From 1230 to about 1600 the Mali Empire (also known as the Mandingo Empire and the Manden Kurufa) flourished in West Africa. The Mali Empire extended over a large area and had many profound cultural influences on West Africa.
The empire was originally founded by a federation of Mandinka tribes called the Manden Kurufa. Oral traditions relate that the Mandinka kingdoms had existed for several centuries before they were unified by Sundiata Keita (also known as Sogolon Djata and Sundjata)). While Sundiata Keita was a boy, the Mandinkas were conquered by King Sumaoro Kante of the Ghana Empire. When he was older Sundiata Keita built up an army, overthrew the king, and became the first king of the Mali Empire. He established himself as both a secular and sacred leader. As a sacred leader, he claimed a direct link to the spirits of the land and declared himself as the guardian of the ancestors.
Sundiata Keita established his capital at his home village of Niani which is located near the present border between Mali and Guinea. As king, he ran the Mali Empire more like a federation than an absolute monarchy. Each tribe within the federation had a representative at his court.
While the earlier Kingdom of Ghana had relied primarily on camels, horses, and donkeys for transport, the Mali Empire had an advantage: the Niger River. They could transport goods and people more easily by boat than by land. In addition, the fertile lands along the river meant that they suffered less from drought and they could ship foods to other communities. The Mali Empire had a more stable economy.
The Mali Empire eventually stretched from the Atlantic coast south of the Senegal River to Gao on the east of the middle Niger bend. It included the great cities of Timbuktu, Djenne, and Gao on the Niger River, the salt mines of Taghaza, and the gold fields of Bumbuk and Bure.
Like Ghana before it, Mali collected taxes on trade throughout the empire. All goods passing in, out, or through the empire were taxed. All gold nuggets belonged to the king, but gold dust could be traded.
In 1255 Sundiata Keita drowned while crossing the Sankarini River. He was about 38 years old at the time of his death. Today the location where he drowned is marked by a shrine. His sons succeeded him to the throne of the Mali Empire. Those kings who followed Sundiata Keita were Muslim and some made the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca).
King Abubarkari II (Abu Bakari II, Abu Bekr II, Mansa Mohammed), the ninth king of Mali, became fascinated with stories of what lay beyond the sea at the western edge of the empire. In 1310, Abubarkari II financed the building of 400 ships: 200 for the men and 200 for the supplies to support them for two years. The ships communicated with each other by drumming. He then sent the ships out from the western edge of the empire to explore the sea. The captains were given this order:
"Do not return until you have reached the end of the ocean, or when you have exhausted your food and water."
Only one ship returned. Undeterred, the following year Abubarkari II abdicated the throne and launched another fleet with himself as the head of the expedition. He set out with a thousand ships for the men and a similar number for supplies. While the fleet did not return, there are some writers, such as Ivan van Sertima (They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America), who feel that some of the ships did make it to the Americas. Most mainstream archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, and other scholars feel that there is no evidence that the ships reached the Americas.
In 1324, Mansa Musa (who was the grandson of one of Sundiata Keita’s sisters) made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Accompanied by 60,000 people and carrying a large quantity of gold, Mansa Musa travelled from Niani along the Niger River to Timbuktu. He then crossed the Sahara Desert via the salt mines of Taghaza from oasis to oasis until he reached Cairo. Then from Cairo, he travelled to Mecca and Medina.
According to the Arab historian al-Umari, Mansa Musa took with him 100 camel-loads of gold, each of which weighed 300 pounds. Seeing the immense wealth in Cairo inspired many stories about the glories of Timbuktu. In addition, the amount of gold which Mansa Musa brought to Egypt created inflation in the country. As a result of the hajj, Mali began appearing on the Map of the World in 1339.
Shown below is Mansa Musa on the 1339 map:
Under Mansa Musa, Timbuktu became a center of learning, luxury, and trade. This was the place where the desert nomads met with the river people. Its universities and markets attracted people from other parts of Africa, southwest Asia, and even Europe. Mansa Musa brought back with him not only an Arabic library, but also religious scholars and the Muslim architect al-Sahili who would later build the great mosques at Gao and Timbuktu as well as a royal palace.
In the 14th century, the Mali Empire reached its greatest power and influence. It had a standing army which kept the peace, put down rebellions in the smaller kingdoms which bordered the empire, and policed the trade routes. The power and fame of the empire, however, depended greatly on the personal power of the king. Mansa Musa ruled for 25 years and brought a great period of stability and prosperity to Mali. After the death of Mansa Musa in 1337 and his brother Mansa Sulayman in 1360, Timbuktu was raided and burned. Several states revolted and declared their independence. By 1500, what had once been the Mali Empire had been reduced to just the Madinka homeland. By the 17th century it had devolved into a number of small independent chiefdoms.