African Cultures: Ghana, Mali, and Songhai

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  • 0:02 Ghana, Mali, and Songhai
  • 0:41 Background
  • 2:02 Ghana Empire
  • 3:45 Mali Empire
  • 5:34 Songhai Empire
  • 6:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we learn about the three premier empires of the pre-colonial period in West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, who all profited tremendously from the trans-Saharan gold trade.

Ghana, Mali, and Songhai

Do you have anything that is gold? Perhaps it's some jewelry someone gave you, or perhaps it's something as simple as gold plating on dishware, or even your teeth! Either way, you probably look upon those things as some of your most valuable possessions, if only because of the huge price small sums of gold often fetch. This is no new phenomenon; gold has been a valuable resource for centuries. In fact, several sub-Saharan African kingdoms and empires were built almost entirely upon the wealth they accumulated from gold resources. In this lesson, we'll examine the three principal African empires of the High Middle Ages: Ghana, Mali, and Songhai.


First of all, we should note that when we speak of 'Ghana' or 'Mali' in this lesson that these historical kingdoms have no connection to the modern states of Ghana or Mali. Though current West African leaders sometimes symbolically harken back to these kingdoms, in reality the Ghana and Mali of previous centuries had far different borders and political apparatuses, and there is virtually no continuity between the historic kingdoms of Ghana and Mali and the current countries of those names.

The gold trade that was integral to the growth of these kingdoms began sometime in the 4th or 5th century C.E., when Berber-speaking peoples who lived in North Africa established trade routes across the Sahara Desert to West Africa. The Berbers utilized camels that could carry large loads and trek hundreds of miles without the need to stop for water - the perfect pack animal for a trip through the desert! In addition, Berber traders took advantage of natural desert springs, called oases, as natural refueling stations where they could rest and take on more water. The Berbers traded North African and Mediterranean goods with sub-Saharan Africans for gold, which they then took back and sold to Mediterranean traders.

After a few centuries, stories began to spread of the magnificent African kings and courts of the sub-Saharan region that were so rich even their pets were adorned with gold jewelry! The demand for gold from these regions grew alongside the wealth and stature of the African cultures.

Ghana Empire

Unfortunately, these cultures did not keep great records, and much of what we know about them comes from the Arab and Mediterranean traders and travelers who journeyed across the Sahara to these regions. As such, the first empire we know much about began sometime between the 8th and 10th century C.E., when the trans-Saharan gold trade was vibrant. Though various tribes existed in the area prior to this period, it was the rise of the Soninke tribe that truly instigated the Ghanaian Empire.

In Ghana, the king was the absolute ruler and the general of the military. Most offices, including regional authorities, were all appointed by the king; there was nothing resembling democracy. The king was also judge and jury as well, and most of his days were spent sitting in judgment as the common folk came to voice their complaints or accuse others of crimes. The king often listened to both sides before making a final judgment.

The kings of Ghana expanded Ghanaian territory in its first few centuries of existence largely because of the wealth they accumulated in the trans-Saharan trade. Indeed, Ghanaian kings taxed the traders both on the goods they brought into West Africa and those they took out. In addition, the goods they traded for their gold - things like salt, horses, and cloth - were sorely needed in the area and made the Ghanaians the biggest political and economic force in the region.

Wealth, however, always attracts others. Before long, there were neighboring tribes and groups vying with the Ghanaians for control of the gold trade. In the 11th century, for example, an Arab group known only as the Almoravids momentarily captured the Ghanaian capital and forced the Ghanaian kings to pay tribute. This period drastically weakened the control of the Ghanaian kings, and by the middle of the 13th century, they had lost all regional power.

Mali Empire

The state that supplanted the Ghanaians was Mali. The Malian kingdom rose around the same time as the Ghanaian kingdom, but it did not gain the same regional prominence until after the fall of the Ghanaians in the 13th century. Indeed, the 13th century was the Malian kingdom's heyday, after the rise of Sundiata Keita. Keita is perhaps the most fabled ruler in Malian history, and he led his tribe, the Mandé, in a revolt against the then-ruling tribe of Mali around 1200. After defeating the former ruling tribe, Keita consolidated most military and political power in Mali in himself and the Malian monarchy.

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