Saylor.org's Ancient Civilizations of the World/Empire of Mali

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Empire of Mali[edit]

The powerful Mali empire existed from about 1235 to 1645 CE. 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 extended over a large area and consisted of numerous vassal kingdoms and provinces. Islam became the dominant religion of the region. Traders from the Islamic strongholds of North Africa traveled south through the Sahara on camelback to the region of Mali, for the immense amount of gold to be found in the area.

Background[edit]

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 Kurufaba (Manden being the country, kuru meaning assembly and faba meaning great entirety), but it later became an empire ruling millions of people from nearly every ethnic group in West Africa.

Pre-Imperial Mali[edit]

There are a few references to Mali in written literature of roughly contemporary age. Among these are references to "Daw" and "Malal" in the work of al-Bakri in 1068, the story of the conversion of an early ruler, known to Ibn Khaldun (by 1397) as Barmandana, and a few geographical details in the work of al-Idrisi.

There has also been archaeological work done especially at Niani, reputed to be the capital of Mali, by Polish and Guinean archaeologists in the 1960s which revealed the remains of a substantial town dating back as far as the 6th century.

Modern oral traditions also related that 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. So 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).

Pre-Imperial Maden was composed of the "three freely allied states" of Mali, Mema and Wagadou plus the Twelve Doors of Mali. Thus, it is important to remember that Mali, in this sense, strictly refers to the city-state of Niani. The twelve 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 twelve 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.

Imperial Mali[edit]

Mansa Musa depicted holding a gold nugget, from the 1375 Catalan Atlas.

Imperial Mali is best known to us through three primary sources: The first is the account of Shihab al-Din ibn Fadl Allah al-'Umari, written about 1340 by a geographer-administrator in Egypt. His information about the empire came from visiting Malians taking the hajj, or pilgrim's voyage to Mecca. He had first hand information from several, and at second hand, he learned of the visit of Mansa Musa. The second account is that of the traveler Shams al-Din Abu Abd'Allah ibn Battua, who visited Mali in 1352. This is the first account of a West African kingdom made directly by an eyewitness, the others are usually at second hand. The third great account is that of Abu Zayd Abd-al-Rahman ibn Khaldun, who wrote in the early 15th century. While the accounts are of limited length, they provide us with a fairly good picture of the empire at its height.

Administration[edit]

Rulers

There were 21 known mansas of the Mali Empire after Sundiata. What separates these rulers from the founder, other than the latter's historic role in establishing the state, is their transformation of the Manden into an empire. Not content to rule fellow Manding subjects unified by Sundiata, these mansas would conquer and annex Fula, Wolof, Bamana, Songhai, Tuareg, and countless other peoples into an immense empire.

Organization

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 Africanist 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 when we get to 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 did not 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.

Territory

Approximate extent of the Mali Empire, c. 1350.

The Mali Empire reached its largest size under the Laye mansas (1312-1389). Al-Umari, who wrote down a description of Mali based on information given to him by Abu Sa’id ‘Otman ed Dukkali (who had lived 35 years in Niani), reported the realm as being square and an eight month journey from its coast at Tura (the mouth of the Senegal River) to Muli (also known as Tuhfat). Umari also describes the empire as being south of Marrakesh and almost entirely inhabited except for few places. Mali's domain also extended into the desert. He describes it as being north of Mali but under its domination implying some sort of vassalage for the Antasar, Yantar'ras, Medussa and Lemtuna Berber tribes. The empire's total area included nearly all the land between the Sahara Desert and coastal forests. It spanned the modern-day countries of Senegal, southern Mauritania, Mali, northern Burkina Faso, western Niger, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, the Ivory Coast and northern Ghana. By 1350, the empire covered approximately 439,400 square miles (1,138,000 km2). The empire also reached its highest population during the Laye period ruling over 400 cities, towns and villages of various religions. During this period only the Mongol Empire was larger.

