World History 1 241 - 15.2.2 The Mali Empire

The kingdom of Sosso benefited the most from the dissolution of the Ghana Empire, a process furthered by the collapse of the Islamic Almoravid state in present-day Morocco in the mid-twelfth century. Yet the Sosso Kingdom was short-lived; it was defeated by Sundiata Keita in 1235. Five years later, Prince Sundiata (also spelled Sunjata) captured Koumbi Saleh, laying the foundation for the great Mali Empire, the largest and richest that medieval Africa had yet seen (Figure 15.12).

A map of Africa is shown with land highlighted beige and water highlighted blue. The Mediterranean Sea and the Strait and Gibraltar are shown in the north along with the Suez Canal. The Atlantic Ocean and the Guld of Guinea show in the west, and the Indian Ocean and the Mozambique Channel show in the southeast. The Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden are shown in the east. The following waters are labelled in Africa, from north to south: Nile R., Lake Nasser, Lake Tana, Blue Nile R., White Nile R., Lake Chad, Senegal R., Benue R., Lake Turkana, Congo R., Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika, Lake Malawi, Zambezi R., Victoria Falls, Cubango R., Limpapo R., and the Orange R. In the western part of Africa a large area is highlighted purple and labelled “Empire of Mali.” An oval area in the middle of the purple is highlighted orange and labelled “Ghana Empire.” Four small areas – two in the purple area and two north of the Gulf of Guinea- are highlighted gold and labelled, from north to south: Bambuk goldfield, Bure goldfield, Lobi goldfield, and Akan goldfield.
Figure 15.12 This map shows the extent of the two great medieval West African empires: Ghana and Mali. At its height, Mali extended farther west and south than Ghana. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

In the twelfth century, the main source of gold in West Africa had shifted from Bambuk to Bure, located to the southeast in the savanna country. This shift not only ended Ghanaian control over trans-Saharan trade, it also brought new groups into the great Sudanese trading network of West Africa, notably the southern Soninke and Malinke-speakers of the savanna. The Sosso, a branch of the southern Soninke, were the first to take full advantage of these changed circumstances. Sometime around 1200, they broke away from Ghana and established a successor state under Soumaoro, their sorcerer-king. During its brief existence, their Sosso Kingdom earned a grim reputation for violence by raiding and conquering neighboring kingdoms, killing their rulers, and seizing tribute. During the 1220s, the Sosso army made raids on the Malinke-speaking Mande people to the south and then attacked the northern Soninke of Ghana, sacking their capital in about 1224.

In response to the incursions against the Mande, Prince Sundiata of the Keita clan, a survivor of one of Soumaoro’s raids, rallied several of the region’s small Mande kingdoms and united them against the invaders. The exploits of Sundiata Keita, a near-mythical figure in the Mande oral tradition, have been passed down by generations of bards. Beginning around 1235, Sundiata set about consolidating his control over the heartland of the Mande people, a region centered on the upper reaches of the Senegal and Niger Rivers. He then moved to expand the kingdom of Mali by taking control of all the Soninke peoples recently conquered by the Sosso. Their territory comprised much of the former kingdom of Ghana and its nominally independent vassal states, including Mema and Wagadu. These newly conquered territories were often administered indirectly, leaving friendly puppet regimes in place to do the bidding of the Malian monarch (a political strategy that bred resentment among certain of the Malian vassal states, including Takrur and Songhai).

When forming alliances against the Sosso, Sundiata convinced the other Malinke kings to surrender their title, mansa, to him. He thus became the sole mansa, the religious and secular leader of all the Malinke people. In a few short years, he had built up a vast realm. Its imperial capital was advantageously situated at Niani, in the southern savanna country of the upper Niger valley near the goldfields of Bure. Within Sundiata’s lifetime, the Mali Empire extended from the forested margins of the southwest through the grassland savanna country of the Malinke and southern Soninke to the Sahel of former Ghana.

Awdaghost, the one-time trade center at the western extreme of trans-Saharan trade, remained in the hands of nomads, and its role was taken by the more easterly commercial center of Oualata, now the main southern desert port for trade traversing the Sahara. The kings of Mali were less interested in conquering the various small kingdoms and chiefdoms of the grasslands than in taking the Sahelian trading towns that linked the regional economy to the vast trans-Saharan trade. These towns were key prizes and included Oualata, Gao, Timbuktu, and Djenné.

Control of the towns and the trade routes they connected was one of several components in Mali’s diverse economy, which included access to the Bure goldfields and the agriculturally rich rural areas, particularly those around Niani in the south of the country. Unlike in Ghana, rainfall in Mali, located in the southern savanna, was more abundant, and the farmers of Mali had no difficulty growing enough food to sustain the population. Different areas of the empire specialized in different crops. For example, sorghum and millet grew on the savannah, and rice flourished in the Gambia valley and around the upper Niger floodplain. Meanwhile, the more northerly and drier Sahelian grasslands specialized in the grazing of camels, sheep, and goats.

