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How Africans wrote their own history: Debates and dialogues between four west African historians in the 16th and 19th century.
Facts, myths and royal propaganda.
The nineteenth-century in West Africa was a time of revolution and intellectual renaissance. A political movement that had begun a century before in the region of modern Senegal fanned out along the banks of the Niger river to the shores of lake Chad, overthrowing old governments and replacing them with clerical authorities of high intellectual caliber.
The movement expanded rapidly east into the region of northern Nigeria, conquering the pre-existing kingdoms and subsuming them under the empire of Sokoto in 1804. But the newly formed Sokoto empire soon met its match further east when its advance was halted by the old empire of Bornu on the shores of lake Chad. Having failed to expand east, a splinter movement advanced west into central Mali, it quickly overwhelmed the divided aristocracies of the region and subsumed them under the empire of Massina in 1818. Having run out of new lands to conquer, the three empires of Massina, Sokoto and Bornu became embroiled in an ideological conflict; one that produced some of Africa's most remarkable accounts of written history.
Map showing the empires of Massina, Sokoto and Bornu in the 19th century.
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The Massina empire was founded by Ahmad Lobbo, a charismatic leader who rose from relative obscurity in the intellectual community of Jenne, an ancient city in Mali. Extending from Jenne to the old city of Timbuktu, the Massina state was one of the largest empires in West Africa since the collapse of Songhai in 1591, and its establishment reversed the political fragmentation of the preceding centuries. The government in Massina was led by a parliament known as the 'Great council', which consisted of about a hundred scholar-administrators who assisted Ahmad Lobbo. The most prominent figure on the 'Great council' was Nuh al-Tahir, a prolific man of letters who is one of Africa's most influencial historians.
The year is 1838 in the walled city of Hamdullahi, capital of the Massina Empire in central Mali. One of the city's founding residents and administrators is writing a short text whose opening paragraph reads "This is the chronicle of the needful one, Nuh ibn al-Tahir ibn Musa” Once he was finished writing it, he gave it the title 'Tarikh al-Fattash' (The chronicle of the inquisitive researcher). As a scholar, Nuh al-Tahir was a prominent figure who is credited as a teacher of several important scholars in the intellectual communities of Jenne and Hamdullahi. Among his students was a particulary excellent scholar named Uthman dan Fodio who'd later became the founder of the Sokoto Empire in what is now nothern Nigeria. Nuh al-Tahir specialized in history and grammar, the latter of which earned him the honorific title 'master of literacy'.
As an administrator, Nuh al-Tahir was a top member of Massina's 'Great council' for much of its early history. The Great council of a hundred scholars was divided into two houses, the more powerful of which comprised about forty permanent members and was in turn led by two councilors of whom Nuh al-Tahir was one. His office at the head of Massina's government placed him in charge of mediating disputes between the council and the military, electing provincial governors for the empire's various districts, and leading the school system of Hamdullahi. Nuh al-Tahir's position made him one of the foremost scholar-administrators in revolutionary West Africa, and incidentally, the unofficial spokesperson of the Massina Empire and its ruler Amhad Lobbo. Nuh al-Tahir’s partisan career is echoed throughout his extant writings, including the 'Tarikh al-Fattash'.
Initially, Nuh al-Tahir wrote the Tarikh al-Fattash as a short chronicle focusing on the life of the Songhai emperor Askiya Muhammad who reigned from 1493 to 1528. First, he presents the Askiya as a 'Caliph' —a powerful title only claimed by rulers of the largest Muslim empires in history who styled themselves as the political and religious sucessors of the prophet. He then writes about the prominent Muslim figures of the 16th century who recognized the Askiya as a caliph while he was on pilgrimage to mecca. In the semi-fictional account that follows, Nuh al-Tahir describes many prophetic and miraculous events that the Askiya witnessed on his pilgrimage journey through Mamluk Egypt and Mecca.
The most significant of these prophetic encounters was one which the Askiya had with the sixteenth century Egyptian scholar Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti. According to the chronicle, Al-Suyuti is said to have told Askiya Muhammad that one of the latter's distant descendants named ‘Ahmad of Massina’ will inherit the title of Caliph. Evidently, this inexplicably prophesied figure of 'Ahmad of Massina' was none other than Nuh al-Tahir's patron, Amhad Lobbo. According to Nuh al-Tahir's short chronicle, all events surrounding Askiya Muhammad's pilgrimage and reign shared one thing in common; that the Askiya was the eleventh Caliph in the list of Muslim emperors who suceeded the prophet Muhammad, and that there would be a twelfth caliph named ‘Ahmad of Massina’ who will come after him.
