Reading The Horse in the Fifteenth-Century Senegambia (1991) Ivana Elbl. During the period the Jolof empire begun to disintegrate and Elbl is trying to identify the extent of impacts horses had in the process or more specifically “the modalities of access to horses” and horse trade facilitated the Portuguese impacted the process. Horses were present in Senegambia before the arrival of the Portuguese and Arab sources mention in horses as “important status symbols in ancient Ghana”. The word “horse” in Wolof and other major Senegalese languages is derived from an Arabic root (Wolof: Fars, Arabic: Faras).
The local breeds were small and the build-up of cavalry in Mali has been pinned to the import of horses. Elbl underlines that there were important breeds such as Sahel (as referred to by al-Bakrī in 1068), the River Horse of Senegal, the Foutanké and Bélédougou already in the region. These smaller breed (which Western scholars cited in the article define as “inferior”) were used extensively by Mossi raiders. Interestingly al-ʿUmarī (c.1337-1338) in “Masalik al-absar”mentions that Mali cavalry troops (10,000 of a 100,000 strong force) rode Arab saddles but mounted their horses with the right foot. This has an odd link to a question concerning posthumanist performativity asked earlier: What will happen if we mount the animal from the right? Are we mounting a horse or an other beast?
Access to horses could have played a major socio-political role if a rise can be documented in the importance of horses in the social or military sphere, if this rise was directly related to major historical processes of the time, and if the supply of horses was unevenly distributed.
She brings forth research and oral histories which highlight the influence horses have had in West African social and political processes. “[…] both as an instrument of mobility for troops and as symbols of political and military power”. In short supply of horses the Portuguese had access to had made them powerful. Local communities could not breed horses easily due to harsh environmental conditions (tse-tse fly). Which made horse trade important.
Contacts with both Mauritania and Mali would suggest that military applications of horsemanship were known in Senegambia well before the opening of the Atlantic trade. Yet it seems that in Senegal […] horses were rather symbols of power and prestige then effective implements of warfare. […] The ceremonial and prestige-enhancing functions of horses was documented already in ancient Ghana by al-Bakrī (c.1068). […] Horses were an integer feature of ceremonies at the court of Mali.
Offering horses as gifts was a tradition which strengthened social ties and distinguished guests could also be provided temporary mounts. Horse tails were kept in houses and presented for guests as evidence of past horse ownership. Among the “Nyancho” elites in some Senegambian states “horsemanship constituted an integral part of the concept of keya (manliness) and a prerequisite for political and military leadership.” But due to scarcity, horses were not frequently used in warfare, this led early Portuguese observers to assume that horse use was uncommon.
The political and social process that , according to [Jack] Goody, were determined by control over the “means of destruction” (in this case horses) appear to have been in operation […] well before the arrival of the Portuguese.
Elbl believes that horses were used in events she calls “hit-and-run slave raids, which represented both a major source of income and favorite dry-season activity of Senegambian nobility”. A gruesome account is that the price of a horse in Fuuta Tooro was 14 to 15 slaves and by 1460 Portuguese horse trade dropped the price to 6-8. These numbers have a weird link to the Mounted Police forces in Finland who have specified that in crowd control situations a horse equals to 10 ground troops in efficiency. The Portuguese traders were in a competition with the Sanhaja, who imported well-rested and seasoned horses from Mauritania. The Spanish horses brought from Europe were “poor specimens” and often damaged by the sea journey.
“The volume of the Portuguese horse trade is often strongly exaggerated.” Elbl explains that European sources have credited the volume of cavalry units in Senegambia to the supply they provided but the numbers don’t add up. Portuguese ships seldom carried more then seven to ten horses and the documented 8000 Jolof horses would have required a much larger volume of slaves to be traded then documents show. Also, horses imported to the Gulf of Guinea had a low life expectancy.
Elbl argues that “The geographical distribution of the Portuguese horse supply thus could not have been a force affecting fundamental political developments in Senegambia, or more specifically, the downfall of Jolof.” She is clear that cavalry units were a vital factor and that trade made horse use more common. But he credits the decline of the Jolof to to internal problems and the general negative influence of the Portuguese.
The rise of Fuuta and Kaabu, the tho events primarily responsible for the redrawing of the political map of Senegambia and the decline of Jolof in the sixteenth century, had its ultimate roots in the changing situation within the western Sudan, marked by the rivalry between the weakening Mali and the waxing power of Songhay. Factors such as these can hardly be connected with the presence of the Europeans off the coast, or to the European horse supply. In the final measure, however, they were responsible vor the changes in the role of horse in Senegambia from mostly a status symbol to an important instrument of war.