Date: c. 1230 – c. 1600
Length: 370 Years
The Mali Empire or Manding Empire or Manden Kurufa was a medieval West African state of the Mandinka from c. 1235 to c. 1600. The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita and became renowned for the wealth of its rulers, especially Mansa Musa I. The Mali Empire had many profound cultural influences on West Africa allowing the spread of its language, laws and customs along the Niger River. It has been described as “the most potent empire of Old Africa.”The kingdom included the ancient city of Timbuktu, which was flourishing center of Islamic learning. In the early nineteenth century, Timbuktu became the destination of several European expeditions spurred on by its reputation for prosperity. Indeed, the Mali Empire combined traditional African and Islamic culture in what has been called a “remarkable synthesis.” When Musa I made the pilgrimage (hajj) at Mecca he travelled “with an entourage of 60,000 people, 80 camels carrying over two tons of gold for distribution to the poor and the pious.” There is evidence that Abubakari II may have launched successful cross-Atlantic expeditions in (1305-1312 C.E.) before Christopher Columbus sailed in 1492.The Mali Empire was a sophisticated polity, with well organized military and administrative systems and a Great Assembly of clan leaders and delegates to advise the Emperor in its governance. While Europeans would soon begin to depict Africa as backward, wild and disorganized in need of a supervising, colonial hand, the evidence is that as European contact with Africa began in the fifteenth century, the difference between Africa and Europe in terms of governance and technology was minimal with the exception that Europeans had guns and gunpowder. The Mali Empire can be regarded as a constitutional monarchy from before this political system had developed in the European space.
The Mali Empire grew out of an area referred to by its contemporary inhabitants as Manden. Manden, named for its inhabitants the Mandinka (initially Manden’ka with “ka” meaning “people of”), comprised most of present-day northern Guinea and southern Mali. The empire was originally established as a federation of Mandinka tribes called the Manden Kurufa (literally Manden Federation). It later became an empire ruling millions of people from nearly every ethnic group imaginable in West Africa.
The naming origins of the Mali Empire are complex and still debated in scholarly circles around the world. While the meaning of “Mali” remains contested, the process of how it entered the regional lexicon is not.
Among the many different ethnic groups surrounding Manden were Pulaar speaking groups in Macina, Tekrur and Fouta Djallon. In Pulaar, the Mandinka of Manden became the Malinke of Mali. While the Mandinka people generally referred to their land and capital province as Manden, its semi-nomadic Fula subjects residing on the heartland’s western (Tekrur), southern (Fouta Djallon) and eastern borders (Macina) popularized the name Mali for this kingdom and later empire of the Middle Ages.
The Mandinka kingdoms of Mali or Manden had already existed several centuries before Sundiata’s unification as a small state just to the south of the Soninké empire of Wagadou, better known as the Ghana Empire. This area was composed of mountains, savannah and forest providing ideal protection and resources for the population of hunters. Those not living in the mountains formed small city-states such as Toron, Ka-Ba and Niani. The Keita dynasty from which nearly every Mali emperor came traces its lineage back to Bilal, the faithful muezzin of Islam’s prophet Muhammad. It was common practice during the Middle Ages for both Christian and Muslim rulers to tie their bloodline back to a pivotal figure in their faith’s history. While the lineage of the Keita dynasty may be dubious at best, oral chroniclers have preserved a list of each Keita ruler from Lawalo (supposedly one of Bilal’s seven sons who settled in Mali) to Maghan Kon Fatta (father of Sundiata Keita).
The Kangaba Province
During the height of Wagadou’s power, the land of Manden became one of its provinces. The Manden city-state of Ka-ba (present-day Kangaba) served as the capital and name of this province. From at least the beginning of the eleventh century, Mandinka kings known as faamas ruled Manden from Ka-ba in the name of the Ghanas.
The Twelve Kingdoms
Wagadou’s control over Manden came to a halt after 14 years of war with the Almoravides, Muslims of mostly Berber extraction from North Africa. The Almoravide general Abu Bekr captured and burned the Wagadou capital of Kumbi Saleh in 1076 ending its dominance over the area. However, the Almoravides were unable to hold onto the area, and it was quickly retaken by the weakened Soninké. The Kangaba province, free of both Soninké and Berber influence, splintered into 12 kingdoms with their own maghan (meaning prince) or faama. Manden was split in half with the Dodougou territory to the northeast and the Kri territory to the southwest. The tiny kingdom of Niani was one of several in the Kri area of Manden.
The Kaniaga rulers
In approximately 1140 the Sosso kingdom of Kaniaga, a former vassal of Wagadou, began conquering the lands of its old masters. By 1180 it had even subjugated Wagadou forcing the Soninké to pay tribute. In 1203, the Sosso king Soumaoro of the Kanté clan came to power and reportedly terrorized much of Manden stealing women and goods from both Dodougou and Kri.