Control over the gold-producing towns could present challenges for Mali’s rulers. When a king conquered a region and attempted to spread Islam, the gold producers who refused to convert ceased mining operations, thereby threatening the Malian gold supply. This posed a serious risk to the imperial economy, so Malian rulers allowed gold areas to remain quasi-independent vassal states. Mali’s gold trade was bolstered by events taking place elsewhere in the world. European kingdoms were again producing gold coins as the medieval economy improved. To meet the new demand, merchants from southern Europe sought to buy gold from their counterparts in North Africa. At the same time, new southerly trade routes were opened into the goldfields of the Akan forest (in present-day Ghana), from which sellers brought gold to the settlements of the Middle Niger. These developments to the north and south of Mali allowed the trans-Saharan gold trade to attain its greatest heights in the fourteenth century.

Dueling Voices

Perspectives on Mali

What was life like for the people living and trading in West Africa in the fourteenth century? These two excerpts describe life in the Mali Empire. In the first, al-Umari, a Syrian scholar employed by the Mamluk sultan in Cairo, describes an aspect of Malian rule. In the second, Arab traveler Ibn Battuta describes the salt-mining center at Taghaza.

[The kingdom] is square, its length being four or more months’ journey and its width likewise. It lies to the south of Marrakesh and the interior of Morocco and is not far from the Atlantic Ocean. . . . Under the authority of the sultan of this kingdom is the land of Mafazat al-Tibr. They bring gold dust [tibr] to him each year. They are uncouth infidels. If the sultan wished he could extend his authority over them, but the kings of this kingdom have learned by experience that as soon as one of them conquers one of the gold towns and Islam spreads and the muezzin calls to prayer, there the gold begins to decrease and then disappears, while it increases in the neighboring heathen countries. When they had learned the truth of this by experience, they left the gold countries under the control of the heathen people and were content with their vassalage and the tribute imposed on them.

al-Umari, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, translated by J. F. P. Hopkins

After twenty-five days, we arrive at Taghaza. . . . One of its marvels is that its houses and mosque are of rock and salt and its roofs of camel skins. It has no trees, but is nothing but sand with a salt mine. They dig in the earth for the salt, which is found in great slabs lying one upon the other. . . . A camel carries two slabs of it. No one lives at Taghaza except the slaves of the Massufa tribe, who dig for the salt [. . .] The people [of Mali] possess some admirable qualities. They are seldom unjust and have a greater abhorrence of injustice than any other people. Their sultan [the mansa] shows no mercy to any one guilty of the least act of it. . . . Neither traveler nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence.

Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa

  • What do these excerpts suggest about traveling in the Mali Empire?
  • What do they suggest about the Malian king’s access to commodities such as gold and salt?
  • What happened to the goldfields when Malian kings conquered gold-producing areas?

The pilgrimage of Mansa Musa to Egypt and Mecca in 1324–1325 represents the golden age of the Mali Empire. Mansa Musa, the most famous of the Malian kings and reputed to be fabulously wealthy, arrived in Cairo at the head of a huge caravan that accounts tell us included sixty thousand soldiers, five hundred captives, and a hundred camel-loads of gold. Received with great respect by the sultan of Egypt as a fellow Muslim, Mansa Musa spent lavishly, giving away so many gifts that the value of gold in Cairo fell and did not recover for twelve years.

Link to Learning

At the ARCGIS website, trace the caravan route of Mansa Musa and consider the legacy of his pilgrimage to Mecca.

Mansa Musa’s journey captured the attention of people from Spain to Syria, including the Muslim geographer Ibn Battuta, who, after years traveling throughout Asia, visited Mali during the reign of Mansa Musa’s brother Mansa Suleyman. Ibn Battuta’s account has become a major source of our knowledge about fourteenth-century Mali.

As a marker of Mali’s enduring fame in the fourteenth century, the Majorcan mapmaker Abraham Cresques featured it in The Catalan Atlas in 1375. One of the maps, which in part depicts the trade routes of North Africa, shows Mansa Musa enthroned (Figure 15.1). His royal status is proclaimed by his gold crown and scepter. In one hand he holds an immense piece of gold, proof of his kingdom’s wealth. The caption reads, “The black lord is named Mussa Melly, lord of the Blacks of Guineas. This king is the richest and most noble lord of all this country by reason of the abundance of gold taken out of his land.”

The strength and success of the Mali Empire depended on its ruler. During the late fourteenth century, a series of weak rulers, brief reigns, and dynastic civil wars opened the empire to conquest. With their power weakened, the mansas of Mali were unable to maintain unchallenged control of the trade routes on which they depended. Opposition from the Mossi people in the country south of the Niger, coupled with attacks from the Tuareg to the north of the Niger bend and regular uprisings by the Songhai people who controlled the city of Gao (on the edge of the empire), led Mali to abandon both Gao and Timbuktu in 1438. At the same time, Mema, one of the kingdoms that had formed an alliance with Sundiata, broke away and became independent once more. Although weakened, Mali retained control of the Mande heartland and the nearby southern grasslands. However, the emerging Songhai Empire centered on Gao was beginning to take control of the lucrative trade across the Sahara.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax