Medieval West Africa
When the Portuguese first explored the West African coastline, the cultures of African societies were highly evolved and had been so for centuries. In the millennium preceding Portuguese exploration, three large centers of medieval African civilization developed sequentially along the west coast of sub-Saharan Africa. (See Figure 1-3)
The first polity that is known to have gained prominence was Ancient Ghana. Between 500 AD–1250 AD, Ancient Ghana flourished in the southern Sahel north of the middle Niger and middle Senegal Rivers. Ancient Ghana had a civil service, strong monarchy based on a matrilineal system of inheritance, a cabinet, an army, an effective justice system and a regular source of income from trade as well as tribute from vassal kings (Boahen 1966:4–9).
As Ghana declined over the next 200 years, the ancient Mali Empire arose in the same area but descended territorially further along the Niger River. Mali encompassed a huge area stretching from the Lower Senegal and Upper Niger rivers eastward to the Niger bend and northward to the Sahel.
Its great size made Mali an even more diverse state than Ghana. The majority of the people lived in small villages and cultivated rice or sorghums and millets, while some communities specialized in herding and fishing. Trade flourished in the towns, which housed a wide array of craftspeople, along with a growing number of Islamic teachers and holy men. The main commercial centers were its capitals Niani, Timbuktu, and Gao.
Mansa Musa is the most remembered of the kings of Mali. During Musa’s reign 1307–1337, Mali’s boundaries were extended to their farthest limits. There were fourteen provinces ruled by governors or emirs who were usually famous generals. Berber provinces were governed by their own sheiks . They all paid tribute to Musa in gold, horses and clothes. Musa instituted national honors for his provincial administrators to encourage devoted service. He ruled impartially with a great sense of justice. To help in this work he had judges, scribes and civil servants. Musa established diplomatic relationships with other African states, especially Morocco, with whom he exchanged ambassadors.
Mansa Musa is probably best known as the ruler who firmly established the Islamic religion in Mali along with peace, order, trade and commerce. Mansa Musa started the practice of sending students to Morocco for studies and he laid the foundation for what later became the city of Timbuktu, the commercial and educational center of the western Sudan (Boahen 1966:17–22).
Present day Mande people trace their ancestry back to the great 13th century. Learn more about what archeology has uncovered in Jeno-Jenne about the past of the Mande people , Africans who helped settle America during the 17th and 18th centuries (Hall 1992:45).
Around 1375, Gao, a small tributary state of Mali, broke away under the leadership of Sunni Ali and thus began the rise of the Songhai Empire. Over the next 28 years, Sunni Ali converted the small kingdom of Gao into the huge empire of Songhai. Songhai encompassed the geographic area of ancient Ghana and Mali combined and extended into the region of the Hausa states of ancient and contemporary northwest Nigeria.
Mandinka, Wolof, Bamana, (also called Bambara) peoples, and others lived in the western reaches of the Songhai in the Senegambia area. Hausa and Fulani people lived in the region that is now northwest Nigeria. All of these cultures still exist.
Islamic scholars and African oral traditions document that all of these states had centralized governments, long distance trade routes, and educational systems. Between the 13th and 17th centuries Mande and Mande-related warriors established the dominance of Mande culture in the Senegambia geographical region. Throughout the West African savanna where people migrated in advance of the Mande warriors, people spoke mutually intelligible Mandekan languages, and had a strong oral history tradition. In the 18th century people of the Mande culture were highly represented among those enslaved in the French Louisiana colony in North America (Hall 1992).
By the time, Portugal and Spain embarked on exploration and conquest of the Western Hemisphere, Mohammed Askia I ruled over Songhai. Askia completed Mansa Musa’s project to create a great center of learning, culminating with the establishment of the Sankore University in Timbuktu. Sankore teachers and students were from all over sub-Saharan Africa and from the Arabic nations to the east. Leo Africanus, an eyewitness described Sankore University thus:
“[H]ere are great stores of doctors, judges, priests and other learned men that are bountifully maintained at the King’s (Muhammad Askia) costs and charges ( 1896).”
Leo Africanus was born, El Hasan ben Muhammed el-Wazzan-ez-Zayyati in the city of Granada in 1485, but was expelled along with his parents and thousands of other Muslims by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Settling in Morocco, he studied in Fez and as a teenager accompanied his uncle on diplomatic missions throughout North Africa. During these travels, he visited Timbuktu.
As a young man he was captured by pirates and presented as an exceptionally learned slave to the great Renaissance pope, Leo X. Leo who freed him, baptized him under the name “Johannis Leo de Medici,” and commissioned him to write in Italian a detailed survey of Africa. His accounts provided most of what Europeans knew about the continent for the next several centuries.