Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Western and Central Sudan, 1800–1900 A.D.

Sokoto caliphate, 1817–80
Massina empire, ca. 1818–ca. 1850
Tukolor empire, 1845–64
Samory empire, ca. 1870–80
Partition of African continent by European colonial powers, 1884 onward
European museums, missionary groups, and colonial research institutions collect African art, ca. 1850–ca. 1950
European colonization of western and central Sudan, 1884–ca. 1960


Encompasses present-day Burkina Faso, eastern Chad, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal

Supplemental Maps

Factional disputes at the religious center of the Islamic world help change the course of history in West Africa when Wahhabi fundamentalists capture Mecca (1803) and Medina (1805). Their virulent opposition to mystical Sufism, the dominant form of Islam practiced in western and central Sudan, galvanizes African Sufis and strengthens the position of the Sufi orders Qadiriyya and Tijaniyya in sub-Saharan Africa. The responsibility to spread Islamic precepts among nonbelievers drives a wave of jihads that result in the formation of large-scale theocratic states stretching from the southern Sahara to the coast of present-day Guinea and the forests of northern Côte d'Ivoire. The importance of these movements to the cultural and artistic history of western and central Sudan cannot be overstated. Large-scale migration of populations fuels the stylistic development and exchange of sculptural forms as well as the consolidation of ethnic identity in reaction to foreign influences, while competing Islamic ideologies energize debates over urban design and religious architecture. This period also witnesses the imperial encroachment of France and, to a lesser extent, England and Portugal in the region. French military forces open central Sudan to European travelers, who leave documents describing urban centers such as Jenne and Timbuktu. By the end of the century, Senegal emerges as France's most productive and populous colony, with important mercantile centers located at Dakar and Saint-Louis along the coast.

    • ca. 1800–1880 Building on Islamic Fulani resentment of unfair treatment at the hands of their nominally Muslim rulers, Fulani cleric Shehu Usman dan Fodio (1754–1817) initiates an Islamic revival within the Hausa kingdoms of what is today northern Nigeria and southern Niger. The Hausa kingdoms are conquered by 1817, and consolidated as the Sokoto caliphate. Usman (and, after his death, his son Muhammad Bello) presides over the caliphate as the intellectual and religious leader, while lieutenants perform more secular political duties. Those populations living within the caliphate are profoundly affected by its strict religious rule. Converts throughout the state adopt the Islamic calendar, and a large body of literature addressing theological, legal, and astrological themes is written in vernacular languages using ajami, a modified form of Arabic script. Motifs such as the "magic square," used in Islamic astrology, are incorporated into local visual culture and appear on imported forms of costume, including colorful, elaborately embroidered robes worn by elite members of society.

    • early 19th century The Mossi kingdoms of Yatenga and Ouagadougou, in what is today Burkina Faso, disintegrate.

    • early 19th century The agrarian Lobi peoples migrate into the Upper Volta region from present-day Ghana.

    • early 19th century Due to the British- and French-enforced ban on the international slave trade, slave exports in the region of Senegambia (present-day Senegal and the Gambia) are replaced by local products such as gum, gold, hides, ivory, beeswax, and groundnuts. By the 1830s, the average annual value of gum exports is five times what the slave trade was at its peak.

    • early–mid-19th century Political stability resulting from the establishment of Islamic states in the Futa Jallon region allows Sudanic peoples access to the West African coast in Senegambia and what is today Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, influencing coastal peoples such as the Baga and Nalu. Sculptural forms and styles associated with inland cultures are integrated into the artistic practices of local peoples. Reflecting the presence of foreign populations are masks such as dimba created by the Baga and Nalu peoples that appear to represent Fulbe women originating from the Futa Jallon area. Other works by Baga and Nalu sculptors exhibit stylistic elements associated with Bamana art in present-day Mali such as horizontally oriented masks representing composites of animal forms.