The Lion Prince
During the rise of Kaniaga, Sundiata of the Keita clan was born around 1217 C.E. He was the son of Niani’s faama, Nare Fa (also known as Maghan Kon Fatta meaning the handsome prince). Sundiata’s mother was Maghan Kon Fatta’s second wife, Sogolon Kédjou. She was a hunchback from the land of Do, south of Mali. The child of this marriage received the first name of his mother (Sogolon) and the surname of his father (Djata). Combined in the rapidly spoken language of the Mandinka, the names formed Sondjata, Sundjata or Sundiata Keita. The anglicized version of this name, Sundiata, is also popular.
Maghan Sundiata was prophesized to become a great conqueror. To his parent’s dread, the prince did not have a promising start. Maghan Sundiata, according to the oral traditions, did not walk until he was seven years old. However, once Sundiata did gain use of his legs he grew strong and very respected. Sadly for Sundiata, this did not occur before his father died. Despite the faama of Niani’s wishes to respect the prophecy and put Sundiata on the throne, the son from his first wife Sassouma Bérété was crowned instead. As soon as Sassouma’s son Dankaran Touman took the throne, he and his mother forced the increasingly popular Sundiata into exile along with his mother and two sisters. Before Dankaran Touman and his mother could enjoy their unimpeded power, King Soumaoro set his sights on Niani forcing Dankaran to flee to Kissidougou.
After many years in exile, first at the court of Wagadou and then at Mema, Sundiata was sought out by a Niani delegation and begged to combat the Sosso and free the kingdoms of Manden forever.
Battle of Kirina
Returning with the combined armies of Mema, Wagadou and all the rebellious Mandinka city-states, Maghan Sundiata led a revolt against the Kaniaga Kingdom around 1234. The combined forces of northern and southern Manden defeated the Sosso army at the Battle of Kirina (then known as Krina) in approximately 1235. This victory resulted in the fall of the Kaniaga kingdom and the rise of the Mali Empire. After the victory, King Soumaoro disappeared, and the Mandinka stormed the last of the Sosso cities. Maghan Sundiata was declared “faama of faamas” and received the title “mansa,” which translates roughly to emperor. At the age of 18, he gained authority over all the 12 kingdoms in an alliance known as the Manden Kurufa. He was crowned under the throne name Mari Djata becoming the first Mandinka emperor.
The Manden Kurufa founded by Mari Djata I was composed of the “three freely allied states” of Mali, Mema and Wagadou plus the Twelve Doors of Mali. Mali, in this sense, strictly refers only to the city-state of Niani.
The 12 doors of Mali were a coalition of conquered or allied territories, mostly within Manden, with sworn allegiance to Sundiata and his descendants. Upon stabbing their spears into the ground before Sundiata’s throne, each of the 12 kings relinquished their kingdom to the Keita dynasty. In return for their submission, they became “farbas” a combination of the Mandinka words “farin” and “ba” (great farin). Farin was a general term for northern commander at the time. These farbas would rule their old kingdoms in the name of the mansa with most of the authority they held prior to joining the Manden Kurufa.
The Great Assembly
The Gbara or Great Assembly would serve as the Mandinka deliberative body until the collapse of the Manden Kurufa in 1645. Its first meeting, at the famous Kouroukan Fouga (in 1235) (Division of the World), had 29 clan delegates presided over by a belen-tigui (master of ceremony). The final incarnation of the Gbara, according to the surviving traditions of northern Guinea, held 32 positions occupied by 28 clans. Responsibility for advice on defense, Islamic affairs, trade and governance was divided between various clans.
Social, economic, and government reform
The Kouroukan Fouga also put in place social and economic reforms including prohibitions on the maltreatment of prisoners and slaves, installing women in government circles and placing a system of banter between clans which clearly stated who could say what about in who. Also, Sundiata divided the lands amongst the people assuring everyone had a place in the empire and fixed exchange rates for common products.
Mari Djata I
Mansa Mari Djata’s reign saw the conquest and or annexation of several key locals in the Mali Empire. When the campaigning was done, his empire extended 1000 miles east to west with those borders being the bends of the Senegal and Niger Rivers respectively. After unifying Manden, he added the Wangara goldfields making them the southern border. The northern commercial towns of Oualata and Audaghost were also conquered and became part of the new state’s northern border. Wagadou and Mema became junior partners in the realm and part of the imperial nucleus. The lands of Bambougou, Jalo (Fouta Djallon), and Kaabu were added into Mali by Fakoli Koroma, Fran Kamara, and Tiramakhan Traore, respectively.
Rebuilt Mosque of Djenné
There were 21 known mansas of the Mali Empire after Mari Djata I and probably about two or three more yet to be revealed. The names of these rulers come down through history via the djelis and modern descendants of the Keita dynasty residing in Kangaba. What separates these rulers from the founder, other than the latter’s historic role in establishing the state, is their transformation of the Manden Kurufa into a Manden Empire. Not content to rule fellow Manding subjects unified by the victory of Mari Djata I, these mansas would conquer and annex Peuhl, Wolof, Serer, Bamana, Songhai, Tuareg, and countless other peoples into an immense empire.