Nuh al-Tahir would then greatly expand the chronicle, to provide more context of the political and social life in Songhai during Askiya's reign. Fortunately for his bold project, the vibrant intellectual community of Songhai had produced several remarkable scholars who composed detailed chronicles about its history. After Songhai's fall to forces from the Saadi dynasty of Morocco in 1591, the deposed Songhai emperors who retained the title of Askiya, established themselves in Dendi in what is now northern Benin. The Askiyas then begun a decades-long reconquest of Songhai territories, pushing the Moroccans out of many provinces and confining them to the large cities such as Jenne and Timbuktu.
After losing thousands of men but failing to pacify the fallen empire's provinces, the Moroccans pulled out of the region, abandoning the remaining soldiers to their fate. These remaining soldiers were known as the Arma, and they began a long series of peaceful negotiations with the Askiyas in Dendi that were mediated by Songhai's scholary families. Among these peace-making Songhai scholars living in the seventeenth century was one named Ibn al-Mukhtar, who was based in Dendi, and another named Al-Sa'di who was based in Jenne. These two scholars composed some of the oldest chronicles in West Africa's history.
Al-Sa'di completed his chronicle on Songhai's history in 1656 while Ibn al-Mukhtar finished his in 1664, the two documents were original compositions which relied on different sources to reconstruct a similar story. Al-Sa'di's chronicle was widely circulated in nineteenth century West Africa and survived in complete form with its title as Tarikh al-Sudan (The chronicle on West Africa). On the other hand Ibn al-Mukhtar's chronicle wasn't widely circulated, it only survived in a fragmentary form that had no title.
Nuh al-Tahir utilized information from the two seventeenth century chronicles to reconstruct the history of Songhai, which he then embellished with his own semi-fictional account about Askiya Muhammad. One particular historical figure he focused on was Mahmud Ka‘ti, a sixteenth century scholar who was close to the Askiya Muhammad, and who also happened to be the grandfather of Ibn al-Mukhtar. Then, taking advantage of Ibn al-Mukhtar's untitled chronicle, Nuh al-Tahir gave his own chronicle the title Tarikh al-Fattash and intentionally misattributed its authorship to Mahmud Ka‘ti.
The final version of the Tarikh al-Fattash chronicle was a very lengthy document, covering over a hundred leaves. Nuh al-Tahir therefore wrote a short summary of the chronicle for wider circulation which he titled 'Letter on the Appearance of the Twelfth Caliph' (or 'Risala'). This summary document outlined the main claims contained in the Tarikh al-Fattash which it attributed not to Nuh al-Tahir, but to the sixteenth century scholar Mahmud Ka‘ti. The original short chronicle which Nuh al-Tahir wrote with his name in the title was hidden away in his personal library, while the 'Risala' was circulated widely circulated throughout West Africa and North Africa. This ingenious process of textural manipulation has long eluded modern researchers who worked on the Tarikh al-Fattash, but has since been meticulously uncovered by the historian Mauro Nobili.
Folios from a copy of Nuh al-Tahir’s Tarikh al-Fattash (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images).
In the study of Africa's past, modern historians bewailed the paucity of internal accounts written by Africans, and they were often forced to rely on biased and inadequate external sources written by non-Africans who were unfamiliar with the internal dynamics of the continent. But the recent discovery of countless African manuscripts from thousands of archives and private libraries across the continent has created an invaluable wealth of information on Africa's past. The cities of Timbuktu and Jenne are among the dozens of intellectual capitals across the continent whose corpus of old manuscripts have been catalogued and digitized by several institutions over the last few decades. However, as scholars rushed to translate these precious documents and mine them for hard evidence on Africa’s past, they soon discovered another challenge —Africa's internal sources contained their own unique biases and perspectives.
