|The Mosque of Djenne|
African history is often overlooked by people. Larger than Europe, China, and the continental United States in terms of geography Africa over the centuries has been home to thousands of unique cultures. Last time we visited Africa on World History we looked at the impressive archaeological site of Great Zimbabwe (please see here). This time we shall look at West Africa and the empires of Mali and Songhai. Mali was home to Mansa Musa, a man rumored to be the wealthiest person in human history. Before we look at Mali and Songhai we first need to look at the world where they sprang from.
|Mali at its height|
As you can see from the above map the Empire of Mali stretched over a huge area encompassing savanna, forests, grasslands, and deserts. The nucleus of Mali was in the fertile southern savanna region which was perfect for a vibrant agricultural economy. What would become Mali managed to create an agricultural surplus creating an internal exchange economy which soon branched out into an external trade economy. Before Mali there was the Kingdom of Ghana (incidentally it was not in modern day Ghana) who had profited through a trade with Muslim and African merchants. To the north there was a group of people which for the sake of simplicity we shall call Berbers. To the south there was the Gold Coast, (aptly named for the rich gold mines). To the east were Arab traders. Ghana, and later Sudanese kingdoms, became middlemen for trade. Gold and kola nuts were sent across the Sahara in return for grain, while these items were traded with Arabs as well for a wide array of goods, and unfortunately slaves. Those who have read my other World History posts on the Vikings and Russia will remember how Arabs created trade posts in Russia to facilitate trade, They similarly did this in West Africa. For this reason centuries later French colonizers believed that the ruins of Mali were made by Arabs and not Africans, although similarly to Great Zimbabwe this was influenced by racist thinking as well. This trade was the reason for Mali's wealth. It also introduced Islam to West Africa. Arab traders brought their religion with them and locals adopted the religion for better trading prospects although it would take until the rise of Mali for Islam to become the dominant religion in the region.
The Rise of Mali
|A modern drawing of Sundiata|
Mali came from the Kingdom of Kangaba. Ghana was very much like the Achaemenid, Roman, and later European empires where kingdoms could survive if they swore fealty to the empire. Kangaba was one such prospering as middlemen in the Trans-Saharan trade with the Mandinka people becoming gold traders. The Dyula or Wangara as they are called today would become famous for their skill and enterprise. It was a somewhat mutually beneficial system: Ghana needed gold and Kangaba needed markets to sell their gold. However, like all empires Ghana started to collapse from external wars and internal revolts. Ghana was eventually toppled by Sumanguru who extended his power over the capital of Kumbi Saleh and the caravan routes making them more dangerous for the Mandinka. From here we get a rather biased tale of events. The founding of Mali is told in the Epic of Sundiata which has been passed down generations. Kevin MacDonald has described Sundiata as a 'King Arthur figure' and was described by Arab scholar Ibn Kaldun as Mali's greatest king. His name also means 'Lion King', (he also is sometimes called Mari-Diata). According to the Epic Sundiata's mother was a hunchbacked 'Buffalo Woman' but was said to bear the king his greatest son. The king married the woman who gave birth to Sundiata who for years was disabled and could not walk. To honor his mother Sundiata he learnt to walk and became so strong that he could uproot a baobab tree. When his father died he went into exile but then Sumanguru conquered the Malinke. Sumanguru was said to be a tyrant so Sundiata returned with an army:
As Sundiata advanced with his army to meet Sumanguru he learned that Sumanguru was also coming against him with an army prepared for battle. The met in a place called Kirina. When Sundiata turned his eyes on the army of Sumanguru, he believed that they were a cloud and he said: 'What is this cloud on the eastern side?' They told him it was the army of Sumanguru. As for Sumanguru, when he saw the army of Sundiata, he exclaimed: 'What is that mountain of stone?' For he thought it was a mountain. And they told him: 'It is the army of Sundiata, which lies to the west of us.'
Sundiata's witchcraft was said to be greater than Sumanguru's who was killed. Due to the Epic being passed down through oral tradition it has changed many times and will change with each telling. However, we do get some important information which has been corroborated by archaeological evidence. We do know the Battle of Kirina took place around 1235 and the Empire of Mali was formed. There has been some debate on where the first capital of Mali was with Niani on the River Niger being often cited. Kevin MacDonald has argued that the first capital it possibly at Segou, also on the River Niger.
After Sundiata came his son Uli who adopted the title mansa which means 'lord' in Mandinka. The mansas of Mali would continue conquering and surprisingly even a slave managed to become mansa. In 1298 a freed 'slave of the court' called Sakuru seized the throne, and has been seen as possibly Mali's strongest rulers. The most famous is Mansa Kankan Musa whose pilgrimage to Mecca became world renowned.
