History of the Jolof Empire
The Jolof Empire also called the Wollof Empire was a West African state that ruled parts of Senegal from 1350 to 1549. After a long period of domination, this empire collapsed and was eventually conquered by the Imamate of Futa Jallon in 1875 and by 1890,its territories were fully incorporated into French West Africa by 1890. The original Jolof state was formed probably as a result of the breakup of the kingdom of Tekrur and the demise of Malian power in the Senegambia region.
By the 16th century, five major states — Walo, Cayor, Baol, Sine, and Saloum, voluntarily pledged their allegiance to the Bouba (ruler) of Jolof. According to traditional accounts among the Wolof, the founder of the state and later empire was Ndiadiane Ndiaye.
The legend of Ndiadiane Ndiaye begins with a quarrel over wood near a big lake. Just before the dispute turned into violence, a stranger appeared from the lake. The stranger divided the wood fairly among the disputing parties and disappeared, leaving the people in awe. The people then feigned another dispute and when the stranger appeared again, he was kidnapped.
They offered him the kingship and a beautiful woman as wife. Convinced, this stranger became their king.
This exclamation became the stranger’s name. His real name he was given was Amadu Bubakar Ibn Muhammed.
The ruler of the Kingdom of Sine (Maad a Sinig Maysa Wali) then advised all rulers between the Senegal River and the Gambia River to voluntarily submit to the authority of this man, which it was done by them. The new state of Jolof, was a under the Mali Empire for most of its early history. It became permanently independent during a succession dispute in 1360 between two rival lineages within the Mali Empire’s royal bloodline.
The Portuguese arrived in the Jolof Empire between 1444 and 1510 and left detailed accounts of a very advanced political system. There was a solid hierarchical system involving different classes of royal and non-royal nobles, free men, occupational castes and slaves.
Smiths were well regarded in the society because of their ability to make weapons of war. Griots were hired by important family as advisors and chroniclers without whom much of early Jolof history would be unknown.
The Jolof Empire was set up as five coastal kingdoms from north to south which included Waalo, Kayor, Baol, Sine and Kingdom of Saloum. All of these states paid tributes to the land-locked state of Jolof.
The ruler of Jolof was known as the Bour ba, and ruled from Linguère the capital. Each Jolof state was governed by its own ruler selected from the descendants of the founder of the state.
State rulers were selected by their nobles, while the Bour was selected by a college of electors which also included the rulers of the five kingdoms.
Each ruler had practical autonomy but was expected to cooperate with the Bour on matters of defense, trade and provision of revenue. Once appointed, office holders were subjected to elaborate rituals to both familiarize themselves with their new duties and elevate them to a divine status. From then on, they were expected to lead their states to higher heights or risk being declared unfavored by the gods and being deposed.
The stresses of this political structure resulted in a very autocratic government where wealth and personal armies held sway as against constitutional values. Peaceful trade relations were established between the Jolof Empire and the kingdom of Portugal after an initially hostile start.
At this time Jolof was at the peak of its power and the Bour had extended his authority over the Malinke states on the northern bank of the Gambia. In the 1480s, Prince Bemoi was ruling the empire on behalf of his brother Bur Birao. Tempted by Portuguese trade, he relocated the seat of government to the coast to take advantage of the new economic opportunities. Other traditional princes unhappy with this development, deposed and murdered the Bour in 1489.
Prince Bemoi was forced to flee to the Portuguese for refuge and they took him to Lisbon.
There he received a good welcome and exchanged gifts with King John II and was baptised.
Seeing an opportunity to put a Christian ally on the throne, John II sent an army under a Portuguese commander to put the prince back on the throne of Jolof. Sadly, that goal never came to pass. A dispute arose between the commander and the prince resulting to his death Despite many internal feuds, the Jolof Empire remained strong within the region.
In the early 16th century, it could field 100,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry. Coastal trade which had brought great wealth to the empire turned out to be a major factor in its fall.
The rulers of the smaller states on the coast began getting the lion’s share of the benefits, which eventually allowed them to undermine the power of the emperor. The breakup of the Mali empire was another factor that led to the fall of the Jolof empire. The breakup initially allowed Jolof to grow into an empire, but later, the conflicts also spread to territories in Jolof.
In 1513, Dengella Koli led a strong force of Fulani and Mandinka into Futa Toro, and successfully seized it from the Jolof. In 1549, Kayor broke away from the Jolof Empire under the leadership of the crown prince Amari Ngoone Sobel. The breakaway state had grown in wealth and power using its direct access to European trade as Jolof was landlocked and had no port.
Kayor invaded its southern neighbor Bawol, and defeated its overlord at the Battle of Danki in 1549. The defeat weakened the empire, resulting in other states leaving the empire.
By 1600, the Jolof Empire was over. It had come to an end and reduced to a kingdom.