The Djata Lineage 1250-1275
The first three successors to Mari Djata all claimed it by blood right or something close to it. This 25-year period saw amazing gains for the mansa and the beginning of fierce internal rivalries that nearly ended the burgeoning empire.
After Mari Djata’s death in 1255, custom dictated that his son ascend the throne assuming he was of age. However, Yérélinkon was a minor following his father’s death. Manding Bory, Mari Djata’s half-brother and kankoro-sigui (vizier), should have been crowned according to the Kouroukan Fouga. Instead, Mari Djata’s son seized the throne and was crowned Mansa Ouali (also spelled “Wali”).
Mansa Ouali proved to be a good emperor adding more lands to the empire including the Gambian provinces of Bati and Casa. He also conquered the gold producing provinces of Bambuk and Bondou. The central province of Konkodougou was established. The Songhai kingdom of Gao also seems to have been subjugated for the first of many times around this period.
Aside from military conquest, Ouali is also credited with agricultural reforms throughout the empire putting many soldiers to work as farmers in the newly acquired Gambian provinces. Just prior to his death in 1270, Ouali went on the hajj to Mecca strengthening ties with North Africa and Muslim merchants.
The generals’ sons
As a policy of controlling and rewarding his generals, Mari Djata adopted their sons. These children were raised at the mansa’s court and became Keitas upon reaching maturity. Seeing the throne as their right, two adopted sons of Mari Djata waged a devastating war against one another that threatened to destroy what the first two mansas had built. The first son to gain the throne was Mansa Ouati (also spelt “Wati) in 1270. He reigned for four years spending lavishly and ruling cruelly according to the djelis. Upon his death in 1274, the other adopted son seized the throne. Mansa Khalifa is remembered as even worse than Ouati. He governed just as badly and reportedly fired arrows from the roof of his palace at passersby. He was assassinated, possibly on orders of the Gbara, and replaced with Manding Bory in 1275.
The Court Mansas 1275-1300
After the chaos of Ouali and Khalifa’s reigns, a number of court officials with close ties to Mari Djata ruled. They began the empire’s return to grace setting it up for a golden age of rulers.
Manding Bory was crowned under the throne name Mansa Abubakari (a Manding corruption of the Muslim name Abu Bakr). Mansa Abubakari’s mother was Namandjé, the third wife of Maghan Kon Fatta. Prior to becoming mansa, Abubakari had been one of his brother’s generals and later his kankoro-sigui. Little else is known about the reign of Abubakari I, but it seems he was successful in stopping the hemorrhaging of wealth in the empire.
In 1285, a court slave freed by Mari Djata whom had also served as a general usurped the throne of Mali. The reign of Mansa Sakoura (also spelt Sakura) appears to have been beneficial despite the political shake-up. He added the first conquests to Mali since the reign of Ouali including the former Wagadou provinces of Tekrour and Diara. His conquests did not stop at the boundaries of Wagadou however. He campaigned into Senegal and conquered the Wolof province of Dyolof then took the army east to subjugate the copper-producing area of Takedda. He also conquered Macina and raided into Gao to suppress its first rebellion against Mali. More than just a mere warrior, Mansa Sakoura went on the hajj and opened direct trade negotiations with Tripoli and Morocco.
Mansa Sakoura was murdered on his return trip from Mecca in or near present-day Djibouti by a Danakil warrior attempting to rob him. The emperor’s attendants rushed his body home through the Ouaddai region and into Kanem where one of that empire’s messengers was sent to Mali with news of Sakoura’s death. When the body arrived in Niani, it was given a regal burial despite the usurper’s slave roots.
The Kolonkan lineage 1300-1312
The Gbara selected Ko Mamadi as the next mansa in 1300. He was the first of a new line of rulers directly descending from Mari Djata’s sister, Kolonkan. However, since these rulers all shared the blood of Maghan Kon Fatta, they are considered legitimate Keitas. Even Sakoura, with his history of being a slave in the Djata family, was considered a Keita; so the line of Bilal had yet to be broken.
It is during the Kolonkan lineage that the defining characteristics of golden age Mali begin to appear. By maintaining the developments of Sakoura and Abubakari I, the Kolonkan mansas steer Mali safely into its apex.
The Mali Empire flourished because of trade above all else. It contained three immense gold mines within its borders unlike the Ghana Empire, which was only a transit point for gold. The empire taxed every ounce of gold or salt that entered its borders. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, Mali was the source of almost half the Old World’s gold exported from mines in Bambuk, Boure and Galam. There was no standard currency throughout the realm, but several forms were prominent by region.
