Soldiers of Misfortune

 the history of mercenaries

The exploits of Fuck Pasha

The Conquest of the Songhai Empire

Songhai Empire With the help of firearms, Europeans opened the 16th Century with conquest and the establishment of large colonial empires in the Americas and Asia. But at least one North African country also used this new technology for a daring enterprise. Before the conquest of Mexico most of the gold from which coins were minted in the Mediterranean came from the western Sudan. There, on the bend of the Niger, stretched the mighty kingdom of the Songhai. The Songhai had looted the kingdom of Mali, expulsed the Tuareg from Timbuktu, and occasionally even controlled the southern Moroccan salt mines. After a long resistance they converted to Islam around 1500, and their kings made Timbuktu a rich trading city. The caravans brought primarily salt and textiles from Morocco, and transported back in exchange slaves, gold and ivory. Morocco benefitted well in this trade. But the lucrative business declined rapidly after the Portuguese founded their first forts on the African west coast and usurped the trade for themselves. Soon the regions around these forts became famous as the Gold Coast, the Ivory Coast and the Slave Coast.

Morocco wanted to gain control of these sources of wealth for herself, but the road through the Sahara to Timbuktu was too far for an army large enough to conquer the Songhai Empire. Everything changed however with the introduction of new weapon technology, and on October 16, 1590, a small but well equipped army left Marrakech in the south. It consisted of 1,000 renegades, 1,000 Andalusians, 500 cavalry and 70 Christians from the prisons of the Sultan, all equipped with arquebuses. The Moroccans themselves provided only 1,500 lancers. The baggage train consisted of thousands of camels and horses, which carried, in addition to food and water, small cannons, 100 tons of gun powder, and lead. The vast majority of the army was therfore made up of former Christian Europeans. One could speculate that the Sultan wished to spare his own troops in this suicidal mission and therefore sent foreigners. But a Spanish eyewitness reports that the leader of the expedition demanded 200 Christians from the King, "because the Arabs wouldn't undertake military campaigns without renegades or Christians." But the Sultan only provided this small number because he regarded his Christian prisoners as too valuable to waste on a foreign campaign. There is no doubt that the Europeans experienced in handling the new arquebuses formed the elite of the Moroccan army.

Arquebusiers in the 16th century But where did they come from, these warlike renegades, Spaniards and other Christian prisoners? From the scarce sources available there is little to learn about them, but there are still some hints concerning their origin. The Andalusians were mostly so called "Moriscos", as they were descendants of Spanish Moslems who had fled to Morocco years earlier to escape the persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition. The renegades were former Christian captives, who had converted to Islam, and since they were used here as an elite force it could be largely assumed that not a few of them were former soldiers. In the campaigns of the Habsburgs against Tripoli and Algiers, many of their Spanish, Italian and German mercenaries had repeatedly fallen into the hands of their enemies. Some were bought off, others led a miserable existence as galley slaves, but many "took the turban", as it was known when someone converted to Islam. There were also deserters who sometimes fled in considerable numbers from the Spanish presidios on the coast, having received neither pay nor food for long periods, and sometimes because of threatened disciplinary punishment. Also it seems that some Andalusians always were ready to try their luck in Morocco, when the Sultan paid well.

The leader of the mercenary army was a small blue-eyed Andalusian renegade who was called "Djuder Pasha" (sometimes "Judar") after his favorite expression "joder" (equivalent in Spanish to the American "f-word"), his name signified therefore "Fuck Pasha". His officers were either Moriscos who had fled from Andalusia or Spanish renegades who had managed to carve out a career in the Moroccan army. But Djuder Pasha rose to command not only because of his military capabilities; it is also said that the Sultan feared his strong influence among the mercenaries of Spanish origin, and perhaps used this opportunity to get rid of him.

Some of the prisoners with military experience were most probably survivors of the Portuguese army which met its demise in Morocco in 1578. King Sebastian of Portugal had taken internal disputes over the throne in Morocco as a good opportunity to invade the country following the crusader tradition of his forefathers. To support his Portuguese feudal levies he had hired thousands of Italian and Spanish arquebusiers and even 3,000 German Lansquents, who nonetheless proved to be mainly Flemish. The so-called "Battle of the Three Kings" at Ksar El Kebir was a complete disaster. Sebastian and many of his troops were slain, and the bulk of his army ended up in captivity.

