The Beginning of Mali’s Cracks

In 1337 Mansa Musa the most powerful King in Mali’s history is dead He leaves behind an empire that covers a half a million square miles He leaves a university in Timbuktu that will soon have 25,000 students and the largest collection of books Africa has seen since the Library of Alexandria But more than that, he leaves a nation that has equal status with the rest of the Islamic world and he leaves a son on the throne. Who will only rule for four years.

Mansa Musa’s son it turned out had learned exactly The wrong lesson from his father the great Mansa had spread his gold around in order to gain political prestige But his son nearly spent the country into financial ruin, but four years into his reign he conveniently died of sleeping sickness and his uncle Suleyman took the throne and Suleyman was not generous like his brother though to be fair He probably couldn’t afford to be. We are speculating a bit here But it seems to have been an expensive few decades on top of Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage and building projects during his reign the Empire Had mounted a military expedition to recoquer Gao. Wars tends to be pricey and those bills were coming due so Suleiman got to work erasing all of that red ink he kept up appearances of course commissioning construction projects and performing the Hajj to foster diplomacy and trade But his mission as a ruler seemed to be just maintaining Mali’s position while keeping the Empire solvent funding for the military and diplomatic gifts yes, giving money to wandering scholars like Ibn Battuta who showed up at court with their hands out definitely no and Suleyman’s efforts seemed to have righted the ship since by the time Ibn Battuta visited, the traveller saw no hint of Instability even in the eastern provinces of Gao and Timbuktu that were so prone to rebellion this Mansa may not have been popular But he was effective, but that doesn’t mean that the Empire was in perfect health Discontent was growing at the fringes because let’s be clear while the Mali Empire was an incredible state that chalked up huge achievements in trade, learning, culture, and religious tolerance It was still an empire and empires frankly exist to extract wealth from conquered States So it was only natural that increasingly cities on the periphery were growing bitter about sending tribute to the Mansas While the epic of Sundiata might claim that the Mali Empire began as a result of Sundiata Rallying tribes together and creating a government the reality was likely more complex. The epic though a treasure of world literature Was also a story calculated to support the rulers of Mali and legitimize their rule over other West African groups in reality Sundiata’s people had succeeded in building an empire because of knowledge and Geography they lived on the grassy savanna the only belt between Desert and rain forests where it was possible to raise horses and support mass Agriculture and Sundiata’s people the Mandinka were a cast of metal workers who knew the secret of forging iron meaning that their Agricultural tools and weapons were more effective than their neighbors The early Mansa’s had forged their empire with cavalry, iron spears, and the food to support large armies. They didn’t so much create a confederation of tribes as force them into tributary relationships and while those tributary kingdoms did have their rights they each sent a representative to the capital and were self-governing, to a degree. They ultimately lived under the thumb of the Mansa he could veto any representative they sent and his bureaucrats kept a close eye on the crucial trade cities these trading centres got rich Don’t get me wrong but they still had to pay a tribute to the capital and wouldn’t it be nice if they didn’t need to and then there was the issue of slavery now before we get into this I should mention that slavery in Africa was often very different than the colonial and American types that we are more familiar with here in the West and that’s kind of important to understand for the sake of the story So let me just give a quick rundown There seemed to have been many different forms of slavery in Mali and some of them were actually More like what we would refer to as indentured servitude or serfdom because remember this was very much the Middle Ages This form of slavery wasn’t always permanent and Children born to enslaved people were not automatically enslaved themselves educated slaves often served roles at court And they could even wield political power one of the most able Mansas to arise after the death of Sundiata was a former court slave Enslaved people also had legal protections, although it is unclear how thoroughly that was enforced But regardless of the nuances nobody likes seeing people taken from their Kingdom to be used and sold as property and that is Just what the Mansas cavalry did every year raiding nearby territories capturing prisoners of war to feed the Empire’s need for human labour Because you see the Empire ran on slavery enslaved men worked in the mines and served as infantry in the army Women cultivated the millet fields and served as porter’s in the Trans-Saharan Caravans Enslaved people were one of the Empire’s largest exports when Ibn Battuta saw slaves working in the salt mines He was witnessing one of Mali’s greatest weaknesses social inequality the wealth it seems mostly stayed at the top and that likely made it easier for Rivals to gain support from common people. In other words between the raids, the tributes, and the political situation there were a lot of reasons that city-states on the Empire’s periphery might want to break away and Ironically Mali’s Trade Empire made that more likely to happen. See the capital at Niani wasn’t an important trade center It was just an administrative capital by contrast cities like Walata, Timbuktu, and Gao were far more crucial to the actual economics of the Trans-Saharan Trade And they grew increasingly wealthy and influential off of their strategic position. In fact, when Ibn Battuta visited these cities along the Niger on his way out of Mali He found minor governor’s much more generous than the Mansa himself which might be a clue that these officials were trying to forge diplomatic ties independent from the rest of the Empire and when Mansa Suleyman died in 1360, all of those semi-autonomous cities like Gao and Timbuktu saw their chance Suleyman left his son on the throne But that didn’t last Mansa Musa’s three grandsons, who had been waiting in the wings ever since Suleyman had deposed their father Plunged the country into civil war and put their oldest brother on the throne Over the next two decades all three brothers would rule in Turn the first bankrupted the state, the next was controlled by a scheming adviser, and the third when his time came proved Too weak to reign for long and buddy if you think regular wars are expensive Try a civil war and it’s here that things get hazy because the Arab historian who had been monitoring diplomatic communications between Mali and Morocco died leaving his history incomplete oral accounts tell us who ruled and in what order, but not for how long each reign lasted but we do know this the system of direct lineage was broken. For the rest of its history, Mali would endure a series of succession crises and unprepared rulers. There were still decade-long reigns and glorious conquests. Mali was powerful enough to take some hits without falling apart, but constant infighting pulled attention away from the Empire’s periphery and that provided an enormous opportunity for cities that had chafed under the Mansa’s grip in the *1370s* (Read Description) the ruling family of Gao rose up in revolt and defeated the Malian army sent to reconquer the city winning their independence over the next fifty years many states along the Empire’s north and east would slip from Mali’s orbit either throwing off the Imperial Yoke Or getting conquered by Berber tribes from the north. In fact the northern frontier became such a mess that the Mansa’s eventually cut their losses and turned their attention elsewhere after all, Mali still lay between the salt and the gold and could tax that trade, albeit not as lucratively as before They had lost power and prestige sure but the Empire hadn’t yet fallen Big things were in motion though. Soon the ruling family of Gao the Songhai Would explode out of their tiny Kingdom and forge an empire to rival mighty Mali and along the Atlantic coast Strange ships would appear wanting to trade ships bearing the colorful flags of Portugal.

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