The existence of biases in primary sources isn't unique to African history, it is a fundamental commonality of all history accounts by all societies across the world. Writers of history in many regions of the world since antiquity, were cognizant of their own biases and a few of them strived to appear non-partisan in their works. As such, part of the work done by modern historians and philologists is to critically examine historical works for such biases inorder to reconstruct a more objective account of history. What makes the internal biases in African accounts relatively unique was that since African documents had only recently been discovered, the process of translating and analyzing them to resolve the biases is still in its early stages. Such was the case with the Tarikh al-Fattash, which contains a contested account about the life of a historical personality that was hotly debated by West African intellectuals of the nineteenth century.
In debating the accuracy of the Tarikh al-Fattash's interpretation of Songhai's history, Nuh al-Tahir's fiercest critic was Dan Tafa, a scholar from the Sokoto Empire in what is now northern Nigeria. Dan Tafa, who is formally known as Abd al-Qādir al-Turūdī, was a prolific intellectual who ranks among Africa's polymaths. His literary production includes over seventy two extant books covering a broad range of subjects from Philosophy, to Geography to History. Unlike Nuh al-Tahir who was an administrator, Dan Tafa didn't serve in the Sokoto government and he briefly alludes to this lack of a government office his 1855 philosophical apologia titled 'Covenants and Treaties'.
While Dan Tafa wasn't an administrator, he was in all respects Nuh al-Tahir's intellectual peer when it came to being an accomplished scholar. Dan Tafa was the most prominent member of Sokoto's intellectual community, he run an important school, and was the unofficial advisor of several provincial governors in Sokoto. Dan Tafa's reputation proceeded him, such that by the time the German explorer Heinrich Barth visited Sokoto in 1853, Dan Tafa was considered by his peers and by Barth as "the most learned of the present generations of the inhabitants of Sokoto… The man was Abde Kader dan Tafa, on whose stores of knowledge I drew eagerly". In short, Dan Tafa wasn't the type of person to easily give into Nuh al-Tahir's craftily written claims.
Map of Sokoto by Paul E. Lovejoy
Dan Tafa had received a copy of the 'Risala' in 1842, after a series of diplomatic exchanges between Ahmad Lobbo and the rulers of the Sokoto Empire. The political history of Massina and Sokoto were closely intertwined. Early in his career, Ahmad Lobbo had accepted the nominal suzeranity of Sokoto's founder Uthman dan Fodio, but Ahmad Lobbo later decided to create the Massina state by his own effort. In Massina, Ahmad Lobbo's authority rested on a complex network of political and religious claims that didn't require any connection with the more respected founder of Sokoto.
After Uthman's death in 1817, there was a brief sucession crisis in Sokoto that pitted Uthman’s brother Abdullahi dan Fodio against his son Muhammad Bello. Eventually, Muhammad Bello suceeded his father and forced his uncle, Abdullahi, to submit after a series of negotiations between the two. Ahmad Lobbo followed the events of this interregnum closely but didn’t intervene. So when Bello challenged Ahmad Lobbo's authority in a series of letters that demanded he resubmits to Sokoto, the latter argued that Bello’s sucession crisis had rendered Massina independent of Sokoto. After failed attempts to foment rebellions in Massina and a heated exchange of letters, Bello eventually reached a settlement with Ahmad Lobbo and withdrew his claims.
Bello was suceeded by AbuBakr Atiku in 1838 after a brief interregnum during which AbuBakr Atiku's brother, named Muhammad al-Bakhari, had initially been elected by Sokoto's state council before he was later deposed. This Muhammad al-Bakhari also happened to be a friend of Ahmad Lobbo. Exploiting the brief unrest, Lobbo requested that the Sokoto elite recognize him as the leader of both Massina and Sokoto, sending two written requests to that end between the years 1838 and 1841. Understandably, the Sokoto elite rejected Lobbo's overtures in writing, and it was on the second occasion in particular that Dan Tafa explicitly cuts into the heart of Lobbo's legitimacy by critiquing the Tarikh al-Fattash and its author, Nuh al-Tahir.
Addressing Nuh al-Tahir directly, Dan Tafa writes that "We read what you wrote in it concerning the issue of the twelve caliphs mentioned in the hadith and that you claim al-Shaykh Ahmad Lobbo is the twelfth of them according to what is written in the Tarikh al-Fattash". Dan Tafa then proceeds to provide a point-by-point refutation of Nuh al-Tahir's in a treatise he titled ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Turūdī's response to Nuh al-Tahir'. Using the works of many respected Islamic scholars, Dan Tafa flatly rejects the claim that Ahmad Lobbo was the last of the twelve prophesied caliphs. More importantly, Dan Tafa denies any connection between Askiya Muhammad and Ahmad Lobbo, writing that even if the title of Caliph was bestowed onto the Askiya, "Where did you get the idea that what applied to him could apply to someone else?".
