Much like the Dark Ages of Medieval Europe, sub-Saharan Africa has always been shrouded in the illusion of darkness. Western studies of history rarely creep there, despite the rich heritage the continent provides. And so, also, it provides a rich source of dynasties, some of which claim descent from long-established Western founders. Not surprisingly, none of the descendants of these African dynasties found their way back into European royal families, and most stuck to regional marriage alliances rather than distant ones. Here are some of the more notable African empires and their dynasties
The Empire of Ghana
The history of one of the oldest sub-Saharan African Empires is uncertain, mostly because its history was written by Muslims many centuries later. The founding dynasty of the Ghana Empire was actually not black, rather he was probably of Arab or even Persian descent. The kingdom (but not the location) was founded by a man named Dinga, who tradition states killed a goblin and then was forced to marry the goblin's daughters, which explains the origins of the regional tribes. When he died, his two sons fought for the kingship, and Dyabe won, founding the kingdom of Ghana.
|The Empire of Ghana|
The capital of the empire was at Koumbi Saleh on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert (and now mostly reclaimed by it). Ghana was a trade empire, with a central kingdom and many vassal states surrounding it. The king acted as mediator and chief of trade, and would often determine whether traders from certain countries could conduct trade in Ghana. The country eventually fell as the Almoravid movement (which took Spain in the same time) took root and converted the entire kingdom to Islam during the late 1000s. It continued to rule the region for many more centuries, but its power had waned and it was eventually enveloped into the larger Mali Empire around 1340. Very little is known about the empire or the dynasty that ruled during much of its history.
The Mali Empire
The Mali Empire is the most famous of the western African empires. It began as a loose confederation of successor states to the Ghana Empire but seen centralized around a powerful Mali emperor. The Keita Dynasty ruled during most of Mali's history, and the dynasty traces its lineage back to Bilal, an Ethiopian slave of Muhammad who became the first muezzin (person who calls to prayer the Muslims). Indeed, there are complete genealogies, however dubious, of every Mali Emperor's descent from Bilal.
The first true ruler of the Mali Empire was a man named Sundiata Keita, the result of the marriage between two rival principalities of the Ghana Empire. After years of exile and army building, Sundiata returned around 1235 and overthrew the ruling dynasty of the Kaniaga Kingdom and established what would become the central state of the Mali Empire. Mari Djata I, as his royal name became, quickly established alliances with the two neighboring city-states and the twelve outlying villages. They swore fealty to the Keita Dynasty and the Mali Empire was formally established, with Mari Djata I as its head.
In all, there were probably around 25 Emperors (Mansas) of the Mali Empire. Over the centuries, the emperors would expand the borders of the empire, conquering numerous other peoples of non-Mali origin. After a fifteen year reign of his son, Ouali I, two rival sons of Mari Djata I fought and destroyed much of the wealth that the first two emperors had brought to Mali. From 1275 until 1300, the Keita Dynasty was pushed to the side by court politicians close to the family. They helped restore the empire after the damage done by Mari Djata's sons.
|The Empire of Mali|
The dynasty continued through a sister of Mari Djata, Kolonkan, but has been considered a continuation of the root dynasty. During this era, Mali flourished in wealth from traders crossing Africa with goods from the Middle East and with gold from mines in the south. A semi-feudal system was established where each clan had to send a certain percentage of their men to join the professional, full-time standing army. During the Golden Age of Mali, emperors maintained huge armies but rarely used them except to ensure order in the provinces. It is possible that the Kolonkan line died out because the last emperor and a large army disappeared at sea, exploring the Atlantic Coast of Africa.
An off-branch of the Kolonkan line, the Laye Branch, produced Mali's most famous emperor: Mansa Musa I. He adopted Islam for the nobility, although he allowed the common people to maintain their traditional religions. He could read and write Arabic, and was so interested in academics that he conquered the scholarly city of Timbuktu in 1324. He established a university and went on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. Indeed, he brought so much wealth with him to Cairo during his pilgrimage that the Egyptian dinar deflated 600%! Mansa Musa was the one that put Mali on the map of the Christian world. Its wealth became renown and people across the western world talked about Africa's wealth for centuries after.
When the Laye branch died out in 1389, Mali began its slow decline. A number of obscure branches of the Keita dynasty ruled over the next few centuries. Ouali II was the first emperor to come into contact with Europeans – the Portuguese to be exact. Even while Mali's power and influence in the west stayed strong (and impressed the Portuguese), it was losing ground to the Songhai Empire in the east. Mahmud II tried to form an alliance against Songhai with Portugal, but they decide to stay out of regional politics. Mahmud III failed to stop the Songhai advance and, in 1559, decided to flee the capital and establish a new capital further north. But it is all for naught. By 1599, firearms, brought in by Moroccans, destroy the Mali heartland and the empire crumbles. Mali is splintered into dozens of small provinces, with Mali just being one of them. Perhaps the empire's only joy is watching Songhai fall a few years before. Mahmud IV died in 1610 and the empire never had a single ruler again, although rival branches of the Keita dynasty continued to claim the title for many more centuries.
