UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
The Invasion of Morocco in1591 and the Saadian Dynasty [J. Michel]
The Invasion of Morocco in1591 and the Saadian Dynasty [J. Michel]
An Examination of The Role of Europe in the Morocco Invasion of 1591 and the Rise
to Power of the Saadian Dynasty
December 1, 1995
In the following pages the evidence pertaining to the causes, nature and events of
the Moroccan invasion of the Sudan are analyzed from a historical and international
perspective. Under consideration will be the role of Europe in the rise to power of
the Saadian Dynasty and the role of Islam as the root of Al-Mansur desire to
establish himself as the Caliph of the Sudan. The paper will examine the people and
events, bo th inside and outside of Morocco, which effected the invasion of the
Empire of Songhai in 1591.
The procession of the paper will proceed as follows: The structure of the
invading army will be exmained first. The composition of the army will be
scrutinized as to it peculiar dispostion and equipment. Then the events of the long
travel across the S ahara will be outlined and the battles of the invasion detailed.
These facts are required to show how massive the military undertaking was. After the
actual e vents of the invasion have been studied the work will chronicle the rise to
power of the Saadian dynasty. The events of their advancement will be examined with
in the framework of world events to demonstate how greatly the events in Europe
influenced pol itics of Morocco. The trends of the dynasty are highlighted as
further evidence the changes caused by the European presence in Morocco. Finally,
the paper will conclude with the aftermath of the invasion and the final power
struggle of the Saadian dynas ty. In presenting these events I will attempt to
demonstrate how the influence of Europe unknowingly contributed to the conflict
between Morocco and Songhai by changing the balance of power in Africa.
The invasion of Sudan began from Marrakech on October 16, 1590. Al-Mansur, the
Shariff of Morocco, ordered his best warriors to invade the Songhai Empire and
capture the source of gold. Mulai Ahmad al-Mansur (the victorious) also
known as al-Dhahabi (the golden one) was the ruler of Morocco from 1578 -1603.
Under the command of Pasha Judar the troops marched south toward the desert. After a
long and dangerous journey across th e Sahara they arrived in the Empire of Songhai.
There the soldiers would enter in a series of battles adventures and emerge
victorious. The well equipped Moroccan army captured many of the Empire's principal
cities and forced the the Songhai leader to sur render. The source of gold remained
outside their reach. The location of the mines were a secret known only to one tribe
which lived along the southern Niger River and guarded by the silent trade.
The number of troops which made up the massive invasionf orce is a matter of
minor controversy. According to Bovill the invasion force consisted of four
thousand soldiers and an additional two thousand non-combat troops. Julien's account
disagrees, in History of North Africa , he asserts that the army contained
three thousand fighting troops. Regardless of the actual number of troop which left
Marakesh, the force knew that it would be dramatically outnumbered when it finished
crossing the Sahara. The troops relied on the ben ifits of European military
technology and Turkish military tactics for victory.
According to Bovill the troops sent were specially trained elite, hand picked
from the ranks. The soldiers, he writes, were men "chosen for their discipline,
hardiness and courage." Bovill E.W. The Golden Trade of the Moors
. Oxford. The Oxford University Press,
1968. p.167 Most of those chosen by al-Mansur to take part in the invasion
were not of Moroccan origin. The force was so overwhelmingly extranational in origin
that the official language of the expedition was Spanish. Op Cit Bovill
p.168. In The Golden Trade of the Moors Bovill breaks down the force by
both profe ssion and nationality. He concluded that the constitution of the force
demonstrates that Al-Mansur lacked faith in his countrymen as soldiers. Of the four
thousand who left Morocco only fifteen hundred light cavalry men were Moroccan. The
remainder of the force included two thousand footmen, half of which were armed with
the arquebus and an additional five hundred mounted arquebusers. The strength of the
force came from later twenty-five hundred troops which was composed of Aldalsians
and renegades. Spanish Moors who had migrated to Morocco T his group
provided the stability, power and structure for the army. The large numbers of
troops present required the immense numbers of camels brought to transport the
munitions, food, water, and other supplies for the long march and the following battl
e. A number of historians wrote that an earlier invasion attempt may have
taken place in which al-Mansur sent more troops and less supplies. If the rumors of
an earlier invasion are accurate, the men send died in the desert except for a single
survivor. Some records indicate that al-Mansur se nt a large number of soldiers in
to the desert as a punishment for transgressions and historians believe that these
records are the cover up of the earlier failed invasion attempt. The invasion force
also brought with it six cannons and a team of Spanish gunners to fire them.
In Mali; A Search For Direction , by Pascal James Imperato the author
asserts that the invasion force brought with it ten mortars which fired stone balls.
