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Of Fitnas and Fratricide: The Nadir of Imperial Songhay

Of Fitnas and Fratricide: The Nadir of Imperial Songhay

(p.315) Chapter Twelve Of Fitnas and Fratricide: The Nadir of Imperial Songhay
African Dominion
Michael A. Gomez
Princeton University Press

This chapter examines Songhay's twenty-year nadir, which was first and foremost a time of myopia relative to the expansive, internationalist age of Askia Muḥammad that preceded it, its parochialism a function of an unprecedented rivalrous spirit invested in sanguinary practice distinctive in both elevation and scope, reaching the most privileged while encompassing a broad expanse of social formations. A collective royal neurosis of the most toxic variety enveloped Songhay's elite, as a result of which many sons, and even daughters, of amīr al-mu'minīn were cut down by blood relatives, and precisely for that reason. Because intimacies necessarily attended these intrafamilial conflicts, the level of intrigue must have been extraordinary, aided by privileged slaves who stepped into breaches left by the serial elimination of their masters, advantaged by administrative experience combined with their nonthreatening, liminal status. In Songhay, the process was led by eunuchs, who leveraged their skills in both their own interests as well as those of their patrons, becoming indispensable. As a result, royal slaves and the royal women they served became a powerful component of the “people of Songhay.” The growth of the servile estate, in turn, was enabled by an apparent surge in slaving, swelling not only the ranks of the dispossessed but constituting the principal “commodity” for which mounts could be imported into the empire, stimulating further slaving.

Keywords:   Songhay, parochialism, amīr al-mu'minīn, intrafamilial conflicts, privileged slaves, eunuchs, royal slaves, royal women, servile estate, slaving

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