Mansa Musa depicted holding a gold nugget from a 1395 map of Africa and Europe
Gold nuggets were the exclusive property of the mansa, and were illegal to trade within his borders. All gold was immediately handed over to the imperial treasury in return for an equal value of gold dust. Gold dust had been weighed and bagged for use at least since the reign of the Ghana Empire. Mali borrowed the practice to stem inflation of the substance, since it was so prominent in the region. The most common measure for gold within the realm was the ambiguous mithqal (4.5 grams of gold). This term was used interchangeably with dinar, though it is unclear if coined currency was used in the empire. Gold dust was used all over the empire, but was not valued equally in all regions.
Tuaregs were and still are an integral part of the salt trade across the Sahara
The next great unit of exchange in the Mali Empire was salt. Salt was as valuable, if not more valuable, than gold in Sub-Saharan Africa. It was cut into pieces and spent on goods with close to equal buying power throughout the empire. While it was as good as gold in the north, it was even better in the south. The people of the south needed salt for their diet, but it was extremely rare. The northern region on the other hand had no shortage of salt. Every year merchants entered Mali via Oualata with camel loads of salt to sell in Niani. According to historians of the period, a camel load of salt could fetch ten dinars worth of gold in the north and 20 to 40 in the south.
Copper was also a valued commodity in imperial Mali. Copper, traded in bars, was mined from Takedda in the north and traded in the south for gold. Contemporary sources claim 60 copper bars traded for 100 dinars of gold.
The number and frequency of conquests in the late thirteenth century and throughout the fourteenth century indicate the Kolonkan mansas inherited and/or developed a capable military. While no particular mansa has ever been credited with the organization of the Manding war machine, it could not have developed to the legendary proportions proclaimed by its subjects without steady revenue and stable government. Conveniently, the Mali Empire had just that from 1275 until the first Kolonkan mansa in 1300.
The Mali Empire maintained a professional, full-time army in order to defend its borders. The entire nation was mobilized with each tribe obligated to provide a quota of fighting age men. Contemporary historians present during the height and decline of the Mali Empire consistently record its army at 100,000 with 10,000 of that number being made up of cavalry. With the help of the river tribes, this army could be deployed throughout the realm on short notice.
The forces were divided into northern and southern armies. The northern army, under the command of a farin (northern commander) was stationed in the border city of Soura. The southern army, under the command of a Sankar (a term for the ruler near the Sankarani River), was commanded from the city of Zouma. The Farin-Soura and Sankar-Zouma were both appointed by the mansa and answerable only to him.
An infantryman, regardless of weapon (bow, spear, etc.) was called a sofa. Sofas were organized into tribal units under the authority of an officer called the kelé-kun-tigui or “war-tribe-master.”
The kelé-kun-tigui could be the same or a separate post from that of the kun-tigui (tribe-master). Kun-Tiguis held complete authority over the entire tribe and were responsible for filling the quota of men his tribe had to submit for Mali’s defense. Along with this responsibility was the duty of appointing or acting as kelé-kun-tigui for the tribe. Despite their power over infantry forces of their own tribe, kelé-kun-tiguis were more likely to fight on horseback.
Below the kelé-kun-tigui were two officers. The most junior of these was the kelé-kulu-kun-tigui who commanded the smallest unit of infantry called a kelé-kulu meaning “war heap” consisting of ten to 20 men. A unit of ten kelé-kulus (100 to 200 infantry” was called a kelé-bolo meaning “war arm.” The officer in charge of this unit was called a kelé-bolo-kun-tigui.
Cavalry units called Mandekalu served as an equal if not more important element of the army. Then as today, horses were expensive and only the nobles took them into battle. A Mandinka cavalry unit was composed of 50 horsemen called a seré commanded by a kelé-kun-tigui. Kélé-Kun-Tiguis, as the name suggest, were professional soldiers and the highest rank on the field short of the Farin or Sankar.
The common sofa was armed with a large shield constructed out of wood or animal hide and a stabbing spear called a tamba. Bowmen formed a large portion of the sofas. Three bowmen supporting one spearman was the ratio in Kaabu and the Gambia by the mid-sixteenth century. Equipped with two quivers and a shield, Mandinka bowmen used iron headed arrows with barbed tipped that were usually poisoned. They also used flaming arrows for siege warfare. While spears and bows were the mainstay of the sofas, swords and lances of local or foreign manufacture were the choice weapons of the Mandekalu. Another common weapon of Mandekalu warriors was the poison javelin used in skirmishes. Imperial Mali’s horsemen also used chain mail armor for defense and shields similar to those of the sofas.
The Gao Mansas
Ko Mamadi was crowned Mansa Gao and ruled over a successful empire without any recorded crisis. His son, Mansa Mohammed ibn Gao, ascended the throne five years later and continued the stability of the Kolonkan line.
