Why didn't Bornu's gun technology diffuse?

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
5,369
Portugal
#13
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.
Good posts, Ighayere! Your knowledge (and objectivity) about these themes and your bibliographic references always surprises me. Thanks.
 

Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,570
Benin City, Nigeria
#14
and create the Ethiopian empire which was the foundation for the modern Ethiopian state.
Here I meant the late 19th century Ethiopian empire when I referenced the creation of the Ethiopian empire that laid the foundations for the modern country of Ethiopia. There was obviously a state that could accurately be described as being the Ethiopian empire in past centuries, long before the 19th century, but the territory covered by the earlier Ethiopian empire at various times was quite different from the 19th century empire's borders.

Good posts, Ighayere! Your knowledge (and objectivity) about these themes and your bibliographic references always surprises me. Thanks.
Thanks.
 

Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,570
Benin City, Nigeria
#16
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
A correction: I should have written the Eyalet of Tripolitania here, not the Eyalet of Tripoli. There was an Eyalet of Tripoli that existed at the same time as the Eyalet of Tripolitania but was it was in a completely different location in the Ottoman empire and its capital or administrative center was the city of Tripoli in Lebanon whereas the capital of Tripolitania was the city of Tripoli in Libya.

Thanks for the recommendations, Ighayere. You're my favourite poster on here.
No problem, and thank you.
 
Aug 2018
14
Ontario
#17
Although the French would seem like the obvious next choice for assistance in modernizing, the French were not necessarily an alternative - they had their eyes on Asante territory as well
What makes you say a cooperation attempt between the Asante and the French(or another European power) couldn't work? Didn't Samori Touré sign an agreement with the British for access to their latest weapons arsenal? This actually sounds markedly like a similar tactic Emperor Menelik II used to ward off the Italian army. Surely the Asante could have arranged a similar agreement with someone else?
 
Sep 2018
9
Canada
#18
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?
I think the highlighted question has been overlooked. I will tackle it in this and my next post.

It is often stated as undoubted fact that Askia Ishaq II's Songhai armies fell to a small Moroccan force because the Moroccans had guns. I think that this is only partly correct. By the way, I agree with Ighayere that intra-Songhai conflicts were in play, but while I believe the guns may have played some role, I think it was not necessarily due to their greater destructive power. In my view, the major factors in Ishaq II's defeat were poor strategy, poor tactics, poor military culture, and an inability to figure out how to take advantage of an overwhelming superiority in numbers.

Even someone as knowledgeable as Christopher Wise, the translator of the Tarikh al Fattash, makes this mistake of overstating the impact of firearms. One of his informants in Timbuktu, al-hajj Salem Ould, contributes to this exaggerated view of the guns the Moroccans possessed: "...and the Spanish Moroccans who finally conquered Gao and Timbuktu brought many rifles [sic] with them. Their weapons were vastly superior to the weapons of the Askiyas." (Introduction to Tarikh al Fattash)

I hope everyone here recognizes that the "guns" here were not multiple barrel Gatling guns capable of firing 6,000 rounds per minute, or 122mm cannon capable of flattening a building. The guns available to all armies around the world in 1591, the year of the Battle of Tondibi, were very, very, primitive affairs.

For one thing, they were not "rifles." While rifling--the making of spiral grooves within a gun barrel to make a ball or bullet spin and therefore travel straighter--was available at the time, it was such a difficult process before the Industrial Revolution that very, 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 wildly 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 marksman with such a weapon.

Chase says that the matchlock was only effective against massed infantry attacking in a block thus making the inaccuracy of the weapons irrelevant. He 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 the musket meant pouring gunpowder down the barrel and putting the bullet or ball in through the front of the barrel. It was a very unwieldy process that took more than a minute to complete.

It was also a dangerous process that involved applying 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 peril to his comrades.

Here is Chase describing the firing process as was published in a Dutch military 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.” (p. 25, Firearms.)

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. (See Firearms, p 73)

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 a minute and half reloading—during which 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 went to the rear 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 Moroccans did not practice it.

There is evidence from elsewhere in Africa that guns of the time were not the game changer some of us think they were. 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 the harquebus, a slightly older and heavier gun that had to be mounted on a stand. 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, p 50, p 67)

To be continued. I will discuss the battle of Tondibi in my next post, and what I think may have happened.
 
Last edited:
May 2015
1,301
Germany
#19
You should also consider the psycholgical aspect. The warriors of Songhai would have been unfamiliar with the noise, smoke and the fact that bullets are literally invisible killers, with people, no matter how heavily armoured, dying without any visible projectiles sticking out of them.

Furthermore, guns could very well be game changers. Your example is from West Africa, humidity and jungles perfect for ambushes included. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, the Adal sultanate literally mopped the floor with Ethiopia thanks to its large arsenal of guns imported from the Ottomans. I would also say that it was mostly due to guns why certain states, like Dahomey or Ashani, became regional powers.
 
Last edited:
Sep 2018
9
Canada
#20
You should also consider the psycholgical aspect. The warriors of Songhai would have been unfamiliar with the noise, smoke and the fact that bullets are literally invisible killers, with people, no matter how heavily armoured, dying without any visible projectiles sticking out of them.

Furthermore, guns could very well be game changers. Your example is from West Africa, humidity and jungles perfect for ambushes included. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, the Adal sultanate literally mopped the floor with Ethiopia thanks to its large arsenal of guns imported from the Ottomans. I would also say that it was mostly due to guns why certain states, like Dahomey or Ashani, became regional powers.
I will consider the psychological aspect in my next post. Yes, the psychological aspect is important. My concern is (1) Whether the guns actually unleashed the kind of mayhem people think it did. It may have--if the Songhai Army foolishly attacked in a solid mass of infantry. Did the leadership do things that led to to their easy defeat by a small number of mercenaries? Which leads to my next more important point (2) Could the Songhai leadership have done things differently, i.e., given the known weaknesses of the guns, done things to neutralize them?

By the way, not wanting to be pedantic, but in my first post, where I referred to John Hawkins, it was during his second and third voyage, not his first and second that the Africans kicked his behind.
 
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