    • 1818 Muslim Fulbe (Fulani and Peul) populations living within the ethnically Bamana kingdom of Ségou revolt after years of onerous taxation imposed by tónzons, garrisons of Bamana warriors. The rebellion is inspired by the Islamic revolutions of the mid-eighteenth century that resulted in the establishment of Muslim theocracies in the Futa Jallon and Futa Toro, and by the recent Fulani conquest of the Hausa states in northern Nigeria. Led by Muslim cleric Cheikhou Amadou, Fulbe armies embark on a sweeping campaign of conquest, creating the Massina empire. The capital at Hamdallahi, meaning "praise to God," is established in 1820.

    • 1819 Cheikhou Amadou and his Fulbe army defeat the Ségou army and incorporate Jenne into the rapidly expanding Massina empire. Deeming Jenne's spiritual practices to have been degraded by trade and religious pluralism, Amadou enforces a strict, fundamentalist form of Sufi Islam known as Qadiri and embarks on a campaign to dismantle the city's traditional sites of worship. Forbidden by Muslim doctrine from actively destroying mosques, Amadou orders his followers to block the gutters of the city's adobe mosques, allowing the waterlogged buildings to crumble and collapse through neglect. Only the Great Friday Mosque is left standing, although by 1828 French traveler René Caillé reports that it is in poor condition and prayers are restricted to the exterior courtyard.

    • ca. 1830 Having consolidated his control over Islamic leaders in Jenne, Cheikhou Amadou orders that the Great Friday Mosque in Jenne be abandoned and its gutters blocked, claiming that its height and size are the products of un-Islamic pride and vanity. The roof collapses in 1834. A new Friday mosque, designed by Ismaila Barey Traoré, is constructed near the site. Built according to Amadou's specifications, the building has a low ceiling and lacks minarets, which are considered an untraditional invention.

    • ca. 1845 Cheikhou Amadou's army conquers Timbuktu. Amadou dies the same year, leaving the Massina empire, which extends from Hamdallahi to Timbuktu and includes the Bamana strongholds Ségou and Kaarta, to his son.

    • mid-19th century In present-day Côte d'Ivoire and Mali, non-Muslim Senufo peoples respond to continuous jihads by organizing themselves into small military states. The strengthening of Senufo cultural identity results in the proliferation of wooden sculpture associated with religious practices and social organizations such as poro.

    • 1845–64 Al-Hajj cUmar (born 1794), a Sufi scholar of the Tijaniyya sect who had spent several years in Mecca, Medina, and Egypt, establishes an Islamic theocracy near the Futa Jallon. In 1853, he declares jihad against the infidels of western and central Sudan, and with an army of ethnically Tukulor Muslims from the Futa Jallon embarks on a course of conquest, overrunning Ségou and demolishing the Massina empire founded by Cheikhou Amadou. At its largest, the Tukulor empire stretches from Guidimaka to Timbuktu, and from Dinguiraye to the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. Confronted with French imperial encroachment in western Sudan (Senegambia), cUmar repeatedly attacks French military positions, earning him a place in West African history as an anticolonialist hero. The empire is administered by Tukulor elites, creating ethnic tensions among the empire's non-Tukulor subjects that lead to a series of rebellions. cUmar is killed in one of these uprisings in 1864.

    • 1849 The first Catholic mission is established in the Gambia.

    • 1855 France officially assumes an imperialist stance in the Senegambia region, and attempts to establish European-run groundnut and cotton plantations to supplant the area's economy, which is based on indigenously supplied beeswax and gum.

    • 1870s–80s Samory Touré, a leader of semi-Islamized Dyula peoples, exploits the unceasing clashes between Muslims and practitioners of indigenous religions to augment his territorial control. He skillfully plays both sides of the conflict, utilizing short-term alliances with various parties to extend his empire from Bamako, in present-day Mali, to northern Côte d'Ivoire and central Sierra Leone. Although his early conquests are not marked by a religious agenda, by 1886 Samory proclaims his desire to impose Islam upon the peoples within his empire. Further military exploits, however, are checked by the growing influence of the French military.

    • 1870s–80s Senegal becomes France's most important African colony, with 30,000 inhabitants. All residents within the colony, whether African or French in origin, have full French citizen status. The Dakar–Saint-Louis railroad opens in 1885, connecting the two main ports, strengthening the colonial economy, and setting the stage for French control of the interior.