In Our Time: The Empire of Mali

The Empire of Mali flourished between 1200 & 1600 CE, in sub-Saharan West Africa. At one point the Empire was so wealthy that when its ruler, Mansa Musa, travelled through Egypt on his Hajj he reduced the value of gold in Egypt with the amount he gave away. Discussing the empire on In Our Time were Amira Bennison (University of Cambridge), Marie Rodet (SOAS) and Kevin MacDonald (University College, London).

The beginnings of the Empire of Mali (c.1200 CE) are only known from an epic which survives in the oral tradition of the region. There was a prophecy that Sundiata Keita's mother would bear a son who would become a powerful king, and so the ruling king married her (I think despite her ugliness in some versions). Sundiata was crippled at birth, which cast the prophecy into doubt, but he later was miraculously cured. When his father died, his older half-brother took the throne and sent Sundiata and his mother into exile. Sundiata grew up in a neighbouring kingdom and became a renowned warrior. He eventually returned to Mali to liberate the people and take his rightful place as king - founding the empire that would last the next 400 or so years.

The experts discussed how this is more an origin myth than factual. It's part of the oral tradition, and is intended for performance and each performance is tailored to a greater or lesser extent to it's audience. For instance places that are referenced tend to be locally relevant. And there are things that can be picked out as definitely having changed since the original composition. In many versions Sundiata is Muslim, but we know that Islam didn't make significant inroads into Mali culture until later in its history. In some versions he's even supposed to be descended from a companion of the Prophet Mohammed's who was a freed black slave, and other versions don't give him that sort of genealogy at all.

Another part of the oral tradition surrounding the foundation of the Empire is that Sundiata Keita laid out a constitution for how the Empire should be run. Amongst other things it set down how the justice system should work, and the details of the caste system. In the late 20th Century CE this was written down, it is now categorised as a piece of World Heritage and sometimes referred to as Mali's Magna Carta. The experts were keen to point out that because it's an oral tradition you have to exercise care in how you interpret it. As an analogy (which I don't think they used on the programme) the English Magna Carta survives in a couple of original written documents, and when you compare that to what it's become in our national mythology you can see that the latter is based on the former but they are definitely not identical.

The Mali Empire covered a large east-west expanse of West Africa, running from the Atlantic coast to Gao. Like most empires it consisted of a core territory that was ruled directly by the Emperor and this was surrounded by client states ruled by client kings. The primary source of Mali's wealth was gold - they had the largest gold mines in the world at this time. They also traded with the Islamic world across the Sahara Desert - the nomadic Berbers of North Africa traded with Mali for both gold and grain.

Over time the Mali Empire gradually became Islamic. This doesn't seem to've happened as the result of direct efforts to convert them, instead the religion arrived with Berber traders some of whom settled in Mali and practised their religion. Once the emperors became Muslim it spread more quickly through the Empire, mixing as it went with their traditional animist beliefs. As I said in the introduction to this post one of those Emperors, Mansa Musa, went on Hajj. He travelled in state over land via Egypt accompanied by a large number of his court, and took with him plenty of gold for gifts to the places he passed through. He wasn't just fulfilling his religious obligations, he was also searching for Muslim scholars who would be willing to take employment in his court and travel back to Mali with him. One of these scholars who came back is credited with having founded hundreds of mosques all across Mali - which seems unlikely to've actually happened. Some perhaps were state foundations, although they are still unlikely to've been founded by this one outsider. And they generally have local architectural styles, rather than Arabic or Spanish designs. It seems much more likely that these are instances of towns trying to gain prestige by claiming a famous origin story for their mosque.

The majority of evidence for the Mali Empire, and its inner workings, is second hand. Much of the written evidence for the empire comes from these Muslim scholars discussed above and others who travelled to Mali. Other evidence comes from the Songhai Empire which replaced the Mali. The Muslim scholars seemed to've regarded Mali as somewhere different, but nonetheless civilised. For instance when writing about their justice system it is described as effective, even if it wasn't what the observer was expecting.

The Mali Empire began to disintegrate in the 17th Century CE. The experts said that this was down to it becoming overstretched "like all empires". Control of the periphery began to decline, and territories started to break off and become independent. One of these was Songhai, and this ex-vassal would go on to conquer the territory of the Mali piece by piece from the West. Another factor in the decline of the Mali Empire were the destabilising interactions with Europeans on the Atlantic coast of the empire. They noted on the programme that one of the commodities that the Mali traded in was slaves, and the selling of slaves to Europeans began the transatlantic slave trade.

Until relatively recently historians were dismissive of the Mali Empire - for instance it was assumed it was ruled by Muslim Berbers, rather than the people who actually lived in the country. This unthinking rejection of sub-Saharan African civilisation was bolstered by a lack of archaeological evidence to contradict it. However more recently there has been a resurgence of interest in African history in general and the Mali Empire has become something worth researching. This has lead to new information, including archaeological discoveries, particularly in the region where the capital city of the Empire was.

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