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The Role of the Wangara in the Economic Transformation of the Central Sudan in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2009

Paul E. Lovejoy
York University, Toronto


The term ‘Wangara’ has most commonly been used to describe the gold merchants of ancient Mali and Ghana and has been equated with ‘Juula’ (Dyula). This article establishes another meaning for ‘Wangara’, as it has been used in the Central Sudan, particularly Hausaland. There the Wangara were descendants of merchants who were once connected with the Songhay Empire of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Since the term is also used in Borgu to describe resident Muslim merchants in the Bariba states, it is postulated that the Wangara were once a Songhay-based commercial group which established diaspora communities in the Bariba and Hausa towns before the Songhay collapse of 1591. It is argued that these Wangara merchants were instrumental in the economic development of the Central Sudan in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They were not only associated with commerce but were involved in early leather and textile production and probably were responsible for the introduction of such new products as kola nuts and the spread of the Songhay monetary system, based on cowries and gold. The immigration of the Wangara came at a time when other economic changes were taking place in the Hausa cities and Borno. The combined impact of these developments were such as to mark the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as a major turning point in the economic history of the Central Sudan.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1978

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1 Fallers, Lloyd A., Immigrants and Associations (The Hague, 1967), 716Google Scholar; Cohen, Abner, Custom and Politics in Urban Africa (London, 1969)Google Scholar; and Cohen, , ‘Cultural Strategies in the Organization of Trading Diasporas’, in Meillassoux, Claude (ed.), The Development of Indigenous Trade and Markets in West Africa (London, 1971), 266–81Google Scholar. An earlier version of this article was presented at the 1973 Annual Meeting of the Canadian Association of African Studies, Halifax, 1974. Special thanks must go to John Lavers and Muhammad Al-Hajj, Bayero University College, Kano, for their assistance in the early stages of research and to H. Fisher, A. G. Hopkins and R. C. C. Law for their comments. The map was drawn by the Cartography Office, Department of Geography, York University.

2 Cohen, , ‘Cultural Strategies’, 266–81Google Scholar. For recent contributions to the theoretical discussion of commercial diasporas, see Curtin, Philip D., Economic Change in Precolonial Africa. Senegambia in the Era of the Slave Trade (Madison, 1975), 59109Google Scholar; Curtin, , ‘Pre-Colonial Trading Networks and Traders: The Diakhanke’, in Meillassoux, Trade and Markets, 228–39Google Scholar; Lovejoy, Paul E., ‘The Hausa Kola Trade (1700–1900). A Commercial System in the Continental Exchange of West Africa’ (Ph.D. thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1973Google Scholar, forthcoming as Caravans of Kola. Hausa Trade viith Asante, 1700–1900, Zaria and LondonGoogle Scholar. Page references are to the original thesis); Lovejoy, , ‘The Kambarin Beriberi: The Formation of a Specialized Group of Hausa Kola Traders in the Nineteenth Century’, J. Afr. Hist. xiv, 4 (1973), 633–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Works, J. A., Pilgrims in a Strange Land. Hausa Communities in Chad (New York, 1976)Google Scholar; and Perinbam, B. Marie, ‘The Dyulas in Western Sudanese History: Developers of Resources’, in Swartz, B. K. and Dumett, R. E. (eds.), West African Dynamics: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives (Chicago and The Hague, forthcoming).Google Scholar

3 Sanneh, LaminThe Origins of Clericalism in West African Islam’, J. Afr. Hist. xvii, 1 (1976), 4972CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Other criticism of the concept of diaspora is to be found in Adamu, Mahdi, The Hausa Factor in West Africa (Zaria and London, 1978)Google Scholar, who considers the term too narrow to include soldiers of fortune, prostitutes, and others who have migrated from the Hausa homeland.

4 Curtin, , ‘The Diakhanke’, 228–39Google Scholar; and Curtin, , Economic Change, 6883.Google Scholar

5 Sanneh, , ‘Clericalism’, 60Google Scholar. It should be noted that Curtin does not claim that the Jakhanké exercised ‘monopoly control’. Rather, he states that they were the ‘dominant carriers at some periods, but other merchants traded, even in Diakhanké towns’ (‘Diakhanke’, 237).Google Scholar

6 Sanneh, , ‘Clericalism’, 60.Google Scholar

7 See Al-Hajj, Muhammad, ‘A Seventeenth Century Chronicle of the Origins and Missionary Activities of the Wangarawa’, Kano Studies, i, 4 (1968), 742.Google Scholar

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9 Sanneh, ‘Clericalism’, 55 n., 59 n., 68–71.Google Scholar

