Mali Empire

Mali Empire (1230-1550) was a powerful Mandinka (Mande, Mandingo) western Sudanic empire in the 13th century, that occupied territory as far east as the border of the Hausa Kingdoms and west as far as the Atlantic Ocean, north as far as Walata, and south as far as Bure. The empire declined in the 16th century due to internal dynastic disputes and rebellion from constituent states.


The Mali Empire began with Sundiata("Lord Lion") defeating Sumanguru at the Battle of Karina in 1230, with the decline of the Ghana Empire. The victory set the stage for expansion of the Mandinka (Malinke) people and formation of the Mali Empire. Sundiata proceeded to stretch the boundaries of his domain-southward to the forest, the savannah region of the southern Soyinka, and absorbing the sahelian Ghana Empire. Sundiata established his capital at Niani and took the title, mansa or king. The Keita clan would be the line of mansas. Sundiata ruled until 1255. 

Mansa Uli

He was succeeded by Mansa Uli(1255-1270). Mansa Uli made Islam the official court religion. He was the first to take a hajj to Mecca, while forging diplomatic relation throughout the muslim world.

Mansa Wati and Khalifa

Mansa  Uli was succeeded by Mansa Wati. Authority was passed later to Mansa Khalifa, who was cruel. Tradition has it he would fire arrows at his subjects indiscriminately. The people rose up in rebellion overthrew his reign. 

Mansa Bata-Mande-Bory

Mansa Uli was proceeded by Mansa Abu Bakr (Bata-Mande-Bory), whose ascension was not very orthodox. He was chosen by the sister of Mari-Djata and possibly by court officials. Court officials would have found him more compliant to their policies.

Mansa Sakura

Sakura who was not of royal line,  usurped the throne. He was a strong leader, on par with Mari-Djata(Sundiata) and Mansa Uli. Around 1298, he took a hajj, but was killed on his return, in Tajura. Sakura brought back luster to the empire.

Mansa Qu and Muhammad

At the death of Sakura, the throne went to Mansa Qu and later his son Muhammad of the Mari-Djata line. Abu Bakr II an obscure mansa is reported to have to have abdicated the throne to explore the limits of the Atlantic, as related by Mansa Musa in Egypt.

Mansa Musa

At its height, Mali would be ruled by its most famous and illustrious Emperor Mansa Kankan Musa, whose famous hajj in 1324 establish a grand reputation of wealth and splendor in the muslim world. Mansa Musa brought so much gold and gave liberally, he caused the price of gold to decline in Egypt. Mansa Musa also extended Mali's borders to its greatest extent; to the Sahara Walata, with much influence on Taghaza; eastward to Gao to the borders of Hausaland; westward to Fulani Takrur.  We also saw the expansion of Islam, more west Africans began to convert. With the spread of Islam, was also the spread of trade. Mansa Musa invited numerous scholars from the muslim world. Architects like Al-Sahili, who designed mosques and palaces in Timbuktu, Gao, and Niani. He is credited with introducing mudbrick architecture to the western Sudan. Timbuktu became a major center of learning under Malian patronage. The Mali Empire was one of the largest and grandest empires in the world at that time and became a world power. 

Mansa Magha-Muhammad and Sulayman

Mandinka common guardless double blade sword

Magha-Muhammad became mansa at the death of Mansa Musa. He was directly chosen by Musa as his heir, denying his oldest brother Sulayman the throne. Mansa Magha-Muhammad only ruled for four years. Sulayman inherited the throne. Mali's grandeur and wealth continued under Mansa Sulayman. Mansa Sulayman avoided a coup in 1352. His reign lasted 24 years.

Mansa Qasa and the beginning decline, 1360-90

The son of Sulayman, Mansa Qasa ibn Sulayman took over the throne at his father's death. His reign lasted 9 month at his death. Mari Djata son of Magha-Muhammad took over the throne. His reign lasted 14 years. He was a corrupt leader and nearly bankrupted the empire. His son, Musa, took over the throne, but was nothing but a puppet of court officials. He died in 1387. His brother Mansa Magha inherited the throne. Magha lasted just 2 years. Sandiki assumed the throne, after marrying Musa's mother. In a few month, he was assassinated. A usurper named Mahmud took the throne under the title Mansa Magha in 1390.


Mali was administered by a group of literate scribes at court. Treasurers collected taxes from the various territories. Traditional chiefs, rulers were left in place, but had to pay tribute to the empire. A large standing army consisting of battalions existed. Each battalion, consisted of elite cavalry and majority infantry, armed with bow and spear. Their function was to neutralize threats, protect trading routes, and make sure vassal states paid tribute.

The royal court was supported by slave villages called arbi. They provided produce and fixed services needed to keep the royal residence functioning. The villages provided domesticated servants, royal messengers, and bodyguards.

Mandinka Sword

Religious View

Mandinka religious views surrounded the land and farming. A succesful harvest depended on the original ancestor of the land. Only intermediate ancestors could communicate with the original ancestor. The chief of the land or mansa, was the one who could communicate with the intermediate ancestors. When Sundiata organized and unified the Mandinka against the Sosso, he essentially became the supreme mansa, accessor to the ancestors and thereby one with original ancestors. The native power of the of the mansa depended on this religious view. When Islam arrived it was not adopted quickly but gradually. The mansa played dual religious roles, that of the traditional and the islamic. He was not a divine king as in the Ghana Empire or Pharaonic Egypt. 


The economy of Mali was based on gold and agriculture. Unlike Ghana, Mali's economy did not just depend on gold. Agriculture was a major activity. Niani, the capital, was located in a fertile zone of the Niger. Sorghum, millet, and rice were grown, producing surplus to feed the empire. Gold came from Bure and Bambuk gold mines. Like the Ghana Empire all gold, salt, slaves were taxed coming in and going out of the empire. Strong commercial networks were developed by the Wangara /Dyula traders within and outside the empire. 


During the 1400s, Mali began her slow decline. The mansas who ruled lacked the leadership skills to keep the empire together, coupled with constant dynastic disputes at court. Disputes openned the way for rebellion. Tuaregs resumed their attack in the north, retaking Timbuktu in 1433. In 1545, Niani was sacked by the Songhai of Gao. By 1550, the empire ceased being a major entity, in the western Sudan. In the west, Fulani's founded a new kingdom in Futa Toro Plateau, eroding the empire's authority in the region. Serer and Wolof ethnics began to re-assert their authority. The Mossi in the southwest harassed representatives and military installments.

Works Cited

Shillington, Kevin (2005). History of Africa. Revised 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 0-333-59957-8

Collins, Robert O. and Burns, James M. (2007). A History of Sub-Saharan Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 83-87, ISBN 978-0-521-68708-9.

Davidson, Basil, Buah, F. K. ,and Ajayi, J.F. Ade(1966). A History of West Africa. Doubleday:New York, pp. 53-60  Library of Congress Card #66-24317

Levtzion, Nehemia(1973). Ancient Ghana and Mali. Methuen & Co Ltd. SBN 416758207