David Conrad. The Songhay Empire. African Civilizations. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998. 64 pp. $22.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-531-20284-5.
Reviewed by Paul H. Thomas (Hoover Institution Library, Stanford University)
Published on H-AfrTeach (April, 1999)
West African Empires
This book is one of a series written for children in elementary and perhaps early middle school that deals with kingdoms and states in pre-colonial Africa. This particular volume deals with the Songhay empire that existed from the 1300s to its fall in 1591. It stretched, at its zenith, across the West African Sudan, from what is now northeastern Nigeria, along the Niger River to the Futa Jallon highlands in what is now the country of Guinea. The growth of this 'empire' was primarily based on its position as middleman in the trans-Saharan trade between the peoples of the forest regions of sub-Saharan Africa that lay to its south and the states of North Africa and the Middle East to its north. In addition to the political power it wielded, it was known for the vast wealth it accumulated and as a center of learning and culture and for promoting the spread of Islam. In addition to the Songhay empire itself, there is also some introductory material on its precursor, the kingdom of Gao.
This book is written in a straightforward manner and should be easily understood by the age group to which it is directed. It includes an index, a brief glossary of terms and a timeline for events in the history of the empire (but not for events happening in other parts of the world). The glossary includes both Songhay terms and titles (e.g. askiya, for king) as well as words that readers at this level might not understand (e.g. "sorcerer," defined as a 'person with magical powers'). Words and phrases that might prove difficult for young readers are also explained in the text. There is one satisfactory map, although an additional map or two along the way (perhaps showing the growth of Songhay at different stages in its history, for example) would have been useful. The book contains a number of attractive, color photographs that show how the people and the region look today and which add immensely to the value of this publication. A picture or two depicting the period under discussion might also have been helpful for the reader to obtain a better idea of what Songhay looked like during its prime. Also included is a bibliography of four titles and references to three web sites for the further investigation of this topic.
Conrad has done a good job in presenting in as simple a manner as possible the events and players in the history of Songhay. Yet, that by itself leads to what may be the one shortcoming of this book. It is one that is typical of many such history texts; and that is, perhaps of necessity, the narrative often seems to serve as little more than a matrix in which to string together a series of names, dates, battles and what appears to be never-ending internecine struggles. The result is that it is unlikely readers will become so enraptured with this story that it will become a 'page-turner' that is difficult to put down. Nevertheless, one must be sympathetic to the plight of the author who has to find the right balance between giving sufficient detail to explain a historical time and place unknown to the reader and giving so much that the reader becomes lost in a maze of facts.
Conrad has done an excellent job in providing the reader with all the what, who and when information that would be needed if his book were being used to do a school report. As such, this volume can certainly be recommended for school libraries. In terms of placing Songhay in a broader cultural and perhaps even historical context, readers might also wish to consult Tunde Adeleke's Songhay (N.Y. : Rosen, 1996). It is directed towards the same age group and has more information about the social aspects of the Songhay people such as education and religion and also includes a separate chapter on the place of women in Songhay. Kenny Mann's Ghana Mali Songhay: the Western Sudan (Parsippany, N.J . : Dillon Press, 1996.) has a brief (ten page) overview of Songhay in a broader context of other West African kingdoms. For slightly older children (middle school age), Pat McKissack's The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay : Life in Medieval Africa (New York : H. Holt, 1994) or Philip Koslow's Songhay: the Empire Builders (N.Y. : Chelsea, 1995) are also excellent and begin to get into some of the historiography of the period and some of the other important themes such as Songhay's role in the extensive slave trade with North Africa and the Middle East.
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Paul H. Thomas. Review of Conrad, David, The Songhay Empire. African Civilizations.
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