Written By: Malik Bradley
This is the start of what will be an ongoing passion project series detailing the; Who, What, Where, When and Why these Kingdoms are in our opinion to be the Top 5. This will be in accordance with our Pan-Africanist views and judging their varying levels of success against foreign invasions, financial wealth and infrastructure, and accomplishments. We will be covering the three determined regions of Sub-Saharan Africa. Starting with West-Africa, and then moving onto East Africa, eventually getting to Central and Southern Africa respectively.
5. The Kanem-Bornu Kingdom
Started by the Kenmbu peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa the Kanem-Bornu Kingdom was one of the longest lasting Empires of not only Africa but the entire world, lasting from the 9th century to the 19th century.
Was a very unique empire connecting aspects of East Africa to West Africa. It consisted of a vast area encompassing the modern areas of Northern Cameroon, Northeastern Nigeria, almost the entirety of Chad, slim parts of eastern Niger, as well as even southern parts of Libya. Consisting of an Area of about 776,996 km (300,000 sq mi).
The Kanem Empire was known for its wealth, walled cities, and also for being one of the most prominent African Kingdoms who used Armored Knights as well as cavalry.
Had several long military engagements with the Hausa to the west, the Taureg and Toubou to the North, and the Balabu to the east. All while fighting the Sao from within its own Kingdom.
Islamic law was introduced early on by the notable Idris Alooma, leading to constant internal strife and it’s eventual if not slow decline; it is also worth noting that almost all of this kingdoms enemies were other black Africans leaving it last on our list despite its success.
4. The Kingdom Of Benin
Benin in its glory
Another long lasting Kingdom, the Benin Kingdom lasted for a period of about 700 years being established around 1180 AD until it was annexed by the British Empire around 1897 AD.
Unlike our last selection on this list, this Kingdom was known for its various and on many occasions successful military engagements with foreign invaders like Portugal, The Dutch, and Britain.
This kingdom became a highly organized state under the Obas (Priest-like rulers). Under these “Obas”, Its numerous craftsmen were organized into guilds, and the kingdom became famous for its ivory and wood carvers as well as its metallurgy and sword making. Its brass smiths and bronze casters excelled at making naturalistic heads, bas-reliefs, and other sculptures for hundreds of years, far before any European.
This Kingdom was known for the extraordinary architecture of its walled cities, as well as it’s exquisitely armored soldiers and their highly developed sense of unique culture and religion. This Kingdom created the Walls of Benin a world wonder that was destroyed after the British discovered it and preceded to relentlessly attack this ancient civilization until it succumbed to British pressure and advanced weaponry.
This Kingdom would have placed higher by all respects on this list had it been slightly larger and not comprised of two to three City-States.
3. The Empire of Ghana (Wagadou)
A scene at the royal courts of the Empire of Wagadou.
Wagadou or the Empire of Ghana as it would later be known was started by the Sonink’e people and was located in what are now the regions of southwestern Mauritania and Western Mali covering a region of about 1,600 km2 (620 sq mi).
Wagadou lasted for a period of about 600 years starting around 700AD. To 1240AD. When it was absorbed into the growing Empire of Mali.
This empire is highly significant on this list due to it being responsible for birthing the last two great empires on our list. The Empire of Wagadou was known for its extreme wealth being said to have controlled almost all the gold deposits in the region of West Africa at the time. As documented by visiting Muslim scholar Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī in 830 and again in the 11th century by the Cordoban scholar Abuof traveled to the region and gave a detailed description of the kingdom.
The Empire of Ghana was known as a center for wealth, research, and development having been accredited to be the first in West Africa to have used Iron. Wagadou also was known for its magnificent wealth having control over much of the Trans-Saharan trade routes into Morocco and even Europe. The Wagadou Empire was so wealthy they were known to trade gold for salt due to salts importance for food preservation and taste; they had more than enough gold so it was a good trade.
