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Warfare in the Sahel

 October 8, 2023    African Arms

Conflict was a constant feature of Sahel life. Whether it was raiders from on the fringes of an empire, or clashing city states, armed struggles defined the expansion of influence, the control of trade routes and the rise to power of nations. Sahel warfare featured all aspects of armed conflict including firearms. However, for a variety of reasons cannon and muskets would not dominate until a very late date when the colonial powers invaded. Except for some relatively isolated incidents of outside influence, such as a Moroccan attack on the Songhai Empire in 1590, firearms would not play a forceful role in the Sahel although certainly in use. Partially this was due to the relatively low quality of the firearms available and probably a secondary factor was the inability to manufacture high quality powder. Even with the import of trade muskets in the 19th century, firearms maintained a secondary role, being further limited by ruling classes anxious that these powerful weapons did not gain widespread use among the peasant population.

A Hausa man holds a takouba in 1900. Image source: NYPL Digital Gallery

Cavalry were the elite units and could in fact be termed knights. Heavily armed and armored they were shock troops who broke the enemy with a charge. In the deserts, camels were the mounts of choice, however in the more fertile south horses were prized. Mounts were expensive and limited the cavalry to the upper classes or those with sponsorship. The basic armament of a Sahel cavalryman consisted of a long lance or spear, a straight bladed, double edged sword and a large hide shield. Armor could be either maille or multi layered quilted cotton. Helmets were based on a quilted skullcap with metal bands running overtop from the brim to the crown.

Tuareg riders exhibit large hide shields and spears. Image source: NYPL Digital Gallery

Infantry were often drawn from slaves. A variety of weapons were employed, spears, axes, swords, slings, crossbows and flat bows. Siege warfare become more common as cities increased their fortifications, leading to the use of sappers, scaling ladders and moat filling. Technological advances included the use of poison on the tips of projectile weapons, useful in countering heavy cavalry. Infantry was highly dependent on the season, being drawn from classes most often engaged in agricultural activity, the dry season was the time for campaigns while the wet season saw the population engaged in farming. Infantry was not an afterthought in Sahel warfare as the Fulani jihad was quick to show. Fulani archers played a key role in neutralising the heavy Hausa cavalry. 

A Gâlièh man from the Sudan holds his kaskara. Image source: NYPL Digital Gallery

The relatively flat landscape of the Sahel provides an interesting picture of military clashes with the outcome defined by tactics not dictated by the geography upon which the battle takes place, but rather by the timing and planning of the opposing generals.