Otherwise Imperato's version of the mission agrees with Bovill's. These were
weapons of great destructive power for their time.
Al-Mansur aquired the canon through his trade relationship with England. Many of
the facto rs which led to the Morcoaan victory were extra-national in origin. The
knowledge of advanced military tactics, training, and coordination came from the
European members of the force. Knowledge of those modern skills by the small
invasion force were ess ential for traveling across the Sahara in force. The
possession of the European designed hand weapons was vital to the three year
occupation of Timbuktoo. During the occupation the weapons helped the small force
hold the populous through fear. The arti llery pieces gained from England were
essential to the Moroccan's initial defeat of the Songhai imperial army. Even the
arquebus would not have been sufficient alone to rout the overwhelmingly larger
force. The arquebus is an early form of the musket and was nearly as
dangerous to its users as to their opponents because it had a defect of blowing up
when fired. When it did work, the weapon was slow to fire and difficult to reload.
Reloading required the gu n power, shot and a slow burning cord to be manipulated
before the soldier can aim at a target. The reloading procedure is so long that only
experts can use the weapons effectively during battle. During battle of Alcazar
the Portuguese force armed with arquebuses were out flanked and annihilated by the
Moroccans, in spite of their technological advantage, because the gunners were out
flanked and unable to reload in time to stand a second charge . Bovill, E.W.
The Battle of Alcazar. London. The Batchworth Press, 1952.
The cannons fired against the Songhai forces never had to be reloaded. The
initial volley made so much noise and did so much damage that the Songhia force fled
back to the water without attempting to charge. Only zealot bowmen who fought with
one leg tied to their thigh withstood the initial char ge and explosions.
The initial invasion force was commanded by Pasha Judar of Granada. Judar,
like many of Al-Mansurs officers, was an enuch. He was appointed to the rank of
Pasha in order to lead the battle. Under him were ten Kaids, or Lieutenants, four
of whom were renegades. Captured Europeans who had converted to Islam.
Additionally, Judar brought a special force of eighty Christian body guards. He felt
that these would give him a great deal of additional safety and requested
specifically them from Al-Mansur. Bovill. The Golden Trade of the
Moors. p.168 It is unknown why Al-Mansur chose Judar to lead the force, no
records have revealed any that Judar had the proper training or suggest that he was
unusually skilled. Perhaps Al-Mansur trusted Judar, who had been captured while
still a baby, and was rais ed in the royal palace. Bovill c ontends that the
surprising choice was made because of Judar's organizing ability and integrity.
Judar's organizing ability equipped him to lead a force so far from home.Judar's
integrity was such that Al-Mansur trusted him to properly lead an army so fa r from
Al-Mansur's control. According to Bovill, more contemporary accounts of the invasion
cite the youth of Judar as a primary reason for his selection as the leader of the
invasion force. Whatever the reasons were for his selection it is worthy of re
peating that Judar was not of Moroccan origin.
The actual events of the march toward Songhai are not known in detail. The army
train included over eight thousand camels and their drivers, one thousand high bred
horses and force of six hundred sappers. This multitude required an immense quantity
of food, water, dried dates, tents, military provisions, shelter, and innumerable
other necessities. Ibid p.169 The fifteen thousand mile route they
followed across the Sahara to the Niger River was ordained by limited num ber of
places that they could replenish their water supply. They traveled a path which was
the same or very similar to that which was used by the merchant caravans. An
accounting of this route and some of the difficulties and dangers of travel along it
can be found in the well known works by Ibn Battuta and Leo Africanus. The
invasion force was acompanied by an anonymous Spaniard, his accounting of the actual
journey can be found according to Bovill, in 'La ConquÍte du Soudan par El-
Mansour (1591). Op Cit. Bovill p.263 It is possible that the account
came from Juan de Medina or one of the other emissaries of King Phillip II who are
known to have been at the palace of Al-Mansur a round that time. The casualties lost
during the 135 day march are known to be quite heavy. Julian, in his History of
North Africa and J.O. Hunwick in Ahmad Baba and the Moroccan Invasion fo
the Sudan (1591) agree that Judar lost at least one half of his force along
the journey. Julien, Charles-Andre. History of North Africa .
Trans. John Petrie. Ed. C.C. Stewart. New York: Praeger
Publishers, 1970. p.223 Bovill's account of the journey, in the Golden
Trade of the Moors , is more specific but less definitive. He cites the
evidence showing the size of the initial force which met with the troops of Songhai
and the lack of any eviden ce that any other portion was held in reserves. Regardless
of the actual number who survived the long journey; the army of Al-Mansur arrived
According to Bovill's account the invasion force arrived at Lekatwa (now Dra'a) and
Hunwick places the arrival site at Karabara (now Bamba). Hunwick, J.O..
