The Mali Empire

1675 words | 6 page(s)

The history of the Mali Empire intertwines with that of two other great empires of Medieval West Africa; Ghana and Songhai. The connection between them is such that each contributed either to the rise or to the fall of the other. According to The Black Past (n.d), the Mali Empire was the second in a series of successive emergence into the power of three famous empires in the history of pre-colonial Africa. Thanks to its proximity to the known world and the emerging influence of Islam, this region enjoyed substantial influence, which helped open it up to significant commercial opportunities. South African History Online (2017) traces the origin of the empire to around the beginning of the 13th century running through to the beginning of the 16th century when it began losing grip of its control on the mid-Sahara region. The Mali Empire was no doubt one of the most influential empires in the history of West Africa at least up to the colonial era.

It is impossible to narrate the history of the Mali Empire without bringing the two most influential individuals;Sundiata Keita and Mansa Musa, into perspective. While the former brought the empire into being, the latter went down in history as the empire’s most influential leader of all time. Mali’s influence in West Africa would not have been so pronounced were it not for these men’s invaluable contribution towards the strengthening of the region. History has it that Mali sprung out into existence following the fall of the previously great Ghana Empire, which comprised of numerous small Malinke empires (South African History Online, 2017). The subsequent attacks and the eventual conquest by the Almoravids brought the empire to its inevitable wane. During the decline of Ghana, the Susu kingdom invaded and conquered the vast Malinke kingdom bringing them under their rule. Eager to consolidate his influence in the region, the aspiring Sundiata Keita, leader of a little-known state, Kangaba joined in the Malinke resistance and managed to defeat their Susu rivals (The Black Past, n.d.). Sundiata swiftly moved to stamp his authority within his newly expanded region, which marked the beginning of the rise of the Mali Empire. He established his rule from his birthplace, Niani, which went on to become the capital of the entire region. It extended from the Niger River and stretched over to the Atlantic in the west.

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The Mali Empire emerged in the areas that cover the great Sahara desert and parts of the savanna grassland of West Africa. In present times, the Mali Empire would have taken up the entire region that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean inwards to Chad. Countries such as Mauritania, Mali, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Senegal and Niger are all situated in what was formerly the great Mali Empire (Mazrui, 2005). In so many ways, the empire shaped the future of West Africa. The story of the rise, growth and development of the Mali Empire can be attributed to the skilful work of both historians and travellers who traversed the region in the 14th century. According to Mayor, Huysecom, Gallay, Rasse&Ballouche (2005), the Mali people as well as its administration were hospitable and hardly ever harassed travellers. Besides welcoming them, the people of Mali accommodated and guided them throughout their travels within their land. Significant yet the history of the Mali Empire has survived the test of time but also thrived through the art of storytelling. Like any other African society, the Malian history has been preserved through its oral tradition of the Mandinka mostly conducted by individuals referred to as the griots (Our Africa, n.d). The articulate use of art through oral narration and immense cordiality has contributed significantly to the preservation of the history of the empire.

King Sundiata set the empire on a path of massive developments that saw it become the most influential empire in West Africa during his tenure. Just as the fallen Ghana Empire before it, the Mali comprised of a conglomeration of vast, far-flung lands and several minor kingdoms that combined the form the ultimate empire (South African History Online, 2017). To gain absolute control of the region, King Sundiata prioritized exercising a monopoly over the gold and salt trade. Even though agriculture formed the bulk of the local community’s primary economic contribution, trade promised more revenue and returns for the ruling administration. Put together; these two factors sufficiently enhanced Mali’s position in the region. To support this supposition, Drame and Othman (2017) report that trade and Islamization was the main driving force behind the growth of the great Mali Empire. In this case, the suitability of the immediate environment facilitated the rapid expansion of the empire. All the constituent kingdoms of Mali contributed equally to the collective development of the realm through remitting revenue to the central administration in the form of farm produce such as millet and rice as well as other essential commodities such as arrows and spears. Further, the sale of gold dust and salt and taxes remitted by the citizens added significantly to the general well-being of the Mali society. Most trade activities to place in the larger cities such as Gao, Djene, and Timbuktu.

