Gold and Kings A CRITICAL OVERVIEW OF THE WESTERN SUDANESE KINGDOMS OF GHANA AND MALI

Map of Ancient Ghana, Mali, and Songhai - with Ghana in rust, Mali in Green, and Songhai in Red, courtesy of the National Museum of African Art.
Map of Ancient Ghana, Mali, and Songhai – with Ghana in rust, Mali in Green, and Songhai in Red, courtesy of the National Museum of African Art.

The kingdoms of Ghana and Mali developed in the same geographic area of Africa, the Western Sudan (please consult Annex A for maps). This topography led both states to developing economies based on the north-south gold and the rule of kings. However, the kingdoms differed on religion. Ghana maintained its traditional religion while accommodating Muslim traders, and Mali gradually converted to Islam. The Sudanese kingdoms of Ghana and Mali were remarkably similar in their economies and governments, but differed in their beliefs towards religion.

Map of Ancient Ghana, courtesy of the BBC
Map of Ancient Ghana, courtesy of the BBC

Ghana developed a strong monarchy with vassal kingdoms. The kingdom developed in modern day Mauritania and Senegal.[1] The Soninke people united under a king to fight off raids of pastoral nomads.[2] This king was in the line of Ouagadou.[3] The first king around the third century went under the title of Kaya Maghan – the king of gold – or Ghana – war chief – and built the capital of Kumbi Saleh.[4] Key evidence of this monarchy comes from Muslim writers who commented on Ghana. In the seventh century, Muslim geographer Al-Yaqubi described the government of Ghana in his work At Tarikh, as a “kingdom… the king of which is very powerful. Under his authority there are other kingdoms, such as ‘Am and Sama.”[5] The king of Ghana projected his influence onto other kingdoms. At the turn of the millennium, the Iberian Muslim scholar Al Bakri wrote Descriptions of Northern Africa, and claimed that, “the kingdom is inherited only by the son of the king’s sister.”[6] Succession of the kingdom was matrilineal. Barki also commented that most of the bureaucracy of Ghana were Muslims. He wrote, “The king’s interpreters, the official in charge of his territory, and the majority of his ministers, are Muslims.”[7] The reason for this Muslim bureaucracy was that they were educated abroad and could record affairs for the king in Arabic script. To further ensure his presence in the kingdom, the king served as chief judge, appointed ministers, and took the sons of vassal state chiefs’ hostage. Barki recorded, “The court of appeal is held in a domed pavilion… on his right are the sons of subordinate kings of his country… The governor of the city sits on the ground before the king, and around him are ministers seated likewise.”[8] The kingdom of Ghana united under a strong monarch, who gained his position out of conflict.

Map of Mali, courtesy of the BBC
Map of Mali, courtesy of the BBC

Likewise, the Musa, the Malian king, came to power out of conflict. The Malian kingdom became a locus of power under Sundjata, the leader of the Keita clan, who led the Malinke in Western Africa fighting against the Soninke clan in 1235 A.D.[9] Sundjata founded his capital in Niani, around the fertile savannah of the Niger River.[10] The kingdom later extended influence to the Atlantic Ocean and the urban trade cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Djenne.[11] Like the kings of Ghana, the kings of Mali ruled urban areas directly and distant territory indirectly, demanding tributes of agriculture produce and weapons from vassal kings.[12] For direct rule, the renowned king, Musa, “divided the empire into provinces, each with its own governor, and towns that were administered by a mochrif or mayor.”[13] Academic Albert Craig described the relationship between the direct rule and indirect rule, claiming, “Mali was less a centralized bureaucratic state than the center of a vast sphere of influence that included provinces and tribute-paying kingdoms. Many individual chieftaincies were independent but recognized the sovereignty of the supreme sacred mansa.”[14] While the king was supreme, he allowed independent kingdoms to flourish under his auspices. The king appointed his own successor, normally the oldest male relative, who ruled as the king’s deputy, allowed for a smooth transition of power.[15] However, coups and palace intrigue did occur, such as the change of state by Sakura, a freed slave of the royal family.[16] The king of Mali ruled directly and through influence on vassal kings.

The kingdom of Ghana gained economic hegemony on the north-south gold trade. Tenth century Baghdad geographer Al-Masudi wrote, “In all their (Ghana) kingdoms gold is visible on the ground, and the people extract it and set it like curds.”[17] The people of Ghana used this plentiful gold to have a ‘silent bargain’ with outlying merchants for salt and other commodities.[18] Camel caravans crossed the Sahara and traded manufactured goods for the precious commodities including slaves, ivory, and gold.[19] This economic activity led to foreign investment by Muslims, and “to establish there of a considerable colony of merchants from North Africa.”[20] Ultimately, this north-south trade provided economic supremacy and political stability for the Kingdom of Ghana.[21] The merchants of Ghana specialized in transporting precious commodities, most notably gold, across the Sahara.