The Songhai Empire
The political entity that became the Songhai developed many centuries before even the Mali Empire. However, it was quickly subjugated beneath the Mali might early on, and only became politically independent again in the turbulent years of the mid-1300s, following the reign of Mansa Musa I. The Dia dynasty was the founding and most prominent dynasty in Songhai history, but it failed to ever achieve independence from its neighbors. Thus, it was the Sonni dynasty that became the most successful, although it was short-lived.
The first person who could claim the title of emperor was Sonni Ali, a Muslim and one of the last monarchs of the Sonni dynasty. He ruled from 1464 until 1493 and expanded the borders of Songhai outward, eventually turning the Mali Empire into a vassal state. At the height of his reign, his empire encompassed more land that the whole of Europe and it was the largest empire sub-Saharan Africa ever witnessed. Ali conquered Timbuktu in 1468 but began a long period of repression against the academics there.
|The Songhai Empire|
His successor was Askia the Great, a devout Muslim who nevertheless permitted indigenous religions in the Songhai Empire. He was not of the Sonni dynasty, rather he founded his own rival Askia dynasty, but he succeeded in expanding the borders outward still further, as well as strengthening those borders established by his predecessor. In the style of Mansa Musa I, he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and brought with him great amounts of gold, sufficient to raise the eye of Europeans who were just beginning to reach around Africa to India and voyage beyond the Atlantic.
As Askia aged, his sons deposed him and claimed the title of emperor. Numerous sons reigned and fought over the empire, which quickly disintegrated under their misrule. Despite Songhai's large standing army, the army never modernized and so, when the Almoravids invaded in 1591, their firearms destroyed the Songhai Empire. Timbuktu declined in importance soon after. Following the conquest by and subsequent withdraw of the Almoravids, the remnants of the Songhai empire and Askia dynasty founded the Dendi kingdom, which lasted until the beginning of the 20th century.
The Sokoto Caliphate of the Fulani Empire
The Fulani people of Nigeria were originally nomads, but over the generations many of them established considerable wealth and settled in towns. The Fulani were Muslims and during the 17th and 18th centuries, they became angry at their overlords and began uprisings against them. In the state of Gobir, a successor state to the Songhai Empire, the rulers were especially despotic toward the Fulani. When the Gobir sultanate turned against a prominent Muslim scholar and religious leader, Usman dan Fodio, Usman rose up in rebellion and declared a jihad against the Gobir government. The Fulani joined in the jihad and the government was quickly overthrown. They declared Usman dan Fodio the caliph of the new Fulani Empire in 1808.
Soon after conquering the Gobir sultanate and numerous smaller nearby states, Usman retired, leaving the empire in the hands of his brother and son. The two lines continued, with the line of Usman's son always having seniority over the line of his brother, who ruled what became the Gwandu Emirate. The empire became a center for learning in west Africa and, despite the Fulani origins of the empire, another culture, the Hausa, became the dominant one throughout the empire. Eventually, the state became centralized and known as Hausaland to Europeans, and it remained as a region of safety from the otherwise dangerous Saharan nomads.
As expected in this time of hardship, the Sokoto Caliphate suffered under pressure from Europe. The French disrupted traditional trade patterns and armed rival states, including vassal emirates. The wars eventually ended in a dynastic conflict that saw both the capital, Sokoto, and another important city, Kano, sacked by rival armies. The empire, in disarray, was quickly conquered by the French and British, who divided it between them. The British did not dissolve the Nigerian government completely, but allowed it to remain in charge of local affairs. Even today, the Nigerian Muslims maintain a Sultan of Sokoto, a descendant of Usman dan Fodio, as their religious leader.
The Solomonid Dynasty of the Ethiopian Empire
Perhaps no dynasty or empire in Africa is as mysterious and famous as the Ethiopian Empire. The only African state to avoid outright take-over by Europeans during the 19th century (it was briefly conquered by Italy in the 20th), Ethiopia has held a place in the minds of Europeans since ancient times.
|The Ethiopian Empire|
The great Solomonid Dynasty of Ethiopia began in 1270 when it overthrew the Zagwe dynasty. The Zagwe had usurped the throne from the older Aksumite dynasty, from whom the Solomonids claim descent. During the dynasty's long reign in Ethiopia, it conquered the whole of modern Ethiopia, much of south-eastern Sudan, all of Eritrea, Djibouti, and much of Somalia. The dynasty takes its name from King Solomon of Israel. It is said that Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who is traditionally said to come from Ethiopia, had a son, Menelik I, who became the first king of Ethiopia. Traditional genealogies continue a male line of descent from Solomon all the way to Menelik II, who ruled Ethiopia until 1913. After that point, the emperors continued through a female line, although other males lines did exist. Ethiopian emperors have always been connected to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the oldest of the African churches still extant.