"Ahmad B'b' and the Moroccan Invasion of the Sudan (1591)." Journal
of the Historica l Society of Nigeria II. Ibadan, (1962) : 311-328.. op cit p.318
Which ever source is correct, the arrival of the invaders so close to Gao came as a
surprise to the Songhai army who expected them to turn westward after leaving the
desert and head toward Timbuktu. As a r esult Askia Ishak, the King of Songhai, send
a message to the clans and tribes to inform them of the nearness of the invading
army. According to Bovill's account a group a Tuareg tribesman, enemies of Songhai,
killed the messengers before they arrived at the destination. It has also been
suggested that the leaders were unable to conceive of an serious attack coming from
across the desert and that this lack of faith led to their unpreparedness. In any
case the confusion and disbelief on the part of the Songhai leaders translated into
fear and a hasty retreat when the Moroccan army came into sight.
The forces of Songhai were no stranger to battle, and the Niger River itself acted
to defend them as they withdrew to their small island retreats. The Moroccan army
had no boats and couldn't follow them. The invaders, now low on food and water, went
to Tondibi where the Songhai army was waiting. Tondibi was a cattle pasture
outside of the city of Gao. Hidden hehind a wall of cattle for protection and
armed with sabre, spear, and bow the defending forces were a m atch for any of the
desert tribesman. Unfortunately, the tactics of the Songhai forces were not made to
withstand gun fire, nor were there walls a match for cannon balls. The noise of the
gun fire caused a stampede of cattle and the defending forces ran away in fear. The
poor people of Gao were helpless to slow the onslaught and surrendered to the
invaders. In spite of their easy victory, Judar and his forces were greatly
disappointed by Gao which did not possess the wealth of gold they expected to fin d.
The continuous debilitating effects of desert life, the toll of disease, malnutrition
and heat exhaustion only magnified their disappointment. The army, which had lost
three quarters of its strength in travel would have been whittled down by the effec
ts of occupation had they not moved (on April 25, 1591) to Timbuktoo where the
conditions were better. When they moved Judar did not leave behind a garrison to
hold Gao; an oversight that Al-Mansur did not enjoy.
The terms of the surrender of Gao were quite lucrative in view of the invaders
situation. Askia Ishak offered Judar 100,000 pieces of gold and 1000 slaves if the
army would leave. Ibid p.319 The invasion force was already weakened by
lack of food and supplies and in no position to search for any hidden gold supply.
Judar send a request to accept the surrender back to Al-Mansur and was angrily
refused. Al-Mansur had more on his agenda then wealth, he wanted the power and
prestige to command the title of Caliph of the Sudan. As a result of Al-Mansur sent
second invasion force across the Sahara to take control of the expedition and
complete the conquest.
The actions of Al-Mansur in Morocco after the launching of the second mission
might lead one to believe that the notion of power had driven him insane. He kept
secret the reports of despair sent from Judar. He also proclaimed to the people of
Morocco t hat complete victory was already at hand and that the source of gold had
been found. To complete the illusion of victory Al-Mansur paraded around a sku ll
that he falsely claimed was taken from the head of Askia Ishak, the King of Songhai.
These perditious actions were motivated by the instabilities in Morocco and the need
of Al-Mansur to maintain his grip on the throne. Admitting a set back would have
left him more vulnerable to a revolt by his son, an uprising by the merchants or to
an insurrection by the outlanders. Al-Mansur was forced to anticipate many possible
causes of unrest. The people were taxed heavily to support the expensive war effort.
Op Cit Bovill p.178 The taxes were collected by military force because no civil
government could control the outlying areas. Dissidence among the people was
increased by the growing influence of the English trade company. The English were
still seen as the infidel by many Maraboutic and traditionalist Islamic leaders in
the countryside. The state of affairs in the low lands of Morocco during the
invasion is well known. The beginning of the Maraboutic crisis were beginning to
show. Additionally, there were elements in Mor oc co that were troubled by the
possible effects of the war on the Trans-Sahaaran trade. These men, mostly
merchants, new more about the nature of the gold supply then Al-Mansur. Acquainted
with the hidden nature of the gold source and aware of the difficu lties of Saharan
travel they had never supported the war. They were fearful that failure would
interrupt the gold trade which was the source of their livelihoods. As a result the
pretence of victory may have been required to maintain order with so much o f Al-
Mansur's military strength of his army in the field and so much dissent in his
The reinforcements that Al-Mansur sent to actualize his claimed victory were as
well trained and equipped as their predecessors and possessed more initiative and
creativity. Their leader, Mohammed, was formerly the leader of all the renegades in
Morocco. Mohammed, like Judar, was an enuch. The supporting forces are said to have
crossed the Sahara in seven weeks. Ibid p.180. Once they arrived in
Timbuktoo, on August 17, 1591, Op Cit Hunwick p.319 the new leader learned
much of his foe from the experiences of Judar who Mohammed appointed to be his second
in command. Realizing that the unconquered Songhai forces would again retreat to
their water enshrouded refuge he ordered the boats be built fro m the few available
trees and the doors and door frames so that his forces would be able to pursue their
opposition along the water.
