18.09.19, Gomez, A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa

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Myles Osborne

The Medieval Review 18.09.19

Gomez, Michael A. African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018. pp. xiii, 505. ISBN: 978-0-69117-742-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Myles Osborne
University of Colorado

As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, Michael Gomez signed up for a multi-course sequence in Islamic Civilization. In one of his first papers, he tackled the subject of Islam in early West African history. Unimpressed with the offering, his teaching assistant labeled the work "dubious," and notated it with the grade of C-. An unexpected intrusion from the professor bumped the grade to an A-, an alteration that came with some sage advice: if Gomez planned on being a "serious" student, he should learn Arabic (vii).

African Dominion is the fully mature progeny of that fortuitous intrusion and its allied suggestion. A deeply learned tome, it reaches back into the first millennium BCE (and at times earlier still) to provide a foundation for its subject: the great empires of early and medieval West Africa. The book culminates with Songhay's occupation by the Moroccan forces of al-Mansur in 1591. African Dominion is built in significant part from Gomez's close familiarity with Arabic sources, both those which were produced intra-empire (largely during the Songhay period, and cached today in Timbuktu), and externally by travelers like Ibn Battuta and Ibn Khaldun. Gomez's willingness to retranslate certain key phrases and passages--challenging received wisdom, and improving upon the work of other scholars--is particularly impressive. But the author is equally comfortable bringing in oral traditions, archeological evidence, climate data, and more. Indeed, no history of West Africa during this era would be possible without working from such a broad evidentiary basis.

Gomez views world historians as having progressed little since the days of Hegel in their treatments of Africa. Citing contemporary scholarship that persists in dismissing the continent as uncivilized, unknowable, and/or backward, Gomez demonstrates the opposite. He layers his own insights over a thorough use of scholarship produced in recent decades in the fields of archeology, epigraphy, textual analysis, and oral traditions. Combined, this research shows how the early Middle Niger was no backwater; instead, its ecological advantages permitted Africans to sustain cities like Dia/Diagha and Jenne-jeno from the mid-first millennium BCE, and smaller communities and settlements for over three thousand years before that. This is an account in which Europeans barely feature, their presence still a minor factor in the region; and Gomez is careful to demonstrate how indigenous innovations frequently predated or intersected with apparently "Islamic" achievements.

African Dominion is divided into four parts. The first moves from these earliest days through the end of Ghana's heyday in the early twelfth century. The second and third parts take on the golden ages of imperial Mali (early thirteenth to early/mid-fifteenth century) and imperial Songhay (early/mid-fifteenth to early sixteenth century) respectively. Part four details the waning of Songhay's authority leading to al-Mansur's victories at the battles of Tondibi and Zanzan. These date spans, though, tell only a partial story. West Africa's kingdoms and empires rarely fell and disappeared, neatly paving the way for successor states. The indigenous kingdom of Ghana, for instance, reappeared as a Muslim state during the thirteenth century, and existed as a smaller polity paying tribute to Mali until the fifteenth century, a span of over one thousand years. And during the 1540s, an upstart Mali challenged Songhay's territorial claims so seriously that Songhay's Askia Dawud was forced to mount an expedition against the rogue state (it ended with the Malian army fleeing and the askia instructing his men to defecate inside the Malian royal palace for one week). Moreover, bureaucratic, social, and cultural continuities and dissonances bound the three empires. While African Dominion broadly proceeds in a chronological manner, Gomez pauses his narrative to explore several key themes: race, slavery, ethnicity, and perhaps most intriguingly, the role of women in contesting political power.

This is, unapologetically, a story about empire; but where history's "below" enter that story--often tied to the existence of a usable source base--Gomez seizes the moment with aplomb. Despite the ostensible all-encompassing authority of the emperors of Mali and Songhay, the author demonstrates how women of all classes could shape imperial events. In some instances, women fomented rebellion, such as when Mansa Sulayman's chief wife Qasa together with other royal women organized an uprising against her disaffected husband (she possibly even succeeded him at his death in 1360). Royal concubines jockeyed with one another to position their sons advantageously in the line of succession--which was always seemingly unclear and therefore contested--often with the assistance of court eunuchs. Such was women's influence that Askia al-hajj Muhammad came to recognize women's role in enabling him to build an ethnic pluralism that would characterize Songhay (in contrast to Mali or Ghana), transferring clan and local loyalties onto the state.

The theme of slavery, too, runs throughout this text, and the experience of these empires reveals how "unfreedom" was a varied and shifting notion. During sixteenth century Songhay, a servile elite took advantage of poor imperial leadership to make themselves arguably the major "stakeholders" in the empire. Moreover, any emperor wishing to put down a rebellion would require the assent of armies largely comprised of--and commanded by--slaves. But at the same time, plantation slavery increased to the degree that Songhay--"awash" with slaves--could be labeled a "slave state" by the sixteenth century, its officials and traders sending men and women to the Sahara in exchange for horses, and some south towards European ships (349). Slaves could also provide "spiritual currency" to an emperor or lesser leader by permitting them to earn honor via the mechanism of manumission, or by gifting a slave to the service of a mosque (348). The question of who could be enslaved produced fierce debate over racial, ethnic, and religious categorization. People sought to define status and privilege that would protect from enslavement, whether as a Muslim, Mande, or "white." This complicates our extant picture of the bilad as-sudan ("land of the blacks") considerably, a notion that Gomez subtly unpacks from the days of Ghana forward.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this book is in its analysis of the contests for political power in all of their manifestations. Gomez rescues the Mori Koyra holy men from obscurity to reveal how they forced Askia Muhammad to consult them on his decisions, a similar situation Mali'sMansa Musa faced with the donson ton (hunter guilds). At another point, Gomez upends scholarly consensus about Timbuktu's ability to maintain independence from the Songhay state through a careful analysis of maks (taxation or tariffs) imposed by the seat of government in Gao. The role of unfree concubines and eunuchs is noted above. And Gomez explores in detail how the famous pilgrimages of Mansa Musa and Askia Muhammad to Mecca permitted them to solve domestic difficulties and earn respect. He describes Mansa Musa's hajj as a "spiritual feat like no other, representing a consummate political strategy of legitimation." Mansa Musa drew from both Islamic and indigenous forms of knowledge and belonging (with roots in Ghana) to catapult himself into the position of an international figure, all the while atoning for accusations of matricide that dogged him. Though Askia Muhammad could not match the 60,000 men with whom Mansa Musa reportedly traveled to Mecca, his own hajj enabled him to carry out several political deeds. By inviting prominent regional leaders to travel with him to Mecca, he bolstered their statuses and won their loyalties, which helped him to recreate Songhay as a multi-ethnic, Muslim state operating under Islamic law. He was also able to link Songhay to the Islamic world in a way that reflected a cosmopolitanism that was a significant departure from Ghana or Mali.

African Dominion's chronological approach might suggest that it could be used as a textbook; that, I doubt. Its depth and complexity--especially revealed when Gomez skillfully toys with his sources and their opacities--likely puts this beyond all but the graduate classroom. A small number of maps would be sufficient for many monographs, but such are the intricacies of this story (the notes for which run to over one hundred pages) that more would surely have been beneficial, and perhaps even a glossary or timeline. But these quibbles should not detract from what is an extraordinarily rich and exciting narrative. This short review cannot do justice to the variety of insights African Dominion brings to our understanding of West African history. Those studying topics ranging from early Gao to the Malian epic of Sunjata will all find new ways to think about their subjects. I imagine that Michael Gomez's achievement will set the standard for scholarship on West Africa's empires for years to come, and hope that perhaps his former teaching assistant may have a chance to procure a copy.

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