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15 This analysis is based on the work of Musa Idris, whose preliminary study clearly establishes ‘Wangara’ as the corporate name for Muslims in Borgu. Since they spoke Dendi, a dialect of Songhay, and since some Songhay moved to the Bariba towns after the Moroccan invasion in 1591, I have assumed that most Borgu Wangara were originally from Songhay and that most early trade was with Songhay. The analysis is also based on recent theories of commercial diaspora organization and development. See especially Lovejoy, , ‘The Hausa Kola Trade’Google Scholar; Lovejoy, , ‘Kambarin Beriberi’, 633–51Google Scholar; Cohen, , ‘Cultural Strategies’, 266–81Google Scholar; Meillassoux, Claude, ‘Introduction’, in Meillassoux, Trade and Markets, 6774Google Scholar; and Curtin, , Economic Change, 59108.Google Scholar

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17 For the possibility of a Wangara dynasty through the maternal line at Katsina, see, Palmer, H. R., Sudanese Memoirs (London, 1928, 1967), iii, 83Google Scholar. Smith, Abdullahi, ‘The Early States of the Central Sudan’, in Ajayi and Crowder, History of West Africa, 197Google Scholar, recognizes the Wangara connexion of Sarkin Katsina Muhammad Korau, but he does not specifically associate this with descent through the female line. For the Timbuktu connexions with the Songhay aristocracy, see Ferguson, Phyllis, ‘Islamization in Dagbon: A Study of the Alfanema of Yendi’ (Ph.D. thesis, unpublished, Cambridge University, 1972), 4854Google Scholar. Also see Levtzion, N., ‘A Seventeenth-Century Chronicle by Ibn al-Mukhtār: A Critical Study of Ta'rikh al-Fattash’, Bulletin of S.O.A.S. xxxiv, 3 (1971), 575.Google Scholar

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19 For a discussion of the Songhay economy, see Laurent, N. R., ‘The Economic History of the Songhai Empire, 1465–1591’ (Dissertation for the Diploma in African Studies, unpublished, University of Birmingham, 1965)Google Scholar; Tymowski, Michal, ‘L'Éonomie et la société dans le bassin du moyen Niger. Fin du xvie–xviiie siècles’, Africana Bulletin, xviii (1973), 964Google Scholar; and Cissoko, , Tombouctou, 123–49Google Scholar. For a summary of Songhay political expansion, see Hunwick, , ‘Songhay, Bornu, and Hausaland’, 225–32.Google Scholar

20 Other sectors of the Songhay economy do not appear to be associated with the Wangara community, but they should be mentioned in order to establish its relative position. Besides the activities of the desert-based merchants and businessmen who traded with the Wangara, Fulbe cattle herders supplemented livestock production and filled the demand for dairy products. Fulbe pastoralists concentrated their resources in areas southwest of Timbuktu but expanded operations everywhere where grazing and water were available. (See Hunwick, , ‘Songhay, Bornu, and Hausaland’, 226–7Google Scholar.) The Niger River was not only the major route for wholesale grain and salt, but was also the site of a fishing industry. Indeed fishermen were probably the earliest merchants in Songhay, but unfortunately little is known about their role in the development of the Songhay merchant class. Their activities stretched beyond the borders of metropolitan Songhay, not only along the Niger but along such tributaries as the Sokoto and Zamfara rivers. Despite their probable importance, however, fishermen lacked the extensive overland commercial contacts which the Wangara possessed, so that the spread of Muslim trade marked a major development in the economic growth of Songhay. See Levtzion, , ‘Early States’, 142–3Google Scholar; and Alkali, Muhammad Bello, ‘A Hausa Community in Crisis. Kebbi in the Nineteenth Century’ (M.A. thesis, unpublished, Ahmadu Bello University, 1969).Google Scholar

21 Al-Hajj, , ‘Wangarawa Chronicle’, 910Google Scholar. This assumes that the Aşl al-Wanqariyin reference to Borgu is to be identified with Nikki, which seems likely since the Aşl mentions Bussa, the other major Bariba town in the fifteenth century. See also Idris, , ‘Bariba States’, 84112Google Scholar; Idris, , ‘Wangara’Google Scholar; Levtzion, , Muslims and Chiefs, 174Google Scholar; Lombard, Jacques, Structures de type ‘féodal’ en Afrique noire. Étude des dynamismes internes et des relations sociales chez les Bariba du Dahomey (Paris, 1965), 38, 44, 83Google Scholar; and Ferguson, , ‘Dagbon’, 4854.Google Scholar