Three weeks after his arrival Mohammed had constructed three barges from the
conscripted supplies and, leaving a force behind to maintain the fortress Judar had
built in Timbuktoo, went south to re-attack Askia Ishak. Ibid p.319 The
battle of Gurma was a complete victory of the invaders. The Songhai forces fled the
field and the disorderly retreat led to the death of Iskia Ishak who was cut of from
his troops and then murdered by Taureg tribesmen. Following the victory, large n
umbers of Songhai deserted the kingdom. Victory for Mohammed was still out of reach.
Op Cit Bovill p.183
The military successes were valuable but the lack of food, troops and resources
prevented the army from directly controlling such a large area. While the majority
of his troops were chasing the Songhai army across the Dendi Forest a revolt occurred
in Timbuktoo. The rebelling people of Songhai successfully restricted the
Moroccan's to their fortress where the supply of food and water was sharply limited.
Word of the siege reached Mohammed and he sent a relief force to assist his troops in
breaking free. The leader of the rescue mission was Kaid M'mi. The Kaid is
described as "a farsighted man" and is credited with making peace with the
people of Timbuktoo. Op Cit Hunwick p.320 After the siege was broken M' mi
convinced the people of the city to swear allegiance to Al-Mansur and requested that
Askia Ishak's successor, Askia Mohammed Gao, provide food for them as a gesture of
good faith. The temporary peace he established coul d not solve the essential
problems of the invaders; they were too small a force, far from home, trying to
subdue a much larger area of land then they had anticipated, and running fearfully
short on supplies. As the problem of food became more immediate Bovill
notes that there was a famine that year and that food was unusually scarce. Kaid
M'mi convinced Mohammed that the breadth of the desert prevented Moroccan rule over
the Songhai people by force alone. Op Cit p.320
The Askia agreed to provide food and when he arrived Mohammed ordered the massacre
of his men as a reprisal for the deaths incurred during the march across the desert.
Op Cit Bovill p.181 Mohammed next attempted to create a puppet ruler to establish a
hold over the country. His efforts were frustrated by rebellio n in the south, which
was still beyond his reach and Mohammed led his army back out into the field.
In the southern rain-forests of Songhai, Askia Nuh, became the new leader of
the defense forces. Using a combination of guerrilla tactics and an alliance with
one of the war tribes he was able to mount a few small victories against the
invaders. Aft er two years of chase Mohammed gave up attacking the guerilla forces
and returned to Timbuktoo in 1594 with a new plan. After his arrival he successfully
plotted to gather the wealth of the city and managed to send 100,000 mithqual
A mithqual is equal to 1/8 of an ounce of gold. of gold back to Al-Mansur.
Op Cit Hunwick p.322
Al-Mansur was at last convinced that the chance for control over the gold supply
was impossible. The gold supply which was never discovered during the invasion was
nearly depleted in any case. Al-Mansur accepted the profits of victory and received
a hu ge tribute of gold. For further details on the following seventy years
of the partial Moroccan occupation of Songhai see Mali; A Search For Direction
by James Pascal Imperato p. 27-28.
Op Cit Bovill p.190
Op Cit Hunwick p.317
Op Cit Bovill p.160-162
Op Cit Hunwick p.318
Op Cit Bovill p.160-162
Op Cit Hunwick p.317
In 1583 Askia Daoud died an d a power struggle ensued among his sons which
weakened the military power of Songhai. Additionally, the western coast of Africa
was suffering from the attrition of the Spanish and British slave trade and the
combination of internal and external ailments left Songhai ripe for invasion.
Op Cit Hunwick p.320
The Almoravids did attack across the Sahara, in 1052 a Jihad attacked the Empire
of Mali in hope of making religious conquests in the name of Islam. There action
was not an invasion by a governmen t supplied military however so Al-Mansur is
Op Cit Bovill's account of the invasion records witnesses to caravans of
tribute arriving in Morocco heavily laden with gold. vill p.165-166
Tim He used the wealth for non military ventures such as the building of an
opulent palace and an elaborate mosque.