A Fallen Down Kingdom “Mali”

1465…The Mali Empire is overextended, barely able to garrison its territory, and writhen by internal power struggles. Sensing weakness, a new player emerges. The sorcerer king Sunni Ali, a charismatic leader and a military genius; he is set on bringing the disorganized northern fringe of the Mali Empire, its profitable Trans-Saharan trading centers, under the banner of his own empire, The Songhai. Outmatched on the battlefield and severed from their trade routes, the Mansas must learn to adapt or die.

Generations of succession crises and revolts were taking their toll on Mali. The military was stretched thin, with cities on its northern fringe rebelling. Tuareg Berbers swept in from the Sahara, capturing Timbuktu and Oualata, destabilizing the economic arteries that kept the Empire afloat. Raiders from neighboring states pillaged trade routes that had remained safe for nearly a century. But this was all just prelude to the rise of Sunni Ali Ber. The prince that would be king was from the old city-state of Gao, his family hailing from a region that still worshipped the spirits. His support came from the rural areas that still practiced ancestral religion, And when he took the throne of Gao in 1464, it marked a sea change in West African politics. Sunni Ali claimed to be Muslim, but that was likely political. Everybody knew that he cast shells for divination and practiced traditional magic. But like many emperors before him, he had to balance the urban Muslim interests against those of the larger, rural, non-Muslim population. Relations between the two religions were becoming strained after centuries of co-existence, though the cracks had always been there. Urban Muslims had much more power than the rural animists, not just because they controlled court and the trade routes, but because Islamic law prevented Muslims from being enslaved. And soon those tensions became explicitly political. After a few years of punishing territory violators, Ali claimed rule over the neighboring city of Timbuktu, even receiving an invitation from the governor to eject the Tuareg occupiers. But the scholars of Timbuktu believed their city unique in the world, ruled not by kings, but by God. When the governor died, they rescinded the offer. But it was too late. Sunni Ali was already on his way. He sacked the city for its faithlessness, forcing its leading men into exile. It was the first of many persecutions targeting Muslim cities, whom Ali saw as supporters of his rival, Mali. But Sunni Ali was not content with a two city state. His new empire, the Songhai, would would expand along the Niger River and up to the Trans-Saharan trading towns, taking full advantage of the crumbling Mali Empire. To prosecute the war, he transformed the tribes of boatmen along the Niger into a crack riverine navy (?) and used this force to secure the river’s fertile delta region. Sunni Ali was not one to trifle with. He won every battle he fought, and often with extreme brutality. But, when he drowned in a boating accident, his successor, Askia Muhammad, proved more traditionally Muslim, continuing Ali’s conquest but also patronizing learning and science in Timbuktu. He reorganized the Songhai government as a meritocracy, where talented men could rise in state service regardless of their clan affiliation. And to show the Songhai’s new status as the rulers of West Africa, he made the hajj. By 1500, the Songhai ruled more territory than Mali ever had, and in 1545, the Songhai delivered Mali’s greatest indignity: they invaded, occupying Niani and forcing the Mansa to flee. The harried Mansa regrouped in the mountains and drove the invaders out, but the message was clear. Mali might still have a continuous monarchy and rule large amounts of territory; it might hold gold mines and a piece of the Trans-Saharan trade, but it was no longer a great power. Songhai middlemen stood between their gold and the markets of North Africa. So, battered and bruised, Mali adapted to Songhai’s rise by adapting, increasingly setting its sights towards the Atlantic Coast, which offered a unique opportunity because Portuguese ships began to arrive on Mali’s shores, offering textiles, rum, and manufactured goods for gold. In the early 1400s, Portugal had entered the Age of Exploration and Trading Voyages patronized by Prince Henry the Navigator. And the tales of Mali’s wealth drew them to this unseen kingdom that they called the “Golden Coast”. But Portugal had another objective. When reconquering the Iberian peninsula from its North African rulers, the Spanish and Portuguese had come into contact with enslaved Africans, who had been transported via the Trans-Saharan trade, and they embraced this concept. On early Atlantic voyages, they seized the Canary Islands in order to use them as a base for slave raids on the coast of Northern Africa. The first Portuguese expeditions to Mali got massacred by locals who were far better equipped to fight in the coastal waterways, but in 1456, a Portuguese explorer made it up the Gambia River and opened up the first trade negotiations with a Mali governor. It was a meeting that would change history, because despite their rocky start, it became clear that the Mali and the Portuguese had the same problem. Songhai had monopolized the Trans-Saharan trade routes, taking a bite out of every transaction in the gold and salt trades. But opening direct trade between Mali and Europe via the Atlantic Coast meant meant that bost sides would profit. And they did. The coastal region boomed, and the Songhai, ironically, found traffic along their Trans-Saharan routes beginning to slow. But the Gold Coast trade wouldn’t last, because the same boom in European exploration that had opened up African ports also flooded Europe with the looted gold of Central and South American empires, driving Mali’s purchasing power down. The Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch, British, Danish, and Swedish traders that were showing up on the coast now came less for gold and more for slaves. European slave markets were booming. By the close of the 15th century, 10% of Lisbon’s population was of African origin. And early colonists found that parts of the New World, such as Brazil and Jamaica, were were ideal for sugar cultivation. And those deadly plantations had an unending appetite for the blood and labor of enslaved people. It was the beginning of the Transatlantic slave trade, one of the greatest tragedies and involuntary migrations in human history. Over the course of the next 3.5 centuries, European slave traders forcibly transported at least 12 million people to Europe and America. And we are still sorting through the consequences of that trade today. So, let’s just pause for a moment here. The Transatlantic trade was a corrosive system that left legacies of violence and inequality wherever it touched, including West Africa…

