The era of formal colonialism is long gone but its effects still linger in popular views of Africa. From time to time a politician, or some other influential public figure, echoes the old adage that Africa has no history, let alone high-culture or civilization. Michael A. Gomez's brilliant new book, African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa, offers another powerful rebuttal to such misconceptions. African Dominion is a meticulous study of West African experiment with empire over a period of many centuries before European contact in a region that could very well accommodate the entire continental area of the United States of America. It places the likes of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay on a par with some of the greatest empires of history, such as the Inca, Mongol, or Roman empires. Although essentially a political history, African Dominion also pays attention to the role of Islam in empire building, the place of women in West African politics and society, as well as the region's connections with the broader world through the trans-Saharan trade of gold, salt, and slaves. African Arts readers will be disappointed to learn, however, that the book rarely discusses West Africans' artistic achievements during this long period. Nonetheless, it provides solid grounds to explore any other work addressing that particular issue.
African Dominion is divided into four parts comprising a total of fourteen chapters in addition to a prologue and an epilogue. Part 1 focuses on West Africans' earliest experiments with centralization of power, state building, and imperial expansion along the Middle Niger River, Gao, and the Kingdoms of Ghana. It also examines how the transition to reform Islam in the eleventh century coincided with an intensification in slaving, shaping subsequent discussions regarding eligibility for enslavement predicated on notions of race and gender. “The imbrication of slavery, race, and gender,” Gomez explains, “would partially inform processes by which West African elites claimed archaic origins in the central Islamic lands, creating distance from the land of their actual birth” (p. 43). Part 2 shifts the focus to the rise and fall of imperial Mali between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. Mali, more than any other polity in the region, represents the epitome of African dominion. “There,” Gomez argues, “emerges a new articulation in medieval West Africa—the empire—and so begins an analysis of a political formation lasting some 350 years” (p. 61). Part 3 examines how Songhay emerged and, perhaps, superseded the Malian model of empire, achieving a “remarkable social compact by which new levels of mutual respect and tolerance were reached, and through which Songhay came to be characterized” (p. 170). Different from Mali, essentially a Mande operation, Songhay was a “much more ethnically heterogeneous society in which allegiance to the state transcended loyalties to clan and culture” (p. 170). Finally, Part 4 addresses the fall of imperial Songhay and the end of dominion in West Africa. Civil war, coupled with the increased political influence of slaves in the government, weakened the empire, making it vulnerable to foreign threats by the end of the sixteenth century. Although Songhay had previously experienced moments of instability, “this time,” Gomez emphasizes, “there would be no recovery” (p. 367).
The author's focus on African political traditions and innovations sets African Dominion apart from any other book on West African history. Gomez is not simply organizing the region's past into political periods. Rather, he offers a deep reflection on West African governance, political institutions, and of course, responses to an issue commonly found in any other civilization: significant concentration of power in the hands of just a few. Gomez makes thorough use of a wide array of sources—oral traditions, written accounts, archaeological reports—to advance new interpretations of the region's political history. While most historians situate the earliest traces of empire in the western Sahel, where Ghana emerged, Gomez locates it in the Middle Niger, more specifically in Gao. Although Timbuktu was indeed an important economic and political center since at least imperial Mali, historians' fascination with the city may have attributed it a larger role in the region's history than cities like Dia, Gao, or Jenne. Timbuktu's leaders governed the city with the sanction of, when not directly appointed by, Mali and Songhay rulers. Further, its agricultural production and trade were subjected to taxation levied by these powers' respective capitals. Another point worth mentioning has to do with slavery. As Gomez demonstrates, slavery was spread throughout West Africa long before the rise of the transatlantic slave trade. However, the institution's antiquity and pervasiveness says little about its role in the region's political history and subsequent connections with the Atlantic. Slavery's development shaped West African's conceptions of gender and race and, together with Islam's continued expansion, “would constitute the double predicate upon which polity in the region would greatly expand [from the eleventh] over the next three centuries” (p. 57).
While West African experience with empire is clear, African Dominion has little to say about some of the hallmarks that usually come with such political developments. Readers of African Arts will no doubt notice the near complete absence of references to West Africans' artistic achievements during imperial Mali and Songhay. Apart from the mosques and libraries built in Mali during the reign of Mansa Musa (1312–1337), little else is said about art or architecture. Surely, there must have been more to it. Or are we to believe that imperial elites in Mali or Songhay were devoid of artistic taste? Writing is another enigma. Why does there seem to be so little about these empires written by their own subjects? Here Gomez provides an interesting explanation. Although Mali could produce many written transcripts, convention dictated oral media and memorization, with one sixteenth-century traveler stating that written records were viewed as “antithetical to principles of trustworthiness” (p. 142). Nevertheless, if there is one fascinating institution in Timbuktu, that would be the library and, although Timbuktu's are no doubt the most famous, it is possible that other cities also had libraries. What was the literate class reading? Who wrote these works? In what languages were they written? Finally, one cannot help but wonder why the book's subtitle frames the history of empire in West Africa within an European chronological framework. If empire in West Africa collapsed in the sixteenth century never to rise again, what would be its modern equivalent? In other words, what is medieval in the African dominion?
It is in the nature of every good book to raise more questions than answers. However rigorous an analysis, Gomez's African Dominion falls into that category. It provides a tour de force of the history of empire in West Africa over a period of almost two millennia, placing Mali and Songhay among the greatest empires in history, while at the same time offering new research directions. The feat requires significant knowledge of the related literature and a profound grasp of the existing sources. The book is a must-read for any student of early Africa, world history, or ancient civilizations.