Tondibi, 1591, a “Secret Weapon” that Failed
During the sixteenth century, Songhai controlled a major portion of the interior parts of West Africa. Dominating the desert trade routes, the sprawling empire was prosperous and had a flourishing cultural life, centered on the fabled city of Timbuktu. But in 1591 Morocco invaded Songhai. Although the invaders were not very numerous, perhaps 4,000 men, they were armed with firearms, not yet seen in West Africa, and thus possessed an enormous advantage over their more traditionally equipped foes.
In early March, the Songhai army confronted the invaders at a place called Tondibi. Both sides deployed with their infantry in the center and their cavalry on the wings. The Moroccan cavalry struck first, and a mounted melee ensued. At this moment the Songhai committed their secret weapon. They had carefully hidden a herd of about a thousand cattle behind their infantry, and now stampeded the lot right into the center of the enemy line, with their infantry following close behind.
Faced with the threat of being trampled by the rampaging cattle, the Moroccans opened up with their firelocks. The resulting great noise panicked the cattle, who promptly turned and fled, thus stampeding through the Songhai infantry. As the cattle did their thing, the Moroccans resumed the offensive. Despite an heroic defense, the Songhai were forced to retire. .
The Battle of Tondibi led directly to the collapse of the Songhai state. The last of the great empires that had controlled the central areas of West Africa for over a thousand years, its cities were devastated, its people enslaved, a fate that overcame a surprising number of civilizations, as more technologically advanced societies – Spain, Morocco, Moscovy, Portugal, Turkey – built “gun powder empires.”
The Texas Campaign of 1813
During the protracted Mexican War for Independence (1810-1823), the revolutionaries repeatedly sought to secure recognition from the United States. While this was never forthcoming, many Americans did provide material aid to the insurgents, and some even volunteered to fight.
In 1812-1813, Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara, who held a general’s commission from one of the leading Mexican revolutionary factions, journeyed to New Orleans to raise money and recruit an army. By mid-1813 “The Republican Army of the North," which included more Americans than Mexicans, was ready for action. Under the operational command of Augustus W. Magee, a former U.S. Army officer, in August of 1813 the column of several hundred men invaded the Mexican province of Texas from Louisiana, with the intention of securing the region for the Revolution.
Securing considerable support from the small Tejano population, in an arduous campaign of about nine months, the expedition seized control of southern Texas, defeating Royalist forces and in April of 1814 captured San Antonio. Although the American members of the expedition, a mixed bag of romantic idealists, foot loose adventurers, and mercenary opportunists, attempted to adhere to the rules of war, their Mexican counterparts, reflecting the brutalities characteristic of the war further south in Mexico proper, massacred all prisoners.
Shortly after the fall of San Antonio, a Royalist expedition of some 3,000 men undertook a counteroffensive, entering Texas partially overland and partially by sea. The Royalist column was commanded by Maj. Gen. Joaquin Arredondo, a tough, seasoned campaigner, with a reputation for brutality. In some preliminary encounters the Revolutionaries came off second-best. Then in August, the Royalists inflicted a crushing defeat on the rebels at the Medina River, near San Antonio. Perhaps a third of the 1,500-1800 rebels, about half of whom were American volunteers, were killed outright in a battle lasting some four hours. Most of the rest were captured over the next few days, as only a few hundred managed to escape back to the United States.
True to his reputation, Arredondo proceeded to slaughter his prisoners in the most brutal fashion possible, while inflicting massacre and rape on the citizens of San Antonio and its environs. Thus was Texas restored to the authority of the Spanish Crown.
There’s an interesting footnote to the story of the Gutierrez-Magee expedition to Texas. Among the Royalist officers who distinguished themselves during the campaign was a young lieutenant, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who received a decoration for his courage, and apparently learned some important techniques for dealing with unrest which he often later put to excellent use as dictator of Mexico.