BACK to Home Page  Workshop: Orality and Literacy in African Societies

Dietrich Rauchenberger
Haynstraße 31
20249 Hamburg
Tel.: 040/460 25 48


Working quite intensely with old african, muslim and professional sources on african history this last year, I have observed a strange effect on my own attitude. The more I penetrated into the historical facts described in them, the more my attention was diverted by their form and by the individual history of these documents.

Trying to find an explanation to this phenomenon the following remarks have been formulated and I deeply wish that they might be of some interest to You.

Nearly 150 years ago Heinrich Barth discovered the first written autochtonous text on the history of the western Sudan, the kingdoms along the upper bow of the Niger, corresponding to the southern part of today's Mali.

He immediately send a copy of the manuscript home and found it published as well as an obituary concerning his own person, when he came back to Germany in 1855.

The editor's introduction sayed:

"Having the various allusions to the history of the western Sudan by Ibn Battuta and Leo already been highly estimated ... they look now in comparison to the new historical informations as big miserabilities ...".

The editor had written this about the "Tarikh as-Sudan", the "Chronicle of the Land of the Blacks", which had been worded 200 years before.

The voluminous manuscript's object were the 16th and the first half of the 17th century of public life in the towns of Gao and Timbuktu and their territories.

The account was preceded by a king-list going back to the 10th century when Islam came to this region and even farther on to mythical roots.

In the meantime many other texts have joined it, their majority not having been fixed by writing but during the 19th century and very few only offering more than bare king-lists. These lists just mention names which allow some conclusions on the fields of ethnology, linguistics and history, but not at all comparable to the Tarikh as-Sudan with it's 490 printed pages and 38 chapters.

An exception is the "Tarikh el-Fattash", "The researching Scholar's Chronicle",

a brother or son of the "Tarikh as-Sudan", because it was written 10 years later treating the same subject and showing many signs of near relationship as for instance some identical sentences.

This younger and shorter manuscript hasn't been found but at the beginning of our own century.

Reviewing today's extensive literature it has to be stated that the Tarikhs have maintained their scientific value. They still serve as a standard for the old history of the Sahel, the southern border of the Sahara from river Senegal to lake Tchad. The evident reasons are their abundance of details as well as their secured age and authorship.

It might be useful to mention briefly the biographical essentials:

'Abd er-Rahman ben 'Abd Allah ben 'Umran as-Sa'di is the author of the Tarikh as-Sudan.

He was born after the moroccan invasion of the Sahel at the end of the 16th century and he was 60 years old, when he wrote his text down.

His name tells all about his berber or "white" origin, his muslim and urban culture - his nickname "ben 'Umran" meaning "son of civilization". He had studied religion and was the head of the administration of Timbuktu at the end of his career. He didn't know but the Songhai cities; no pilgrimage or other long distance experiences. His sources were mostly oral but he quotes also arab writers as Ibn Battuta.

The circumstances of "The Tarikh al-Fattash", "The researching Scholar's Chronicle" are much less clear. For about 50 years it was commonly accepted that it's author was a 125 years old official of the Songhai court. Nowadays it is uncontested that the grandson of this man, Ibn al-Mokhtar, has written most of the book in 1665.

He tells us that he drew up his informations from his family's tradition - both oral and written, and we know that he copied entire parts of the 10 years older Tarikh as-Sudan.

Ibn al-Mokhtar's family came from the Soninke, not from the Songhai speaking region, so belonging to a black population in the west, the Malians.

He held public charges in Timbuktu and in the near town of Tendirma.

It is known, that his grandfather had visited Mekka.

We can state that both chronicles

- have been written under moroccan occupation

- by non-Songhai collaborators of the foreign ruler

- one of them berber and the other black-african, both members of old Timbuktu families.

- Both used mainly oral sources, especially their family's traditions.

- Both of them were more familiar with the western part of the kingdom.

The political center Gao is therefore much less mentioned than the cultural and economic metropole Timbuktu; the important neighbours in the east, the Haussas, not at all.

This introduction might end with a flightly sketch of the general political situation:

Morocco began to expand after ist stirring victory over Portugal in 1578.

It conquered and occupied the kingdom of the Askias, the Songhai kings,

13 years later. The Songhai administration accepted the foreign command after one crushing battle; only in the south-east there remained some resistance during the first four years.

Than the occupants lost their force and anarchy began to reign the cities;

the colony consumed 128 moroccan pashas in 90 years.

