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From roughly the eighth to the nineteenth century the Kanem-Bornu state system of northern Africa was strategically located at the crossroads of a trade and cultural network in the Lake Chad basin. As a major center of Islamic learning and scholarship it was instrumental in the spread of Islam to the west, south, and east. Commercially it was a leading source of salt (alum) and slaves to the Mediterranean lands of Christendom.
- The Kanem State
- Rise of the Saifawa Dynasty
- The Karimi Merchants
- The Bornu State
- Bornu Innovations
- The al-Kanemi Dynasty
- Regional and Supraregional Impact
For a period of nearly a thousand years, Kanem- Bornu was a major political and economic power in northern Africa. Archaeological evidence indicates that its development on the semi-arid plains of the Lake Chad basin occurred in the first half of the first millennium CE among a Kanuri-speaking population of peasant cultivators and livestock herders. Already in the first millennium BCE, the basin was a crossroads for trade and cultural and technological interactions, primarily along a west-east axis, but also along a north-south axis. These networks were factors in the development of the Kanem-Bornu state system.
The earliest known dynasty, the Banu Dugu, or Zaghawa, held sway from the eighth to the late eleventh century, with its capital at Manan. The Saifawa, or Sefuwa, dynasty succeeded it in the second half of the eleventh century and reigned until the mid-nineteenth century. Until the early fourteenth century, Saifawa rule was based in Kanem, northeast of Lake Chad, with its capital at Njimi (from the twelfth to the fourteenth century). In the middle decades of the fourteenth century civil war forced the dynasty to move to the province of Bornu, west of the lake, where a new capital, Ngazargamu, was created.
The Kanem State
With a royal ideology of divine kingship, the Banu Dugu dynasty of the eighth and ninth centuries ruled a rural population of peasants and herders and an urban population of traders and artisans. In this period the growth of a long-distance trade in salt and slaves, wars of expansion toward the Nile Valley and into the southern Sahara, and the arrival from North Africa of merchants and clerics of the Ibadi branch of the Kharijites marked its history. Merchants and some of the Kanem elite converted to Ibadi Islam in the ninth and tenth centuries. Surplus from the countryside and tribute from the large, salt-producing oasis of Kawar to the north were principal sources of revenue.
Rise of the Saifawa Dynasty
A commercial economic system (a salt-slave circuit) extended from the plains east of Lake Chad to the Tibesti Mountains in the central Sahara, via the Kawar oasis, to Zawila, a principal trading center in the northern Saharan oasis known as the Fezzan (in present-day Libya). In the course of the tenth and eleventh centuries an expanding trans-savanna gold trade route that ran from the Middle Niger Valley eastward to the port of Zeila in the Horn of Africa and the port of Aden on the southern Arabian Peninsula passed through Kanem. The relative decline of the salt-slave circuit and the expansion of the trans-savanna gold trade contributed to the fall of the Banu Dugu dynasty and the rise of the Saifawa. The rural-based Banu Dagu lost the support of the Kanem merchant class, which shifted its allegiance to the urban-based Saifawa, a distant branch of the royal dynasty. This class and its North African associates became less interested in salt and slaves and more interested in a share of the growing gold trade, which extended to the Nile Valley (Egypt and Nubia) and the Indian Ocean trading system.
The new dynasty established a different stream of Islam, Sunni Maliki Islam, as the state religion, but it was not until the thirteenth century that the religion spread among the general population. A number of Kanemi sultans went on pilgrimage to Mecca. Mosques were built, schools were set up, clerics were brought into the state organization, and autonomous clerical communities were founded. Sultan al-hajj Dunama Dibalami (reigned 1210–1248) performed the pilgrimage and in 1242 established a hostel in Cairo for other pilgrims and students from Kanem. From the twelfth to the fourteenth century, Kanemi sultans conducted military campaigns in all directions, especially toward Hausaland in the west, the Fezzan, and the Nile Valley. Newly conquered lands were granted as fiefs to military commanders. At the heart of the political system was a confederacy of aristocratic clans linked to the ruling dynasty. Senior office holders were drawn from the ranks of the great fief holders, the royal princes and princesses, and Muslim clerics and officers. Local functionaries and tributary rulers occupied the lower ranks of the political system. Imperial expansion enabled the capital and the Kanem heartland to flourish and to achieve recognition beyond the Islamic world. Among medieval European cartographers, Kanem was known under the names Occitan and Organa.
The Karimi Merchants
Kanem’s role in international trade can be gleaned from the activities of the wealthy and influential Karimi (or Karim) merchants, who were the preeminent traders in the Islamic world from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. Some scholars believe that the term Karimi derives from Kanem, the merchants’ place of origin, and that they rose to prominence in Kanem in the period from 950 to 1050 and in Egypt and Aden in the eleventh century. By the thirteenth century they all but monopolized the trade with Byzantium, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and China as well as the Red Sea ports, and their commercial activities carried them to Ethiopia, Nubia (present-day northern Sudan and southern Egypt), and Mali and Ghana (Wagadu) in West Africa. Among the wealthiest merchant groups in the Islamic world, they maintained a profitable and vibrant commercial traffic between Asia and Africa.
The revolts and civil wars that plagued fourteenth-century Kanem had several causes, including ambitious estate holders’ desire for autonomy, rival and aspiring claimants to the kingship, and a discontented and rebellious peasantry. Njimi was destroyed, probably toward the end of the century, and the Saifawa were forced out of Kanem.
The Bornu State
The founding, in about 1480, of a new Saifawa capital, Ngazargamu, by Sultan Ali ibn Dunama (reigned 1470–1503) signaled a new chapter in the imperial history of the Lake Chad basin. During the sultan’s pilgrimage to Mecca in about 1484, a claimant to the throne of the Islamic Abbasid dynasty (749/750– 1258) invested him as the caliph of Takrur (that is, Islamic West Africa). From this time onward, Bornu rulers regarded themselves as caliphs, a claim that was widely accepted. Ali ibn Dunama and his successors ended the civil wars, reconquered Kanem, and launched military conquests across vast territories, such that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Bornu was one of the largest states in Africa. It dominated Hausaland, the trade routes leading to Tripoli on the North African coast, and the sultanates up to the Nile Valley.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were times of political consolidation, economic expansion and prosperity, population growth, and peace. Towns and villages increased in number, as a result, for example, of the spread of clerical communities. Local trade, based on geographical specializations within a regional economy, expanded substantially. Bornu merchant caravans transported a wide variety of goods to and from distant markets—the Nile Valley, the Middle East, North Africa, and many parts of West Africa.
The Bornu caliphate differed significantly from the Kanem sultanate. In Kanem there was a close association between the state and religious learning, while in Bornu there was a close association between trade and religious learning. In Kanem the sultan ruled as the first among the great landed elite. In Bornu the caliph headed a centralized bureaucracy consisting of slaves, including eunuchs, and persons of servile descent. Bornu was divided into landed estates (or fiefs) held by the new slave aristocracy (slaves to the ruling sovereign), courtiers or servants of the king, and military commanders. Unlike their Kanem predecessors, all of the senior officials lived in the capital and not on their estates. They toured their districts only to collect taxes and during times of unrest. In contrast to the old aristocracy, the new ruling class was entirely Muslim. The traditional estate holders and aristocratic clans had titles but little or no power. Rulers relied on slave troops and mercenaries and were thus militarily independent of village communities. Islamic law replaced customary law, the ruler appointed Muslim judges throughout the land, mosques were built in the rural areas, and a hostel was founded in Mecca for Bornu pilgrims.
There were numerous units within the state that were not included in the dominant administrative structure. Semiautonomous territories, clerical towns, social-occupational groups (such as camel and cattle pastoralists), and families in possession of rights of privilege were directly responsible to the ruler and not to any fief holder. This political arrangement reflected old traditions and practices from Kanem.