22 Al-Hajj, , ‘Wangarawa Chronicle’, 9Google Scholar. The Aşl mentions a community in Gonja, but since Gonja was not founded in the fifteenth century the reference cannot be taken literally. Rather, Gonja is often used in Hausa to refer to the middle Volta basin, and it seems likely that the fifteenth-century town was Bighu, the most important centre for centuries. On Bighu, see Wilks, Ivor, ‘The Mossi and Akan States, 1500–1800’, in Ajayi and Crowder, History of West Africa, 354–7.Google Scholar

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24 Lovejoy, , ‘Hausa Kola Trade’, 8Google Scholar. The historical development of the kola trade is discussed in Lovejoy, , ‘Kola in the History of West Africa’ (forthcoming)Google Scholar. For a general overview, see Perinbam, , ‘Dyulas in Western Sudanese History’.Google Scholar

25 This expands upon earlier discussions of cowrie use in the Central Sudan; see Lovejoy, Paul E., ‘Interregional Monetary Flows in the Precolonial Trade of Nigeria’, J. Afr. Hist. xv, 4 (1974), 563–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar. It should be noted that it corrects Marion Johnson's argument for an early eighteenth-century date for the introduction of cowries into the Central Sudan: see her ‘The Cowrie Currencies of West Africa’, J. Afr. Hist. xi, 1 (1970), 33Google Scholar. In fact, Giovanni Lorenzo Anania reported as early as 1582, and probably for the period before 1570, that at Katsina ‘on y utilise comme monnaie, ainsi que cela se fait chez tous ces Noirs, pour les petites choses, des coquillages de mer qui sont trés blancs, et où l'on échange l'or au poids avec les marchandises qui sont apportées par les marchands’: see his L'Universale fabrica del Mondo, overo cosmografia, in Dierk Lange and Berthoud, Silvio, ‘L'intérieur de l'Afrique Occidentale d'après Giovanni Lorenzo Anania (XVIe siècle)’, Cahiers d'histoire mondiale, xiv, 2 (1972), 335Google Scholar. (Hereafter referred to as Anania, , CosmografiaGoogle Scholar.) It should be noted that the identification of the Wangara with the gold trade also indicates that they very likely introduced cowries, since gold and cowries were the basis of the Songhay monetary system.

26 The debate over the identification of ‘Takedda’ has been a long one, with most authors identifying the copper centre with one of the Tegiddas to the west of Agadez. Brouin, G., ‘Du nouveau au sujet de la question de Takedda’, Notes africaines, xlvii (1950), 90–1Google Scholar; Furon, R., ‘A propos du cuivre de la région d'Azelik’, Notes africaines, xlviii (1950), 127Google Scholar; and Lombard, J. and Mauny, R., ‘Azelik et la question de Takedda’, Notes africaines, lxiv (1954), 99101Google Scholar, favoured this interpretation, although Ibn Battuta's failure to mention salt prevented a positive identification with Tegidda-n-tesemt. H. Lhote refuted this interpretation by insisting that no copper was to be found in the region of any of the Tegiddas: see ‘Recherches sur Takedda, ville décrite par le voyageur arabe Ibn Battouta et située en Air’, Bulletin de l'I.F.A.N., ser. B, xxxiv, 3 (1972), 429–70Google Scholar. The debate has finally been settled by S. Bernus and P. Gouletquer and their discovery of major copper workings near the ruins of an old city ten kilometres from Tegidda-n-tesemt: see ‘Du cuivre au sel: Recherches ethno-archéologiques sur la region d'Azelik (campagnes 1973–1975)’, Journal des africanistes, xlvi, 12 (1976), 7–68Google Scholar; also in Calame-Griaule, G. (ed.), Origine, convergence et diffusion des langues et civilisations résiduelles de l'Air et de l'Azatuaq: Documents, Paris, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, R.C.p. 322, 1975, 168Google Scholar. The question of Ibn Battuta's failure to mention salt production at Tegidda-n-tesemt and Guélélé remains a mystery.

27 See Battuta, Ibn, Voyages, trad. Defremery et Sanguinetti (Paris, 1922), vol. iv, Voyage dans le Soudan, 436–45Google Scholar, for his description of Takedda.

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29 Bernus, and Gouletquer, , ‘Du cuivre au sel’, 1113, 61–3.Google Scholar

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32 Hamani, Djibo, Contribution à l'étude de l'histoire des Etats Hausa: L'Adar Précolonial (République du Niger) (Niamey, 1975), 83Google Scholar, citing Bello, Muhammad, Infakul MaisurGoogle Scholar in Arnett, E. J., The Rise of the Sokoto Fulani (Kano, 1922), 15.Google Scholar

33 Hamani, (Adar, 42–4)Google Scholar has reconstructed the history of Kalfu Rafi and its Gazurawa residents on the basis of a local ‘tarihi’ which claims the Songhay connexion and which contains a king list with dates to support the contention. There is no mention of Wangara or other merchants, however.