With the changing of dynasties in Morocco in 1664 the foreign domination over the Songhai region practically ended.

These were the conditions under which both tarikhs have been written as signs of the Songhai rebirth, as an effort to restore the lost honour of the Askias, the dynasty having beared untill the arrival of the Moroccans the ambitious title of kalif, which means representative of the prophet in the Sudan. This tendency destined the Tarikh al-Fattash for later manipulation as a piece of justification for Shekhu Ahmadu's Peul rebellion in the 19th century.

6 preceding centuries of Islam, which means reading and writing, and the following 250 years untill the european colonization didn't produce any comparable texts.

Now follow three examples to give an impression of the contents of the main document,

"The Tarikh as-Sudan".

1. "The origin of the Songhai dynasty of the Sonnis.

'Ali Kolon was the first. A son of Za Yasiboi. His wife having been pregnant several times without giving life to a heir, suggested her husband to marry her sister. Not yet knowing the (islamic) law (prohibiting that a man marries sisters) he married the sister. Both women got pregnant in the same night and each gave birth to a son the same night. The 2 newborn were laid on the soil of a completely dark room. They were washed only the next morning because the habit was to wait with it untill dawn, when a child was born by night. The first newborn to be washed was 'Ali Kolon and therefore he was considered the elder."

It is evident, that there are merely no historical facts in this story, which is rather a composition of symbolic and ethnological ingredients to demonstrate the pagan background of the Sonnis and to justifie their extermination by their successors, the Askias, the "better" muslims and the lords of the author. (Houdas S. 10)

2. A second text from the middle of the manuscript:

"The moroccan troops suffered much from their long stay in this country.

They were hardly hit by the fatigues they had to endure, by the lack of food and cloth and by the diseases caused by the country's unhealthiness. The water attacked the men's intestines, it provoked dysentery and killed a great number of them in addition to those who perished fighting." (Houdas S. 239)

3. And a third episode from the last chapter:

"These are the reasons for the imprisonment (in the year 1009) of Haddu ... the governour general ... who was charged to collect the tax on the soil property from the hands of the governours. Some intrigants denounced him to the pasha for having held back these taxes ... (Pasha) Sliman questioned him ... and he answered ... Back home Haddu sent to the pasha a gift of 600 mithqals, 4 women of high value bought for 200 mithqals and 4 pieces af berebbal which he had payed 160 mithqals. This present strengthened the pasha's scepticism and he made arrest him and did not release him before he had payed 5000 mithqals." (Houdas S. 475)

Let me summarize:

The first of these texts is concerning the period around the year 1400, the second 1591 and the last one 1601.

The first one - at a distance of about 250 years from the time of writing - is just symbols and fiction.

The two others - only 50 years old - are realistic reports, without details the first, while full of names, dates and precise figures the next.

This might give evidence to the not at all surprising differences between the 38 chapters of the Tarikh as-Sudan.

Would a text look different today if one of us had to write down by heart the history of Germany's last 250 years ? What would we be able to say about the Siebenjähriger Krieg or the french occupation of Hamburg in 1757 ?

Let me end my 20 minutes by pronouncing some questions and proposals.

Are these tarikhs more reliable than the oral traditions?

Yes they are more reliable, but only as documents for the events of some decades preceding their drawing up and for what the heterogeneous Songhai speaking people believed at that time to be their origin and their history.

Their information on the role of Islam during the 15th century which is still repeated by all newly appearing african histories should be commented as the ideological plea that it is.

Are these tarikhs - being nurrished mainly by oral information - just another state of aggregation of these oral traditions? Are these oral and written Sudan-histories identical referring to their contents and to their essence?

I'm afraid they are not. These written sentences are in a sort the fossils of the spoken and living words, of facts and ideas, of errors and lies; fossilized reports as well as inventions.

The scholars and the publics high respect for all written texts confers an unjustified value to them in comparison to the oral traditions.

The statement, that the Sonnis are the "bad" and the Askias the "good" muslims hasn't thus been seriously discussed but during the last 20 of those 140 years since Barth brought the Tarikh as-Sudan to Europe.

Written and oral texts coexist in the Songhai region; they influence and control each other.

Here in Europe the written Tarikhs have to coexist with all those books and articles which they have inspired, creating a new - I dare say - in some respects non-african world, archeology not having been able yet to contribute to our understanding of Songhai's 15th century.

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