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The Battle of Tondibi, 1591, in Miniature

Saturday, March 16th, 2013 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


As I mentioned in my last post, on a recent trip to Tangier I visited the old American Legation, now a museum. In a dusty back room I discovered two remarkable dioramas of Moroccan battles–the Battle of the Three Kings and the Battle of Tondibi. They were created by Edward Suren of London. Today I’m presenting some images of the diorama of the Battle of Tondibi.

After the Battle of the Three Kings, Ahmad al-Mansur took over the Saadi dynasty of Morocco. Emboldened by the crushing defeat they handed the Portuguese, the Moroccans soon turned their attention south. Al-Mansur wanted to control the desert trade routes of the Songhai Empire leading to Mali. He sent an army of 4,000 men under Judar Pasha to take control of what is now northern Mali.

Judar Pasha is an interesting figure. Born in Spain, he had been captured by Moroccan slavers while still an infant and castrated. He eventually became a trusted officer and pasha in al-Mansur’s court.

In October of 1590, Judar Pasha set out with 1,500 cavalry, 2,500 arquebusiers, 8 English cannon, and a personal bodyguard of 80 Christian warriors. After a grueling four-month trek across the Sahara they approached the city of Gao, their first main objective.

Facing the invaders was Askia Ishaq II, who had come to the throne of the Songhai Empire only two years before after a protracted dynastic struggle that had left the empire weakened. Ishaq II assembled 40,000 men. Although they outnumbered the Moroccans ten-to-one, they had no artillery and almost no firearms. The two armies met at the village of Tondibi on March 13, 1591.

Askia Ishaq II was not ignorant of the efficacy of firearms, so he relied on his superior numbers and an interesting tactic. He drove a giant herd of cattle before his army, hoping the cloud of dust would hide his men until they could rush on the Moroccans and cut them down.

The initial charge

The initial charge

It didn’t work. As soon as the Songhai warriors emerged from the cloud they took the full brunt of the Moroccan firepower at point blank range. The charge floundered and soon turned into a retreat. The Songhai rearguard put up a brave resistance but eventually they, too, succumbed to superior weapons technology.

Judar Pasha looted Gao and went on to give Timbuktu and Djenné the same treatment. The long march made him realize that they could never really control this region, however, and so they collected their loot and returned home. The Songhai Empire was permanently weakened by the battle and never controlled the region again. In 1603, plague took al-Mansur’s life and the Saadi dynasty of Morocco also fell into decline.

Songhai warriors hiding behind the herd of cattle

Songhai warriors hiding behind the herd of cattle


The Songhai charge from the right against the Moroccan guns.

Songhai cavalry

Songhai cavalry

The fellows in blue at Tuareg warriors

The fellows in blue at Tuareg warriors

You may also like my post about the defenses of Tangier.


The Songhai put up a desperate rearguard action.

The Songhai put up a desperate rearguard action.

Sean McLachlan worked for ten years as an archaeologist in Israel, Cyprus, Bulgaria, and the U.S. before becoming a full-time writer specializing in history and travel. He’s the author of numerous history books on the Middle Ages, the Civil War, and the Wild West. He is also the author of A Fine Likeness, a horror novel set in Civil War Missouri, and The Night the Nazis Came to Dinner and other dark tales.

"Don't worry, baby, I'll save you!"

“Don’t worry, baby, I’ll save you!”

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