The Powerful African Songhai Empire during the Reign of Henry VIII of England

by Heather R. Darsie

Personal note: This summer I am learning more about African history during the 16th century. 

The Songhai Empire existed in Western Africa in the late 15th to early 16th century. With a healthy grasp on trade, the Songhai Empire used cowrie shells and plain gold coins as local currency, and salt as international currency. The Askia Dynasty ruled the Songhai Empire for almost an identical period of time as the Tudor Dynasty ruled England, from 1493 to 1591. The Askia Dynasty was founded by Muhammad Ture, who ruled from 1493 to 1528. One of the most important intellectual and cultural centers in the Songhai Empire was Timbuktu. The library of Timbuktu was renowned for its massive collection. The city was recognized as a center of learning, too.

Portrait of a Humanist, Sebastiano del Piomboa, circa 1520. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1510 and 1513, the writer al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi visited the Songhai Empire. Under the penname of Leo Africanus, he was a young, educated Moroccan man who pursued his education in Fez. Of Timbuktu, Africanus wrote:

“Here are many shops of craftsmen and merchants, especially those who weave linen and cotton cloth. To this place Barbarie (the Berber of North Africa) merchants bring cloth from Europe. All the women of this region except maid-servants go with their faces covered, and sell all necessary kinds of food. The inhabitants are exceedingly rich, so much so that the present king has married both his daughters to two rich merchants. There are many wells here containing very sweet water, and when the Niger floods they convey its water by channels to the town. The region produces corn, cattle, milk and butter in great abundance, but salt is very scarce for it is brought here by land from Tegaza (Taghaza) which is five hundred miles (eight hundred kilometers) distant. When I myself was here, I saw one camel’s load of sat sold for 80 ducats.

The inhabitants are people of a gentle and cheerful disposition, and spend a great part of the night in singing and dancing through all the streets of the city. They keep great store of men and women slaves, and their town is in much danger of fire. On my second night there almost half the town was burnt.

The rich king of Tombuto (governor of Timbuktu) has many articles of gold, and he keeps a magnificent and well furnished court. When he travels anywhere he rides upon a camel which is led by some of his noblemen. He travels likewise when he goes to war and all his soldiers ride upon horses. Attending him he has always three thousand horsemen, and a great number of footmen armed with poison arrows. They often have skirmishes with those that refuse to pay tribute, and as many as they take they sell to the merchants of Tombuto. There are very few horses bred here, and the merchants and courtiers keep certain little nags which they use to travel upon; but their best horses are brought out of Barbarie. And the king, as soon as he hears that any merchants have come to town with horses, he commands a certain number to be brought before him, and choosing the best horse for himself he pays a most liberal price for him.

Here there are many doctors, judges, priests and other learned men, that are well maintained at the king’s cost. Various manuscripts and written books are brought here out of Barbarie and sold for more money than any other merchandise. The coin of Tombuto is of gold without any stamp or superscription, but in matters of small value they use certain shells brought here from Persia, four hundred of which are worth a ducat and six pieces of their own gold coin each of which weighs two-thirds of an ounce.”

To put things in perspective, Henry VIII was between the ages of 19 and 22 when Leo Africanus visited Songhai. Catherine of Aragon’s first child, a stillborn daughter, was born 31 January 1510. In 1513, the War of the League of Cambrai was in full swing. Additionally, Henry VIII saw to the execution of Edmund de la Pole on 30 April 1513. Anne Boleyn was at the court of Margaret of Austria. Neither Anna of Cleves nor Katheryn Howard were born yet, and Catherine Parr was only about a year old. James IV of Scotland died on 9 September 1513 at the Battle of Flodden. Hopefully these dates put into context what the world was like in the Songhai Empire when compared with events in Western Europe.

Love learning about the Queens of England? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anne of Cleves told from the German perspective!

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Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Leo Africanus (1896). The History and Description of Africa (3 Vols). Brown, Robert, editor. London: Hakluyt Society.
  2. Shillington, Kenneth. History of Africa. Revised Edition. New York: St. Martin’s Press (1995).
  3. Fisher, Humphrey J. (1978). “Leo Africanus and the Songhay conquest of Hausaland”. International Journal of African Historical Studies.



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