Forgotten Civilisation 12: Kingdom of Baguirmi

The Mbang Abd ar Rahman Gwaranga (Left), c. 1918.

The Kingdom or Sultanate of Baghermi or Bagirmi was an Islamic sultanate and kingdom southeast of Lake Chad in Africa. It was established in either 1480 CE or 1522 CE and lasted until 1897 CE when it became a French protectorate. Its ancient capital was Massenya, north of the Chari River and adjacent to the border to modern Cameroon. The Baguirmi kings wore the Mbang title.


The Bagirmi held a tradition that they moved from far to the east, which is backed by the similarity of their language to many tribes on the Nile. It is not properly clear when and by whom Bagirimi kingdom was established: some king lists pursued this event to 1480 CE when it was apparently established by Mbang Abd al-Mahmud Begli, while others believe Mbang Birni Besse is responsible, who is said to have launched the civilization in 1522 CE.

He appears to have displaced the earlier Bulala, while he also started to construct a palace in Massenya, the state’s capital. The fourth king, Abdullah (1568 CE–1608 CE), adopted Islam and converted the state into a sultanate, allowing the state to extend its authority over many tribes in the region, including the area’s Gaberi, Saras, Gulla, Somrai, Nuba, Sokoro, and Nduka He and his heirs went on to use the title “mbang” alongside that of Islamic “sultan.”

“Horseman from Bagirmi” by Dixon Denham, 1823.

The Shari River established the kingdom’s west boundary, with most of its center watered by its effluents. The region was home to a kind of footworm that damaged many of the inhabitants. Bagirmi was also constantly plagued by pestilence, drought, and slave attacking both externally and internally organized. During the Idris Alooma reign, Bornu surmounted Bagirmi. The Islamic Bagirmi would attack the poor tribes of their own kingdom to force them to pay the unavoidable tribute to Bornu. Life was the hardest for anyone other than a Muslim in the Kingdom of Baguirmi.

Other than slaves, including eunuchs, Bagirmi also exported ivory, animal skins, and slave-ground cotton while importing cowrie shells and copper. Trade with Bornu was eventually carried out by caravans along a route that extended north across the Sahara to Tripoli in Libya.

The Fall

Early in the 19th century CE, Bagirmi fell into decline and was endangered by the Sultanate of Wadai. It was ultimately annexed in 1871 CE. It came to European notice after the visits of Dixon Denham (1823 CE), Heinrich Barth (1852 CE), Gustav Nachtigal (1872 CE), and Massari and Matteucci (1881 CE). When Rabih az-Zubayr’s troops torched Massenya in 1893 CE, the 25th sultan, Abd ar Rahman Gaourang, shifted his administration to Chekna. During the initial days of the Scramble for Africa, the Third French Republic became involved in connecting its territories across the breadth of Africa, authorizing a Dakar–Djibouti railway. Rabih killed Paul Crampel, the leader of the first French expedition through the region, but Emile Gentil secured a protectorate over Bagirmi from its sultan in 1897 CE.

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