Governance and Religion in Mali
Similar to Ghana Mali was comprised of land directly ruled by the mansa and various kingdoms who swore fealty to Mali. Unlike Ghana Mali's population was larger and trade was far larger. The Trans-Saharan trade flourished under Mali, and when Mali incorporated major trade routes and the gold-rich areas of Bambuk and Bure in 1255 it had easy access to this trade. Most of our sources about Mali come from Arab sources who at times at highly praise the Mali society. One such was Ibn Battuta. Ibn Battuta was a Moroccan scholar and traveler who went across the world, mostly to Muslim regions, to describe what he saw. Below is a map of all the places which he visited.
|Ibn Battuta's journeys|
Starting in 1349 he traveled to the Islamic regions of West Africa. There he described some of how law operated in Mali:
The small number of acts of injustice that take place there, for of all people, the Negroes abhor it [injustice] the most. The sultan never pardons anyone guilty of injustice. [Something praiseworthy is] The general and complete security that is enjoyed in the country. The traveler, just as the sedentary man, has nothing to fear of brigands, thieves, or plunderers.
Although it is hard to corroborate Ibn Battuta's observations it is possible to see a rather just society (despite having slaves). However, how just it is hard to estimate without other valid sources. He is critical of some aspects of Mali's society, namely how female servants and slaves are often naked and how they supposedly threw ashes/dust on their heads to show that they were educated or being respectful.
Islam was adopted by Mali during the reign of Barmandana in the 1050s; centuries before Mali became an empire. Like in India and Malaysia Islam had first been introduced thanks to Muslim merchants from either the north or east. With Islam having a written script, (Arabic), and proscribed sets of rules for trade. This made it a nice prospect for Mali's rulers. However, Islam for a long time was something just for the ruling elite. Ibn Battuta talks of the piety of the Malians, and Mansa Musa would later build many mosques many people continued with local religions, or would mix Islamic and local practices. Although pious, Musa and other rulers allowed this mixture to happen and, they even occurred in court. West African Islam gained its own identity in contrast to North African, Egyptian, or Arabian Islam. When we get onto the jihadi states of nineteenth-century West Africa we will see again the attempt to balance local traditions with Islamic scholarship.
Mansa Musa is said to have been the richest person in history. When he came to power Mali had a firm grip on trade routes, the gold fields of the south, and salt lands in the north. From here he expanded Mali to include Timbuktu, Gao, and northern Hausaland (the southern tip of modern Niger). Like Akbar in the later Mughal Empire in India Musa allowed a flourishing of Islamic and non-Islamic customs in his court. However, Musa is famous for his hajj (holy pilgrimage), starting in 1324. Medieval records have a habit of exaggerating numbers so we have to take reports of Musa's wealth with a pinch of salt, but it was said that he had 100 camel-loads of gold and each slave had a stick of gold. He visited Cairo and North Africa generously handing out gold. Scholars paint a very positive picture of Musa and his entourage describing them as being overly polite, pious and hygienic. However, he spent so much in Cairo that it devalued gold by 10% and it took over a decade to recover. While on his pilgrimage Musa encountered other Muslim rulers so he established embassies in Morocco, Egypt and other areas, and in return he got Muslim scholars to return with him to Mali. One, as-Saheli from Andalusia (then under Muslim rule), was tasked with designing new mosques where he designed mosques in Djenne, Gao and Timbuktu (as well as Musa's palace). Unfortunately, only one sort of survives today. The Mosque of Djenne (pictured at the very top) was built on top of the old one in 1907 after the old one went into disrepair. Musa's wealth, however, went down in history and when Europeans first started looking for El Dorado they first looked to West Africa.
The Fall of Mali and the Rise of Songhai
|An artistic depiction of Gao|
Like Rome and Ghana Mali faced dynastic worries, external attacks, and internal revolts. After the death of Mansa Suleiman in 1359 infighting caused issues for Mali which became exacerbated by attacks from the Tuareg in the north, and the Mossi in the south. In 1433 the Tuareg even captured Timbuktu. Here Songhai (sometimes spelt Songhay) enters the scene. Songhai, at Gao, were one of Mali's vassal kingdoms and in the late-1300s Songhai tried to brake off under Ali Kolen. It failed but later in the mid-1400s Sunni Ali managed to successfully brake off. Songhai had accepted Islam in 1010 under Dias Kossi, possibly to win favor with Berber merchants according to Basil Davidson, and Gao became a major trading area. However, it faced greater challenges than Mali as Gao was near the rich grasslands that Mali was so it could not use agricultural surplus to trade with. Sunni Ali relied heavily on the military and became a power through military might. Sunni Ali managed to have Songhai supersede Mali as the regional power (although Mali would survive until 1610). In 1469 he conquered Timbuktu and in 1473 he conquered Djenne. Today Sunni Ali is fondly remembered by people in the region where Songhai ruled.
