The empire of Mali, founded by the Mande (or Mandingo) conqueror Sundiata Keita in the thirteenth century, stretched from the coast of what is now Gambia in the West to the city of Gao on the river Niger in the East, and from the Teghazza saltmarshes of the Sahara in the north to the edges of the forests of modern Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire in the south. It was the largest and most powerful of the political formations in West Africa in the Middle Ages, reaching its peak under Mansa (Emperor) Musa, who reigned from 1307 to 1332. In the fifteenth century, however, it began to decline, and it disappeared from the political map of Africa around the beginning of the seventeenth century. The heart of the empire was composed of the commercial centers of Djenn, Timbuktu, and Gao, which lay along the middle loop of the Niger and maintained relations with the Arab countries to the north. After Mali lost this crucial region to the Songhay kingdom, the Mansas turned their attention to the west, where the Portuguese had just started their commercial ventures along the Atlantic coast of Senegambia. The appearance of these European mariners on the shores of Africa seemed to offer a lifeline to the Juula, the Mandingo merchant caste, who now directed their caravans westward.
From the beginning of the fifteenth century onward, Mali also became the target of military campaigns launched from the Sahel by two nomadic peoples, the Moors and the Tuaregs. It was at around the same time that the Songhay kings, who were vassals of the Mansas, threw off the Mande yoke. Both these developments were made possible by the increasing weakness of the central government, which in turn owed much to the succession crisis within the ruling family at the end of the fourteenth century. The descendants of Sundiata, the senior branch of the dynasty, had rebelled in an attempt to retrieve the supreme power from the junior branch, descended from one of Sundiata’s brothers, which had monopolized the throne ever since the accession of Mansa Musa, and the empire had been weakened by assassinations and palace intrigues. The Tuaregs, Saharan nomads who had earned the respect of the Malian forces from the thirteenth century onward, took advantage of the succession crisis to rise up and drive the Mande garrison out of Timbuktu in 1433. The Mansas also lost control of Walata, Nema, and the whole of the Sahel region that they had once ruled. As a result, they lost control of the trails across the Sahara that had linked their empire with the commercial centers of the Maghrib and Egypt.
However, the decisive blow was struck against the Malian empire with the rise to power of Sonni Ali, a prince of Gao who displayed unrivaled energy and ambition. It was Sonni Ali who drove the Tuaregs away and then made himself master of the whole of the loop of the Niger as far as Djenn, the most important of the commercial centers. Having lost the cities of the Sahel and the rich territories of the inland delta of the Niger, Mali was effectively pushed back into the West. Its Senegambian provinces, heavily populated by Mande, rapidly acquired greater economic importance following the arrival of the Portuguese mariners, whose desire to open trading relations with Mali stemmed from its reputation for being rich in gold, a reputation that had haunted the imaginations of Europeans since the days of Mansa Musa. The Juula willingly sent their caravans to the ports at which the Europeans’ ships had just arrived, which are now in Gambia and Guinea but were then also ruled by the Mansas. The Wanga and Juula merchants bought black and blue cotton fabrics, Indian textiles, and embroidered clothing from the Portuguese, although it frequently happened that the Juula brought so much gold with them that the caravels (the Portuguese ships) could not carry enough merchandise to exchange for it.
The Portuguese duly recognized and valued the commercial skills of the Juula, and from the midfifteenth century began to ask them for slaves: trading relations between Africans and Europeans were about to be transformed, at a very rapid pace and to the advantage of the Europeans. The Malian trade along the coast continued up to the end of the sixteenth century, but the main effect of these contacts between the Portuguese and the local rulers, who were vassals of the Malian Empire, was that these rulers tended to become ever more independent of the authority of the Mansas.
Among the non-Mandingo subjects of the Mansas, the Fulani, a pastoral people of the Sahel, were among the first to break away from their rule. Ever since the thirteenth century, the Fulani had been moving far to the south in search of pasture and watering holes and had thus established a strong presence in Futa-Toro, on the banks of the river Senegal, in Macina, in the inland delta of the Niger, in Futa-Jallon, in the grassy valleys, and in the Bondu savanna. For a long time they submitted to the laws imposed on them by the farmers, but from the fifteenth century onward they rose up, throughout the region, and became the masters of the sedentary population in their turn, going on to create their own powerful states. The uprising of the Fulani was led by their tribal chief Tenguella, and it was in order to combat him that in 1490 the Mansa of Mali sought military aid, or at least a supply of firearms, from the Portuguese. They responded by sending an impressive delegation to Niani, but although these envoys came laden with gifts, they did not supply any weapons to the emperor.
Tenguella then gathered a powerful army and organized an effective cavalry, so that the Fulani were able to cause devastation wherever they went. Their campaign against both the Songhay and the Mande lasted from 1480 to 1512, under both Tenguella and his son, Koly Tenguella, who proved to be a strong leader of men like his father. Having built a major fortress in Futa Jalon, and having left his son in charge of it, Tenguella led a campaign to the East against the Songhay, who had been trying to move westward in the footsteps of the Mande, seeking control of the gold mines ofBambuk. The Fulani and the Songhay clashed at Diarra in 1512: Tenguella was defeated and killed by Amar Kondjago, a brother of the Askia (ruler) of Gao, Mohammed.
Tenguella carried on the war, recruiting a large army of Baga, Kokoli, Badiaranke, and Mande mountain warriors and leading it out from the fortress. He adopted the Mandingo title of “Silatigi” (“trail head” or “guide”), although the Portuguese came to known him simply as the Grand Fulani. He then drove the Malian forces back towards what is now Gambia, conquered the kingdoms of the Wolof and Futa Toro, and imposed his rule over the numerous local dynasties in the West, setting up his capital at Anyam-Godo in Futa Toro. The Mande, expelled from Futa Jalon and Futa Toro, were left with no more than a narrow corridor of land along the river Gambia, linking them to the Atlantic.
The Mansas still hoped to establish a stable relationship with the Portuguese, who did not hesitate, however, to sign commercial contracts directly with the local rulers who were vassals of Mali. Even so, on two occasions, in 1481 and 1495, King John II of Portugal sent envoys to Niani, where Mansa Mahmud II received them with pomp, only to have his repeated requests for firearms rejected. In 1534 his grandson Mansa Mahmud III also received envoys from Portugal at Niani, this time led by the King’s representative at the fortress of El Mina. Yet while the Mansas committed themselves to favoring Portuguese trade on the River Gambia, the King of Portugal secretly gave aid to many of the provincial governors, rulers, and chiefs, helping them to free themselves from central control and thus undermining the authority of the Mansas. As a result, Saalum and other kingdoms and principalities, as well as the Mande provinces of Gabu and Gambia, became independent of the Mansas. Niani, being located more than 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) from the coast, could not cope with all these rebellions.
At the end of the sixteenth century Mansa Mahmud IV attempted to take advantage of the weakness of the pasha of Morocco, following the disruptions caused by the Moroccan conquest of the lands of the Songhai, by recruiting a large army and launching a campaign to reconquer Djenn. He relied on the complicity, or at least the neutrality, of a number of the local rulers, and his army made a deep impression on the Moroccans. However, the Moroccans used firearms to repel the Mansa, and neither he nor his successors ever again attempted to regain control of Djenn. In any case, after the death of Mahmud IV his five sons divided what was left of the empire between them, and in the seventeenth century the empire of Mali vanished from the political map of Africa.
Djibril Tamsir Niane
See also: Mali Empire, Sundiata and Origins of; Songhay Empire: Sonni Ali and Founding of an Empire.
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