Portugal thereafter descended into chaos and ruined her finances paying the ransoms demanded for the captive nobles. Shortly afterwards Spain conquered the disordered country. Undoubtedly nobody wasted any thoughts on the foreign mercenaries in slavery. They were on their own, and it's certainly not too far-fetched to assume that a good part of the renegades and Christian slaves who departed in 1590 to conquer the Songhai Empire had been captured at Ksar El Kebir.

Nearly 2,000 miles separated Marrakech from Timbuktu. The burning sand and gravel of the Sahara desert spread endlessly; very often several days' journey separated the oases. One of the Moroccans later wrote to the Sultan: "The sand enveloped them and seemed to cook the brain and melt and the body. The sun burned so hot on their heads that it seemed it could be touched by hand. The leader lost the sense of time and confused today with tomorrow. It was a land without trees and water, with a horizon that veiled the eyes and reflected the image of a forthcoming death. The scarce and brackish water burned boiling in the stomach, and the heat was in the middle of the day such that you believed to be in hell."
Timbuktu and caravan

Horses perished and people were left behind exhausted. With time supplies became scarce, and when after five months the army finally reached the Niger it was already heavily decimated and the survivors half dead of thirst and hunger. Fortunately, the local nobility had withdrawn from Timbuktu, and the conquerors were able to rest and provide themselves with new horses. Then followed a march of about 200 miles along the Niger to the enemy capital Gao. During the first skirmishes Djuder Pasha prohibited his troops to use their arquebuses, wanting to save this surprise for the final battle. This happened in 1591 at Tondibi north of Gao. The enemy army is estimated to have comprised up to 30,000 infantry and 12,000 horsemen, but they were armed only with spears and bows and arrows. The Songhai had also requisitioned some thousand zebu cattle, which they drove before them. Djuder waited until the zebu had come close, then he ordered all the arquebusiers and canons to fire. Because of the noise, smoke and wounds the animals turned around and stampeded through the ranks of the Songhai. They were followed by the arquebusiers who rapidly fired volley after volley. The Songhai couldn't resist this onslaught for very long, and soon their army was completely routed and the fate of Sudan decided.

Sahelian-Warriors But, as so often happens, nature proved to be the tougher opponent. In the hot, humid climate a deadly fever soon spread devouring horses, camels and men. The Songhai had retreated to the south from where they waged a guerrilla war against the invaders. Fortunately they had split into various factions, some of which sought reconciliation with Morocco, while others continued the fight. But the worst part was that the legendary gold mines of Sudan didn't exist. The gold had come from tribes farther south, and after the war had interrupted the trade, the inflow of gold ceased. The Sultan was furious, and sent Mahmud Pasha as governor with a new army of renegades and Andalusians with the order to depose Djuder and send him back to Morocco. But Djuder withdrew with his loyal soldiers to Gao and reigned there under his own mandate. After Mahmud was killed in a fight with the Songhai, Djuder remained the only Moroccan authority in Sudan. It was not until 1599 that a newly arrived army managed to persuade him to return. He came back to Morocco with a caravan of hundreds of horses and camels laden with booty to appease the wrath of the Sultan, which he apparently managed well. Yet time was running short for him. In internal disputes over the throne in 1603 he sided with the wrong faction and was executed together with other supporters of the losing party.

Moroccan guard Sudan, however, remained for the Sultans a money losing business. They had to constantly send more troops to the south, to replace the losses caused by fever and small wars. An Arab chronicler wrote some years later: "Between 1590 and 1600 there has been sent 23,000 of the best troops to Sudan... but all this led to losses and all the soldiers disappeared in Sudan, except 500 who returned to Marrakech to die there." But it seems that the real situation wasn't quite as dramatic, many soldiers apparently staying in Sudan by their own choice, marrying local women and forming a new ruling class far from the Sultan.

After some years no more reinforcements were sent from Morocco and the mercenaries were left to themselves. For a few years the Sultan appointed the Pasha of Timbuktu, but he gave up this right in 1620. The "Moroccans", as the mercenaries and their descendants were called by the local population, remained in power for a long time however. They defended themselves against black African tribes, the Tuaregs and chose their own Pashas. At least initially they seem to have spoken a mixture Andalusian Spanish and Arabic, for in some chronicles of the time in which their language was transcribed phonetically, one can read, for example, "kor li kabissa", meaning "cortadle la cabeza" (behead him). Over time, however, they mingled with the population and also assumed their language. Their light-skinned descendants, the so called "Arma", reigned until about 1770 when they had to cede power to the Tuareg.