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Empire of The Wolof, West Africa
 
History Page   Senegambian Kingdoms   Wolof Tribe

Introduction:
The Wolof Empire (also spelt Wollof, Jolof or Jollof) emerged soon after 300 AD in the Senegambia Valley between the Gambia and Senegal rivers.  To the north east it was bounded by the semi-desert ferlo, beyond which was Futa Toro. To the east it was bounded by the states which came under the rule of the Manding. And finally to the south lay the Gambia River.

Origins:
It is thought the Wollof people originated from the Sahara before is became hostile to farming due to desertification. As the environment deteriorated some of them drifted into the Senegalese areas of Futa Toro and modern-day south eastern Mauritania. With the Arab conquests of around 640 AD they were forced to move into north and east Senegal where over time villages developed into autonomous states such as Baol, Kayor, Saloum, Dimar, Walo and Sine the overall ruling state being that of Jolof who came together voluntarily to form the Jolof Empire.

Legend has it that in Walo the fishermen from several villages argued vehemently over firewood which lay along the edge of a lake at Mengen. Just before matters developed into violence a mysterious person called Ndyadyane Ndyaye (Njanjan Njie) arose from the lake and shared out the firewood fairly among the men and promptly vanished much to their bafflement. The decision was made to try and catch him so they feigned another argument and when he appeared he was caught. When Mansa Wali Jon the ruler of Sine, who was himself endowed with supernatural powers, heard about the strange goings on in Mengen he shouted "Ndyadyane Ndyaye" which is an expression of utter amazement. This name was given to the strange visitor (actual name: Amadu Bubakar Ibn Muhammed). He became the first ruler of the new empire with the title Burba Jolof and other states voluntarily pledged allegiance to him. Thus the new empire arose around 300 AD in the Senegambia valley which stretched from the Gambia River and encompassed most of modern-day Senegal.

Nationhood:
By the end of the 15th century, the Wolof states of Jolof, Kayor, Baol and Walo had become united in a federation with Jolof as the metropolitan power. The position of king was held by the Burba Wolof and the rulers of the other component states owed loyalty to him while being allowed local sovereignty in internal state matters.  Saloum and Sine were later brought within the union. Before they became involved in trading with the Portuguese merchants on the coast, the Wolof people enjoyed the benefits of long established trading and cultural ties with the Western Sudanese empires and had also benefited from trading with Futa Toro and the Berbers from North Africa. Through these early trading links and organisation the Wolof states grew wealthy and had formidable strength.

Emergence of Cayor:
Starting in the 1440's Portuguese soldiers and seamen garrisoned the small island of Arguin, on the northerly coast of Mauritania and raided the Senegambian mainland for captives whom they took back to Portugal and sold as slaves. By the 1450's, however, this form of kidnapping gradually developed into regular trade between the trade representatives of Burba Wolof and his petty state rulers and the Portuguese sea captains. The kings of the various Wolof states proved eager to exchange captives for European goods such as textiles, firearms, metal items and cotton.

Cayor state benefited greatly from this trade because it bordered the coast and included the lands around Cape Verde where the Portuguese set up their initial trading links with the Wollof. This geographical advantage gave the prominent men of Cayor commercial advantages which made them powerful and gave them the desire to be independent of Jolof's hegemony over them. In around 1556 the nobility of Cayor rebelled against the Burba Jolof and gained its independence. The new royal title of the king of Cayor was Damel. Emboldened by this success the Damel of Cayor invaded and conquered the neighbouring state of Baol. To cap it all Cayor later defeated the Jolof army and their Burba leader.

Decline & Fall:
As a result of this new state of affairs the prosperity of Jolof declined due to the fact that its contact with the European traders was severed by Cayor. However, because the Damels of Cayor late proved incapable of building a cohesive and strong empire of their own they were repeatedly attacked by the northern Mauritanian Berbers.

This led to Baol severing the domination of Cayor in 1686. Shortly after this Jolof took advantage of this weakness in Cayor's power and attacked. They had partial success when the Damel was killed. In later battles the Burba Jolof was killed and his army forced back. After this the king of Baol, Latir Faal Sukabe, took control of Cayor and became the new Damel. He ruled until 1702.

Such battles and wars continued between the noble rulers of the Jolof states until the late 19th century when they were eventually subdued by the French colonials.

See also the Wolof Tribe


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