Easily regarded as one of the most influential African empires of all-time, Mali at some point had a population of about 20 million people spread over 400 cities throughout the entire region. Intriguing yet it had an army of 100, 000 men; an impressive figure even by the existing standards of African kingdoms (The BlackPast, n.d.). It imposing defence capacity helped the empire fasten its grip on the control of the region. Additionally, the area set up an elaborate leadership system, which helped strengthen ties and foster unity. In the near subsequent period after King Sundiata’s rule, his successor worked hard to carry on in his legacy until the infamous palace intrigue that disrupted the smooth succession of power from one ruler to another (Ly-Tall, 1984).

Besides its great leaders, there exist loads of other factors that contributed to the growth and development of the ancient Mali society. In large part, its immediate environment played a significant role in reinforcing its dominance in the region as well as shaping its future (Conrad, 2009). Some of the factors that played to the advantage of the empire include its population demographics, region size, culture, economic activities and the political scenery (Kane, 2016). Rulers in ancient Mali commanded a large portion of the West African region thereby giving them immense power over their regional foes such as the Moroccans. This expansive land area translated to a larger population, which was essential for the swift growth of the empire. At some point, the region had a population of about 20 million people (The Black Past, n.d). In addition, this large population played well into the economic factors since it helped in strengthening the empire’s economy through its various economic activities. Further, it enabled the administration to collect sufficient revenues to help it initiate developments throughout its land area.

Going forward, the Niger River was pivotal in the empire’s growth as it rose in both economically and politically. The Sahara desert is no doubt a dominant physical phenomenon in West Africa that has the capacity to limit growth in almost every aspect of the word (Kane, 2016). The presence of the river Niger river at the heart of the empire made it possible for Mali to ensure the production and provision of enough foodstuff to feed its entire population. Being navigable, the river also helped with the transportation of the produced foods and other goods to various parts of the empire (Magnavita, 2013).

Culture is an important part of the African heritage (Juang, 2008). Nearly all explorers and historians mention the richness of the culture of the Mali Empire. Most of the cultural trends depicted by contemporary West African people originated from within the Mali Empire. Elements of these cultural practices oozed right from the ruling house down to the last household in the farthest corner of the Mandinka region boundaries. For instance, in the Mali Empire, rulers inherited the title Mansa (South African History Online, 2017). The Mansa reserved total authority over the entire region with subordinate help from court officials spread throughout the 400 cities. Mansa Musa brought the world’s attention to Mali following his historic pilgrimage to Mecca the holy city of Islam (Drame& Othman, 2017). Upon his return, he brought with himself many followers and gold, which he distributed generously to the people. The resulting inflation went down in history as the greatest of all time (South African History Online, 2017).

Significant still, he introduced the use of camel in trade further improving the empire’s economic endeavours. It led to the creation of artworks such as the Equestrian figure, (see appendix) which exemplifies the community’s regard towards the use of the camel in both its economic and social life (Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, 2014). Nonetheless, artistry in ancient in Mali was based showcased through music, dances and the creation of cultural pieces of artwork. Another famous artefact was the archers; a representation of the ancient Mali Warrior (Kleiner, 2013). As well, the DrogonKanaga mask was an important costume worn by Mali dancers on cultural celebratory events (The Met, n.d). Meanwhile, social life in Mali was greatly influenced by the dominant religion in the empire, Islam. Over time, Timbuktu emerged as a significant educational and religious centre thanks to the construction of numerous churches and school by the Mali Mansa.

  • Conrad, D. C. (2009).’Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay.Infobase Publishing
  • Drame, C. F. M., & Othman, M. R. (2017).THE VICISSITUDES OF MALI’S EMPIRE.’SEJARAH: Journal of the Department of History,’22(2). http://mjs.um.edu.my/index.php/SEJARAH/article/download/9268/6571
  • Juang, R. M. (Ed.). (2008).’Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History. Abc-clio.Our Africa.(n.d.).People & Culture. Retrieved from http://www.our-africa.org/mali/people-culture
  • Ly-Tall, M. (1984). The decline of the Mali empire.’Niane, ed, 172-186.
  • Magnavita, S. (2013).Initial encounters: seeking traces of ancient trade connections between West Africa and the wider world.’Afriques.D’bats, m’thodeset terrains d’histoire, (04). http://journals.openedition.org/afriques/1145

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