The last Kolonkan ruler, Bata Manding Bory, was crowned Mansa Abubakari II in 1310. He continued the non-militant style of rule that characterized Gao and Mohammed ibn Gao, but was interested in the empire’s western sea. According to an account given by Mansa Musa I, who during the reign of Abubakari II served as the mansa’s kankoro-sigui, Mali sent two expeditions into the Atlantic. Mansa Abubakari II left Musa as regent of the empire, demonstrating the amazing stability of this period in Mali, and departed with the second expedition commanding some 4000 pirogues equipped with both oars and sails in 1311. Neither the emperor nor any of the ships returned to Mali. There is debate about whether these voyages were successful, but the account of these happenings is preserved in both written North African records and the oral records of Mali’s djelis. Several scholars have argued in favor of established contact, and trade, between the Americas and the Mali Empire.
The Laye Lineage 1312-1389
Abubakari II’s 1312 abdication, the only recorded one in the empire’s history, marked the beginning of a new lineage descended from Faga Laye. Faga Laye was the son of Abubakari I. Unlike his father, Faga Laye never took the throne of Mali. However, his line would produce seven mansa who reigned during the height of Mali’s power and toward the beginning of its decline.
The Mali Empire covered a larger area for a longer period of time than any other West African state before or since. What made this possible was the decentralized nature of administration throughout the state. According to Joseph Ki-Zerbo, the farther a person traveled from Niani, the more decentralized the mansa’s power became. Nevertheless, the mansa managed to keep tax money and nominal control over the area without agitating his subjects into revolt. At the local level (village, town, city), kun-tiguis elected a dougou-tigui (village-master) from a bloodline descended from that locality’s semi-mythical founder. The county level administrators called kafo-tigui (county-master) were appointed by the governor of the province from within his own circle. Only at the state or province level is there any palpable interference from the central authority in Niani. Provinces picked their own governors via their own custom (election, inheritance, etc). Regardless of their title in the province, they were recognized as dyamani-tigui (province master) by the mansa. Dyamani-tiguis had to be approved by the mansa and were subject to his oversight. If the mansa didn’t believe the dyamani-tigui was capable or trustworthy, a farba might be installed to oversee the province or administer it outright.
Farins and Farbas
Territories in Mali came into the empire via conquest or annexation. In the event of conquest, farins took control of the area until a suitable native ruler could be found. After the loyalty or at least the capitulation of an area was assured, it was allowed to select its own dyamani-tigui. This process was essential to keep non-Manding subjects loyal to the Manding elites that ruled them.
Barring any other difficulties, the dyamani-tigui would run the province by himself collecting taxes and procuring armies from the tribes under his command. However, territories that were crucial to trade or subject to revolt would receive a farba. Farbas were picked by the mansa from the conquering farin, family members or even slaves. The only real requirement was that the mansa knew he could trust this individual to safeguard imperial interests.
Duties of the farba included reporting on the activities of the territory, collecting taxes and ensuring the native administration didn’t contradict orders from Niani. The farba could also take power away from the native administration if required and raise an army in the area for defense or putting down rebellions.
The post of a farba was very prestigious, and his descendants could inherit it with the mansa’s approval. The mansa could also replace a farba if he got out of control as in the case of Diafunu.
The Mali Empire reached its largest size under the Laye mansas. During this period, Mali covered nearly all the area between the Sahara Desert and coastal forests. It stretched from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to Niamey in modern day Niger. By 1350, the empire covered approximately 439,400 square miles. The empire also reached its highest population during the Laye period ruling over 400 cities, towns and villages of various religions and ethnicities. Scholars of the era claim it took no less than a year to traverse the empire from east to west. During this period only the Mongol Empire was larger.
The dramatic increase in the empire’s size demanded a shift from the Manden Kurufa’s organization of three states with 12 dependencies. This model was scrapped by the time of Mansa Musa’s hajj to Egypt. According to al’Umari, who interviewed a Berber who had lived in Niani for 35 years, there were 14 provinces (really tributary kingdoms). In al-‘Umari’s record, he only records the following 13 provinces.
Gana (this refers to the remnants of the Ghana Empire)
Zagun or Zafun (this is another name for Diafunu)
Tirakka or Turanka (Between Gana and Tadmekka)
Tekrur (On 3rd cataract of the Senegal River, north of Dyolof)
Sanagana (named for a tribe living in an area north of the Senegal river)
Bambuck or Bambughu (gold mining region)
Darmura or Babitra Darmura
Zaga (on the Niger river, downriver of Kabora)
Kabora or Kabura (also on the Niger)
Baraquri or Baraghuri
Gao or Kawkaw (province inhabited by the Songhai)
Mali or Manden (capital province for which the realm gets its name)
Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu, built of mud by traditional construction methods.
