Post-classical history

Chapter Twenty-Nine


Sundiata of the Mali

Between 1203 and 1240, the clans of the Malinke fight over Ghana’s land, and the slave trade north grows

GHANA HAD FALLEN: first to Almoravid invasion and then to the rebellion of the Sosso, a once-subject clan in the south. Around 1203, just a few years after claiming the kingship of the Sosso clan itself, the clan chief Sumanguru overran the capital city of Kumbi-Saleh. The last remnants of Ghanan power fell into his hands; the entire country was his.

This must have been a great military campaign, but the warriors who fought with Sumanguru did not, like the chroniclers of the West, record its battles. All that we know of Sumanguru comes from the Epic of Sundiata, a tale told orally, for centuries, by professional bards known as griots. “He was skilled in warfare,” the tale tells us,

His father was a jinn,

His mother was a human being. . . .

The authority of kingship was given to him;

His power as a king was great;

He used to make hats out of human skin,

He used to make sandals out of human skin.1

This is not a flattering depiction, but at the very least we can gather that Sumanguru was no more or less ruthless than Simon de Montfort, far to his north, or Genghis Khan, directing his operations far to the east.

The heartland of Ghana was much-coveted ground: watered by both rivers and sweet wells, says the Arab geographer al-Idrisi, with fish, elephants, giraffes, rice, and sorghum in abundance; so full of gold, writes the thirteenth-century cosmologist al-Qazwini, that it “grows in the sand of this country as carrots do in our land, and the people come out at sunrise to pluck the gold.” Sumanguru did not hold his conquests easily. Not long after his destruction of the old Ghana government, he faced a challenge to his authority from another clan in the Malinke tribe; the Keita, to his southeast.2

The Keita, unlike the Sosso, were Muslim. They had traded up the Niger river valley, through the central trade route that led to Tunis, for generations, and Islamic beliefs had filtered back down to them along with the northern goods. They were also disinclined to submit to Sumanguru. Under their king Nare Fa Maghan, the Keita fought back. Before Nare Fa Maghan’s death, sometime around 1217, Sumanguru’s armies sacked the capital city of the Keita nine separate times. Each time, the Keita regathered themselves and again rebelled.3

When Nare Fa Maghan died, his oldest son inherited the rule of the Keita. Instead of continuing to fight, he decided to make peace with the aggressive enemy. Peace meant submission, but the new king was willing to pay the price; in addition, he handed over his sister in marriage to Sumanguru. For a time, the Sosso controlled almost all of the old Ghana territory.4

But the Keita remained restless, and it soon became apparent that the marriage treaty had been a ruse.

In the Epic of Sundiata, Sumanguru’s bride tries to wheedle out of him, on their wedding night, the secret of his invulnerability on the battlefield: “What is it that can kill you?” she says, before she allows him to lay a hand on her. “If you do not tell me, you will not know me as a wife.” (At this, Sumanguru’s mother—unexpectedly close to hand—remarks, “Why would you spill your secrets to a one-night woman?” Soothing the old lady, Sumanguru promises to tell his new wife the secret once his mother is safely asleep.)

The secret, it turns out, is witchcraft; Sumanguru is a practitioner of the dark arts. Once she has learned this, the princess tells her groom that she’s having her period and can’t sleep with him after all; and the next morning she escapes home to tell her brothers her discovery. Armed with the materials for a hastily assembled spell against the sorcerer, her brother Sundiata—younger brother of the king—sets off to destroy Sumanguru.5

The Epic of Sundiata, told for hundreds of years before it was first written down early in the twentieth century, reflects the hostility of the Islamic Keita towards the non-Muslim Sosso. Sumanguru remained an implacable enemy of Islam, refusing to allow his people to observe its practices, executing Muslims who fell into his hands. But there was another edge to the hatred between the two clans as well. Sumanguru also resented the thriving trade in African slaves that the Keita carried on, selling their captives north to Muslim traders. No abolitionist, Sumanguru was prone to turn his own captives into slaves; but he fought against the custom of selling them into Islamic lands and drove Muslim merchants from every territory he conquered.6

This did not improve his popularity, and Sundiata had little trouble gathering allies to fight against the autocratic ruler. “All the rebellious kings of the savanna country had gathered [with him],” the Epic tells us. “On all sides, villages opened their gates to Sundiata. In all these villages Sundiata recruited soldiers.” A long and catastrophic civil war began. By 1230, Sundiata had inherited his brother’s royal title of king; by 1235, his allies had driven Sumanguru’s army backwards to his capital city; and by 1240, Sumanguru had fled, his empire in fragments, and his palace burned to the ground by Sundiata’s men.

The short-lived Sosso kingdom collapsed. “After the destruction of Sumanguru’s capital,” the Epic concludes, “the world knew no other master but Sundiata.” Sundiata seized control of the old Ghana lands, claimed Kumbi-Saleh as his own, and established his own empire; it became known as Mali.7


29.1 Sosso and Mali

In the Epic of Sundiata, the king of the Keita is an Islamic hero, victor in the war against the animistic and violent Sumanguru: “In the same way as light precedes the sun,” it explains, “so the glory of Sundiata, overleaping the mountains, shed itself on all the Niger plain.” He was proclaimed “King of Kings” by the Malinke, and over the next two decades followed Sumanguru’s example, conquering the outlying territories until Mali stretched past Ghana’s old boundaries to unite a new expanse of western African land.

But along with Sundiata’s triumph came a renewal of the slave trade. Before Sumanguru, Kumbi-Saleh had hosted a thriving slave market; now, under the rule of Sundiata, the markets revived and grew larger and busier. Slave traders came down the central trade route to Sundiata’s new capital city, Niani; and Mali grew richer and richer.8


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