The history of West Africa Is largely focused on the empires that rose and fell along the Niger River. For over one thousand years, three empires expanded throughout the Sahel region from the main section of the Niger. The last of these, the Songhai Empire, arose in the upper Niger in the mid-1300s. The Songhai reached their height in the latter half of the 15th century under the rule of Askia Mohammad I, known as Askia the Great. The aggressive Askia conquered a region stretching from modern day Senegal and Guinea In the west to Kano in northern Nigeria in the east. Askia improved the bureaucracy of the Songhai Empire and enhanced the trans-Sahara trade with north Africa and Europe, controlling many of the trading oases in the Sahara. The cities of Gao, Timbuktu, and Djenne flourished under Askia the Great and his successors. However, in 1591 the empire was declining, and a decisive battle would lead to its collapse.
That battle, the Battle of Tondibi, was part of an expedition by Morocco across the Sahara to gain control of and exploit the trade routes that crisscrossed the desert. The Moroccan Sultan, Ahmad al-Mansur, had just won a huge victory against a Portuguese invasion at Ksar El-Kebir and sent his general Judar Pasha with 4,000 soldiers south against the Songhai. After a four month journey across the desert, Judar Pasha’s men entered Songhai territory and looted the salt mine at Taghaza in the far north of Mali. Askia Ishaq II, then the ruler of the Songhai Empire, assembled an army to defend against the coming Moroccan invasion. The Moroccan and Songhai armies met at Tondibi on the Niger River just north of the Songhai capital of Gao on April 12, 1591. Judar Pasha’s army was composed primarily of light cavalry and arqebus infantry, but also had six cannons with them. Askia had 22,000 soldiers with 12,500 cavalry and 9,700 infantry.
Askia knew about the advantage the Moroccans would have fielding gunpowder weapons, and came up with an innovative strategy to try and lessen the advantage. First, Askia hoped the sheer numbers of the Songhai army could counter the power of the early gunpowder weapons. Second, Askia brought a herd of over a thousand cattle with his army. The cattle would plod along the field ahead of the Songhai army kicking up a cloud of dust. The dust on the battlefield was intended as a smokescreen so the Songhai cavalry could close the gap between the two armies before the cannon and arquebus could inflict many long range casualties.
Unfortunately for the Songhai, the use of the cattle did not go quite as planned. The charge of the cows backfired when the Moroccan army opened fire with the arquebuses and cannons. The noise of the gunpowder weapons spooked the cattle and instead of charging forward, they stampeded back toward the Songhai army lines. The Songhai continued advancing toward the Moroccan lines, but another round of cannon and gunfire massacred the Songhai army. They tried to retreat, but ran into the stampeding cattle that were now behind their lines. Surrounded by the Moroccan army ahead of them and the cattle behind them, the Songhai fought on but were almost completely killed by Judar Pasha’s force.
After the battle, the Moroccan army continued into Songhai territory and captured and plundered the capital of Gao. The looting of Gao, and later Judar Pasha’s looting of Timbuktu and Djenne, were the beginning of the end of the Songhai Empire. Askia Ishaq II died in 1592 and the empire fell apart shortly after, splitting into a dozen smaller kingdoms. Morocco ruled that section of the Niger River as a protectorate for the next two centuries.