The merchants of Mali continued the north-south gold trade, as well as expanding the east-west trade using rivers. The kingdom of Mali had influence over a larger region than the kingdom of Ghana. Thus, the Malians had more resources and markets: “The Keita kings dominated enough of the Sahel to control the flow of West African gold from the Senegal regions and the forestlands south of the Niger to the trans-Saharan trade routes and the influx of copper and salt in exchange.”[22] Because the Malians had access to the Niger, Gambia, and Senegal Rivers, they were able to further diversify their economy to include domestic slavery, agriculture, and animal husbandry.[23] The Malians used slaves in their domestic economy to clear farmland, allowing for some laborers to transition into skilled middle class occupations, such as metal working.[24] This evidence suggested that slavery was more important to the Malians than to the Ghanaians, as the successor kingdom used slavery for the north-south trade and to improve their domestic economy. The kingdom of Mali used the same trade routes and commodities as the kingdom of Ghana, while further diversifying their economy using domestic slavery.

The kingdom of Ghana embraced African traditional religion (ATR), while accommodating Muslim traders. Al Bakri described the structures of the town of the king:

In the town where the king lives, and not far from the hall in which he holds his court of justice, is a mosque where [sic] pray the Muslims who come on visiting diplomatic missions. Around the king’s town are domed buildings, woods, and copses where [sic] live the sorcerers of these people, the men in charge of the religious cult. In these also are idols and the tombs of their kings. These woods are guarded and no unauthorized person can enter them, so that it is not known what is within them.[25]

This quote revealed that the king of Ghana, who was not Muslim, built a mosque to accommodate the visiting Muslim diplomats. The indigenous people of Ghana believed in a mystery cult, involving totems and taboos. Another practice Al Bakri recorded was, “when the people who profess the same religion as the king approach him, they fall on their knees and sprinkle their heads with dust, for this is their way of showing him their respect. As for the Muslims, they greet him only by clapping their hands.”[26] The king’s coreligionists had to show him a unique form of respect, while the Muslims adopted their own tradition. Another factor of this religion was the myth of the black snake Bida, who had to be appeased with a virgin sacrifice each year or the people of Ghana would risk a drought.[27] The people of Ghana had their own African traditional religion, but allowed the Muslims to practice their own beliefs.

The kings of Mali originally followed an African traditional religion, but later became converted to Islam.  Sundjata claimed to have a monopoly to ancestral spirits: “Sundjata established himself as a great religious and secular leader, claiming the greatest and most direct link with the spirits of the land.”[28] Around the twelfth century, the Keita Dynasty converted to Islam, and claimed to be descendants of Muhammad’s famous black muezzin Bilal ibn Ribah.[29] The legendary Mansa Musa went on the hajj with over 60,000 retainers and gold-laden camels as he explored Cairo, Media, and Mecca.[30] He also built madrasas – Islamic schools – and libraries in Timbuktu.[31] These two pieces of evidence show that Mansa Musa was a devoted Muslim, and sought to spread education in his kingdom of the Islamic faith. Levtzion described the switch between ATR and Islam: Mansa Musa “is the favourite of all Muslim writers, both Oriental and Sudanese, in contrast to Sundjata, who is the god-hero of the pagan traditions (told by griots or storytellers).”[32] Sundjata believed in ATR, while later Mansa Musa believed in Islam.

Both Ghana and Mali kingdoms fell from preeminence due to armed conflict which disrupted trade. According to Ibn Khaldun, a late fourteenth century Arabic writer of History of the Berbers:

The Kingdom of Ghana declined into utter weakness about the time when the empire of the Almoravids began to become powerful… (They) expanded their dominion over the Negros, devastated their territory and pillaged their lands. Having subjected them to the gizya (tax on non-Muslims), they exacted tribute from them, and induced many of them to become converts to Islam. The authority of the kings of Ghana was destroyed, their neighbors the Sosso subjugated the country and reduced its inhabitants to slavery.”[33]

Berber expansion was one of the key factors of Ghana’s decline. Other factors included the 13th century conquest of the Sosso, lost farmland due to desiccation, and further raiding, which disrupted vital trade routes. The Malians faced internal armed dissent from their client vassal states. The Songhai, Tuareg, Tukulor, Wolof, and Mossi revolted and sought to carve up their own autonomous kingdoms in the 14th century, which weakened the Malian trade and central government.[34] Though raiders assaulted Timbuktu several times, Mali dwindled on until the 17th century, when it dissolved completely.[35] Both kingdoms lost their monopoly on trade, which further hindered their central government, ultimately leading to their collapse.