the Transatlantic slave trade increasingly drained manpower from the West African kingdoms, making states like the diminished Mali less able to stand against outside aggressors, including colonialist interventions. In 1591, Morocco moved in from the north, hoping to seize the gold routes in order to pay for war debt. They razed the salt towns in the Sahara and brought a new terror to West Africa: the arquebus. Songhai crumbled before the cough of gunpowder. Moroccan armies sacked Timbuktu. The Songhai capital of Gao fell, ending 900 years of continuous rule as a city-state. The Moroccans marched on Mali, but Mansa Keita the Fourth met them. In a last, proud display of imperial valor, his army engaged the invaders. Gunpowder jetted, cutting down the Mansa’s infantry, harrowing the fine cavalry that was Sundiata’s legacy. The warriors of Mali stood firm against the gunfire, shielding their homeland with their bodies, reforming everytime their units were cut to ribbons. The bloodshed was atrocious, but they forced a draw. The Moroccans, stunned by this suicidal bravery, turned back. But despite that brave defense, Mali would suffer the fate of all empires. In 1610, when Mansa Mahmud Keita the Fourth died, his three sons fought over what remained. Regional wars would become the norm until a neighboring power sacked and burned Niani in 1670. After 4 centuries, the Mali Empire was gone. In that time, it had knit together the pieces of shattered Ghana, become an economic powerhouse, dazzled the world with its wealth, and even outlived its rival, Songhai. Today, the Empire of Mali is often remembered for Mansa Musa’s wealth, but that’s kind of unfair. It is true that the rulers of West Africa were rich, but Ghana, Songhai and Mali were so much more than that. They were patrons of religion and military innovators, builders who erected houses of worship and learning. Songhai craftsmen created masks and statuary that Picasso cited as an artistic influence. But perhaps Mali’s most incredible feat was to foster a multi-cultural population rich in diverse languages, cultures, and religious beliefs at a time when much of the world was still riven by religious conflict. Indeed, it is no accident that in 1959, when the region threw off the yoke of colonialism and needed a name for itself, one of those newly born nations looked back into its history and decided to name itself Mali.

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