Scholar-Griot: Rebecca Allyson Schnabel, M.S.

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While knights rode approximately medieval Europe, the three great empires that West Africa succeeded through unimaginable wealth. Ghana, Mali and also Songhai controlled much more gold and conducted more an international trade than any European power at this time in history.

Three beforehand West african Empires

(Note: this historic realms are not the nations bearing the very same names today. Likewise note: "CE" means "Common Era" and, like "AD," steps the years as counted by Christian scholar from the birth of Jesus.)

Ghana (Wagadu) – 300 CE -1235 CE

Traditionally known as Wagadu, the realm of Ghana to be the very first of the an excellent Western afri Empires. Situated additional north 보다 the modern-day Republic that Ghana, this was the smallest yet longest making it through of this three historic domains. Located between two major rivers, the Niger and also the Senegal, and also bordered by the Sahara to the east, Ghana became the center of trade between the Arabs and Berbers in the north regions and also other African cultures to the south. Bringing under salt from northern Africa, the Arabs and Berbers traded in Ghana because that gold and ivory.

Empire of Ghana (Wagadu)

Ghana’s wealth prospered through a dual taxation system inserted on your most an important commodity, gold. Human being were taxed as soon as bringing gold in and also again once taking it the end of the empire. Ghana additionally profited indigenous the exportation that gold. Gold dust was the main currency of the time. Salt, however, is crucial for human being survival and also rare the further south ones travels. As the desire and need for further trade grew, the nomadic Berbers developed the western trans-Saharan caravan road. Thanks to this elaborate highway system, Mediterranean traders might travel south to afri strongholds like Ghana come exchange their salt because that ivory and gold.

This 1985 Azalai salt caravan proceeds the legacy of trans-Saharan trade.

Leaders in Ghana, the Soninke, regulated to save their main source of gold, the Bambuk mines, a an enig from the foreign traders. The Soninke preserved the main point of pure metal for themselves, accumulating good wealth, and also left the unworked native gold to it is in marketed by the usual people. Historians think this worldwide trade course mobilized numerous thousands the Africans, with the yellow of Ghana reaching much away European and also Asian countries.

The degeneration of this empires arisen due come political turmoil from within and also invaders that penetrated Ghana’s boarders and also sacked their great cities. Scholars tell united state there were intrusions from the north by teams like the Almoravids, and also by the brief lived Sosso Kingdom. Sundiata Keita, founder that the Mali empire, likewise took advantage of the weak of Ghana. Transforming trading routes played a major role in its decline as well, as did civil wars due to religious differences. Many world in Ghana rubbish Islam, preferring your traditional id systems.

For further readings ~ above the political equipment and major leaders that Ghana see historian Phillip Curtin’s work titled African History, the Cambridge history of Africa, and also the UNESCO collection on the General background of Africa (GHA).

Mali – 1230 CE – 1460 CE

Out that the ashes of Ghana come the next great civilization the its time –– and also the wealthiest kingdom ever before to exist in world background — the Mali Empire. The root of Mali begin within old Ghana and also the Malinke residents of Kangaba, who served as middlemen trading yellow to foreigners. Sundiata Keita rose up from his tiny kingdom that Kangaba, won the people’s support, conquered the last stronghold of old Ghana, and also began the regime of the Mali Empire. His successors broadened the empire to envelope the trading towns of Timbuktu and also Gao and also northern areas such together Taghaza, comprise the highly valuable salt deposits. Mali swallowed increase the riches of Ghana and expanded on their practices with an excellent success.

In 1312 CE, Musa the first or Mansa (meaning King or Emperor) Musa took the throne that Mali. He had an army of over 100,000 consisting of a mounties of an ext than 10,000 men. This army was a formidable fighting force, which permitted Mansa Musa to double the size of his kingdom. He is remembered most notably together the richest guy who ever before lived.

Mansa Musa, the richest guy in history.

Ruling the gold facility of the world, Mansa Musa’s wide range is incomprehensible. Being a dedicate Muslim, Mansa Musa traveled throughout the continent and also brought ago scholars and also architects. These specialists would develop universities and also mosques. His 4,000 mile pilgrimage to Mecca provided him the chance to show his generosity to the typical people. Mansa Musa’s presents of gold to common civilization throughout his hajj destabilized the entire Egyptian economy. His good generosity literally placed him ~ above the map. In 1375 Mansa Musa was illustrated on the Catalan Atlas, among the most important world maps of medieval Europe. He was depicted with a golden scepter and crown, seated upon a gold throne.

