Reign of Sundiata of Mali

Sundiata led the successful revolt of the Malinke people against the Susu (Soso) kingdom. In unifying the Malinke, he reasserted Mali’s independence. Following this success with military expansion, he founded and established the Mali Empire, which became a major trade power in the central and western Sudanic region of West Africa.

Summary of Event

Sundiata was the founder of the Mali Empire, which flourished from the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries. At its apogee, Mali extended across the central and western Sudanic region from the Atlantic Ocean to the bend of the Niger River beyond the city of Gao. It stretched from the Sahara Desert in the north to the forest zone in the south. It covered a broad expanse of savannah-type land bound together by the upper Senegal and Niger Rivers. It was an excellent location for control of trans-Saharan trade. [kw]Reign of Sundiata of Mali (1230’-1255)
[kw]Sundiata of Mali, Reign of (1230’-1255)
[kw]Mali, Reign of Sundiata of (1230’-1255)
Africa;1230’-1255: Reign of Sundiata of Mali[2360]
Government and politics;1230’-1255: Reign of Sundiata of Mali[2360]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1230’-1255: Reign of Sundiata of Mali[2360]

The Malinke Malinke are Mande-speaking peoples. In the eleventh century, they were subjects of the Ghana Empire. With the collapse of Ghana, the region eventually fell under the control of the Susu kingdom Susu kingdom , led by Sumanguru Sumanguru . In the 1220’, the various Malinke chieftaincies fell under Susu sovereignty.

Sundiata was the son of a local chief of the Keita clan. The story of his youth, as well as much of Mali’s early history, is known only through the oral traditions of the Malinke. According to these narratives, the legendary Sundiata was disabled as a youth and walked with a limp. He and his mother were ridiculed by a cowife who had a healthy and handsome son, whom she feared might not become chief, or mansa. However, when this handsome half brother became chief, Sundiata and his mother were driven into exile.

Through a series of miraculous transformations, Sundiata regained full use of his legs and grew into a strong and wise young man. He developed into a well-known warrior and hunter. He became a member of hunters’s associations and also acquired occult powers. Part of his exile was spent in the town of Mema. After the defeat of his half brother and the Susu occupation of the Malinke homeland, Sundiata, with the help of the people of Mema, returned home. He was joined by warriors and members of hunters’s associations and began organizing a rebellion. The result was a series of epic battles recounted in Malinke oral traditions that have been told and retold for the past eight centuries. The battles matched the forces of Sundiata against the forces of Sumanguru. Both leaders used their occult powers against each other. Sundiata was victorious at the final battle in the town of Kirina (c. 1235) in what is now Mali. According to traditional narratives, his victory and the greatness of Mali were preordained.

Following the great victory over the Susu, Sundiata received an oath of fealty from the Malinke leaders of the various descent lineages. The title of mansa was reserved only for Sundiata. Previously, the Malinke had been a loose confederation of chieftaincies; now they were a centralized state.

After 1240, Sundiata took his energized forces and expanded in all directions, bringing more territory and people under Mali’s rule. He succeeded in bringing the Senegal-Niger River basin under his control with non-Malinke people in a tributary status. In the process Sundiata and his successors took control of the main trade routes in the Sudanic region, especially the routes to the gold-producing areas of the south and southwest. Although agriculture was the basis of the economy, trade played a central role in the growth of the Mali Empire. Because of its key location, merchants in large trade caravans arrived in Mali’s main commercial centers such as Timbuktu and Gao. Trade;Africa

Sundiata established stability and peace, which further contributed to commercial expansion. Stability, though punctuated by periodic resistance, was based on wealth and power that derived from trade, tribute, and taxes. A standing army reinforced the authority of the mansa. As the empire grew, the rulers of Mali were able to develop new markets, increase trade, and draw on a larger population for taxes and soldiers. A merchant class, or dyula, which was dependent on the monarchy, conducted trade. Gold, salt, kola nuts, ivory, iron, and cloth were the main trade goods. Gold;trade in

The merchant class played two key roles under Sundiata and his successors. The first involved the obvious commercial benefits they rendered, and the second was the role they played as catalysts for the expansion of Islam into Mali. Islam influenced almost all of Mali’s early chiefs to one degree or another. Sundiata was considered a “nominal” Muslim, even though in times of crisis he used traditional religion to gain popular support.