In 1808 the capital Ngazagamu was sacked by followers of Uthman dan Fodio (1754–1817) and in 1812 completely abandoned. Several western provinces were occupied and permanently lost. A religious movement (1804–1810) in Hausaland—the jihad of Uthman dan Fodio—resulted in a new political order, the Sokoto caliphate, which successfully challenged the dominance of Bornu and the authority of the Saifawa. Bornu entered a period of decline, and the prestige and power of the Saifawa dynasty waned.
The al-Kanemi Dynasty
To meet the military and political threats of the jihad and Sokoto, Caliph Dunama Lefiami (reigned 1808– 1817) called upon the influential scholar Shaykh alhajj Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi (d. 1837) to defend Bornu and the Saifawa. Al-Kanemi, who was to found a new dynasty, defeated the jihad forces, and for this and other services he was appointed a semiautonomous official and was awarded two enormous fiefs. The latter became his power base. By absorbing semiautonomous territories and communities and frontier territories and by maintaining a standing army, he was able to achieve military and political preeminence. In 1814 he founded Kukuwa as his capital. He became the de facto ruler of Bornu, with the caliph having power only over the royal court. Shaykh ‘Umar al-Kanemi (reigned 1837–1881), al- Kanemi’s son and successor, ended the reign of the Saifawa in 1846.
The administrative structure of Bornu under the al-Kanemi dynasty combined features associated with the Saifawa period with innovations that Muhammad al-Kanemi developed. Among his reforms were the reorganization of the Bornu Council of State and the creation of a standing royal slave army. The slave component in the administration was more powerful than under the Saifawa, but advancement within the political system for both free and slave was through clientage within a hierarchy of patron-client relations headed by the Shaykh. The entire state revenue was recognized as the Shaykh’s personal property, which he could dispose of at will. Bornu’s role as a major trade center declined after the mid-nineteenth century. It was increasingly drawn into the more dynamic economy of the Sokoto caliphate as a supplier of raw materials and a consumer of luxuries.
The rule of the al-Kanemi dynasty ended in 1893 when Rabih Zubeir (d. 1900), coming from the Nile Valley, invaded and defeated an internally divided Bornu. Kukuwa was sacked and Rabih established himself in Dikwa, his new capital, as the sovereign of Bornu. However, his rule was cut short in 1900 by advancing European armies, which colonized the area.
Regional and Supraregional Impact
Throughout much of its history Kanem-Bornu, centrally located at the Chadic basin crossroads, was economically and politically oriented to the Sahara to the north and the Nile Valley to the east. When this orientation was effectively blocked in the second half of the nineteenth century, the society experienced severe internal divisions and fell into inevitable decline.
The historical significance of Kanem-Bornu can be understood in terms of its regional and supraregional significance. At both a regional and supraregional level it was instrumental in the spread of Islam over an extensive territory westward to Hausaland, southward to the lands below the Lake Chad basin, and eastward to the lands between Lake Chad and the Middle Nile Valley. Regionally, it was a major center of Islamic learning and scholarship. The political institutions of the principal polities in this vast region, as well as the confederations and town governments in the central and eastern Sahara, derive in large part from Kanem-Bornu and in near and distant lands state-building strategies followed Kanem-Bornu examples.
Commercially, Kanem-Bornu was equally signifi- cant. It was a leading source of salt (alum) and slaves to the Mediterranean lands of Christendom and Islam. Salt/alum was an essential ingredient needed by textile producers in the West and in Egypt and North Africa. Kanem-Bornu was also indispensable to the development of royal military forces in North Africa polities where the main military units depended upon (adult male) slave imports from Kanem-Bornu. These units were employed in invasions of southern Europe and wars against the Crusaders. In addition, the Karimi merchants who have been linked with Kanem were specialists in the Indian Ocean trade and established the traffic in gold and other goods between Asia and Africa.
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