Songhay was a fishing village in the Mali Empire. Like all villages, they were allowed to have their own local government. Mali wanted them to pay taxes like all the villages in the empire. But Songhay refused. They were fiercely independent. Mali let them get away it because they wanted the fish. Songhay did a great job catching and trading fish.
Slowly, Songhay developed a strong army and a central government. The nobles were Muslin. The common people believed in the old gods. The lifestyle of the nobles and the common people began to change. The nobles became rich and comfortable. The common people were poor and did all the work.
As Mali weakened, Songhay started to take charge of West Africa.
The first king of the new Songhay Empire was Sonni Ali the Great. Sonni Ali was a strong leader. He wanted to expand the Songhay Empire as rapidly as possible. To do so, he sent warriors, in canoes, up and down the waterways, to take over small towns and villages. The villages were glad to see them. They wanted someone in charge who had a strong army to protect them.
As Songhay grew, Sonni Ali sent warriors to take over landlocked cities, such as the city of Timbuktu. It was no long until Songhay had grown into the largest kingdom in West Africa. At one point, Songhay stretched 2,000 miles along the west African coast. They soon controlled all the gold mines in the south, and all the salt mines in the north. That gave them incredible power with the traders from the other side of the Sahara.
Songhay had all the gold and salt they needed. They had luxury goods. They nobles had everything except books. If you wanted to crack a great trade with Songhay, you needed to haul books across the Sahara Desert.
Songhay was very active in the slave trade. Anyone could be captured and sold to the slave traders.