Before Europeans were firmly entrenched in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Afrikans built great empireson the west coast of the continent. High culture and advanced technology were commonplace. The boundaries of their territories were much larger then they are today. When the Europeans divided Afrika during the Berlin Conference in 1884-85, the sizes of the various cultural territories were vastly reduced. At the time of the great West Afrikan Empires, they were called: Ghana, Mali, andSonghai.
The Ghana Empire (700-1200) began in the western Sudan. “In its heyday the Ghanaian Empire covered a realm that would include parts of the modern nations of Guinea, Senegal, Mali, and Mauritania. The founders of Ghana were a people known as the Soninkes. They were a group of tribes related by a common ancestry; and each tribe was made up of a number of clans.” (Introduction To African Civilizations by John G. Jackson)
Like most empires, Ghana started out as a kingdom, began to absorb other kingdoms, and eventually became an empire. “On the death of the monarch, his successor was not his own son, but the son of his sister. The Soninkes, like most African peoples, possessed a matrilineal system of social organization, which even today is a prominent feature of West African society.” (Jackson) A hereditary king called the Ghana ruled the state. Ghana meant ‘warrior king,’ and was adopted as one of the titles of the King of Ouagadou.The people of the original kingdom called their native land Ouagadou.
The decline of the Ghana Empire began with the invasion of its neighbors, the Almoravides, whom were Muslim, and admired its wealth. Ghana was not Muslim. Upon being conquered, Ghana had to pay tribute and taxes to the Almoravides, as well as submit to Islam.
This led to the beginning of the Mali Empire (1200-1500), established by the Mandinka people. Its founder was King Sundiata, who moved the capital from Kangaba to Niani. He was able to take over the salt and gold trade that was formerly controlled by Ghana. One of his greatest accomplishments was to instill an agricultural program that allowed his people to become self-sustaining. He turned many of his soldiers into farmers. They also learned to raise poultry and cattle, allowing for a solid foundation of the empire.
Mali became the first Muslim state in the Sudan. Sundiata adopted the name Mansa, which meant emperor or sultan. Later, around 1307, probably the most famous of the Mali leaders rose to power, Mansa Musa I, who ruled for some 25 years. He expanded his reach beyond Afrika, into the Middle East and Europe. His most famous story occurred during his pilgrimage to Mecca.
“The greatest event of the reign of Mansa Musa was his famous pilgrimage to Mecca, which occurred in 1324. Of all pilgrimages to Mecca, this one was beyond all doubt the most spectacular. After months of preparation, the royal pilgrimage, 60,000 strong, started the long trek to Mecca. To finance this journey, 80 camels were loaded with 300 pounds of gold dust. All necessities and accessories for such a journey had been providedfor, including a highly efficient commissary department, staffed by excellent cooks who prepared elaborate meals which were served to the multitude at each halting-place.” (Jackson)
When Mansa Musa reached Cairo, he gave out so much gold to prominent citizens, the gold market drasticallydeclined. It took twelve years for the gold market to return to normal.
Onhisdeath, weaker leaders ruled Mali, leaving an opening for others to move in. As the Ghana Empire, Mali was attacked by outside groups and was ultimately defeated, causing the ascendancy of the Songhai Empire (1350-1600).
Its first great leader was Sunni Ali. One of his great accomplishments was the capture of Timbuktu, a huge trading center and the home of the great educational center, University of Sankore. He also added the other major city, Jenne, to his conquests, which took seven years to subdue.
Though many attempted to convert him, he refused to submit to the religion of Islam, which was partly the reason for his downfall. Muslim groups staged a revolution against him, and replaced him with Askia Muhammad I. Not happy with those who did not submit to Islam, invasions were conductedand converts won, such as the Hausa, who are mainly found in northern Nigeria today.
Education was valued highly. “In the schools, colleges and universities of the Songhai Empire, courses were given in astronomy, mathematics, ethnography, elocution, medicine, hygiene, philosophy, logic, prosody, diction, rhetoric, and music.” (Jackson)
The Ghana, Mali and Songhai Empires represented the golden era of West Afrikan history. Though their size and greatness no longer exist, their descendents are now spread throughout the western world.