History March 04, 2022 at 01:00 pm

The intriguing history of the famous Jolof Empire that ruled parts of modern-day Senegal

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor March 04, 2022 at 01:00 pm

March 04, 2022 at 01:00 pm | History

A mid-19th century CE illustration of a Wolof chief and residence. ('Le Tour du Monde', Vol. 3)

It is also known as the Wolof, Wollof or Djolof Empire and it emerged in the Senegambia Valley between the Gambia and Senegal rivers. The Jolof Empire, which thrived from the mid-14th century to the mid-16th century, was a successor state to Ghana and Takrur. The empire dominated the Senegambian region for centuries.

When it was founded not long after 1200, the Wolof or Jolof state was ruled by a king, or burba, who performed both political and religious duties. During the 14th century, it began to develop satellite states, with the most important being Kajoor. By the 15th century, Jolof had become a powerful empire, with the tributary state of Sine-Solum on its border.

The Jolof empire was great thanks to its trading activities along the Senegal and Gambia rivers. The empire traded with the Portuguese and the French, with goods traded being gold, hides, ivory, and slaves. Some of the slaves were taken during wars and raids in neighboring territories but the empire was much more than wars or slavery as seen in the following:

Who are the Wolof?

The Wolof people, who are one of the single largest ethnic groups in Senegal and one of the major groups in the Gambia, began inhabiting an area between the Senegal River in the north and the Gambia River in the south from the 900’s in a region usually known as Senegambia that covers what is today Senegal, Gambia, and southern Mauritania. It is believed that the Wolof originally migrated to this region from Central or Eastern Africa.

Apart from herding cattle, sheep and goats, the Wolof, who are very dark-skinned and tall, also engaged in fishing and growing rice while using iron for tools and setting up burial markers. Following the Arab conquests of around 640 AD, some Wollof villages developed into autonomous states and over time, Jolof was founded.

Ndiadiane Ndiaye

Legend states that the founder of Jolof was a “semi-mythical figure” named Ndiadiane Ndiaye. Described as “a stranger with noble origins”, he was believed to be born Ahmad Abu Bakr. He showed up among fishermen from several Wollof villages who were arguing over firewood that lay along the edge of a lake at Mengen. The argument was about to turn violent when a mysterious Ndiaye came out of the lake and shared the firewood fairly among the fishermen. He then disappeared.

The people were shocked so they faked a second dispute. When Ndiaye reappeared, they kidnapped him and made him ruler of the empire. He was named Ndiaye. The ruler of the state of Sine, who also had supernatural power, had shouted, “Ndyadyane Ndyaye”, which is an expression of amazement when he was told of what had happened near the lake. That was how the Jolof empire ruler Ndiaye got his name.

Wolof society was hierarchical

There were classes. Historians say that the royal family was at the top, followed by non-royal nobles and free men. The free men were also divided into castes such as griots, blacksmiths, jewelers, musicians and tailors. Slaves taken during wars and raids were at the bottom. The Wollof did not allow intermarriage throughout the classes and children could not inherit the superior status of their fathers. Women had a say in government as there was the Queen Mother who was the head of all women and other female chiefs who helped solve cases among women.

Slave trade and gold

Even though the Wolof participated in the slave trade, exporting about one-third of all African slaves before the 17th century, the major commodity traded was not slaves but gold. They traded the precious metal with European merchants. This helped bring wealth to Jolof.

Fall of Jolof

The Jolof Empire, which ruled parts of modern-day Senegal from 1350, fell following the battle of Danki in 1549, when the ruler of Kajoor, one of Jolof’s satellite states, led a rebellion that disintegrated the empire.

Kajoor then established an independent state on the Senegal coast. This move cut off Jolof’s access to the sea and to the European trade and over time, it lost its significance.

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