Warfare In Precolonial Africa

As this month is African History month, I decided to take my historical specialty; warfare, and see how it worked in Africa. While there is plenty of information out there, warfare in Africa isn’t a generally well known topic, at least outside of Egypt, Carthage, and post-colonial periods. So my goal is to take a look at some key points of precolonial, sub-Saharan African warfare, and the weapons, tactics and fortifications used. Here we will discover some interesting similarities to Classical and Medieval European warfare.

To begin with, it is important to consider some of the unique environmental factors that affect the nature of warfare in most parts of Africa. Large parts of the continent lack the advantages other continents have in facilitating the spread of ideas, materials and technology. In other continents such as Europe the ability to leverage resources like the mass requisitioning or availability of grain supplies were critical for the deployment of large armies over an extended period. The environment determined the type of military deployed by African states and the environment especially in the Saharan region and southwards hindered development of certain economic and technological advances critical to large scale military operations. The barriers to military advancement include: The tsetse fly disease belt, which decimates horses, people and load-bearing animals. Lack of navigable rivers and good natural harbors, hindering movement of technology, men and material. And poor soils that cannot produce grains such as wheat or rice in significant quantities; the staples of the mass armies of Europe and Asia. All of these factors impact huge swathes of Africa, with severe effects on military systems and the numbers available for battle.

Infantry Armies

The civilizations of Western and Central tropical Africa suffered comparative isolation in comparison to areas open to the wider trade of the Sahara and Mediterranean. Nevertheless, several strong kingdoms and peoples like the Yoruba, Nupe, Wolof, Hausa, and Ndongo emerged that were to demonstrate continued evolution in African warfare. In these heavily forested regions, it was the foot soldier that dominated the battlefield. With armies consisting largely of levies, as a standing army could not be sustained in most cases. There were however, usually a small number of permanent professional warriors, usually some form of royal guard, around which the rest of the army was based. These were usually heavy, shield-bearing infantry, armed with spears most commonly, although swords, axes, and clubs would have been present. The general purpose levies were drawn upon in a more localized manner and were expected to supply their own weapons and rations when mustered for combat. They were generally mobilized when war was imminent and demobilized once over.  Logistics was not highly organized, and most armies ultimately lived off the land. Success often hinged on the ability of the defenders or attackers to sustain themselves in the field.


For these types of army, and example of the basic deployment for battle comes from the Fulani, which consisted of groups of select spearmen that entered battle first, supported by archers in the rear, and in reserve would be a general purpose force readed their troops into compact columns, easy to maneuver on the march and remaining somewhat together when spread out for combat. Like the Fulani, the Fante also sent spearmen first into battle, with archers supporting. A general charge by warriors further back under their commanders, then ensued, with sword, club and axe. In both of these cases, leaders seem to have had little control over troop movement once the fray was joined. By contrast, the forces of some other states were better organized. In the Angola region, troops were divided into companies and regiments, each with their own unique insignia. Designated field commanders controlled troop movement with signals from drums, bells and elephant tusk horns. Unlike the Fante or Fulani, archers usually opened a battle with only a very limited volley of arrows. The main force was still the unit of spearmen. Deployment was staggered, so that initial fighting waves fell back on command when tired, and fresh contingents moved up from the rear to take their place.


These armies were mostly armed with the spear, and the warrior wielding the spear and shield was the most important part of any force on the battlefield. Spears were less strong than those evolved later in southern Africa under the Zulu, but they still doubled as both throwing and thrusting implements. The shields used varied in shape and size based on the region and period, but for the most part were either circular or oval in shape, and were mostly made from some form of hide, or fairly often of wicker.

Wicker shields from various Central African areas

Swords took various forms also, and one example is the ida, a sword used by the yoruba people, which is a straight, usually double-edged iron sword with a broad head, leaving most of the balance towards the tip of the weapon, making it quite powerful in the cut. The bow and arrow found wide use, with relatively weak bow strength being offset by the use of poisoned arrows in many areas. Bow draw weight is said to have been around 40 pounds in most cases, although there are exceptions, such as some being up to 130 pounds in kenya, with large bows resembling European longbows. Some people, such as the Marka, used short, 1ft long, light arrows, tipped with poison and lacking fletchings, with a large volley of arrows intended to make up for poorer accuracy.