Dan Tafa's sharp critique of the Tarikh-al Fattash shows that while Nuh al-Tahir's chronicle was intended to equip Ahmad Lobbo with unassailable legitimacy as a Caliph based on the prophecy about Askiya Muhammad purportedly recorded by Mahmud Ka‘ti, it was roundly rejected in Sokoto. However, the chronicle was well received within Massina itself and in other parts of West Africa, and most of its claims were accepted. The Tarikh al-Fattash was therefore as much a work of historical literature as it was a partisan text intended by its author to advance the political agenda of his royal patron. It’s thus very similar to its predecessors such as al-Sa'di's Tarikh al-Sudan whose political objective was to reconcile the Askiya and Arma elites.
The Tarikh al-Fattash shows that West African chronicles were not mere agglutinative repositories of information waiting to be mined by modern researchers for hard facts, but were instead products of complex intellectual traditions that were heavily influenced by their authors' social and political context. The chronicles contain carefully crafted discourses interweaving past realities with contemporary concerns, and were products of a dynamic scholary culture where concepts of power and legitimacy were imposed, engaged and contested. Approaching them from this perspective allows us to construct a more comprehensive picture of African history as presented in the chronicles, not just as a series of events, but as the author's interpretation of the events.
Some years before his critique of Nuh al-Tahir's interpretation of Songhai's history, Dan Tafa had in 1824 completed a work on the history titled ‘Rawdat al-afkar’ (The Sweet Meadows of Contemplation). This text contains a general history of West Africa, but was especially focused on the Hausaland -a region in nothern Nigeria dominated by Hausa speakers whose kingdoms were subsumed by Sokoto when the empire was founded in 1808. Dan Tafa opens with the explanation for his writing the chronicle that: "I decided then to collect together here some of the historical narratives of these lands of the Sudan in general and the lands of the Hausa in particular". He then adds that "the science of historiography serves to sharpen one's intellect and awaken in some the resolution to conduct historical research". To compile his account on the kingdoms of the Hausa before Sokoto, Dan Tafa utilized pre-existing accounts, both oral and written, which included semi-legendary tales of immigrant kings who founded the Hausa states.
According to Dan Tafa, the immigrant founders of the Hausa states were sons of an obscure figure named Bawu, about whom he says was a slave official appointed by the ruler of Bornu. The empire of Bornu was a large state in the Lake Chad basin along the eastern frontier of the Hausalands, and was also the suzerain of most of the Hausa kingdoms. After he provides a brief account of West African history including an account of the Songhai Empire, Dan Tafa then narrows down his focus to the founding of the Hausa states such as the kingdoms of Kano and Gobir. Writing that "All of the rulers of these lands (ie : the Hausalands) were originally the political captives of the ruler of Bornu" and that they used to pay tribute to Bornu "until the establishment of our present government".
Curiously, Dan Tafa excludes the kingdom of Gobir from the Hausa dynasties which he claimed were founded by political captives from Bornu. He explains that Gobir's ruler refused to pay tribute to Bornu and remained independent of it, reportedly because his dynasty was of noble origin and had no ties to Bawu. Dan Tafa then narrows down his account to focus on the history of the Gobir kingdom; from its founding until it fell in war with the forces of Uthman dan Fodio in 1804. The decisive defeat of Gobir was the central event in the founding of the Sokoto Empire and a precursor to the fall of the remaining Hausa states. Dan Tafa's interpretation of early Hausa history was evidently partisan, and the reason why had a lot to do with the contemporary political relationship between Bornu and Sokoto.
Folio from Dan Tafa’s ‘Rawdat al-afkar’, from a private collection in Maiurno, Sudan. Similar copy found here at the Kaduna National Archives.