The Catalan Atlas was one of the many important civilization maps that its day. Mansa Musa that Mali, as among the world"s most crucial leaders, was pictured on it offering some the his gold.

However, Mansa Musa added far an ext to the people than gold. In one early form of globalization, Mansa Musa sent ambassadors across the continent that Africa. In Mali he cultivated "a ar of splendor, wealth, and sophistication," attracting European and Middle east travelers alike. Mansa Musa likewise modernized the an excellent city of Timbuktu, structure public schools, universities, and mosques. These incorporate the legend Djinguereber, the earliest mosque in Timbuktu, constructed in 1327, which tho stands today. It holds one of the world’s earliest universities tho in existence.

Unfortunately, queens who adhered to would lose manage of number of smaller says within Mali, resulting in disunity, revolt, and also the erosion of central power. Together Mali increased from the fall of Ghana, for this reason Songhai would certainly assert that independent power over the region, arising as the next an excellent Western african Empire.


Songhai (also spelled Songhay) – 1460 CE – 1600 CE

While Mali quickly fell apart because of rampant disunity, a brand-new king reigned. Sonni Ali rule Songhai native 1464 come 1492. The Songhai kingdom was a small modern state of Ghana however later increased to defeat its Malian conquerers. The Songhai controlled the trade on the Niger river at the moment of the Mali Empire. Through endless projects for expansion, Songhai became the largest of the three great empires of west Africa –– and larger than every one of continental Europe. The Songhai kingdom under Ali had actually the just naval fleet in West Africa. Ali was a army tyrant, likewise referred to together Sunni the Merciless, intolerant of any kind of resistance to his rule. That is well-known for having starved the citizens of renowned trading city of Djenné right into submission. This brutal tactics describe how the empire grew so large in together a brief amount of time, also suggesting why the realm would last just as briefly. Sonni Ali is additionally known, however, for his wise financial decisions, reviving the old trade courses of empires past. Under his reign, vast commercial cities favor Djenné, Gao, and Timbuktu became great centers that learning and scholarship.

King Sonni Ali (as portrayed by the african Heritage Foundation)

Another proficient leader of the Songhai empire was Askia the Great. Recognized for encouraging worldwide trade between Songhai and both Europe and also Asia, Askia was additionally known for his religious tolerance. Prefer the rulers before him the both Songhai and Mali, Askia the an excellent was a devout Muslim. That opened spiritual schools and also mosques across the empire. Oral backgrounds relate that he go not pressure Islam ~ above his people or punishment those who determined to think otherwise. Simultaneously orchestrating a strategy of expansion and also consolidation, Askia the great did not kind his domain along traditional Islamic lines. He rather instituted a mechanism of bureaucratic government unparalleled at this time in west Africa. The Songhai empire possessed some of Africa’s earliest arranged taxation systems and trade regulations, proceeding the ancestral trade routes of gold, ivory, and also salt. Amongst Askia’s renowned economic and also military success is his less popular interest in and influence on the advance of the field of astronomy.

By the 17th century satellite kingdoms follow me the borders began to rebel, and also civil wars developed across the empire. The central power of the emperor likewise fell into continuous strife as decedents battled over the appropriate to rule. V the empire splintering except within, the neighboring an ar of Morocco decided to take benefit and introduced an invasion. Despite having a tenth the the manpower, the Moroccan muskets far outperformed the timeless spears and arrows the the Songhai military. Moroccan leader Ahmad al-Mansur al-Dhahabi, known as ‘the gold Conqueror,’ seized the Songhai treasure. That eventually took in all that the empire into a Moroccan province, dissolve the last of the an excellent Western african Empires.

In Conclusion

Like countless historic empires, Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, walk not endure into contemporary times. However, they were basic in shaping the people we live in today. Many European, middle Eastern, and also Asian strongholds would not have prospered without the trade from these African Empires. These African cultures not only affected the global economy, they likewise shaped the world"s art, culture, and religion through worldwide trade. This empires provided protection and also resources to many great African and Muslim scholars, thereby sustaining the development of science, philosophy, and also other develops of knowledge throughout the globe.


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Rebecca Schnabel is a graduate of UW-Milwaukee’s masters of Public background and Museum studies Certificate programs. She strives to cultivate a feeling of ar through engaging endeavors that connect history with the present, specifically through empowering the general public to use their own firm while experimenting exhibitions on society justice. Rebecca’s passion does no reside in one specific historical era or geographic location, yet instead in illuminating underrepresented histories. Her specialties incorporate interpretation, collection management, and exhibit design. To learn more, please visit her online portfolio: