Why didn't Bornu's gun technology diffuse?

Aug 2018
14
Ontario
#1
I read that the Kanem-Bornu Empire in central Africa was one of the first sub-saharan states to widely adopt the firearm into their military in the 16th century thanks to close relationship with the Ottomans. They also had quite an extensive territorial claim, stretching from Chad, Sudan to Libya to Nigeria and Cameroon. They even competed directly with the Songhai Empire for land.

If this was the case, why did the gulf states like Benin have to import their guns from the Europeans? Why did Songhai fall to Moroccan's with rifles if their nearby neighbour already had firearms aplenty? And what conditions are ideal for technology to spread quickly within a region?
 

Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,564
Benin City, Nigeria
#2
I made a post highlighting certain differences between late 16th century Bornu and Songhai here a few years ago.

(As I indicated in the next page of that thread, the use of "Britain" there when talking about Morocco's efforts to improve its naval technology was a mistake and I meant to write England.)

But long story short, Songhai had only recently started to recover from a civil war when the Moroccans invaded, so instead of making the right diplomatic moves to acquire better weapons in the decades preceding the invasion, they were caught up in internal strife. There is some interesting analysis of the details of this civil war in the final three chapters of the book African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa (2018) by Michael Gomez.

By the way, when the Saadian army occupied Gao, they did find a single cannon there, of Portuguese origin, in a part of the city. So it must have been traded up/across from a point on the coast of West Africa (or bought at the coast and then deliberately transported to Gao without changing hands/ownership between different states) through to the interior and finally to Gao. How much earlier before the invasion that single cannon reached Gao is anyone's guess. But of course a single cannon obtained from the coastal trade, with no one to demonstrate its real effectiveness and instruct people in how to use it or replicate it, won't result in a revolution in weaponry.

I don't think Bornu fought much or at all with Songhai for territory, or at least, I don't remember reading about such a thing happening. But maybe if that had happened, the "shock" of firearms to Songhai would have happened earlier.
 
Aug 2018
14
Ontario
#3
I made a post highlighting certain differences between late 16th century Bornu and Songhai here a few years ago.

(As I indicated in the next page of that thread, the use of "Britain" there when talking about Morocco's efforts to improve its naval technology was a mistake and I meant to write England.)

But long story short, Songhai had only recently started to recover from a civil war when the Moroccans invaded, so instead of making the right diplomatic moves to acquire better weapons in the decades preceding the invasion, they were caught up in internal strife. There is some interesting analysis of the details of this civil war in the final three chapters of the book African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa (2018) by Michael Gomez.

By the way, when the Saadian army occupied Gao, they did find a single cannon there, of Portuguese origin, in a part of the city. So it must have been traded up/across from a point on the coast of West Africa (or bought at the coast and then deliberately transported to Gao without changing hands/ownership between different states) through to the interior and finally to Gao. How much earlier before the invasion that single cannon reached Gao is anyone's guess. But of course a single cannon obtained from the coastal trade, with no one to demonstrate its real effectiveness and instruct people in how to use it or replicate it, won't result in a revolution in weaponry.
Yes! Thank you for that info. I had heard that a railway line was planned in Kumasi after the Asante submitted to the British(before the forth British-Asante war), but I wasn't aware that there were plans before that too.

As for the bit on Songhai diplomacy, the civil wars definitely seem to have weakened their ability to defend themselves. But wad it necessary for them, and other West African states, to establish ties strictly with Near Eastern sources or could they have requested supplies and training from the Bornu Empire? I figured Bornu could have served as a funnel for supplies and training from North Africa into the hinterlands, and down to the coast.

For instance, the number one European import into West Africa during the Atlantic slave trade was the firearm(and artillery). I wonder if the Guinea kingdom's dependence on European trade would have turned out differently had a steady flow of defence upgrades coming from the Sudan served as an alternative.

I don't think Bornu fought much or at all with Songhai for territory, or at least, I don't remember reading about such a thing happening. But maybe if that had happened, the "shock" of firearms to Songhai would have happened earlier.
I read that the region around Hausaland frequently changed hands between Songhai and Kanem-Bornu. I had only read it in passing, however, and haven't looked into the background of their relationship, if there was one at all.
 
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Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,564
Benin City, Nigeria
#4
For Bornu to serve as a conduit for the diffusion of guns, the Bornu leadership would have to have been comfortable with giving guns to surrounding states and peoples that they may have actually planned to invade. Basically, the real question is what real advantage or benefit is there to Bornu in selling guns to rivals or potential rivals? Even if those people that they might sell to are Muslims rather than pagans (they wouldn't have sold guns to "infidels" obviously), it's hard to see what direct benefit there would be to Bornu.
 

Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,564
Benin City, Nigeria
#5
The issue of the exact time period of Songhai and Bornu dominance over Hausaland is an interesting question, which was never really resolved.

In a 1978 article, "Leo Africanus and the Songhay Conquest of Hausaland", the historian Humphrey J. Fisher questioned whether this Songhai conquest really happened.

An alternative explanation could be that Leo Africanus may have confused a period of Bornu dominance over parts of Hausaland as being one of Songhai dominance, since a number of states in Hausaland are known to have had definite influence from Bornu or are mentioned as explicitly having been vassals of Bornu at some time in certain chronicles.

A second alternative explanation is that Leo confused the emergence of Kanta Kotal's empire ("Kanta" is a title, meaning "ruler"; "Kotal" was his actual personal name), centered around Kebbi, and its domination over some other Hausa states, as being a period of Songhai dominance over the Hausa area. Actually, even in the 19th century, about 100 years before Fisher's article, Heinrich Barth had already suggested that Leo Africanus might have confused Kanta Kotal's domination over the Hausa states with Songhai domination over Hausaland, and then mistakenly ascribed Kanta Kotal's actions in Hausaland to Askia Mohammed.

In the book Warfare in the Sokoto Caliphate by Joseph Smaldone, in the earliest section of the book, which discusses some of the history of Hausaland prior to the Fulani conquest/usurpation, the author suggests that while Kebbi was still a vassal of Songhai, Askia Muhammad and Kanta Kotal had worked together in taking over the sultanate of Air and the other states of Hausaland, then fell out with each other after a dispute over the spoils. Afterwards, Songhai attempted to defeat Kebbi and impose its authority on the region only to be defeated by Kotal's forces. Both al-Sa'di's Tarikh al-Sudan and Muhammad Bello's much later Infaq al-Maysur describe Kebbi's defeat of Songhai forces when they attempted to gain control of the region.

However, a somewhat different view is given in John Hunwick's article "Songhay, Borno and Hausaland in the Sixteenth Century", in the book History of West Africa, Vol. I (2nd edition) by Ajayi and Crowder. I would recommend reading both Fisher's article and Hunwick's article for two different interpretations, if you have not already read them.

It should be noted that some of Leo Africanus's information about Bornu was clearly inaccurate. He didn't know too much about that state and he clearly never visited the area, especially since he claimed that they had "no religion at all" whereas multiple external and internal written sources that predate Leo Africanus's book show without a doubt that Islam had already been widely diffused in the area. So while a few things in Leo Africanus's description of Bornu may have been correct, much of it was likely inaccurate or suspect, and it would be easy to see how he could confuse Bornu dominance with Songhai dominance, as a result of knowing so little about Bornu.

That said, despite the doubts raised by Fisher's important article, it is clear that Kebbi, in Hausaland, had some sort of strong connection to Songhai, and this is proven by al-Sa'di's Tarikh al-Sudan where the then Kanta (ruler) of Kebbi is portrayed as initially being a vassal of Songhai before their falling out. Al-Sa'di also states that after Kebbi was able to repeatedly defeat Songhai attempts to conquer it, there was a peace agreement reached and the two states maintained cordial relations from the mid-16th century onward. The continued cordial relations between Songhai and Kebbi even up to the late 16th century are proven by the fact that after the Moroccan conquest, some of the leaders of the Songhai resistance took refuge in Kebbi for a period of time (as proven by a letter from the Moroccan sultan to the ruler of Kebbi threatening to invade Kebbi if the Songhai resistance leaders were not given up to the Moroccans.)

So a brief list of some possible interpretations:

1) There was an earlier Kanem-Bornu dominance of some of the Hausa states, which left its mark in the use of certain Kanem-Bornu titles for officials or in other ways, which then faded away at some point, perhaps during the period when the Sefuwa dynasty had to take refuge in Bornu during Kanem's civil war. The vassalage of some of these Hausa states to Kanem-Bornu ended and the Hausa states were independent. Later, these independent Hausa states were conquered by Songhai as described by Leo Africanus.

2) Bornu influence on parts of Hausaland occurred without conquest, perhaps as a result of immigrants from Kanem-Bornu to Hausaland, and the Hausa states were independent. But then some of these independent Hausa states were conquered by Songhai as described in Leo Africanus's book.

3) The conquest of some Hausa states described by Leo Africanus was really carried out by Bornu in earlier times, but Leo Africanus's lack of knowledge about Bornu led him to confuse this earlier Bornu conquest as being a more recent Songhai conquest.

4) There was some earlier influence from Kanem-Bornu on the Hausa states, but they were still independent rather than being conquered or made vassals. The conquest of Hausa states described by Leo Africanus was really done by a ruler of Kebbi, with the establishment of an empire under Kanta Kotal, and Leo Africanus confused the conquests carried out by Kebbi as being Songhai's conquests, perhaps because Kebbi had earlier been a vassal of Songhai. Kebbi then repulsed armies sent by Songhai and possibly even by Bornu at a later time (as claimed in Muhammad Bello's Infaq al-Maysur), securing its independence and allowing its further expansion. The fact that Kebbi had previously been a vassal of Songhai (as described in the Tarikh al-Sudan) does however suggest that there was already some preexisting Songhai political dominance in at least a part of Hausaland even before the rise of Kebbi in the early 16th century.

Of course some other variation on these interpretations, or some completely different interpretation, is possibly the correct explanation. But whatever interpretation is correct, I think there is no evidence that Bornu and Songhai fought each other directly over territory in Hausaland. The time periods in which they had political dominance in the region - if they actually did have such dominance - may not even overlap and both of them may have fought against certain Hausa states only at completely different times.
 

Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,564
Benin City, Nigeria
#6
(they wouldn't have sold guns to "infidels" obviously)
I should also have stated that while they would not have intentionally sold guns to "infidels", that would not have prevented some more lax or liberal Muslims elsewhere in the region from selling guns to non-Muslim buyers, if those other Muslims were able to acquire guns from Bornu. But like I said, there does not seem to be any direct advantage to Bornu to be gained by selling guns to neighboring groups.
 
Aug 2018
14
Ontario
#7
So how did other military technology spread in the region, like cavalry or armour? Same with Europe. Weren't the British and the French enemies? How did guns get to the British isles, let alone Scandinavia?

It makes sense that rivals would try to impede each other, especially in military technology, but firearms seem to be the only thing that didn't spread.
 
Aug 2018
14
Ontario
#8
The Ethiopian military secured a victory in 1896 against Italian forces thanks largely to strong diplomatic ties with Russia. A Russian officer supplied them with modern 19th century rifles and artillery which helped turn the tides of European colonialism in that part of the world. Russia allied with Ethiopia because they were a fellow Orthodox Christian state.

Why wasn't a similar arrangement made between the Islamic Bornu and the Ottoman Empire? Did the Ottomans even have the up-to-date weaponry that Russia had at the time? Did internal strife prevent Bornu from maintaining strong relationships with the Maghreb?

I ask this because neighbouring Islamic state Wadai managed to successfully ward off French domination until 1909 thanks to a strong relationship with North Africa.

It seems ties with the near east and Russia(non-imperial European allies) were key in resisting colonial domination. And seeing as the central Sudan had many of the same resources as Ethiopia, the region should have mirrored the results of the battle of Adwa. Unfortunately they failed.
 
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Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,564
Benin City, Nigeria
#10
The Ethiopian military secured a victory in 1896 against Italian forces thanks largely to strong diplomatic ties with Russia. A Russian officer supplied them with modern 19th century rifles and artillery which helped turn the tides of European colonialism in that part of the world. Russia allied with Ethiopia because they were a fellow Orthodox Christian state.

Why wasn't a similar arrangement made between the Islamic Bornu and the Ottoman Empire? Did the Ottomans even have the up-to-date weaponry that Russia had at the time? Did internal strife prevent Bornu from maintaining strong relationships with the Maghreb?

I ask this because neighbouring Islamic state Wadai managed to successfully ward off French domination until 1909 thanks to a strong relationship with North Africa.

It seems ties with the near east and Russia(non-imperial European allies) were key in resisting colonial domination. And seeing as the central Sudan had many of the same resources as Ethiopia, the region should have mirrored the results of the battle of Adwa. Unfortunately they failed.

In the early to mid 19th century diplomatic relations were technically still maintained between the Ottoman empire and Bornu, but not directly as in the 16th century. Instead contact was maintained only through the Pasha of Tripoli. So there were still diplomatic relations technically, but as far as I know or can recall they were only indirect and there was no effort on either side to establish more direct communication (with the central government in Istanbul itself). Despite the fact that there was only a more limited diplomatic relationship at that time, in the early 19th century there was actually a joint invasion by some soldiers from Bornu and some soldiers under the authority of the Pasha of Tripoli (governor of the Ottoman Eyalet of Tripoli) against the kingdom of Baguirmi (Bagirmi, Begharmi, Baghermi, etc.). This joint expedition against Baguirmi is discussed in the article "A Fezzani Military Expedition to Kanem and Bagirmi in 1821" (1936) by Francis Rodd and E.W. Bovill.

In the late 19th century however, Bornu had to contend against the forces of Rabih Fadlallah (ca. 1840 -1900), also known as Rabih al-Zubayr, who the already much weakened Bornouese were not able to defeat. In fact, Rabih actually defeated and conquered Bornu in the war and he had already set up a new state in its place by the time the French arrived to invade the area. In the conflict between Rabih and the French, Rabih probably was not drawing upon anything from Bornu's preexisting military technology though it is also not impossible that he was. Despite being only an adventurer and warlord of ordinary or possibly even lowly origins rather than a proper king/monarch from an established dynasty, Rabih's state was not disorganized but instead was actually an efficient (but harsh) regime that was essentially a predatory military dictatorship (rather than a real monarchy which existed basically by the will of the people of the state):

"In spite of the horror aroused by contemplation of all the crimes which Rabeh committed, one cannot help feeling a certain admiration for him. After conquering Bornu and Bagirmi with a handful of men, he dreamed of the conquest of Wadai, which awaited his arrival in trepidation. Without our intervention, he would have carried out his plan in the course of the very year in which he met his death. . .Death, fortunately, prevented him from fulfilling his ambitions. Yet they were not without a certain greatness, if one may judge by his actual achievements in Bornu. As soon as the country had submitted, the new Sultan set about the task of reorganisation. He quickly realised the extreme weakness of the ruler’s position—an outcome of the Bornu feudal system, balancing the chiefs’ power against the king’s, and thus creating a number of states within the state. But he saw also that he, as a newcomer, could not himself undertake the direct administration of a country whose language and customs were unfamiliar to him and his followers. He therefore left the local chiefs in charge of their various districts, so as to provide a liaison between people and ruler; but made them subordinate to his own chief officers, who took his orders, and whose reliability he ensured by keeping them near him. In fact, he replaced the old feudal government by a sort of military dictatorship. He organised taxes, demanding from each district a regular fixed sum, of which he took half himself, leaving half for the military and administrative chiefs to share. His own revenues do not seem to have been spent simply on pleasures and luxuries. He carried out a plan for a public exchequer, to cover the maintenance of his troops, organised in companies of from 150 to 250 musketeers, the erection of healthier and more comfortable buildings, and the storing of provisions with a view to future campaigns. The revenue which he obtained from taxation was further augmented by plunder seized in raids on Bagirmi and the pagan countries; so it may easily be seen that Rabeh, far from impoverishing Bornu, substantially increased its wealth, at the expense of its neighbours. Thus it might have been anticipated—contrary to our original ideas—that after quite a short interval the population of Bornu would have not merely acquiesced in his regime, but even accepted it with satisfaction. . ." - Émile Gentil (1902), quoted in Nigerian Perspectives: An Historical Anthology (1975, 2nd edition).