The geographically overlapping kingdoms of Ghana and Mali shared several social and economic factors in common, such as the north-south gold trade and a strong monarchy. The kingdoms diverged on religion. The kingdom of Ghana persisted in its belief of ATR, while accommodating Muslim visitors. The kingdom of Mali, however, converted from ATR to Islam. Both kingdoms met their demise through the loss of their trade monopoly and conflict with rival factions. These two kingdoms of the Western Sudan, using Bismarck like terms, were made of gold and kings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

BBC. “Ghana.” The Story of Africa: West African Kingdoms. Accessed September 9, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/4chapter1.shtml.

BBC. “Mali.” The Story of Africa: West African Kingdoms. Accessed September 9, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/4chapter3.shtml.

Craig, Albert M. et al. The Heritage of World Civilizations. Volume I, Chapter 14. Pearson, 2012. 336-356.

Fage, J.D. “Ancient Ghana: A Review of the Evidence.” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana 3, no. 2 (1957): 3-24. Accessed September 9, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41405704.

Levtzion, N. “The Thirteenth – and Fourteenth-Century Kings of Mali.” The Journal of African History 4, no. 3 (1963): 341-353. Accessed September 9, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/180027.

National Museum of African Art. “Mali.” Mali Empire and Djenne Figures. Accessed September 9, 2013. http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/resources/mali/index.htm.

WorldNet Virginia. “History: The Ghana Empire.” Mali: Crossroads of Ancient Africa. Accessed September 9, 2013. http://mali.pwnet.org/history/history_ghana_empire.htm.

WorldNet Virginia. “History: The Mali Empire.” Mali: Crossroads of Ancient Africa. Accessed September 9, 2013.  http://mali.pwnet.org/history/history_mali_empire.htm.


[1] BBC, “Ghana,” The Story of Africa: West African Kingdoms, Accessed September 9, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/4chapter1.shtml.

[2] WorldNet Virginia, “History: The Ghana Empire,” Mali: Crossroads of Ancient Africa, Accessed September 9, 2013, http://mali.pwnet.org/history/history_ghana_empire.htm.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5]J.D. Fage, “Ancient Ghana: A Review of the Evidence,” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana 3, no. 2 (1957): 4, Accessed September 9, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41405704.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] J.D. Fage, “Ancient Ghana: A Review of the Evidence,” 7.

[8] Ibid.

[9] WorldNet Virginia, “History: The Mali Empire,” Mali: Crossroads of Ancient Africa, Accessed September 9, 2013, http://mali.pwnet.org/history/history_mali_empire.htm.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Albert M. Craig et al., The Heritage of World Civilizations, Vol. I, Ch. 14. (Pearson, 2012), 343.

[15] N. Levtzion, “The Thirteenth – and Fourteenth-Century Kings of Mali,” The Journal of African History 4, no. 3 (1963): 347, Accessed September 9, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/180027.

[16] Ibid., 345.

[17] J.D. Fage, “Ancient Ghana: A Review of the Evidence,” 4-5.

[18] Ibid., 5.

[19] WorldNet Virginia, “History: The Ghana Empire.”

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Albert M. Craig et al., The Heritage of World Civilizations, 341.

[23] WorldNet Virginia, “History: The Mali Empire.”

[24] Ibid.

[25] J.D. Fage, “Ancient Ghana: A Review of the Evidence,” 7.

[26] J.D. Fage, “Ancient Ghana: A Review of the Evidence,” 7.

[27] BBC, “Ghana.”

[28] WorldNet Virginia, “History: The Mali Empire.”

[29] Albert M. Craig et al., The Heritage of World Civilizations, 341.

[30] WorldNet Virginia, “History: The Mali Empire.”

[31] Albert M. Craig et al., The Heritage of World Civilizations, 343.

[32] N. Levtzion, “The Thirteenth – and Fourteenth-Century Kings of Mali,” 347.

[33] J.D. Fage, “Ancient Ghana: A Review of the Evidence,” 11.

[34] WorldNet Virginia, “History: The Mali Empire.”

[35] Ibid.

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