The most famous member of the dynasty is also the last ruling Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, who was deposed in 1974. The despotic government of Ethiopia overthrew the monarchy and kept all members of the family imprisoned until the late 1980s. The current government has allowed the return from exile of many members, and some eagerly live in the country to this day. Haile himself has been the subject of interesting propaganda. In the 1930s, Haile became associated with the Rastafari movement and has since been declared the Messiah of Biblical proclamations. While Haile himself remained a devout Ethiopian Orthodox Christian throughout his life, many saw him as a sign of hope for Caribbean Africans who wished for a return to the Promised Land.
The Kingdom of Kongo
The Congo holds a place of mystery in the minds of many Europeans. But throughout much of its history, it was a small but powerful regional kingdom on the Atlantic coast of Africa.
The first ruling house of Kongo was founded around 1400 under the leadership of Lukeni Iua Nimi. He founded the kingdom at his capital city of Mbanza Kongo, which was atop the largest mountain in the region. His family ruled for almost three centuries. They were called the Kilukeni kanda ("ruling house") and were a wide-ranging family that often would give important posts to distant relatives. The people of Kongo centralized around the capital city, with only sparsely populated villages outside of it. Indeed, it had around half a million residents by the time the Portuguese discovered it around ninety years after its founding. Kongo became the center of trade for ivory, copper, metals, pottery and cloth, all items available further in the interior.
|The Kingdom of Kongo|
The Kongo kingdom was first discovered by Europeans in 1483, and Kongo nobles went to Portugal and returned in 1485, whereafter the Kongo king converted to Christianity. Christian missionaries began coming to Kongo and spreading out among the populace, while the next Kongese king named himself João I in honor of the Portuguese monarch. The next king, Afonso I, established Christianity as the official state religion and began to assemble an infrastructure that could support the faith. Afonso's son, Henrique, went to Portugal and joined the clergy, and died just before he was ready to set out for the Council of Trent in 1531.
The Kongo also became a major source of people for the slave trade. Rivalries between royal heirs made it easy for Europeans to take slaves and also kept the government unstable just enough to get their way. After many years of infighting, the ruling dynasty was deposed and a step-son of the king was enthroned, beginning the Kwilu dynasty.
To ensure order, the Kwilu king, Álvaro, established close ties with the Portuguese. Álvaro tried to westernize the state even while giving lands in the south to Portugual directly. The next king, Álvaro II, succeeded in getting the Kongo its own bishop, but the Pope demanded that Portugal be in charge of naming that bishop. Colonial tensions began to rise. The bishops refused to elevate more people to the clergy, leaving the church to the laity, even as the government was struggling to defeat encroaching states in the south. The Portuguese governor of Angola, to the south, used his position to take pieces away from Kongo, eventually attempting to place a new king on the throne. The Kongese prevailed, but a new dynasty, the Nsundi, were installed.
War between the Portuguese and Kongese proved inevitable. The Kongese were victorious in their campaign against Angola, and they forced out the Portuguese governor. Despite a decrease in hostilities after the war, the Kongese began contracting the Dutch to help in removing the Portuguese presence from Angola permanently. But the king died, and the new king decided against fighting other Catholics using Protestants. Dynastic conflict dominated the 17th century, as heirs of both Nsundi and Kwilu fought for dominance. Both ended up losing to the House of Kinlaza.
War with Portugal continued to dominate Kongo history. The Dutch invaded Angola but failed to completely remove Portugal. Portugal became more aggressive and began taking vassal states from Kongo. Portugal was eventually successful in killing the Kongo king in 1665. With no clear successor, Kongo fell into civil war. Millions of slaves were taken and sold in the Americas during the war, and Portugal used the conflict to influence rival factions. At the dawn of the 18th century, many of the vassal states were de facto independent, even though the monarchy had been re-centralized. Dynastic conflicts continued into the 18th and 19th centuries, piecing apart the Kingdom of Kongo until little was left. Portugal finally left in 1866 citing expenses. However, at the Conference of Berlin which divided most of Africa between European countries, Portugal claimed the whole of Kongo. The kings for a while longer were fine with the arrangement, but a revolt against the Portuguese in 1914 caused the Portuguese republic to abolish the title King of Kongo. The pretenders continued to claim the title until 1964, when another succession dispute erupted.
It is unfortunate that I don't have more time to discuss these great empires. Many of them proved to be larger than Europe itself, but European historians have discounted them through the centuries due to their placement in Africa. But Africa, too, has a rich dynastic heritage that should not be questioned. While their families may never integrate with those of Europe and Asia, that does not make them any less a topic of dynastology.