Kanem-Bornu: ‘The Longest Empire in African History’

By: OLIVER HIRSCH


posted on: August 5th, 2017

(Much of this information is taken from an article by Vincent Hiribarren, which can be found here)

The Kanem Bornu Empire lasted for nearly one thousand years, between the eleventh and nineteenth centuries AD. It has been described by Vincent Hiribarren, a lecturer at King’s College London, as ‘The Longest Empire in African History’. At its peak, the Empire controlled land in modern-day Chad, Nigeria, Libya, Sudan, Niger, Cameroon and Algeria. It was very wealthy thanks to the profits of trans-Saharan trade. Moreover, the Empire was unusually good at recording its history, meaning that we know an unusually large amount about this period of African history.

THE ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT OF KANEM-BORNU

The Empire’s roots lie in the state of Kanem, which was created in the eighth century between Lake Chad and the Bahr el-Ghazal in the region of Kanem, in modern-day Chad. This state then conquered land in the north, enabling the creation of a trans-Saharan empire. It was a major regional power, with embassies in Morocco and the Ottoman Empire in Tripoli. In the fourteenth century, the centre of the Empire moved away from Kanem to Bornu when Kanem was captured by the Empire’s enemies. Although Kanem was retaken in the sixteenth century, the imperial capital remained in Bornu. This is why we call it the ‘Kanem-Bornu’ Empire.

THE MILITARY: HORSES AND GUNS

The Kanem-Bornu Empire became powerful by conquering its neighbours in war. Its military strength depended mainly on light and heavy cavalry, but also on the efforts of a talented statesman, Idriss Aluma/Alooma, in the second half of the sixteenth century. According to legend, Idriss Aluma/Alooma won 330 wars and more than 1,000 battles – and although this is probably an exaggeration, he made an important contribution to the Kanem-Bornu Empire. He introduced big military camps with defensive walls; long-term sieges; and a “scorched earth” tactic, where soldiers burned everything in their path. He also persuaded the Ottoman Empire to train his soldiers in the use of guns, enabling the conquest of territories south and west of Bornu. Because of his reforms, the Empire reached the peak of its power in the late sixteenth century.

ADMINISTRATION: TRIBUTE AND TAXESS

The royal family was very important in the Empire, but there was also a sophisticated administrative system and a council of talented officials, such as Idriss Aluma/Alooma. Kanem-Bornu was divided up into different territories, which were each governed by a different official. Some territories were not controlled directly: instead, they were officially independent but paid tribute to the emperor. Tribute means paying money or goods to another state in exchange for protection or independence. In other places, the Empire had direct control. In these regions, the emperor gave ownership of the land to his officials, who in return had to levy troops and taxes for the Empire. The different kinds of political organisation – tribute states and directly-controlled provinces – show how the Kanem-Bornu Empire was flexible in its approach to rulership.

TRADE ACROSS THE SAHARA

Kanem-Bornu was a rich empire. Its income came partly from the tribute states and taxes, but the Empire’s main source of wealth was trans-Saharan trade. It was known for its horses and also, from the fifteenth century, salt. The most profitable trade, however, was in slaves. Many of the Empire’s military expeditions were made in order to capture more slaves for sale on the other side of the Sahara Desert. Therefore, the Empire’s wealth was based on numerous sources.

RELIGION: ISLAM AND TRADITIONAL BELIEFS

Since the eleventh century, the rulers of Kanem had been Muslim. The Empire became famous for its mosques and the pilgrimages to Mecca made by its leaders. Since the fifteenth century, the emperor called himself ‘caliph’, meaning the ruler of all Muslims. But despite this, traditional religion persisted for a long time: for example, a sacred pre-Islamic object called the ‘mune’ was honoured until the thirteenth century. We should think of religion in the Empire as a mix of Islamic and traditional elements.

WRITING AND RECORDING HISTORY

The rulers of Kamen-Bornu were very good at recording their history. Since the ninth century, the names and ancestry of the kings of Kanem were recorded orally. The introduction of Islam and Arabic writing meant that things went a step further, with the beginning of a written record. A chronicle of kings, the ‘diwan’ or ‘girgam’, was written from the sixteenth or perhaps the thirteenth century until the nineteenth. This is a very important source for historians, both because it covers such a large period of time and because other written records are rare. Therefore, the diwan/girgam shows how advanced the Kanem-Bornu Empire was by the standards of its time.

WHAT MAKES KANEM-BORNU SPECIAL?

Kanem-Bornu was powerful, advanced and wealthy. It had a strong military, some brilliant officials and a large territorial and commercial empire. Moreover, people in the Empire had a keen sense of history, as shown by their decision to record the reigns of their kings. The introduction of writing reinforced this cultural sophistication. Kanem-Bornu must rank among the great African empires of the second millennium.

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