The first ruler from the Laye lineage was Kankan Musa, also known as Kango Musa. After an entire year without word from Abubakari II, he was crowned Mansa Musa. Mansa Musa was one of the first truly devout Muslims to lead the Mali Empire. He attempted to make Islam the faith of the nobility, but kept to the imperial tradition of not forcing it on the populace. He also made Id celebrations at the end of Ramadan a national ceremony. He could read and write Arabic and took an interest in the scholarly city of Timbuktu, which he peaceably annexed in 1324. Via one of the royal ladies of his court, Musa transformed Sankore from an informal madrasah into an Islamic university. This established close links with other great centers of Islamic learning, with whom it exchanged teachers and students. The academy did not only teach Islamic Studies but also science. Ibn Battuta (1304 to 1368) visited Timbuktu (1352–1353) and praised its scholarship. In 1324, a Mandinka general known as Sagmandir also put down yet another rebellion in Gao.
Mansa Musa’s crowning achievement was his famous pilgrimage to Mecca, which started in 1324 and concluded with his return in 1326. Accounts of how many people and how much gold he spent vary. All of them agree it was a very large group (the mansa kept a personal guard of some 500 men), and he gave out so many alms and bought so many things that gold’s value in Egypt and the Near East depreciated for 12 years. When he passed through Cairo, historian al-Maqurizi noted “the members of his entourage proceeded to buy Turkish and Ethiopian slave girls, singing girls and garments, so that the rate of the gold dinar fell by six dirhams.”
Musa was so generous that he ran out of money and had to take out a loan to be able to afford the journey home. Musa’s hajj, and especially his gold, caught the attention of both the Islamic and Christian worlds. Consequently, the name of Mali and Timbuktu appeared on fourteenth century world maps.
While on the hajj, he met the Andalusian poet and architect Es-Saheli. Mansa Musa brought the architect back to Mali to beautify some of the cities. Mosques were built in Gao and Timbuktu along with impressive palaces also built in Timbuktu. By the time of his death in 1337, Mali had control over Taghazza, a salt producing area in the north, which further strengthened its treasury.
Mansa Musa was succeeded by his son, Maghan I. Mansa Maghan I spent wastefully and was the first lackluster emperor since Khalifa. But the Mali Empire built by his predecessors was too strong for even his misrule and passed intact to Musa’s brother, Souleyman in 1341.
Mansa Souleyman took steep measures to put Mali back into financial shape developing a reputation for miserliness. However, he proved to be a good and strong ruler despite numerous challenges. It is during his reign that Fula raids on Takrur began. There was also a palace conspiracy to overthrow him hatched by the Qasa (Manding term meaning Queen) and several army commanders. Mansa Souleyman’s generals successfully fought off the military incursions, and the senior wife behind the plot was imprisoned.
The mansa also made a successful hajj, kept up correspondence with Morocco and Egypt and built an earthen platform at Kangaba called the Camanbolon where he held court with provincial governors and deposited the holy books he brought back from Hedjaz.
The only major setback to his reign was the loss of Mali’s Dyolof province in Senegal. The Wolof populations of the area united into their own state known as the Jolof Empire in the 1350s. Still, when Ibn Battuta arrived at Mali in July of 1352, he found a thriving civilization on par with virtually anything in the Muslim or Christian world. Mansa Souleyman died in 1360 and was succeeded by his son, Camba.
Mari Djata II
After a mere nine months of rule, Mansa Camba was deposed by one of Maghan I’s three sons. Konkodougou Kamissa, named for the province he once governed, was crowned as Mansa Mari Djata II in 1360. He ruled oppressively and nearly bankrupted Mali with his lavish spending. He did however, maintain contacts with Morocco, sending a giraffe to King Abu Hassan of the Maghreb. Mansa Mari Djata II became seriously ill in 1372, and power moved into the hands of his ministers until his death in 1374.
The ruinous reign of Mari Djata II left the empire in bad financial shape, but it passed intact to the dead emperor’s brother. Mansa Fadima Musa or Mansa Musa II, began the process of reversing his brother’s excesses. He does not; however, hold the power of previous mansa because of the influence of his kankoro-sigui.
Kankoro-Sigui Mari Djata, who had no relation to the Keita clan, practically ran the empire in Musa II’s stead. He put down a Taureg rebellion in Takedda and campaigned in Gao. While he met success in Tahkedda, he never managed a decisive victory in Gao. The Songhai settlement effectively shook off Mali’s authority in 1375. Still, by the time of Mansa Musa II’s death in 1387, Mali was financially solvent and in control of all of its previous conquests short of Gao and Dyolof. Forty years after the reign of Mansa Musa I, the Mali Empire still controlled some 1.1 million meters of land throughout Western Africa.
The last son of Maghan I, Tenin Maghan (also known as Kita Tenin Maghan for the province he once governed) is crowned Mansa Maghan II in 1387. Little is known of him except that he only reigned two years. He is deposed in 1389 marking the end of the Faga Laye mansas.
Obscure lineages 1389-1545
From 1389 onward Mali will gain a host of mansas of obscure origins. This is the least known period in Mali’s imperial history. What is evident is that there is no steady lineage governing the empire. The other characteristic of this era is the gradual loss of its northern and eastern possession to the rising Songhai Empire and the movement of the Mali’s economic focus from the trans-Saharan trade routes to the burgeoning commerce along the coast.