In the decades prior to Dan Tafa's writing of his chronicle, the old empire of Bornu had concluded several major battles with newly founded Sokoto, after the forces of Uthman dan Fodio attacked it in three failed invasions from 1808 to 1810. To justify its war with Bornu, Sokoto had used the pretext that the former was supporting the deposed Hausa rulers and that its society was polytheistic. While the physical battle had been lost, the ideological battle continued between the rulers of Bornu and Sokoto. In 1812, Uthman's sucessor Muhammad Bello, who was also an accomplished scholar, completed a chronicle on West African history titled ‘Infaq al-Maysur’ (Easy Expenditure on the History of the Lands of Takrur). This lengthy chronicle had a broad geographical scope that included the history of most of West Africa as well as the Hausalands. It was in this chronicle that Bello first advanced the theory that the legendary Hausa founder; Bawu, was a royal slave of Bornu rulers. An assertion that Dan Tafa would later copy.
Over in Bornu, the empire's defacto ruler at the time was a highly accomplished scholar named Muhammad al-Kanemi who had gathered a large following prior to his rise in Bornu's government. Al-Kanemi's followers had saved Bornu from Sokoto's attacks in 1809 and 1810, and he later authored several works defending Bornu from the accusations levelled by both Uthman Dan Fodio and Muhammad Bello. Al-Kanemi charged the Sokoto government with the same accusations it had leveled against Bornu, revealing the flaws in the legitimacy of Sokoto's invasion. Al-Kanemi and Bello would then continue to exchange counter-accusations, basing their arguments on the written histories of their states. This ideological war between Bornu and Sokoto reinvigorated the ongoing intellectual renaissance in Sokoto, especially regarding the re-discovery and translation of the written history of the region. Among the most notable intellectual products of the ideological war between Bornu and Sokoto was the abovementioned chronicle written by Bello.
In his chronicle, Bello mentioned that he received his information on the Hausa kingdoms' origins from a non-Hausa scholar named Muhammad al-Baqiri, the latter of whom was ethnically Songhai —the dominant ethnic group in what is today eastern Mali and after whom the empire of Songhai was named. Muhammad al-Baqiri would later become the ruler of the neighboring sultanate of Asben which lay along the nothern border of Sokoto, just north of where the Gobir kingdom had been located. It was this non-Hausa informant who claimed that Bawu, the legendary Hausa founding figure, was a slave official of Bornu, and that the Gobir kingdom was ruled by a dynasty of noble origin.
Map showing the Hausa kingdoms, as well as the kingdoms of Gobir and Asben
The figure of Bawu was likely a mischaracterized version of the legendary Hausa founder Bajayidda. However, Bajayidda was widely recalled in Hausa traditions to be of noble origin rather than a slave official in Bornu. The suspiciously Gobir-centric elements in both Dan Tafa and Bello’s chronicles may have been current within Gobir itself, since the kingdom had been at war with the other Hausa states before it was defeated by Sokoto. However, the choice made by Muhammad Bello to use this specific interpretation in his chronicle was doubtlessly also informed by contemporary politics.
By assuming the mantle of Gobir's noble dynasty after defeating them in battle, and "liberating" the rest of Hausa's supposedly slave dynasties from Bornu's oppression, the Sokoto government of Bello could present itself as a legitimate authority in the region. Dan Tafa's chronicle was therefore historicizing contemporary political dynamics inorder to legitimize the continued presence of the Sokoto government in Hausaland. Despite Dan Tafa’s sharp critique of Nuh al-Tahir, even he agreed that the interpretation of historical events took precedence over a simple outline of historical ‘facts’.
However, Hausa scholars in Sokoto rejected Dan Tafa’s version of their history that was centered on their subservience to Bornu. The Hausa chronicler Malam Bakar, who served as an official in the Sokoto province of Kano during the 1880s, composed a monumental work on the history of the Kano state known as the 'Kano chronicle'. In this chronicle, Malam Bakar centered the origins of Kano's founders within Hausaland rather than Bornu, adding that they were all of noble origins and ruled their states independently of any external power. He highlighted the role of the autochtonous groups in Kano's early history, and attributed the Islamic institutions of the Hausa to migrant scholars from the Songhai Empire rather than from Bornu. He also clarified that Kano's tributary relationship with Bornu begun around 1450, which was many centuries after the city-state had been established, adding that it ended around 1550, when Kano's defiant king refused to bow to Bornu's demands.
Folio from a copy of Malam Barka’s Kano chronicle
In writing his chronicle, Malam Bakar relied on information provided by the royal Hausa genealogists and praise singers living at the time. These genealogists and praise singers occupied important offices in the Hausa kingdoms and were retained under the Sokoto government. They were tasked with carefully preserving the kingdom’s oral history, often in the form of poetry, which was later transcribed into writing during the Sokoto era. Malam Bakar's chronicle therefore records an account of Kano's history in an unbroken fashion from the Hausa era to the Sokoto era. It treats each ruler of Kano as equally legitimate, even if Kano under Sokoto was only a province governed by an appointed official rather than an independent state ruled by a King as it had been about a half a century prior to the chronicle’s composition.
As an active official in the Kano administration, Malam Bakar's reasons for compiling the chronicle were likely influenced by contemporary politics in Kano, since its governor was at the time seeking further autonomy from Sokoto. Bakar's interpretation of early Hausa history therefore strives to represent both the Hausa and Sokoto accounts of Kano's history in equal measure inorder to reconcile the two eras, just like the seventeenth century scholar al-Sa'di had done in reconciling the Askiya dynasty and the Arma. This choice was also likely informed by the fact that unlike Dan Tafa and Nuh al-Tahir who represented the new elite, Malam Bakar was part of the established elite, and was thus more supportive of the deposed rulers than the “revolutionaries”.
In Malam Bakar's chronicle, the kingdom of Kano during the pre-Sokoto era is depicted as a defiant upstart wedged between the empires of Bornu and Songhai. Although briefly tributary to Bornu, the chronicle mentions that a king of Kano named Kisoki who reigned from 1509 to 1565, defiantly refused to pay tribute to Bornu. When Bornu's ruler asked him "What do you mean by making war" Kisoki replied: "I do not know, but the cause of war is the ordinance of Allah." Bornu's army then attacked Kano but failed to take it, thus assenting to Kano's independence. This victory over Bornu allowed Kisoki to take on the boastful title "physic of Bornu", and no further king of Kano is mentioned giving tribute to Bornu after Kisoki.
Kano in the early 20th century, with the inselberg of Dalla in the background.
While the above account was carefully preserved in oral traditions at Kano, it was only recorded in the nineteenth century and says little about Bornu's perspective of the same events. Over in Bornu, the empire had nurtured a large intellectual community that produced some of Africa's most remarkable scholars. One of these was the court historian Aḥmad ibn Furṭu who in 1576 wrote a chronicle titled ‘Ghazawāt Barnū’ (The Bornu conquests), nearly a century before the Songhai chroniclers got to work on theirs. Ibn Furtu's chronicle was one of two monumental works which documented the military campaigns of his patron; the Bornu emperor Mai Idris Alooma who reigned from 1564 to 1596.
Idris Alooma, formally known as Idris ibn Ali, was one of Africa’s most accomplished empire builders. His armies campaigned extensively over a vast region extending from the Fezzan region of southern Libya, to the Kawar region of northern Niger to the Kanem region of eastern Chad, to the Mandara region of nothern Cameroon, and to the Hausalands in nothern Nigeria, where they went as far as Kano. Ibn Furtu personally accompanied his patron on several of these campaigns, providing a first-hand account of the relationship between Kano and Bornu from the perspective of the latter.
Idris Alooma was undertaking a restoration of Bornu's power over the territories it had lost during a lengthy dynastic conflict, but had been regaining since the reign of his grandfather Mai Ali who reigned from 1497 to 1519. Idris Alooma was by all accounts a shrewd figure, he began his career by blocking the southern advance of the Ottomans in the Fezzan, sending his embassies to the Ottoman capital Istanbul and courting regional powers. Alooma also acquired thousands of guns and European slave-soldiers for his own army, and initiated diplomatic contacts with the Saadis of Morocco to form an alliance of convenience against the Ottomans, a few decades before the Saadis would march their forces south against Songhai.
Inorder to document Idris Alooma's conquests, Ibn Furtu borrowed themes from the chronicle of Mai Ali's court historian Masfarma Umar titled ‘The conquests of Njimi'. Ibn Furtu explains the reason for writing his chronicle; that “the cause of our engaging in this work at this time, is the perusal of the compilation of Masfarma Umar concerning the epoch of his Sultan”. Adding that “When we studied that work concerning the war in Njimi describing its battles and phases, we determined to compose a similar work on the age of our Sultan” and that he “employed the materials from the past, working on and imitating models of the past”. Importantly, Ibn Furtu mentions that “We have ceased to doubt that our Sultan al Haj Idris ibn Ali accomplished much more than his grandfather”.
