Photo Source: Public Domain
There’s a common misconception about African armor and warriors because of how they are wrongly depicted in today’s movies. This is true as well in depicting the indigenous groups that live in Africa.
Comparing them to Asian and European warriors, there are many variables as to why they dress differently. Their extremely hot weather alone can explain why a plate armor would be impractical.
African warriors are wrongly depicted as disorganized men with spears and no armor at all. But history would tell us that they were definitely not what we imagined.
They had great empires and had armies just like any other in the previous periods. They were equipped with great African armor and outstanding weapons capable of fighting off the Europeans.
Since Africa lies in the tropics, it is understandable that they wore various armor based on fabric and leather. Though metal armor was rare, it doesn’t mean they didn’t exist or warriors didn’t use them. But clearly, they didn’t wear a suit of plate armor.
The African Kingdoms and Their African Armor
The vast Sahel region was the best location for lots of battles due to its rich soil and grassy plains. The African Sahel stretches from the west to the east of the whole continent.
Various armies wanted to take over territories under these regions since the largest empires dominated these lands. The most popular armor for these African armies was dense clothing similar to the European gambeson. In general, they called it lifida
The Mossi and Mali Kingdoms
The Mossi Kingdoms would always get into skirmishes against the Mali Empire. These kingdoms dominated the upper Volta river for hundreds of years.
Warriors from Mamprusi found these kingdoms when they arrived in the region, which is the modern-day Ghana.
In the 13th century, they centralized their political and military power but this led to many conflicts.
The Mali Empire was one of those that they always had conflicts with. This empire was also one of the largest that existed at that time.
Mali warriors wore mail armor which they called sulke. As all African warriors, they wore it with their lifida.
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The Chadian Kingdom
By 900 CE, the Kanembu came to rise in Chad. They had with them knowledge of agriculture and ironworks.
Sometimes called the Chadian kingdom, they developed stronger weapons and armor. This would soon lead to the formation of the centralized Kanembu Kingdom.
The general African armor were suits of thick quilted cloth or cotton. Lifida covered a warrior from head to toe and that included their horses. The horse is protected with headgear, and a one-piece quilted armor covering the neck, chest, and even the legs.
Sometimes they add plates to the quilted armor of the horses, too. They called the horse breastplates the dan gaba.
The quilt-like fashion of these armor was definitely heavy. In the Hausa heavy cavalry, two people would support the rider when they get on their horses.
Researchers believe that this type of armor originated in the Ethipoian Empire. More particularly from Sudan because of their trading traditions.
Today, people from Sudan wear these armor during their independence day, and modern representations were similar to the original. They wore heavy garments of quilted cotton that are stuffed with kapok. Heavily armed individuals wore the Yan Lifida, a quilted armor of the same kind.
In the parade, they serve as guards to the Emir.
To match the armor, they wore a decorated helmet called kwalkwali. This helmet was made by adding paddings under a headpiece covered with tin or brass. Sometimes it featured a chain mail, too.
The people decorate it with ostrich or brightly colored bird feathers.
By the 14th century, the Kanem-Bornu rose to power. They wore mail armor and the only indigenous plate armor in the entire Africa region.
A few surviving pieces showed that they had layers of leather around the edges of the plate. Sometimes, these even covered the entire breastplate. They wore the cuirass together with cotton armor or armored shirts.
The Bornu cuirass was trimmed with leather and had a neck armor attached to the backplate. This type of cuirass opens along the side.
It had six horizontal plates covering the torso and riveted on three vertical plates. These three plates were strategically placed on different sides to allow an opening.
Iron rivets held these plates in place and they lined the edges with leather. Horses of the Kanem-Bornu wore cotton armor with metal plates on their body.
Chain mail was the common type of armor in the heavy cavalry of the Kanem-Bornu empire. Though it was expensive and needed a lot of labor, they preferred this type of armor. Of course, these chain mail armor went together with their decorated clothing armor.
The indigenous chain mail was made by a three-man team. Two of them would prepare the rings in sets of five, while the master armorer would link these sets together. They wore this armor until 1898 in the Battle of Omdurman.
Depending on which region of Africa the warrior was in, warriors either wore leather, cotton, or chain mail. But the Oyo Empire warriors wore imported chain mail from Asia.
They then had access to trading areas in which they may have gotten this armor.
The most excellent example of a completely indigenous type of armor would be those worn by the Benin warrior. These showed no signs of outside influence and were specifically designed to work in hot humid weather of West Africa.
Though the armor varies according to your rank, few characteristics showed in general. The torso is protected by an apron-like armor and a vest. It was crafted from various types of leather like those from cows, leopards, elephants, pangolins, and crocodiles.
Charms like metal bells were added to the garment which they believed increased their protection. Their armor extends to the legs with a kilt-like garment. Helmets of the same material were worn too.
These helmets usually have metal headbands on the forehead. Though some also wore helmets completely made of metal bands. Of course, they designed them all as a matching set from head to toe.
Many African armor was colorful and very decorative. Helmets would always have pointed accessories as well as side face decors.
Most of the African armor had been interpreted from what was found from current artifacts. These artifacts were carved from wood, ivory, or bronze in utmost detail. Most of them date back to the Middle Ages.