The Yoruban ‘ida’ sword


Defensive works were of an important part of warfare for these tropical militaries. In the Kongo region they often consisted of a type of field fortification, with trenches and low earthen embankments. These fortifications incidentally generally held up much better against European cannon than taller, more imposing structures, as they were very similar to modern trenches designed for such a purpose. In 15th century Benin, the works were more impressive. The walls of the city-state are described as the world’s second longest man-made structure, and the series of earthen ramparts as the most extensive earthwork in the world.  Strong citadels were also built other in areas of Africa. Yorubaland for example had several sites surrounded by the same fully encompassing earthworks and ramparts seen elsewhere, and were situated in positions that improved defensive potential such as hills and ridges. Yoruba fortifications were often protected with a double wall of trenches and ramparts, and in the Congo forests concealed ditches and paths, in addition to the main walls, which were often lined with rows of sharpened stakes. Inner defenses were laid out to dampen a successful breach with a maze of defensive walls allowing for entrapment and crossfire on enemy forces.

The walls of Benin

Cavalry Armies

Contrary to popular Western impressions, sub-Saharan Africa did produce significant cavalry forces where the environment permitted it. The savannahs of Western Africa in particular (Guinea, Gambia, Senegal, Niger etc.) and its borderlands into the Sahara and Sahel saw the development of several powerful cavalry-based states that dominated the region for centuries. Where the tsetse fly was not strong, and the terrain was favorable, the mounted horseman came into his own, and emerged as the true aristocracy of the savannah. As they did further north in Carthage, Egypt and Libya, the introduction of the horse, (and to some extent the camel in desert areas) had a transformational effect on African warfare.

On suitable terrain, the fast-moving horseman was the dominant force. When infantry operated on ground less favorable to cavalry however, and deployed firearms or disciplined archery, the mounted man was not as effective. Cavalry tactics were varied based on the mix of mounted and foot troops on hand for an operation. Infantry forces were usually larger, and the typical order of battle was a mass of infantry levies armed with hide shields, arrows, bows and spears, and a higher status mounted formation. Cavalry relied heavily on missile action, usually casting javelins in one or two passes, before closing in with lances for shock action. The infantry provided a steadying force if they could mass compactly enough to stand against cavalry charges. Raiding type tactics were standard, particularly in acquiring captives for sale. Generally the savanna cavalries used a “combined arms” approach, seldom operating without supporting infantry. Military operations of the savannah empires can be illustrated by the Mossi. Men of noble birth dominated the mounted units, and commoners were relegated to auxiliary foot formations, very similar to medieval European knights and foot soldiers. The main striking power of the Mossi forces rested in the cavalry, with the typical unit made up of 10 to 15 horsemen. The Mossi emperor delegated supreme command on expeditions to a field commander, or tansoba.

Cavalry of the West African Mali Empire

Another example of an effective cavalry nation; the Mali Empire, deployed both footmen and cavalry, under two general commands. Supreme command for all forces rested with the ruler, but the two army groupings were under two assigned generals. Cavalry was the elite arm of the force and provided the stable nucleus of an army that when fully mobilized numbered around 100,000 men, spread throughout the empire.. Ninety percent of these were infantry. A cavalry force, the farai, supervised the infantry, under officers. The footmen could be either slaves or freemen, and were predominately archers. Three archers to one spearman was the general ratio of Malian formations in the 16th century. The archers generally opened a battle, softening up the enemy for cavalry charges or the advance of the spearmen. Sword and lance were the weapons of choice in the cavalry forces, sometimes tipped with poison. A large flotilla of canoes supported army movements on campaigns.

Hallet, Robin Africa to 1875, University of Michigan Press: 1970

July, Robert Pre-Colonial Africa, Charles Scribner, 1975

Osadolor, Osarhieme Benson, “The Military System of Benin Kingdom 1440–1897],” (UD), Hamburg University: 2001

Thornton, John Kelly Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500–1800, Routledge: 1999

2 thoughts on “Warfare In Precolonial Africa

  1. Ana

    Greetings! Great read and very informative. Could you please share the source for Mali information as I’m having a difficult time sourcing ancient Malian battle tactics and general living. Thank you. If you do not want to list publicly I’ll be more than happy to exchange emails. thanks again.


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