The growth of Islam occurred in several ways. As Mali expanded northward it incorporated Muslim towns, and as it became a major commercial power it attracted Muslim merchants from North Africa and Egypt. These merchants developed trade relations with the Malinke merchants who were also Muslims. These merchants brought their faith with them, which spread through the commercial towns. For the rulers of Mali, Islam provided a valuable link to the north.

After Sundiata’s reign Mali developed into a more Islamized state, with various kings making the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. They established Mali’s widespread reputation as a gold-trading empire. Islam;Mali Mali reached the height of its power under Mansa Mūsā Mūsā, Mansa (r. 1312-1337). He is renowned for his famous hajj to Mecca in 1324. When passing through Cairo, he freely distributed gold and temporarily disrupted the city’s economy. From this time period forward, Arab scholars such as Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, al-ՙUmarī, and Ibn Khaldūn recorded Mali’s history. Mansa Mūsā gave Mali a more Islamic focus. He built mosques and schools and brought Islamic scholars and holy men to Mali. It should be noted that although the ruling families and the merchant class were Muslims, the majority of the Malinke people, who were mostly rural farmers, followed a traditional animistic religion.

After the reign of Mansa Mūsā the leadership of Mali’s kings declined. The Mali Empire also outgrew itself. It became too large to be ruled effectively, as outlying areas rebelled and sought autonomy and enemies from the surrounding areas made inroads into Mali’s territory and trade. Eventually Mali succumbed to the growing power of the Songhai Empire, but for two centuries it was a major power in West Africa.


Sundiata was the founder of the Mali Empire. He laid the groundwork for the development of a vast multiethnic state that became a military and commercial power for more than two hundred years. The long-lasting consequences include a shift in power south from the edges of the Sahara Desert toward the forest zone of West Africa. This gave Mali greater access to gold, which opened the way for the development of a widespread commercial network. It also made possible the further penetration of Islam into the Sudanic region of West Africa. Mali’s hegemony over a wide area brought peace and stability to the region.

The story of Sundiata and the rise of the Mali Empire is recited by Malinke bards or musician-entertainers, known locally as jeliw and as griots by the French. Music;Mali These traditions, recited for almost eight centuries, have become today’s epic of Sundiata, Africa’s most famous epic and now regarded as a classic of world epic literature Literature;Mali . It is part of the living memory of the Malinke people. It combines history, religion, and literature and is usually recited as a narrative in a performance mode. Sundiata is a cultural hero of legendary proportions. His exploits are celebrated and his story has become a social, political, and cultural charter for the Malinke and other Mande-speaking groups.

In the last half century, a number of versions of the epic have been recorded, translated, and published. It has become part of legend and history. As a classic epic it is studied, analyzed, and taught in many parts of the world.

Further Reading

  • Austin, Ralph A., ed. In Search of Sunjata: The Mande Oral Epic as History, Literature and Performance. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1999. A series of essays that explore Sundiata’s epic from a variety of disciplines and theoretical perspectives. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • Conrad, David C. “Searching for History in the Sunjata Epic: The Case of Fakoli.” History in Africa 19 (1992): 147-200. This article analyzes the various versions of the Sundiata epic for historical evidence.
  • Conrad, David C. “A Town Called Dakajalan: The Sunjata Tradition and the Question of Ancient Mali’s Capital.” Journal of African History 35(1994): 355-377. Challenges the view of the city of Niani as Sundiata’s capital.
  • Innes, Gordon, ed. Sunjata: Three Mandinka Versions. London: University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies, 1974. A translation with commentary on multiple versions of the Sundiata epic. Bibliography.
  • Johnson, John William. The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. An annotated linear translation of the Fa-Digi Sisoko version of the Sundiata epic. Includes an introductory analysis of the text.
  • Levtzion, Nehemia. Ancient Ghana and Mali. New York: Africana, 1980. The classic history of two major states based on oral sources and Arabic documents. Includes discussion of the life and accomplishments of Sundiata.
  • McKissack, Patricia, and Frederick McKissack. The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa. New York: H. Holt, 1994. A look at the history of the empires of Mali, Ghana, and Songhai, written especially for younger readers. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • Niane, D. T. “Mali and the Second Mandingo Expansion.” In General History of Africa: Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century. Vol. 4. New York: UNESCO, 1984. A well-researched history of the rise of the empire of Mali.
  • Niane, D. T. Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. Translated by G. D. Pickett. 1965. Reprint. Harlow, England: Longman, 1994. The standard account of the rise of Sundiata based on local oral tradition.