Ancient West African Kingdoms

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  • 0:04 West African Kingdomes
  • 0:25 Ghana
  • 1:59 Mali
  • 3:49 Songhai
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Teater

Emily currently is a substitute teacher, and has taught a variety of K-12 courses. She has a master's degree in Mythological Studies.

In this lesson, we'll explore the three major kingdoms of Ancient West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. We'll learn about their politics, military, economy, and culture.

West African Kingdoms

By at least 800 CE, a handful of kingdoms and empires were forming in Africa, three of which were located in West Africa, relatively close to each other. These were the three kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. These three kingdoms settled along regions near the Niger River. This lesson will take a look at these three kingdoms.


Most of what we know about Ghana comes from texts written by Muslims, recording the geography of Africa after their conquest of North Africa. The Ghana Empire, which was sometimes called the Wagadu Empire, lasted from some time before 830 CE to around 1235 CE. Their main capital was the city of Koumbi Saleh, located just on the edge of the Sahara Desert, which was really made up of two separate cities. However, given how many people lived between the two, they were practically connected. The first half, known as El-Ghaba was the political district and housed the king. The other half, the name of which has been lost, was the business district, and was mostly inhabited by Arabic Muslims.


Ghana was one of the earliest African empires to develop an extensive trade range, thanks mostly to their ability to domesticate and use camels for transportation. Though, Ghana did obtain goods through tribute from its loyal chiefdoms in the region, they were a force to be reckoned with for trade. Ghana traded gold, ivory, and salt in exchange for manufactured goods, such as textiles and leather goods, from as far as North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.


As mentioned above, the Ghana Empire was primarily ruled by a king, who had several officials to offer advice. However, little is known about the politics of Ghana beyond that. They were able to maintain their rule for several centuries though, and were able to oppose several rival independent kingdoms and movements and extended their influence over much of the Sudan. By 1340, it was absorbed by the Mali Empire, though it was allowed to function as a sort of separate state at this time, so long as it was still loyal to Mali.


The Mali Empire, or sometimes known as the Mandingo Empire, was founded in 1230 CE by Sundiata Keita. Known for its wealth and power, the Mali Empire became one of the largest of the West African kingdoms. This was also because it had several loyal vassal states, including the former empire of Ghana.


Ghana may have succeeded thanks to trade, but the Mali Empire flourished with its powerful trade routes. There were three gold mines within the empire, whereas Ghana was only a transport point for gold. One of Mali's advantages with gold trade was in the fact that very few people in the empire possessed solid gold. Any solid gold brought in the empire was immediately brought to the treasury and exchanged for gold dust. This method helped to prevent over-inflation of the substance.

Gold was not the only commodity of high value in Mali. Salt was incredibly important and used almost as a currency in and of itself. The north half of the empire had enough salt, though still considered it as valuable as gold. In the south, where there was a shortage of salt, it was even more valuable. Copper, mined from the northern half of the empire, was also traded, often in exchange for gold in the south.

Politics & Military

Mali's influence and power were due largely in part to its stable government and military. Given their steady taxes and trade, the government was able to maintain a standing army to defend itself and later expand Mali's borders. Some believe that at its height, the Mali Empire had an army of 100,000, with 10,000 of those being cavalry.

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