An explanatory footnote to this excerpt appears in that book:

"From Émile Gentil, La chute de l'empire de Rabah, Paris, 1902, pp. 236-8. Gentil (1866-1914) was appointed by Savorgnan de Brazza as his administrative officer in Ubangui in 1897; led the southern French force which converged with forces from the west (Niger) and north (Algeria) on Chad early in 1900; and directed the campaign which led to the defeat and death of Rabeh at the Battle of Kusseri (22 Apr. 1900), near the confluence of the Shori and Logone rivers, the site of the earlier battle referred to on p. 254. Rabeh (Rabih), sometimes known as Rabeh Zubair, was a Sudanese from Sennar who served first under al-Zubair Rahma Mansur, and later under al-Zubair’s son, Sulaiman, in the Bahr al-Ghazal and Darfur during the 1870’s. After Sulaiman’s power had been broken, in 1879, Rabeh moved westwards, organizing a mobile military state in the central Sudan; in 1893 he defeated the Shehu of Bomu, Hashim, and for the next seven years governed the Bomu Empire from his headquarters at Dikwa. (See Urvoy, Histoire de l'empire du Bomou, pp. 126-30, and R. Hill, Biographical Dictionary of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Oxford, 1951, pp. 312-13.)"

Gentil leaves out the fact that Bornu had already been weakened by internal and external conflicts for decades when he suggests that Rabih only used a "handful of men" to conquer it (which is an exaggeration anyway), and of course his idea that the Bornouese would have remained acquiescent to their new ruler (Rabih) isn't necessarily true.

To know more about Rabih Fadlallah, the articles of John E. Lavers on Rabih and the book by William K. Hallam on Rabih are useful, as well as the book Borno in the Rabih years, 1893-1901: the rise and crash of a predatory state by Kyari Mohammed. As for why Rabih didn't try to reach out to North African states, he had a pretty decent arsenal himself so probably the only people he could have reached out to for significantly better weapons on a substantial scale would have been Europeans. But reaching out to Europeans for military assistance at a time when several western European states were already set on conquering Africa wouldn't have worked anyway. Also, Rabih was still focused on conquering more of the central Sudan with what he already had at his disposal in the years preceding the French invasion and it seems he was not really thinking much about European encroachment and possible eventual invasion. Although Rabih was really from the eastern Sudan rather than the central Sudan, he had established himself in the central Sudan before the European colonization of the area so technically he is still relevant.

The Ethiopian military build up was more complicated than just being a case of getting some Russian assistance, though that was a significant factor as I did mention in that other thread. There was substantial assistance to Ethiopia in building up its military from agents or even adventurers of certain other European countries as well (such as France, and even Britain, despite the earlier conflict between Abyssinia and Britain that had occurred in the mid-19th century) though, as I said years ago in that other thread, I still wouldn't put this assistance on the scale of European assistance to Japan in the same period, which was even more substantial and continuous. And of course the Ethiopians took advantage of all of these opportunities to import weapons, in addition to having access to a few military advisors from Russia and France. The volume of modern firearms from Europe that were imported into Ethiopia was huge and this started well before the disputes with the Italians that led to the war (in fact, some Italians had sold firearms to Ethiopia before the dispute, as part of an attempt to gain influence/leverage for Italy over the Ethiopian state), and this was one of the biggest factors in how the Abyssinians were able to carry out their own quite harsh and destructive "internal colonization" of part of the Horn of Africa region and create the Ethiopian empire which was the foundation for the modern Ethiopian state.

I'll give an answer to your earlier question about gun diffusion when I have more free time. In the meantime, two articles you'll probably want to read if you haven't already read them are:

Humphrey J. Fisher, Virginia Rowland - Firearms in the Central Sudan (1971)

Joseph P. Smaldone - Firearms in the Central Sudan: A Revaluation (1972)

Smaldone's article offers a different perspective and, in my opinion, convincingly serves as a corrective to one of the conclusions of Fisher and Rowland's article. Although Smaldone's article can be read on its own, it would still be better to read the Fisher and Rowland article beforehand as it is still very interesting despite the fact that some of its conclusions are probably mistaken. Smaldone's article might also answer some other questions that you have.

By the way, on the issue of potential military alliances between pagan and Muslim states in Africa (which is somewhat related to the discussion), the most interesting potential collaboration that never came to fruition was a potential alliance between Asante and Samori Ture's state near the end of the 19th century. That both of these states were capable of manufacturing some of their firearms makes the potential alliance even more interesting. That alliance was a real possibility and there were serious discussions held about it, but unfortunately they weren't able to work things out and come to an agreement. Ivor Wilks (in Asante in the Nineteenth Century) and some other historians have mentioned this episode and also discussed the alarm that this potential alliance caused among British colonialists when they learned of it.
 
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