Songhai, The River Empire.

The chances are quite high that if you’re on the internet reading a blog about canoeing, kayaking and river rafting then you are probably not reliant on navigating river ways in ancient methods for your living (safe perhaps a few river guides who might be reading). It’s also quite safe to assume that you’re someone who enjoys spending time on rivers on holidays or other retreats into nature.

What for us is a simple pleasure for most of human’s history was a matter of life or death, or at the very least a matter of quality of life. Rivers—and more specifically and more accurately human’s ability to navigate and exploit rivers—have been the very lifeblood of many an empire. Most famously in the west is the Nile river, which feed ancient Egypt in a very literal way for literally thousands of years. (By way of illustration, there was a greater amount of time between the building of the pyramids and the birth of Cleopatra than her death and our own day–or put another way Queen Cleopatra lived closer to spaceflight in time than to the building of the pyramids.) But the Nile and Egypt are not by any means the only river cultures.

One of the more interesting and unfortunately not well-known river cultures in the Songhai Empire of Western Africa. By area alone Songhai was one of the greatest states in the entirety of the history of Africa. For some two hundred years, from roughly 1400 to 1600 the Songhai Empire dominated the Sahel region of the southern Sahara in West Africa.

As with the raise and fall of any create power, there are many reasons that the Songhai expanded so rapidly and over such a large area. One of the defining characteristics of the empire’s growth and size however were the rivers of the region, the Niger and Senegal. While the Songhai might be better known for its oasis towns and urban centres like Jenne and Timbuktu it was the Niger and Senegal Rivers that allowed for such rapid expansion.

By successfully exploiting the rapid transport of troops and resources that the rivers offered, the small tribe was able to take on and defeat the prestigious and established Mali Empire. With its capital in Gao, on the banks of the Niger River, the imperial administration was able to keep tabs on the the whole of their kingdom, through fast moving canoes that allowed goods, ideas, and proclamations to be disseminated throughout the empire.

For anyone around today, it’s possible to take river trips on the Senegal or Niger rivers. As the region isn’t particularly known for its tourism the tourist infrastructure isn’t the best, but for more adventurous and open-minded travellers it’s ideal. And what better way to explore the history and culture of a famous river empire than by sailing the very rivers that was so responsible for developing and advancing the kingdom.