The dramatic increase in the empire's size demanded a shift from the pre-imperial Manden organization of three states with twelve dependencies. This model was scrapped by the time of Mansa Musa's hajj to Egypt. According to al'Umari, who interviewed a Berber that had lived in Niani for 35 years, there were fourteen provinces (really tributary kingdoms).

Economy[edit]

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 14th 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. The Sahelian and Saharan towns of the Mali Empire were organized as both staging posts in the long-distance caravan trade and trading centers for the various West African products. At Taghaza, for example, salt was exchanged; at Takedda, copper. Ibn Battuta observed the employment of slave labor in both towns. During most of his journey, Ibn Battuta traveled with a retinue that included slaves, most of whom carried goods for trade but would also be traded as slaves. On the return from Takedda to Morocco, his caravan transported 600 female slaves, suggesting that slavery was a substantial part of the commercial activity of the empire.

Gold

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.

Salt

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.

Copper

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.

Military[edit]

Terracotta archer figure from Mali, 13th-15th centuries.

The number and frequency of conquests in the late 13th century and throughout the 14th century indicate the Kolonkan mansas inherited and or developed a capable military. Sundiata is credited with at least the initial organization of the Manding war machine. However, it went through radical changes before reaching the legendary proportions proclaimed by its subjects. Thanks to steady tax revenue and stable government beginning in the last quarter of the 13th century, the Mali Empire was able to project its power throughout its own extensive domain and beyond.

The Mali Empire maintained a semi-professional, full-time army in order to defend its borders. The entire nation was mobilized with each clan obligated to provide a quota of fighting age men. These men had to be of the horon (freemen) caste and appear with their own arms. 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 clans, this army could be deployed throughout the realm on short notice.

Terracotta horseman figure from Mali, 13th-15th centuries.

The army of the Mali Empire during the 14th century was divided into northern and southern commands led by the Farim-Soura and Sankar-Zouma, respectively. Both of these men were part of Mali's warrior elite known as the ton-ta-jon-ta-ni-woro ("sixteen slave carriers of quiver"). Each representative or ton-tigi ("quiver-master") provided council to the mansa at the Gbara, but only these two ton-tigi held such wide ranging power.

The ton-tigi belonged to an elite force of cavalry commanders called the farari ("brave men"). Each individual farariya ("brave") had a number of infantry officers beneath them called kèlè-koun or dùùkùnàsi. A kèlè-koun led free troops into battle alongside a farima ("brave man") during campaign. A dùùkùnàsi performed the same function except with slave troops called sofa ("guardian of the horse") and under the command of a farimba ("great brave man"). The farimba operated from a garrison with an almost entirely slave force, while a farima functioned on the field with virtually all freemen.

The army of the Mali Empire used of a wide variety of weapons depending largely on where the troops originated. Only sofa were equipped by the state, using bows and poisoned arrows. Free warriors from the north (Mandekalu or otherwise), were usually equipped with large reed or animal hide shields and a stabbing spear that was called a tamba. Free warriors from the south came armed with bows and poisonious arrows. The bow figured prominently in Mandinka warfare and was a symbol of military force throughout the culture. Bowmen formed a large portion of the field army as well as the garrison. Three bowmen supporting one spearman was the ratio in Kaabu and the Gambia by the mid-16th century. Equipped with two quivers and a knife fastened to the back of their arm, Mandinka bowmen used barbed, iron-tipped arrows that were usually poisoned. They also used flaming arrows for siege warfare. While spears and bows were the mainstay of the infantry, swords and lances of local or foreign manufacture were the choice weapons of the cavalry. Ibn Battuta comments on festival demonstrations of swordplay before the mansa by his retainers including the royal interpreter. 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 infantry.

Collapse[edit]

Mali Empire (light green) and surrounding states, c. 1625.

It was the Mandinka themselves and not conquest by a rival empire that would cause the final destruction of the empire. Around 1610, Mahmud IV died. Oral tradition states that he had three sons who fought over Manden's remains. No single person ever ruled Manden after Mahmud IV's death, resulting in the end of the Mali Empire.

Attribution[edit]

"The Mali Empire" (Wikipedia) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mali_Empire