Ibn Furtu had therefore composed a chronicle that legitimized Mai Idris' reign and conquests, and portrayed him as the rightful heir to Mai Ali's legacy in the eyes of Bornu's divided elite. He portrayed Bornu as the cultural and political center of West Africa where all regions, including Kano, were at the periphery.
Copies of Ibn Furtu’s Ghazawāt Barnū at the SOAS
Ibn Furtu's chronicle says little about Kano's subservience to Bornu but instead describes the former as one of only two neighboring states whose political structure was similar to Bornu's. He describes Kano as a kingdom within which were many walled towns, adding that the forces of Kano utilized these fortified towns to attack Bornu, but would then quickly retreat behind the safety of their walls. He then proceeds to recount the various campaigns that Idris Alooma's armies undertook against Kano and its surrounding walled towns in retaliation for Kano's attacks on Bornu. He concludes the account of Bornu's victorious campaigns over Kano, that "the people of Kano became downcast in the present and fearful of the future". Ibn Furtu then moves on to the next campaign without elaborating on the political ramifications of Bornu's victories over Kano besides mentioning that its walled towns were reduced to "clouds of dust" save for the fortification of ‘Dalla’ (in Kano itself) which remained standing.
In Ibn Furtu's chronicle, Kano wasn't included among the vassals of Bornu unlike the other enemies that had been defeated by Alooma's armies, but was instead recognized as an independent state occupying a clearly defined territory. Alooma's campaign against Kano wasn't perceived as a restoration of Bornu's power over Kano but as a response to Kano's aggression. Once Bornu's army had suceeded in destroying the walled towns of Kano, its army marched on victoriously to fight against other foes, many of whom eventually submitted to Bornu, unlike Kano. Despite Furtu having lived closer to the purported date of Kano's founding than both Dan Tafa and Malam Bakar, the Bornu chronicler felt not need to expound on Kano's early history. And while Furtu may have been aware of Kano's earlier tributary relationship that had only ended a few decades prior to the writing of his chronicle, he chose not to include it.
Adding the chronicles of Bornu to the corpus of documents on Africa's past reveals yet another aspect in African works of history; some of them say more about the times they were produced than about earlier dynamics. Unlike most of the abovementioned chronicles which were more concerned with the past than with the present inorder to reconcile the former with the latter, Ibn Furtu's chronicle is evidently concerned with contemporary events. Ibn Furtu was pre-occupied with elevating the stature of his patron, the "Caliph" Idris Alooma, whom he ranked higher than the Ottoman sultan, while reducing the latter to a mere 'King'.
He was thus less concerned with expounding on the history of Kano, which he considered a periphery state "at the borders of Islam", than he was with Bornu which he considered to be the center of the world, and its ruler, to be the only "commander of the faithful". Ibn Furtu’s account therefore only includes the victorious actions of Idris Alooma against Kano, and downplays the realities of Kano's autonomy which would have undermined his authorial intentions. And like all chronicles explored above, his document was evidently a partisan account with a clear political objective.
The four west African chroniclers; Nuh al-Tahir, Dan Tafa, Malam Bakar and Ibn Furtu, offer us important insights into how Africans wrote their own history. Their chronicles are revealed to be more than just an archival collection of past events recorded by literate witnesses. Examining these written works of African history requires the usual care which scholars are expected to exercise to ensure that the chronicler's political biases and perspectives are considered before the documents can be accurately utilized.
Scholars looking for ‘hard facts’ about early West African history in these chronicles have attimes failed to recognize the authorial biases that had modified narratives and interpretations of the past. The writing of history is after all, closely associated with the need to legitimize political power, and the imperative need for each community to weave links towards its past.
West African chroniclers were engaged in creative and artful reconstructions of their past. Their works of history were sophisticated products of African intellectuals with precise rhetorical plans and authorial intentions. Approaching them as such allows up to appreciate the complex intellectual pasts and historical engagements of members of the African intelligentsia who have shaped current historiographical overviews of the African past.
19th century engraving titled ‘The Interior of the Chief Malem's House’ showing the ruler of the Opanda kingdom (just south of the Zaria kingdom) with his ‘Malems’ (Islamic scholars)
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