The Journal of African History

Research Article

‘He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage’ the horse in the Central Sudan II. Its use

Humphrey J. Fishera1*

a1 S.O.A.S. University of London

Horses in themselves have little or no necessary military significance: in Part I of this article we saw how various quite unwarlike peoples possessed them. of fundamental significance, in transforming horses into war-horses, was good harness and equipment, and to carry this larger animals were preferable. Even against well-equipped cavalry, mainly infantry forces might prevail, if they were, like the Almoravids and the adherents of Usuman dan Fodio, sufficiently inspired. An important advantage of a horse, or better still several horses, was in providing a means of speedy escape. Horses were also valuable in slaving, a profitable occupation not only in the economic terms of human booty, some of whom might be sold for more horses, but also in demographic terms, a sort of compulsory immigration scheme. The use of horses in communications, as packanimals, in hunting, and for food, is discussed, though none was of outstanding significance in the Central Sudan. The employment of horses in agriculture seems to have been entirely lacking. Perhaps the most widespread use of horses was in festivals and celebrations; these displays of horsemanship, whether intentionally or not, helped train horses and riders. Good equipment was again vital, and sumptuary restrictions seem to have been directed more against overweening ostentation in this, than in the possession of horses. While horses were very widely esteemed, the most scrupulous among Muslims felt a certain hesitation about the propriety of riding a horse. Horses were found as a form of tribute, alms, bribes, and gifts of various kinds. In conclusion, the horse per se was more common, and less remarkable, in the Central Sudan than is sometimes suggested; it was the equipment of horses which made them effective weapons of war and statecraft.


* I am grateful to Dr Murray Last of University College, London, to Dr Robin Law of Stirling University, and to Dr Joseph Smaldone of the United States Naval Academy, who have read, and commented upon, an earlier draft, saving me much embarrassment. Surviving errors and eccentricities are, of course, my own.