Lastly the Empire of Ghana was known for its ability to assemble massive armies on the short notice in order to protect trade routes, as well as intimidate enemies. Muslim scholar Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizimi recalled that a typical army from the Wagadou would be comprised of about 200,000 troops among them being 40,000 archers and at least 20,000 cavalry. The Wagadou Empire was known as a “homegrown” African Civilization and for a long time had its own culture and spiritual African beliefs. It is said that part of the reason for this great Empires decline was due to the Muslim influence that would be picked up through their constant trade with Muslims who eventually influenced the Almoravid movement causing the rise of the Empire of Mali and the absorption of Wagadou.
2. The Ashanti Kingdom
Yam Ceremony of the Ashanti
The Ashanti Kingdom (also known as Asante) was one to the most prolific Africa has ever seen. It reigned over a region roughly the area of modern day Ghana for over 300 years.
The Ashanti Kingdom began around 1640 when Akan peoples fled into the area from the Old Ghana Empire trying to escape the burgeoning of practice of Islam. At this time the Empire of Mali had already absorbed the Old Ghana Empire into the new Empire and Islam was its main religion something that the Akan people didn’t feel went along with their original African principles. A military leader named Osei Tutu founded the kingdom and united all the Akan clans in the area by 1670.
The Ashanti Kingdom was a Theocracy, most laws were based on religious rules and all crimes were considered sin. They believed that these sins disrespected the ancestors and should not go unpunished. One of the main religious icons and relics of the Ashanti was the mystical Golden Stool, believed to be sent from the sky and landed on the lap of the first Ashanti King. The stool is believed to house the spirit of the Ashanti nation and is still used to this day in ceremonies. They are accredited with having highly developed systems of governance as well as architecture including indoor plumbing.
The Ashanti have an extensive history of combat having some of the longest and best documented wars of any African kingdom against foreign powers. The Ashanti fought a total of about three unification wars against the Oyo, and Dahomey Kingdoms as well as four fully documented wars with the British Empire and their Gold Coast Colony over a period of a century.
During the Ashanti Kingdom’s decline when it was finally succumbing to British pressure the final and greatest war against the British was the War of the Golden Stool where the local British Commander Fredrick Hodgson developed an obsession with owning the Ashanti Golden Stool. He believed that if he sat on the stool he would control the country for all time. Although at this point the Ashanti Kingdom was virtually subjugated he had no idea of the storm he would create. Yaa Asantewaa a female leader of the Ashanti people rallied thousands at the prospect that a white man was sitting on the stool. Fredrick Hodgson met a gruesome end as he was beheaded and rumored to have his head put on display after he and all his men were killed.
1. The Empire of Mali/Songhai
Believed to be a picture depicting Sonni Ali of the Songhai Empire.
The Mali Empire began around 1235 AD and lasted until around 1670 AD making it about 500 years old. The Mali Empire was founded by Sundiata Keita a benevolent ruler who was also known as “The Lion King” due to his ferocity in combat as well as his fairness and good governance.
This Empire combined with the territories later incorporated into it by the Songhai is by far the largest Empire in African history covering a region encompassing the entirety of Senegal, The Gambia, Most of Mali, Guinea, Much of Burkina Faso, Parts of Northern Togo, North Western Nigeria, and Western Niger. This was a region of about 1,400,000 km2 (540,000 sq mi).
This Empire was known for having the first University in the world, advanced medicinal practices, exquisite architecture, massive armies as well as use of a navy. Not to mention that this Empire was the richest in world history with Mansa Musa by all accounts being the richest man who ever lived even to this day. Mansa Musa was so rich that on his pilgrimage to Mecca he gave away so much gold and bought so many places that he bankrupted the Middle East and European economies for decades.
Mansa Musa’s predecessor is said to have led a 1,000 vessel expedition on two occasions to the new world roughly 200 years before any white man. These accounts are validated by not only African scholars but Portuguese and Spanish scholars as well giving them insight that there was more than just water across the ocean.
The Mali Empire has an extensive military history and was extremely powerful. It even influenced the Moorish subjugation of Spain and the Iberian Peninsula, while governing its estates in Africa. Its armies were massive and well equipped with most everything you could expect from Europe up until around when firearms became the main weapons chosen by European armies. The Songhai Empire finally fell when Morocco invaded from the North mostly with Portuguese and Spanish adventurers carrying the latest in firearms delivered a crushing defeat to the Empire causing it to splinter and cease by 1670.