Annals. The rise of the Jolof Empire

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By David A. Granger
The medieval Jolof Empire in West Africa arose out of settlements which emerged soon after 300 CE in the Senegambia Valley – between the Senegal and Gambia rivers. That territory had once been brought under the nominal control of the Mali Empire (1240-1465 CE) after a successful campaign of expansion by Tiramaghan, a general of the Mali Mansa, Sundiata Keita (1230-1255 CE).

Jolof (also spelt Djolof, Jollof or Wollof, named for the central province where the ruler resided), was a vassal of the Mali Empire for much of its early history and remained under that Empire’s control until the latter half of the 14th century. Jolof became permanently independent after a successful struggle during a succession dispute in 1360 between two rival lineages within the Mali Empire.

The Jolof Empire, at its height, comprised five coastal states –Baol, Kayor, Saloum, Sine and Waalo – which, by the end of the 15th century were tributary to the land-locked state of Jolof.

The ruler of Jolof – known as the Bour ba – resided in Linguère, the capital. Each Jolof state was governed by its ruler appointed from the descendants of the state’s founder. State rulers were chosen by their respective nobles while the Bour was selected by a college of electors which also included the rulers of the five coastal states. Each ruler had practical autonomy but was expected to cooperate with the Bour on common defence, commerce and the collection of imperial revenue.


The Portuguese began trading along the coast of West Africa in the mid-15th century CE and Diogo Gomes, a navigator, established trading relations with the Jolof in 1455. Portuguese soldiers and seamen occupied and garrisoned the island of Arguin from the 1440s, raiding the Senegambian mainland for captives who were carried to Portugal and enslaved. This form of kidnapping gradually developed into regular traffic by the 1450s, however. The Portuguese sea captains and the rulers of the various coastal states exchanged captives for European goods such as cotton, firearms, metal items and textiles.

The Jolof Empire became a major participant in the Trans-Atlantic Trade in Captive Africans. This trade declined in the 17th century as Senegambia became a thoroughfare for, rather than a source of, enslaved labour from the interior. Coastal trade with the Europeans marked a significant shift from the trans-Sahara trade on which the Ghana, Mali and Songhai had been built.
A major underlying cause of the Empire’s eventual collapse was the lure of the lucrative Atlantic trade between the Europeans and the coastal states which enriched the rulers of the vassal states and encouraged them eventually to undermine the Bour as Jolof was landlocked and had no port.

France, another major European maritime empire, arrived in the region in the last quarter of the 16th century. The French gained control of towns –Gorée, Portudal, Joal, and Rufisiique – all in Jolof territory. The Portuguese soon lost their trade advantage.
The state of Kayor  broke away from the Jolof Empire successfully having used its direct access to European trade to increase its wealth and power. Kayor invaded its southern neighbor, the state of Baol, and began forming a union of its own. It defeated its overlord at the Battle of Danki in 1549, triggering a ripple effect which resulted in other states leaving the Empire.
The Jolof Empire, despite booming trade, began to disintegrate as early as the mid-16th century. It effectively collapsed by 1600 and was reduced to a kingdom.

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