It was under Songhai that Timbuktu became the center of African Islamic thought that it became famous for. Under Mali it had never became a major center due to it being hard to defend from primarily Tuareg raiders. Under Songhai rule it gained more autonomy and prospered primarily through the salt trade. Wealth flooded into Timbuktu and with it scholars allowing it to become a major center of Islamic scholarship. Despite Timbuktu being more independent under Songhai than Mali the empire as a whole was more centralized under Sunni Ali's successors. Particularly under Askia Muhammad the central government was stronger but it was somewhat meritocratic allowing talented men (like always it was patriarchal) not in the leading families to have positions. For this and his impressive conquests Askia is referred to as Askia the Great. However, Islam was nearly ousted from Songhai after the death of Sunni Ali. His son, Sunni Baru, refused to be a Muslim. Here we see a common theme in history: countryside versus urban areas. Non-Muslims were located in the country while Muslims occupied the urban areas. Sunni Baru allied himself with the countryside as Askia Muhammad allied himself with the Muslims in the cities. When Askia won he placed more emphasis on the power of cities over the country. We have seen this in past posts and future posts ranging from the Reformation to the French Revolution to communism in China. In 1528 Askia Muhammad was ousted by his son.
Decline of Songhai
Like Mali and Ghana Songhai came into trouble from abroad and domestically. In 1448 Portugal had set up a trading post in what is modern day Mauritania where they bought slaves from Mali (and Songhai). By the late sixteenth-century trade had shifted from the Trans-Saharan route as the Spanish brought the Americas to European attention when they tried to find an alternate route to the East. Africa's gold became less important when Spain could simply take it from Mesoamerica. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade had started as well (a topic for another post) taking more of Songhai's wealth from them. In the 1580s the Hausa states started to revolt against Songhai rule, and in 1588 a civil war broke out. Similar to the earlier civil war between Askia Muhammad and Sunni Baru it fell along religious lines. Askia Ishaq II had claimed the throne but he was challenged by Sadiq. Sadiq was supported by Muslims whereas Ishaq was supported by traditionalists. Ishaq won but Songhai was weakened. Although Songhai's wealth had started to be weakened by the Atlantic trade it was still formidable which the sultans of Morocco looked enviously at. In 1578 at the Battle of Al-Kasr al-Kabir Morocco defeated Portugal which ended ideas of European conquest of North Africa until the 1800s. Sultan Mulay knew the gold mines of Songhai would enrich his state so in December 1590 a force of 4,600 soldiers under Spanish eunuch Judar Pasha was sent to fight Songhai. At the Battle of Tondibi on March 12 1591 the Moroccan firearms overwhelmed Ishaq II's forces. The Moroccans took the wealth of Timbuktu and Gao back to Marrakesh, and with various revolts with no army Songhai splintered. What was left of Songhai formed the Dendi Kingdom which lasted a very long time with it being conquered in 1901 by the French. Mali, in contrast, managed to linger on until 1610 when the sons of the last musa fought over the throne and divided the kingdom, according to oral traditions.
Mali and Songhai shows us how trade and religion can greatly expand the fortunes of any state. Islam opened doors for both empires who then managed to sell gold, slaves, salt, and grain to their lasting benefit. When we think of Islam we often think of the Middle East but doing so leaves out the rich Islamic culture of West Africa. We focus on the great mosques in Saudi Arabia but forget the magnificent Mosque of Djenne. Mali and Songhai also shows us the importance of oral traditions and archaeology. Traditionally historians have looked down upon oral and archaeological sources but by looking at these sources we fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle that is our history. Finally, looking at Mali and Songhai we can see that no matter if it's Asia, Europe, Africa, Australasia, or the Americas empires fall for the same reasons. Thank you for reading and next time we will look at the worst epidemic to strike Eurasia and the chilling warning that it gives us: the Black Death.
The sources I have used are as follows:
-'Mali' by Ibn Battuta in African History in Documents: Volume 1, Western African History edited by Robert O. Collins
-West Africa before the Colonial Era, A History to 1850 by Basil Davidson
-A History of Africa by J.D. Fage and William Tordoff
-'Sudanese Kingdoms of West Africa' by J.I. Dibua in Africa: Volume 1, African History before 1885 edited by Toyin Falola
-'The Empire of Mali', BBC In Our Time podcast