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Imperial Reach Versus Institutional Grasp: Superstates of The West and Central African Sudan in Comparative Perspective

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The history of five states in the African West and Central Sudan—Songhay, Borno, Segu, Samory and the Sokoto Caliphate—is analyzed for a period from ca. 1500 to ca. 1900. Recent scholarship has stressed the non-territorial nature of these “states without maps”, an issue that needs to be dealt in a more nuanced manner, given the efforts by local regimes to control both multiple urban centers of commerce and rural zones of agricultural production as well as maintaining regular systems of taxation. None of these states used writing or salary payments to maintain an effective bureaucracy, basing their power instead upon various combinations of lineages with claims to ruling or aristocratic status, associations of young unmarried male initiates, segregated occupational groups (bards, smiths and fisher folk) and finally, slaves. Warfare was the main occupation of Sudanic empires but despite the introduction of firearms in the late 1500s, weapons and tactics did not undergo a “gunpowder revolution,” continuing instead to center around horses and armor. Sudanic rulers controlled access to these resources more easily than European monarchs and they also proved effective in the major goal of campaigns: not territorial competition with other states but rather raiding for slaves. Islam played an increasing role in general life and politics of Sudanic Africa (the most powerful of these empires, Sokoto, was a nineteenth-century jihadist state). However, the potential that such a scriptural faith offered for transforming administration, law and commercial life was not fully realized by the time the region came under European rule and thus moved from its early modern to modern history.

Affiliations: 1: University of Chicago

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