The Empire of Mali was a trading empire that flourished in West Africa from the 13th to the 16th century. Ancient Mali was located in what is now western Sudan. The name Mali means “where the king resides” or “hippopotamus.”
The people of Mali were called Mandinkas, Malinkes, or Mandingoes. They lived in kafus, small communities headed by a chief or sultan. The Mandinka were early adopters of iron in West Africa, and the role of blacksmiths was one of great religious and military prestige among them. Manipulation of iron had allowed the Mandinka to spread out over the borders of modern-day Mali and Guinea by the 11th century. The original small communities of Mali were not in a position to control trade as Ghana had done; therefore the Sudan and trade routes were taken over by the Soso people. Sumanguru, a very greedy leader, led the Sosos. Sumanguru was known as the Sorcerer King by griots who still speak of Mali as part of the oral tradition, “Since his accession to the throne of Sosso, he had defeated nine kings whose heads served him as objects in his macabre chamber. Their skins served as seats and he cut his footwear from human skin.”
Sundiata, a son of one of the Mandinka chiefs, was able to rally the people of Mali against Sumanguru. Griots describe him as “a lad full of strength; his arms had the strength of ten and his biceps inspired fear in his companions. He had already that authoritative way of speaking which belongs to those who are destined to command.” (Taken from The Epic of Old Mali, recited by the griot (oral historian) Djeli Mamadou Kouyate) In 1240, the two armies met in a fierce battle. Sundiata was victorious and earned the title “Lion King of Mali.” In his lifetime, Sundiata was able to bring all of the kafus together and turn Mali into a rich empire based on the salt/gold trade.
The Mali empire developed around its capital of Niani, the city of Sundjata’s birth in the southern savannah country of the upper Niger valley near the gold fields of Bure. Unlike the people of the older kingdom of Ghana, who had only camels, horses, and donkeys for transport, the people of Mali also used the river Niger. By river, they could transport bulk goods and larger loads much more easily than by land. Living on the fertile lands near the Niger, people suffered less from drought than those living in the drier regions further north. Food crops were grown on the level areas by the river, not only for local people but for those living in cities farther north on the Niger River and in oasis towns along the trade routes across the desert. Thus the Niger River enabled the kingdom of Mali to develop a far more stable economy than Ghana had enjoyed and contributed to the rise of the Mali empire. A significant portion of the wealth of the Empire derived from the Bure goldfields. Niani, was built close to this mining area. Gold was not its only mainstay. Mali also acquired control over the salt trade. A class of professional traders emerged in Mali. Some were of Mandinka origin, others were Bambara, Soninke and later Dyula. Gold dust and agricultural produce was exported north. In the 14th century, cowrie shells were established as a form of currency for trading and taxation purposes.
The Mali empire was based on outlying areas–even small kingdoms–pledging allegiance to Mali and giving annual tribute in the form of rice, millet, lances, and arrows. Slaves were used to clear new farmlands where beans, rice, sorghum, millet, papaya, gourds, cotton, and peanuts were planted. Cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry were bred.
Like Ghana, Mali prospered from the taxes it collected on trade in the empire. All goods passing in, out of, and through the empire were heavily taxed. All gold nuggets belonged to the king, but gold dust could be traded. Gold was even used at times as a form of currency, as also were salt and cotton cloth. Later, cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean were introduced and used widely as currency in the internal trade of the western Sudan.
In extending Mali’s rule beyond Kangaba’s narrow confines, Sundiata set a precedent for successive emperors. Imperial armies secured the gold-bearing lands of Bondu and Bambuk to the south, subdued the Diara in the northwest, and pushed along the Niger as far north as Lac Débo.
Mali’s greatest growth came under a king named Mansa Musa, who ruled from 1307-1332. The word Mansa refers to king, emperor, chief, or sultan. The name Musa means Moses and he is often referred to as “the Black Moses.” Mansa Musa was an exceptionally wise and efficient ruler. He encouraged knowledge and the teachings of the Islamic faith. He invited Arab scholars to come to Mali and study.
Mansa Musa also divided the empire into provinces, each with its own governor, and towns that were administered by a mochrif or mayor. A huge army kept the peace, putting down rebellions in the smaller kingdoms bordering the central part of the empire, and policing the many trade routes.
Under Mansa Musa, Mali controlled the lands of the Middle Niger, absorbed the trading cities of Timbuktu and Gao, and ruled on such south Saharan cities as Walata and on the Taghaza region of salt deposits to the north. Mansa Musa extended the eastern boundaries of his empire as far as the Hausa people, and to the west he invaded Takrur and the lands of the Fulani and peoples. In Morocco Egypt, and elsewhere he sent ambassadors and imperial agents. Timbuktu, became a center of learning for scholars throughout the Muslim world in Africa.
Mali at its largest was 2,000 kilometres wide. It extended from the coast of West Africa, both above the Senegal River and below the Gambia River, taking in old Ghana, and reaching south east to Gao and north east to Tadmekka. The Mali empire extended over an area larger than western Europe and consisted of numerous vassal kingdoms and provinces.
Mali became known to the world when Mansa Musa went on his hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. It is said that he traveled with an entourage of 60,000 attendants. He gave away so much gold that its value dropped because there was so much of it! Mansa Musa’s trip became one of the most famous and well documented in history. According to one Islamic historian, “It is said that he brought with him 14,000 slave girls for his personal service. The members of his entourage proceeded to buy Turkish and Ethiopia slave girls, singing girls and garments, so that the rate of the gold dinar fell by six dirhams. Having presented his gift he set off with the caravan.”
Mansa Musa also spent his wealth to more permanent effect. He commissioned the design and construction of a number of stunning buildings, for example, the building of the mosques at Gao and Jenne. At Niani he was responsible for the construction of a fantastic cupola for holding an audience in. Timbuktu became a place of great learning with young men linked to Fez in the north.
The other famous Malian ruler was Mansa Suleiman. Less is known of him. The historian Ibn Khaldun describes the considerable gifts he assembled for a Sultan in the north. But Ibn Battuta criticises his meanness.
As Mali continued to grow in size it became too difficult to control. After the death of Mansa Musa his son, Maghan, took control of the Mali empire. Eventually warriors from outside of Timbuktu attacked this great city. Timbuktu’s mosques, or places of prayer, were burned down and marketplaces were destroyed. Mali continued as an empire for another 200 years, but its Golden Age was over.