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A history of the Damagaram sultanate of Zinder: ca. 1730-1899.
Politics, Guns, and Trade in the pre-colonial Sahel
The political landscape of west Africa in the 19th century consisted of a patchwork of medium sized kingdoms centered around fortified capitals defended by the fearsome knights of the Sahara. The sultanate of Damagaram was among the most powerful states in the central region of west Africa in what is now modern Niger.
From its capital, Zinder, the rulers of Damagaram controlled a powerful military armed with locally made artillery. The city of Zinder was at the crossroads of regional trade routes linking Bornu to the oases of Kawar and the city of Tripoli. It hosted a cosmopolitan population of scholars, pilgrims and merchants drawn from across west Africa.
This article explorers the political history of Damagaram from its founding in the early 18th century to its fall in 1899.
Map of southern Niger showing the sultanate of Damagaram in the late 19th century1
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The foundations of Damagaram in the early 18th century.
The region where Damagaram would emerge was on the frontier of the Bornu empire and at the crossroads of west-africa’s diverse sedentary and nomadic population groups. The bulk of early population in Damagaram during the 16th century were the Dagira, an lineage group with mixed Kanuri-Hausa origins that claims Bornu origins. These would be later joined by other groups such as the Kanuri in the 17th century, and the Hausa -who became the largest group, Tuareg, Fulani and Arabs in the 19th century.2
The founding of Damagaram is traditionally attributed to Mallam Yunus, who migrated from the Bornu empire to settle at a town called Damagaram in the early 18th century. He latter moved through different towns beginning at Geza , creating matrimonial alliances and installing his sons as chiefs before settling west of Zinder. But Damagaram retained its symbolic position as the first of the towns associated with the Mallam.3
Mallam's successors consolidated his loose chiefdom in the mid to late 18th century, but failed to defend it against attacks from the Tuareg, especially the Imakiten of Damergou -their neighbor to the west. The early rulers of Damagaram were based in several different towns, they had little formal authority, and are likely to have been tribute collectors for Bornu; their suzerain. The sultanate was flanked in the east by the relatively larger states of Murya and Baabaaye with which they were often at war, and to the south by the Hausa states.4
Location of Damagaram within the Bornu empire
At the turn of the 19th century, the Damagaram sultan Amadu who had his capital at Clihanza subsumed several towns including Zinder and sucessfully repelled the Tuareg incursions. His reign coincided with the fall of the Hausa state of Katsina to the sokoto caliphate, which sent its deposed king and many of his subjects into exile at Maradi. Damagaram then adopted several Hausa aristocratic titles and institutions such as Sarki (Sultan/King), Ciroma (crown prince). At the death of Aamadu in 1809, his Ciroma named Sulayman ascended to the throne, he moved his capital to Zinder and became the first Damagaram rulers to be crowned there.5
Zinder in the mid-20th century
The Damagaram kingdom at Zinder during the reign of Sarki Sulayman and Ibrahim. (1822-1851)
Zinder was originally a small town defended by a stockade when Sulayman built his palace in the early 19th century. He later occupied the old town of Damagaram, taking on the title Sarkin Damagaram (and gave the sultanate its name). Sucession disputes in the neighboring states of Murya and Baabaaye gave Sulayman the opportunity to pick allied candidates to the throne who were then installed as vassals of Damagaram. After defeating a Sokoto invasion of Zinder, Sulayman acquired horses which he used against the Tuareg of Damergu. Sulayman later abdicated for his son Ibrahim who suceeded him as sultan.6
After Sulayman's abdication, Damagaram was ruled by his sons, Ibrahim and Tanimun from 1822 to 1884. Around 1839 when Sulayman had died, Sarki Ibrahim had tried to end his vassalage to Bornu by refusing to remit Sulayman's property which was by law meant to be inherited by the Bornu ruler. This forced the reigning Bornu emperor sheikh Omar to invade Zinder, a situation that Tanimun took advantage of, compelling Ibrahim to sack his own capital and flee to a neighboring town of Kantshi (presumably Kantche). When Omar's army besieged Kantshi, Ibrahim resubmitted but later led another failed rebellion, returned to Zinder, deposed his brother and ruled.7
Tanimun would again briefly re-take the throne of Zinder from his brother, and this time Bornu would intervene on behalf of Ibrahim by besieging Zinder. Tanimun reportedly constructed the walls of Zinder as the Bornu army was approaching. After a lengthy siege of 3 months and a lot of causalities on both sides, Tanimun was expelled and Ibrahim restored to the throne.8
Zinder City walls, exterior and interior, ca. 1922-1930, BNF, Quai branly
Zinder gradually expanded under Ibrahim’s reign, becoming an important regional center along the carravan routes of west Africa connecting Bornu to Agadez and Sokoto. In 1851, it was visited by the explorers James Richardson and later by Heinrich Barth, who provided fairly detailed accounts of the capital and its kingdom. Zinder had a population of 20,000-25,000, and was among the largest of about about 16 towns which made up the core of the kingdom.9
The kingdom of Damagaram was ruled by the Sarki Ibrahim, who was assited by several chiefs including; four viziers; the ciroma (who also commanded the military in Zinder); a qadi; a secretary; a treasury chief who had three other officers; and a customs chief. The army at Zinder consisted of an infantry of about 9,000 soldiers who were primarily archers, and a cavalry of about 2,000 horsemen who mostly carried swords and javelins.10
Knights of Zinder, ca. 1901, quai branly
Most of Zinder’s inhabitants lived in the mudbrick houses characteristic of the region, while the elites and the Sarki lived in large, fortified houses. It had a vibrant market supplied with goods produced domestically such as indigo dyed textiles, as well as imported manufactures primarily acquired in Bornu which is where most of its trade was directed.11 Zinder imported most of the salt mined in the Kawar oasis town of Bilma, this salt trade was mostly handled by the Tuaregs.12 other external traders in Zinder included the Kanuri and Tubu, as well as Arabs and Berbers that came from Murzuk. These external merchants were allowed to trade without paying tribute, which gradually brought more traders to the city.13
Damagaram during the reign of Sarki Tanimun: 1851-1884: Gunpowder technology and trade in the Sahel
Sarki Ibrahim was eventually suceeded by Tanimun in the early 1850s. It was during the reign of Tanimon than Damagaram became a major regional power, extending over 70,000 km2.14 According to the travel account of Gustav Nachtigal who was in Bornu’s capital around 1870, Tanimun aspired to create a rival empire in the west of Bornu by declining to send tribute to Bornu and conquering several towns under Bornu’s suzerainty including Munio which was sacked in 1863. The Bornu emperor conditioned Tanimun’s pardon on the latter surrendering his cannon and muskets, but the Sarki initially refused to until he was threated with war.15
Tanimun had greatly reformed Zinder's military, which unlike his predecessor, was equipped was modern weapons. According to Nachitgal, the king had with him several cannon and muskets. This would be confirmed much later by a French visitor in 1911 who reported that the King “orders from Tripoli both flintlock and percussion rifles , together with supplies of powder , lead and percussion caps ; he manufactures all the powder he needs , produces cannon and cannon balls and manufactures gun carriages”. Such weapons were by then common in Bornu and many of them, especially cannons, were also made by local blacksmiths with assistance of ‘turks’ at its capital Kukawa16.
Tanimun’s officers mixed imported sulfur; with locally produced saltpeter as well as firewood acquired near Zinder which served as coal. The blacksmiths also made copper cannons locally that were mounted on wheels, and fired iron balls with a diameter of 5-6 centimeter. In the 1870s, Damagaram had over 6,000 imported rifles and 40 locally-made cannons. This local manufacture of artillery at Zinder was continued into the first decade of the 20th century, and the cannons were often placed in the gates of the walls17.
Around the year 1856, Tanimun expanded the monumental city walls of Zinder, with more gates.18 a visitor in 1900 described the 10 meter high walls as extending over 10km around the circumference of the city, it was pierced by seven gates and cut along its length by saw-tooth battlements through which archers standing on the galleries could fire off volleys of arrows.19
The capital would thereafter became an important trading city in the region, as merchants from Bornu and Agadez settled in the city, attracted by its agricultural resources, indigo dyeing and leather tanning industries. The king personally organized carravans to the supply regional and north African markets, through the services of local merchants like El Hadj Kaaku as well as foreign traders.20
Hausa and Tripoli merchants in Zinder
Trumpeters in front of one the gates of Zinder, ca. 1925, quai branly
Hausa-style houses in Zinder, mid-20th century
Plan of Zinder in the early 20th century showing the seven gates.
Damagaram from independence to colonialism:
After the death of Tanimun in 1884, three of his children succeeded each other on the throne of Damagaram. Tanimun's son Ibrahim Goto was elected by the council as sultan, but was challenged by his brother Sulayman dan Aisa who defeated the former in battle and seized the throne in the same year. He gained the recognition of Bornu by gifting his suzerain 10 cannons, 840 flintlocks and 12 breech-loading rifles.21
Sulayman consolidated the large kingdom left behind by his father, and organized campaigns across the region, sending his dreaded riflemen against old foes such as the Tuaregs, and powerful states like the Sokoto province of Kano. Sulayman died in 1893 and was suceeded by Amadu dan Tanimun.22
Islamic learning proliferated during Amadu’s reign. Initially, many of the scholars and faqih (jurists) in Zinder came from Bornu as observed by visitors the 1850s. They made their living off writing talismanic charms and were respected, with one being credited for the choice of Sulayman moving his capital to Zinder.23 But Zinder later came to host a sizeable population of scholars and pilgrims including the Senusi order. These included Abu Hassan Ali, a teacher of the Sokoto leader Abdullah dan Fodio, as well as a Bornu scholar named Mallam Musa, who in the 1880s composed a travelogue of his pilgrimage from Zinder to Mecca.24
19th century writing board, Zinder, quai branly
Shortly after the Amadu’s rise to the throne, the empire of Bornu was sacked by the Sudanese general Rabeh, freeing Damagaram from Bornu’s suzerainty. The now independent kingdom of Damagaram sought to expand its frontier without seeking authority from Bornu. Amadu's armies campaigned extensively to Kano, Matsina, Gumel and Guru. However, none of these campaigns gained any territory for Zinder, as the well-defended cities it attacked could withstand its armies.25
The brief period of Damagaram’s autonomy was to be cut short with the arrival of French colonial forces in the last years of the 19th century. In 1898, a French campaign led by Captain Cazemajou arrived at Zinder where it was initially hospitably received by the Sarki. But Amadu became suspicious of his guests whom he thought were allied with Rabeh, and some of the courtiers of the sultan who were Sanusi adherents compelled him to order Cazemajou's execution.26
The following year, another French mission was sent to Zinder to avenge Cazemajou. In 1899, the armies of Sarki Amadu fell at the battle of Tirmini. The sultanate was initially retained under a puppet ruler installed by the French but was later formally annexed in 1906.27
Zinder, Old town.
Ruined walls of Zinder, ca. 1956, quai branly
Beginning in the 1500s, African states acquired guns from the Ottomans and the Portuguese to create their own gun-powder empires. The west african empire of Bornu obtained guns and European slave-soldiers whom it used extensively in its campaigns. Read more about it here:
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original map by André Salifou
Le Damagram ou Sultanat de Zinder au Xix Siecle by André Salifou pg 32-33)
Le Damagram ou Sultanat de Zinder au Xix Siecle by André Salifou pg 37-39)
Le Damagram ou Sultanat de Zinder au Xix Siecle by André Salifou pg 40-41)
Le Damagram ou Sultanat de Zinder au Xix Siecle by André Salifou pg 43-46)
Le Damagram ou Sultanat de Zinder au Xix Siecle by André Salifou 47-48)
African Native Literature, Or Proverbs, Tales, Fables, & Historical by Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle pg 243-248
Narrative of a Mission to Central Africa, 1850-1851, Vol 2, by James Richardson pg 201-202)
Narrative of a Mission to Central Africa, 1850-1851, Vol 2, by James Richardson pg 187, 194, 226)
Narrative of a Mission to Central Africa, 1850-1851, Vol 2, by James Richardson pg 194)
Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa Vol4 by Heinrich Barth pg 78,
Narrative of a Mission to Central Africa, 1850-1851, Vol 2, by James Richardson pg 191,227, 217-218
Narrative of a Mission to Central Africa, 1850-1851, Vol 2, by James Richardson pg 282) Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa Vol4 by Heinrich Barth pg 78-79)
Narrative of a Mission to Central Africa, 1850-1851, Vol 2, by James Richardson pg 179-180 , 194)
Le Damagram ou Sultanat de Zinder au Xix Siecle by André Salifou pg 50-58, 82)
Sahara and Sudan, Volume 2 By Gustav Nachtigal pg 267-269, Sahara and Sudan Volume 4: Wadai and Darfur By Gustav Nachtigal pg 12
Sahara and Sudan IV: Wadai and Darfur By Gustav Nachtigal pg 9 n.1, pg 183, Colonial Rule and Changing Peasant Economy in Damagherim, Niger Republic by Marie-Hélène J. Collion pg 176
Colonial Rule and Changing Peasant Economy in Damagherim by Marie-Hélène J. Collion pg 176, Le Damagram ou Sultanat de Zinder au Xix Siecle by André Salifou pg 62
Le Damagram ou Sultanat de Zinder au Xix Siecle by André Salifou pg 62-64)
Nearly Native, Barely Civilized: Henri Gaden’s Journey through Colonial French West Africa by Roy Dilley pg 166
Le Damagram ou Sultanat de Zinder au Xix Siecle by André Salifou pg 67-69)
Le Damagram ou Sultanat de Zinder au Xix Siecle by André Salifou pg83-84)
Le Damagram ou Sultanat de Zinder au Xix Siecle by André Salifou pg 89-82
Narrative of a Mission to Central Africa, 1850-1851, Vol 2, by James Richardson pg 211, 246-247, 268-269, Le Damagram ou Sultanat de Zinder au Xix Siecle by André Salifou pg 94
A Geography of Jihad: Sokoto Jihadism and the Islamic Frontier in West Africa by Stephanie Zehnle pg 259, 64, 201
Le Damagram ou Sultanat de Zinder au Xix Siecle by André Salifou pg 98-101)
Nearly Native, Barely Civilized: Henri Gaden’s Journey through Colonial French West Africa by Roy Dilley pg 169, Le Damagram ou Sultanat de Zinder au Xix Siecle by André Salifou pg 102-109)
Historical Dictionary of Niger By Abdourahmane Idrissa, Samuel Decalo pg 161