Africa, the arrival of Europeans and the transatlantic slave trade

Mali: An example of a great west African Empire

by Marika Sherwood

Mali superseded the old and long established empire of Ancient Ghana (not the modern country named Ghana). It was founded by Sundiata Keita who began a war of conquest with his superb cavalry in about 1230. An excellent administrator, he appointed a governor to each conquered country, as well as a military garrison. He built a capital city, called Niani. Mali had large gold fields and became famous for its wealth, stability and scholarship.

The next great ruler of Mali was Kankan Musa (1312-1337). He was a Muslim, and, as expected of all Muslims, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. He was escorted by 60,000 porters and 500 servants, and was recorded as the richest man ever to pass through Cairo. There, and in Mecca, he built houses for future pilgrims and took back with him one of the most renowned architects of his day, Al-Hasan. He commissioned Al-Hasan to build mosques and public buildings. Al-Hasan introduced kiln-dried bricks to Mali, which resulted in longer-lasting buildings.

African exploration

Kankan Musa told a visiting historian an important story about one of his predecessors who wanted to know what lay over the horizon when he looked across the ocean (the Atlantic). So this emperor fitted out 200 ships to go and explore. Only one captain returned, explaining that he had had to drop anchor to do some repairs.

While he was doing these repairs, he could see the rest of the fleet sailing on and then being caught up in a ‘fast river in the ocean’. He waited and waited for them to return, but when he began to run out of food and water, he thought he’d better return to inform the emperor. This ‘river in the ocean’ is a major current, which would have carried the ships and any other vessels across to Mexico, and this resulting voyage is the probable explanation for the large carvings of African heads found there.

Centres of learning

The major cities of Mali became centres of commerce, religion and learning; Timbuktu was one such centre, housing schools and other educational institutions, and with a specialist trade in books. In fact Timbuktu was to later become one of the world's earliest university campuses, and historians and archaeologists have only just begun unearthing and collecting the preserved manuscripts. The findings include scholarly treatises, records of commercial transactions, medical topics and astronomy. The historian Basil Davidson said in 1970 that:

‘Mali was one of the greatest states of the world of its time’.