The Mali Empire is my favorite African empire. At its historical height, the empire had everything – wealth, power, and a high accumulation of educational resources. Several kings that led the empire were legendary – Sundiata, Musa, Abubakari. Despite being comparable to Mediterranean empires such as the Ottoman or Roman empires, the Mali Empire doesn’t grace the historical pages with European kingdoms. The most one may see about the Mali Empire is how Europeans tried to find the source of their wealth – presumably to exploit it.
Since the Neolithic Period, the Sudan region of West Africa is where the Mali Empire developed. It began as a small Mandinka kingdom at the upper reaches of the Niger River. This was a prime area due to the fact that the Niger River flooded, which provided fertile land for agriculture. The people – the Mandinka – fished and were cattle herders.
To the north, the Ghana Empire was in decline during the 11th and 12th centuries. The Sosso Empire took it over and imposed trade restrictions on the Mali region, leading the native Mandingo tribes to rebel.
Sundiata Keita centralized the government and maintained diplomacy and a well-trained army. This led to a massive military expansion.
Height of the Mali Empire
The Mali Empire prospered thanks to trade and its prime location, between the rain forests of southern West Africa and the powerful Muslim caliphates of North Africa. The Mali rulers had a triple income: they taxed the passage of trade goods, bought goods, and sold them on at much higher prices, and had access to their own valuable natural resources. Significantly, the Mali Empire controlled the rich gold-bearing regions of Galam, Bambuk, and Bure; one of the main trade exchanges was gold dust for salt from the Sahara.
The Mali Empire rose primarily to power through trade. Control and taxation of trade pumped wealth into the imperial treasury and sustained the Mali Empire’s existence. The most profitable commodities traded were gold and salt. Mined first at Bambuk on a tributary of the upper Senegal River gold was mined at Bure on the headwaters of the Niger River. The location of the gold mines moved as the mines in the west became exhausted and alternative sources were discovered further east. The Mansa (King) claimed all the gold nuggets, but gold dust was available for trade.
Salt was mined deep in the Sahara. They would trade slabs brought by camels in the markets of Timbuktu, Mopti, and other Niger River towns. Great camel caravans brought salt, iron, copper, cloth, books, and pearls from the north and northeast. They exchanged it for gold, kola nuts, ivory, leather, rubber, and slaves from the south.
Although salt and gold dust were used as currency during the fourteenth century, cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean were introduced as currency. Their use improved the collection of taxes and the exchange of goods.
Acting as a middle-trader between North Africa via the Sahara Desert and the Niger River to the south, Mali exploited the traffic in gold, salt, copper, ivory, and slaves across West Africa.
The Mali Empire grew and prospered by monopolizing the gold trade and developing the agricultural resources along the Niger River.
Muslim merchants were attracted to the commercial activity and converted Mali rulers who in turn, spread Islam.
The Mali Empire demanded strong leadership to continue its prosperity. Sundjata established himself as a great religious and secular leader, claiming the greatest and most direct link with the spirits of the land and thus the guardian of the ancestors. After Sundjata, most of the rulers of Mali were Muslim, some of whom made the hajj, one of the most famous, Mansa Musa, the grandson of one of Sunjata’s sisters.
This federation prospered, developing over the next century into one of Africa’s richest ever empires whose wealth would astound both Europe and Arabia.
King Abubakari II is perhaps one of the most historically significant kings of the Mali Empire. The little information about Abubakari comes from griots, which are West African storytellers and advisors to royal personages. They record an ocean expedition, organized by Abubakari that caused significant controversy still today.
King Abubakari longed to explore the ocean, often longingly looking out over the open sea that bordered his kingdom. He thought it possible to find the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. He sent an expedition out over the Atlantic only to have one of his generals return. Frustrated, King Abubakari outfitted a second expedition in 1311 totalling 2,000 ships with another 1,000 ships loaded with food to last him and his team two years.
Various historians believe that Abubakari arrived in what is now Haiti in 1312. Ivan Van Sertima’s, They Came Before Columbus gives an interpretation of such events based on Christopher’s Columbus’ personal diary. He never returned to his kingdom, which gave way for Mansa Musa to ascend the throne.
World renowned for his wealth, Mansa Musa is the most remembered of Mali kings. During Mansa Musa’s reign – 1307 to 1337 – he extended Mali’s boundaries to their farthest limits. Within the kingdom, there were fourteen provinces ruled by governors or emirs who were usually famous generals. Sheiks governed Berber provinces. They all paid tribute to Musa in gold, horses, and clothes.
In 1324, Mansa Musa, accompanied by 60,000 people, traveled across the Sahara to Cairo and then to Mecca and Medina carrying large quantities of gold.
He ruled impartially with a great sense of justice. Musa established diplomatic relationships with other African states, especially Morocco, with whom he exchanged ambassadors. Perhaps he was best known as a ruler who firmly established the Islamic religion in Mali along with peace, order, trade, and commerce. Mansa Musa started the practice of sending students to Morocco for studies and he laid the foundation for what later became the city of Timbuktu, the commercial and educational center of the western Sudan.
Timbuktu was the most important city in the kingdom. The center of culture and trade, it was home to one of the first universities in Sub-Saharan Africa and included a comprehensive library complete with books from places like Greece and Rome. Timbuktu also housed mosques for Islamic worship and prayer.
Three of western Africa’s oldest mosques – Djinguereber, Sankore, and Sidi Yahia – were built there during the 14th and early 15th centuries. Islam at the time in the area was not uniform, its nature changing from city to city. Timbuktu’s bond with the religion grew strong through its openness to strangers, which attracted religious scholars.
Decline of the Mali Empire
The Mali Empire collapsed when several states, including Songhai, proclaimed and defended their independence. Around the 1430s, the rulers could not prevent rebellions from breaking out. The Tuareg people took back their city of Timbuktu in 1433, and by 1500, the Mali Empire comprised just a small portion of land.
The empire of Mali reached its zenith in the fourteenth century, but its power and fame depended on the personal power of the ruler. After the death of Mansa Musa and his brother Mansa Sulayman, Timbuktu was raided and burned. Several states revolted and seized their independence, including the Tuareg, Tukulor, and Wolof. The Mossi attacked trading caravans and military garrisons in the south. In the east, the Songhai gathered strength. Mali lasted another 200 years, but its glory days were over.
In the fifteenth century Mali lost its control over the Sahel and became cut off from direct contact with the trans-Saharan routes and the larger Muslim world. The capital declined and the foreign Muslim community deserted the city. By 1500, the Mali Empire became little more than the beginnings of a Malinke heartland. By the seventeenth century, Mali had broken up into several small independent chiefdoms.
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