34 Hamani, , Adar, 56, 82–3.Google Scholar

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36 For a discussion of the identification of ‘Guangara’ with Kebbi, see Levtzion, Nehemia, ‘The Wangara in Hausaland’ (unpublished paper presented at the Conference on Manding Studies, London, 1972)Google Scholar. For the argument in favour of one of the Bariba towns, either Nikki or Bussa, see Idris, , ‘Bariba States’, 206Google Scholar. Levtzion's identification is far superior, however, especially since Leo noted that Zazzau, Katsina, Kano, and Guangara spoke the Gobir language, i.e. Hausa (Leo Africanus, Description, ibid.). Leo's location for Guangara also suggests a Kebbi location. It was situated between Borno and Songhay, northwest of Zamfara and west of Kano and Katsina. Only its position relative to Zazzau is impossible, but Leo placed Zazzau northwest of Kano rather than southwest. Leo also noted that Borno's planned invasion of Guangara in the 1510s was postponed because of trouble with Kanem. This sounds like preparations for war delayed until several decades later: see Anania, , Cosmografia, 347.Google Scholar

37 ‘Kano Chronicle’, 104Google Scholar; and Lovejoy, Paul E., ‘Notes on the Aşl al-Wanqariyiri’, Kano Studies, forthcoming.Google Scholar

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40 ‘Abd-al-'Aziz 'Abd-Allah Batrān, 'A Contribution to the Biography of Shaikh Muhammad Ibn 'Abd-al-Karim ibn Muhammad ('Umar-A'mar) al-Maghili, al-Tilimsani’, J. Afr. Hist. xiv, 3 (1973), 381–94Google Scholar; Lovejoy, , ‘Notes’; and ‘Kano Chronicle’, 111.Google Scholar

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42 Sanneh, , ‘Clericalism’, 6871.Google Scholar

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53 In Gobir, , there was ‘abundance of rice, and of certaine other graine and pulse’Google Scholar, while Kano ‘groweth abundance of corne, of rice, and of cotton’. At Katsina, which was suffering famine in the 1510s, fields yielded ‘great store of barlie and millseed [millet ?]’. ‘Rice, mill, and cotton’ were also grown in Zamfara. See Africanus, Leo, Description 828–31Google Scholar. For pepper, see Anania, , Cosmografia, 339Google Scholar. See also Lewicki, Tadeusz, West African Food in the Middle Ages (London, 1974), 2172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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55 Africanus, Leo, Description, 828–9.Google Scholar

56 Smith, , ‘Early States’, 199Google Scholar; Hunwick, , ‘Songhay, Bornu, and Hausaland’, 206, 219–21Google Scholar; and ‘Kano Chronicle’, 111.Google Scholar

57 Africanus, Leo, Description, 829Google Scholar; and ‘Kano Chronicle’, 111Google Scholar. See also Usman, , ‘Katsina’, 190–2.Google Scholar

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59 Lovejoy, Paul E., ‘The Salt Industry of the Central Sudan’, in Adamu, Mahdi (ed.), The Economic History of the Central Savanna of West Africa (Zaria and London, forthcoming)Google Scholar. See also Smith, , ‘Early States’, 185Google Scholar; Hunwick, , ‘Songhay, Bornu, and Hausaland’, 217Google Scholar; and Lovejoy, , ‘Hausa Kola Trade’, 207–10.Google Scholar

60 Accounts of Alhaji Haruna and Malam Dan Tsoho, 3, 4, 5 July 1973 (collected by Lovejoy and Aliyu Bala Umar, Tape Ki).

61 Hunwick, , ‘Songhay, Bornu, and Hausaland’, 209–11Google Scholar; Martin, B. G., ‘Kanem, Bornu, and the Fazzān: Notes on the Political History of a Trade Route’, J. Afr. Hist. x, 1 (1969), 21–2Google Scholar; Africanus, Leo, Description, 833–4Google Scholar; and Lavers, , ‘Kanem and Borno’.Google Scholar

62 Hunwick, , ‘Songhay, Bornu, and Hausaland’, 205–6Google Scholar; and Lovejoy, , ‘Hausa Kola Trade’, 207–10.Google Scholar