Mansa Sandaki, a descendant of Kankoro-Sigui Mari Djata, deposed Maghan II becoming the first person without any Keita dynastic relation to officially rule Mali. He would only reign a year before a descendant of Mansa Gao removed him. Mahmud, possibly a grandchild or great-grandchild of Mansa Gao, was crowned Mansa Maghan III in 1390. During his reign, the Mossi emperor Bonga of Yatenga raids into Mali and plunders Macina. Emperor Bonga does not appear to hold the area, and it stays within the Mali Empire after Maghan III’s death in 1400.
In the early 1400s, Mali is still powerful enough to conquer and settle new areas. One of these is Dioma, an area south of Niani populated by Peuhl Wassoulounké. Two noble brothers from Niani of unknown lineage go to Dioma with an army and drive out the Peuhl Wassoulounké. The oldest brother, Sérébandjougou, is crowned Mansa Foamed or Mansa Musa III. It is likely that his reign saw the first in a string of many great losses to Mali. In 1430, the Tuareg seized Timbuktu. Three years later, Oualata also fell into their hands.
Following Musa III’s death, his brother Gbèré became emperor in the mid-fifteenth century. Gbèré was crowned Mansa Ouali II and ruled during the period of Mali’s contact with Portugal. In the 1450s, Portugal began sending raiding parties along the Gambian coast. The Gambia was still firmly in Mali’s control, and these raiding expeditions met with disastrous fates before Portugal’s Diego Gomez began formal relations with Mali via its remaining Wolof subjects. Cadomasto, a Venetian explorer, recorded that the Mali Empire was the most powerful entity on the coast in 1454
Despite their power in the west, Mali was losing the battle for supremacy in the north and northeast. The new Songhai Empire conquered Mema, one of Mali’s oldest possessions, in 1465. It then seized Timbuktu from the Tuareg in 1468 under Sunni Ali Ber.
Mansa Mahmud II
It is unknown when exactly Mamadou became Mansa Mahmud II or whom he descended from, but he is likely to have taken the throne in the 1470s. Another emperor, Mansa Mahan III, is sometimes cited as Mansa Mahmud I, but throne names don’t usually indicate blood relations. Mansa Mahmud II’s rule was characterized by more losses to Mali’s old possessions and increased contact between Mali and Portuguese explorers along the coast. In 1477, the Yatenga emperor Nasséré makes yet another Mossi raid into Macina this time conquering it and the old province of BaGhana (Wagadou). In 1481, Peuhl raids against Mali’s Tekrur provinces begin.
The growing trade in Mali’s western provinces with Portugal witnesses the exchange of envoys between the two nations. Mansa Mahmud II receives the Portuguese envoy Pedro d’Evora al Gonzalo in 1484. The mansa loses control of Jalo during this period. Meanwhile, Songhai seizes the salt mines of Taghazza in 1493. That same year, Mahmud II sends another envoy to the Portuguese proposing alliance against the Peuhl. The Portuguese decide to stay out of the conflict and the talks conclude by 1495 without an alliance.
It is unlikely that Mahmud II ruled much longer than the first decade of the sixteenth century; however, there are no names for the ruler or rulers during this time. If Mahmud II was still on the throne between 1495 and the 1530s, he may hold the dubious honor of having lost the most possession during Mali’s imperial period. Songhai forces under the command of Askia Muhammad defeat the Mali general Fati Quali in 1502 and seize the province of Diafunu. In 1514, the Denanke dynasty is established in Tekrour. It isn’t long before the new kingdom of Great Fulo is warring against Mali’s remaining provinces. To add insult to injury, the Songhai Empire seizes the copper mines of Takedda.
Mansa Mahmud III
The last mansa to rule from Niani is Mansa Mahmud III also known as Mansa Mamadou II. Like many rulers of this period, it is unclear when he came to power. The only dates distinguishing his rule are the arrival of a Portuguese envoy in 1534, and the 1545 sack of Niani. These do not rule out his ascension to the throne in the late 1520s or even earlier.
In 1534, Mahmud III received another Portuguese envoy to the Mali court by the name of Peros Fernandes. This envoy from the Portuguese coastal port of Elmina arrives in response to the growing trade along the coast and Mali’s now urgent request for military assistance against Songhai. Still, no help is forthcoming and Mali must watch its possessions fall one by one.
Mansa Mahmud III’s reign also sees the military outpost and province of Kaabu become independent in 1537. The Kaabu Empire appears every bit as ambitious as Mali was in its early years and swallows up Mali’s remaining Gambian provinces of Cassa and Bati.
The most defining moment in Mahmud III’s reign is the final conflict between Mali and Songhai in 1545. Songhai forces under Askia Ishaq’s brother, Daoud, sack Niani and occupy the palace. Mansa Mahmud III is forced to flee Niani for the mountains. Within a week, he regroups with his forces and launches a successful counter-attack forcing the Songhai out of Manden proper for good. The Songhai Empire does keep Mali’s ambitions in check, but never fully conquers their old masters.
