience to his people, in order to listen to their complaints and set them right…he sits in a pavilion around which stand 10 horses with gold embodied trappings. Behind the king stand 10 pages holding shields and gold mounted swords; on his right are the sons of princes of his empire, splendidly clad and with gold plaited in their hair. Before him sits the high priest, and behind the high priest sit the other priests…The door of the pavilion is guarded by dogs of an excellent breed who almost never leave the king's presence and who wear collars of gold and silver studded with bells of the same material.

Horse-mounted warrior holding a spear and clothed in armor. “The black chiefs . . . were habited in coats of mail composed of iron chain which covered them from the throat to the knees . . . their horses’ heads were also defended by plates of iron, brass, and silver….”
Songhay conducted a draft and organized a professional army. The army–mostly made of slave battalions–lived in barracks separated from the civilian population. Mahnud Ka’ti wrote, “the great men of the Songhay were versed in the art of war. They were very brave, very bold and most expert in the deployment of military stratagems.” By 1591 the army totaled 40,000 (30,000 infantry, 10,000 cavalry). Songhay warriors wore iron breastplates beneath their battle tunics, had lances, sabers and arrows with poisoned tips, and the infantry used leather and copper shields. The cavalry, like Mali, were the army’s elite unit. The army sounded long trumpets during battles.
Ending Stereotypes for America


Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
Ancient Egypt when it comes to warfare seemed to be in possession of weapons and attire no different form much later African civilizations. The Zulus went to war with loin cloths and barefeet; armed very often with spears and maces, with cowhide shields for protection. Almost identical to Ancient Egypt:

Here is a picture of the Egyptian Mace:

& here are the Zulus:

Mar 2012
I know that in Mali they had a huge army consisting of heavy cavalry, foot speamen with wicker shields, and archers. The archers carried two knives, and dipped their arrows in neuro toxic poison.

The numbers are sometimes given as 100,000, 10,000 of which were cavarly, and 3/4 of the infantry archers.

Its possible that the numbers are exaggerated as is the case with most medieval armies, but it sounds very formidable regardless.