Face2Face Africa: Before the modern establishment of the rich culture of tribes throughout the continent, pre-colonial African empires such as the Kush Kingdom, the Kingdom of Aksum and the Mali Empire controlled their own lands and held vast resources that protected and sustained all inhabitants.
Their success was based on armies that protected their territories and conquered others in a bid to expand their thriving kingdoms.
Colonialism drastically changed the African dynamic as it disbanded families, landmarks, resources, as well as kingdoms using religion, guns and slavery as a tool. The period also saw the decline of these armies, some of which were known for their brutal strength, impressive strategies and influential power.
Here are three pre-colonial African armies that couldn’t be cracked for centuries:
The Kingdom of Kush was located in Nubia, modern-day Sudan and Southern Egypt. It existed from 785 BC after the collapse of the New Kingdom of Egypt, until 350 AD.
According to Derek A. Welsby, the Kush army was a “major power” since the 8th century BC ruling an empire that encompassed central Sudan, the borders of Palestine and Egypt during the 25th Dynasty. The army built thick walls of defence that surrounded places like Kawa and Dangeil. The army also possessed fortresses like the ones at Gala Abu Ahmed and Jebel Sahaba.
One powerful entity was the “Candaces” or Kandake – a collection of eight Queen Mothers in the Meroitic Kingdom of Kush who commanded a powerful 33,000-member army.
Queen Amanishakheto was an instrumental force in battles with the Roman army.
The Kush Kingdom was centered in Napata and then Meroë during the Classic Antiquity phase of history. The span of the empire was along the Nile River, the White Nile River, and the Blue Nile River. They also reigned over Southern Egypt. When Piye controlled the Kush, they gained control of all of Egypt up to the shores of the Mediterranean for the duration of one century. When the Assyrians attacked Egypt, the Kush lost their reign over Egypt but still held control over the middle Nile for 1,000 years.
The Kush army was comprised of meshwesh spearmen, heavy chariots, cavalry, bowmen, and slinger skirmishers. Kush army personnel were known as expert archers. The bows used in battle were recorded as being six feet in length. Arrows were poisoned at the tip for an added lethal effect.
Even the Egyptians called the land where the Kush inhabited Ta-Sety which means “the land of the bow.”
The Kush army used elephants in war. It is said that they trained elephants and horses. The former for war and the latter for trade purposes. It is speculated that they might have been the first to use elephants in war.
The army also used clubs, swords, pikes and hatchets as weapons for battle.
It is said that the Kush Pharaohs fought alongside their army men.
The Kush army fought wars against the Egyptian army, the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Kingdom of Aksum and the Roman Empire in 1st Century BC.
The Kush Kingdom eventually disintegrated due to internal strife. The Kingdom of Aksum took advantage of this and overtook the Kush in the 4th century AD.
Carthage was a North African entity that is revered as the largest state in the ancient Mediterranean that thrived for 500 years, as documented by History.
The Carthage military was considered one of the largest military units in the ancient world. The army received many accolades under the leadership of Hamilcar Barca and his son, Hannibal.
The Navy component of the military was the Carthage’s strongest forte. Nevertheless, the army spread Carthaginian power over to the indigenous people of North Africa to the Southern Iberian Peninsula from 6th Century BC and the 3rd Century BC.
The military was also able to expand into Sardinia and the Balearic Islands which enabled the army to transform into a multi-national force comprised of foreign mercenary units while using citizens to serve in the navy.
During the 4th century, the army was estimated to have 24,000 infantry members, 4,000 cavalry and 300 elephants. In addition, extra auxiliaries and mercenaries were employed via treaties with other states and tribes and monetary contracts. Appian, a Greek historian documented that 40,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry and 2,000 heavy chariots were recruited for the battle at Agathocles of Syracuse.
The Carthaginian army included combined arms, light and heavy infantry, siege engines, skirmishers, light and heavy cavalry, and also war elephants and chariots.
After battling the Greeks over Sicily, the army adopted the Phalanx formation used by the Hoplite Greek soldiers.
The Sacred Band was an elite force of the Carthaginian army comprised of the sons of prominent Carthaginian inhabitants.
The military campaigns that the Carthaginian military was part of was the Greek-Punic Wars, the three Sicilian Wars, Pyrrhic War, all three of the Punic Wars, Mercenary War and the Iberian conquest.
In 146 BC, Carthage was defeated by Rome. It, however, solidified its place as a force to be reckoned with.
The Meme, Wagadou and Mali Army
The Battle of Kirina encompassed the Meme, Wagadou, Mali and other rebellious states in a war between The Mali Kingdom and the Kaniaga Kingdom circa 1235.
The military culture and organization of the Mali Empire grew in power and sophistication until reaching its peak between 1250 and 1450.
The kingdom possessed a semi-professional full-time army to guard its borders. There were also two armies divided by the Northern and Southern commands dubbed the ton-ta-jon-ta-ni-woro otherwise known as the sixteen slave carriers of quiver.
Each tribe in the empire was expected to furnish a quota of horon to fight for the Mansa or emperor.
The ton-tigi or quivermaster were a part of an elite force of commanders called the farari or brave men; these men also had an infantry they supervised called the kèlè-koun or dùùkùnàsi. The Mandekalu horsemen fought alongside the ton-tigi and fought with lances, sabers and long swords. They used imported chain mail and iron helmets for protection.
The Mandelaku infantry utilized stabbing spears, reed shields, poisoned arrows and tamblins or javelins in close contact.
The Farari was an elite core of the army. The two tiers were the farima or “brave man” and the farimba or great brave man.
The Mali Army was documented as having included 100,000 men; with 10,000 of them belonging to the infantry.
Mansa Sakura and Mansa Mahmud IV were the only sitting mansas to lead their army into battle.
The formation of the army has roots in the Mandinka culture. The Kingdom began as a minute Mandinka kingdom around the Niger River and extended to Niani after the fall of the Ghana Empire. Historians also say that the empire’s rapid expansion was supported by the strong blacksmith and metallurgy culture of Manden.
The Mandinka’s adeptness of iron manipulation paved the way for the Mali Empire’s expansion into modern-day Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal. By 1300, the Mali Empire already stretched from the Atlantic to the border of the Kanem Empire now known as Chad and Nigeria. The empire’s influence was so strong that the elements of its prowess were evident in the Songhay and Jolof Empires.
Before losing power to the Bambara Empire in 1670, the Kingdom sustained wealth via gold, water, trade and heavy taxations on items going through Timbuktu.
The Mali empire fought the Difunu during the Diawara revolt in the 15th century, the Tuareg in 1433, The Portuguese during the 15th century, The Songhai Empire in the 15th century, the Tangela War from 1480 to 1512, the Battle for Bambuk sometime after 1510 and the Battle of Jenné in 1599.