63 Martin, , ‘Kanem, Bornu, and the Fazzān’, 22–6Google Scholar; Hunwick, , ‘Songhay, Bornu, and Hausaland’, 206–12Google Scholar; Anania, , Cosmografia, 339, 347–51Google Scholar; Africanus, Leo, Description, 833–4Google Scholar; and ‘Histoire chronologique du royaume de Tripoly de Barbarie’, Fonds français, 12219, 12220, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris. (I wish to thank John Lavers for this reference.) See also Lavers, , ‘Trans-Saharan Trade’Google Scholar; and Lavers, , ‘Kanem and Borno’.Google Scholar

64 Idris, , ‘Wangara’Google Scholar; and ‘Bariba States’, 84.Google Scholar

65 Lovejoy, , ‘Hausa Kola Trade’, 100Google Scholar; and ‘Notes’.

66 Idris, , ‘Bariba States’, 84, 86Google Scholar; Lovejoy, , ‘Hausa Kola Trade’, 32Google Scholar; and Lovejoy, , ‘Monetary Flows’Google Scholar. For a different interpretation which claims that the Muslim merchants on the Guinea Coast were Hausa, see Adamu, , Hausa FactorGoogle Scholar. Adamu's argument is unconvincing before the eighteenth century, however.

67 Marty, Paul, Études sur l'Islam au Dahomey, Le Bas Dahomey—Le Haut Dahomey (Paris, 1926), 79Google Scholar; Idris, , ‘Bariba States’, 85Google Scholar; Lovejoy, , ‘Hausa Kola Trade’, 24171.Google Scholar

68 Denham, , Clapperton, , Oudney, , Narrative, i, 281 n.Google Scholar; Wilks, Ivor, “The Growth of Islamic Learning in Ghana’, J. Hist. Soc. of Nigeria, ii, 4 (1963), 413Google Scholar; and the mid-eighteenth century Kitab Ghunja, as translated in Goody, Jack, The Ethnography of the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast, West of the White Volta (London, 1954), 40–1.Google Scholar

Besides using Wangara as a surname, these immigrants also maintained their distinctiveness with at least one cultural trait. They ate frogs, whereas most Hausa people consider frogs inedible. See accounts of Malam Muhammadu Bello, Alhaji Ibrahim Umaru, and Malam Musa Husaini (Lovejoy Collection, Tapes 7 and 8). See also Al-Hajj, , ‘Wangarawa Chronicle’, 9.Google Scholar

69 For eighteenth-century commercial contacts between the Volta and the Hausa cities, see Wilks, I. (ed.), ‘Abū Bakr al-Siddiq of Timbuktu’, in Curtin, Philip D. (ed.), Africa Remembered: Narratives of West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade (Madison, 1967), 158–9Google Scholar. Abu Bakr recounted his family history for the late eighteenth century, and while his family were shurufa, descended from the Prophet, his grandfather's commercial partnership through marriage into a Katsina family demonstrates the relationship between the Hausa cities and the Volta basin at Buna. Arrangements such as theirs may have been made in earlier periods as well.

See also Dupuis, Joseph, Journal of a Residence in Ashantee (London, 1824), 97, 109CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and accounts of Alhaji Muhammad Lawan Barmo of Katsina, Malam Muhammadu Abubakar and Malam Halilu of Sokoto, and Alhaji Abubakar Gambo of Katsina (Lovejoy Collection, Tapes 10, 16).

70 Barth, , Travels, I, 479.Google Scholar

71 Lovejoy, , ‘Hausa Kola Trade’, 87130Google Scholar; and Usman, Yusufu Bala, ‘The Transformation of Katsina: c. 1796–1903. The Overthrow of the Sarauta System and the Establishment and Evolution of the Emirate’ (Ph.D. thesis, Ahmadu Bello University, 1974).Google Scholar

72 Hunwick, (‘Songhay, Bornu and Hausaland’, 212–13)Google Scholar provides one of the latest, standard interpretations that the Wangara were Juula with a far-western orientation, and Sanneh, (‘Clericalism’, 6871)Google Scholar, although he identifies a Jakhanké connexion and denies the importance of commercial relations, still fails to appreciate the position of Songhay. Similarly, Perinbam's survey of the Juula only recognizes the classical understanding of ‘Wangara’ as gold traders with a Manding connexion who are synonomous with Juula: see ‘Dyulas in Western Sudanese History’.

73 Smith, , ‘Early States’, 196–9Google Scholar; Adeleye, , ‘Hausaland and Bornu’, 486–97Google Scholar; and Huhwick, , ‘Songhay, Bornu and Hausaland’, 212–23.Google Scholar