The Mali Empire is one of the largest and most widely known precolonial African states. It has featured in films, video games, works of fiction, and its memory is still a profound force in the articulation of social and political identities across Mande West Africa. Founded in the 13th century in the south of modern Mali, it quickly grew from a small kingdom to a vast empire stretching from the Senegambia in the west to Ivory Coast in the south. Before its disintegration in the late 16th century, its connections to distant trade networks stretched from Europe to China and its rulers became famous across the Old World for their wealth. In the absence of indigenous written histories, knowledge of the Mali Empire has been based on a complex combination of oral traditions, medieval Arabic chronicles, European accounts, oral histories, and archaeology. Through a critical analysis of these sources, it has been possible to learn much about Mali’s history, including aspects its social organization, political structure, belief systems, and historical evolution. However, there is much we still do not know, including the location and nature of its capital(s).
Perspectives on southern Africa’s past in the eras before the establishment of European colonial rule have been heavily shaped by political conflicts rooted in South Africa’s history as a society of colonial settlement. The archive of available evidence—archaeological finds, recorded oral materials, and colonial documents—together with the concepts used to give them meaning are themselves products of heavily contested historical processes. Archaeological evidence indicates that Homo sapiens, descended from earlier forms of hominin, was present in southern Africa at least 200,000 years ago, but many members of the South African public reject evolutionary notions of the past. From about 200 bce onward, groups of hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and farmers were in constant contact in southern Africa. A widespread European settlerist view, based on deep-seated stereotypes of warring races and “tribes,” is that they were permanently in conflict: historical evidence shows that in fact they interacted and intermingled in a range of different ways. Interactions became yet more complex from the mid-17th century as settlers from Europe gradually encroached from the southwest Cape Colony into most of southern Africa. In some areas, settler graziers sought to wipe out groups of hunter-gatherers, and to break up pastoralist groups and enserf their members; in other areas, particularly in the shifting colonial frontier zone, mixed groups, including settlers, made a living from raiding and trading. In the 19th century, groups of settler farmers sought to subjugate African farmers, and seize their land and labor. Contrary to a common view, they had only limited success until, in the later 19th century, Britain, the major colonial power in the region, threw its weight decisively behind British settler expansion. Other Europeans—traders and missionaries in particular—worked with Africans to make profits and save souls. Some Africans sought to resist loss of land and sovereignty; others sought to take advantage of the colonial presence to seek new political allies, loosen ties to chiefs, find wage work, produce for the market, join churches, seek a book education, and incorporate Christian ideas into their politics. Even before they came under colonial domination, many chiefs sought to move from a long-established politics based on alliance making to a politics based on what Europeans called “tribal” rule.
The Empire of Ghana is one of the earliest known political formations in West Africa. Within the context of a growing trans-Saharan trade, Arabic sources begin to mention “Ghāna,” the name of a ruler as well as of the city or country he ruled, in the 9th century. Repeatedly named in connection with fabulous riches in gold, Ghāna had acquired a preeminent role in the western Sahel and was a leader among a large group of smaller polities. Ghāna’s influence waned, and by the mid-14th century its ruler had become subordinate to the Empire of Mali. Over the course of a complex history of research, the Empire of Ghana became equated with the Soninké people’s legend of Wagadu and the archaeological site of Kumbi Saleh in southern Mauritania was identified as its capital. Yet between historical sources, oral traditions, and archaeological finds, little is known with certainty about the Empire of Ghana. Most questions on this early West African empire remain unanswered, including its location, development, the nature and extent of its rule, and the circumstances of its demise.