After liberating the capital, Mahmud III abandons it for a new residence further north. Still, there is no end to Mali’s troubles. In 1559, the kingdom of Fouta Tooro succeeds in taking Takrur. This defeat reduces Mali to Manden proper with control extending only as far as Kita in the west, Kangaba in the north, the Niger River bend in the east and Kouroussa in the south.
Late Imperial Mali
There are no dates for when Mansa Mahmud III ceased to rule the Mali, which by 1560 was really only the core of the Manden Kurufa. From 1559 to 1645, the mansas of Manden rule from Kangaba during its final decline. The next notable mansa, Mahmud IV, doesn’t appear in any records until the end of the sixteenth century. However, he seems to have the distinction of being the last ruler of a unified Manden. His descendants are blamed for the break-up of the Manden Kurufa into north, central and southern realms.
Mansa Mahmud IV
Mansa Mahmud IV (also known as Mansa Mamadou III, Mali Mansa Mamadou and Niani Mansa Mamadou) was the last emperor of Manden according to the Tarikh es-Sudan (“History of the Sudan”). It states that he launched an attack on the city of Djenné in 1599 with Fulani allies hoping to take advantage of Songhai’s defeat. Moroccan fusiliers, deployed from Timbuktu, met them in battle exposing Mali to the same technology (firearms) that had destroyed Songhai. Despite heavy losses, the mansa’s army was not deterred and nearly carried the day. However, the army inside Djenné intervened forcing Mansa Mahmud IV and his army to retreat to Kangaba.
Map of West Africa, ca. 1736, by H. Moll, “explaining what belongs to England, Holland, Denmark, etc.” Note the confusion of geography, where the Senegal River and the Niger River are shown as the same.
The mansa’s defeat actually won Manden the respect of Morocco and may have saved it from Songhai’s fate. It would be the Mandinka themselves that would cause the final destruction of the empire. Around 1610, Mahmud IV died. Oral tradition states that he had three sons whom fought over Manden’s remains. No single person ever ruled Manden after Mahmuud IV’s death, resulting in the end of the Mali Empire forever.
The old core of the empire was divided into three spheres of influence. Kangaba, the de facto capital of Manden since the time of the last emperor, became the capital of the northern sphere. The Joma area, governed from Siguiri, controlled the central region, which encompassed Niani. Hamana or Amana, southwest of Joma, became the southern sphere with its capital at Kouroussa in modern Guinea. Each ruler used the title of mansa, but their authority only extended as far as their own sphere of influence. Despite this disunity in the realm, the Manden Kurufa survived into the mid-seventeenth century. The three states warred on each other as much if not more than they did against outsiders, but rivalries generally stopped when faced with invasion. This trend would continue into colonial times against Tukulor enemies from the west.
The Bamana Jihad
Then, in 1630, the Bamana of Djenné declared their version of holy war on all Muslim powers in present day Mali. They targeted Moroccan Pashas still in Timbuktu and the mansas of Manden. In 1645, the Bamana attacked Manden seizing both banks of the Niger right up to Niani. This campaign gutted Manden and destroyed any hope of the three mansas cooperating to free their land. The only Mandinka power spared from the campaign is Kangaba.
Mama Maghan, mansa of Kangaba, campaigned against the Bamana in 1667 and attacked Segou. Segou, defended by Biton Kouloubali, successfully defended itself and Mama Maghan was forced to withdraw to Kangaba. Either as a counter-attack or simply the progression of pre-planned assaults against the remnants of Mali, the Bamana sack and burn Niani in 1670.
Fulani jihad states in the Western Sudan circa 1830 replacing the Bamana and the earlier, and larger, Mali empire.
By the seventeenth century, the Mali Empire had been replaced by the smaller Bamana Empire. In the early eighteenth century, this fell as a series of Fulani jihadist states inspired by the founder of the Fulani Sultanate spread across West Africa. By the first decade of the twentieth century, these had in their turn fallen to European powers and the era of the great West African empires was over.
The legacy of the Mali Empire is that of a sophisticated polity with institutions that were at least the equal of any elsewhere in the world at the time. Timbuktu was a flourishing center of learning to which scholars traveled and whose graduates taught elsewhere in the Muslim world. It was a sister-academy of those in Fez, Cairo and Cordoba. It is to be regretted that knowledge of this civilization is not as wide-spread as that of other contemporary polities elsewhere in the world. Such knowledge can help to combat some racist constructions of history that posit that Africa lagged far behind Europe and required European help and assistance in order to develop and progress. The Mali Empire possessed a vibrant economy and may even have sent pirogues across the Atlantic to engage in trade. At a time when few such institutions existed elsewhere, it had a consultative assembly that played a vital and significant role in the Empire’s governance. At a time when many of the world’s emperors ruled with absolute, unchecked power, a system of checks and balances existed in this African polity.