The Rise of West Africa

BC to the Middle Ages


Assumptions rob us of our sight. If I assume who you are before I have learnt who you are, I fail to see you. People of African descent have been assumed to be many things, many things which they are not. This project is to show you who we are; ours and your legacy. 

“If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going….” Maya Angelou 

Throughout this project you will learn how the building blocks of the world we enjoy today are international. People from all corners of the earth have come together to produce greatness. This project will focus on the contribution of those individuals of recent African descent. 

We should all be proud of our heritage and bare in mind that although we don’t inherit the sins of our fathers, we do inherit the world which has been left to us. And it is our duty to improve that world for ourselves and for others. 

Listen carefully and contribute. You’ll be asked to explore, put forth arguments and debate. Let your views be heard and share this work. 

Without further adieu…

The Rise of West Africa | Divide and Rule

As we have seen with the Moors, whilst Europe was tearing itself to pieces after the fall of the Roman Empire, many areas of Africa were booming. In Medieval West Africa we see the rise of the richest man who has ever lived; the development of Universities with international appeal with Timbuktu educating more students at a time than the entire population of London at the time; we also see evidence of African trade with America (pre-columbus), India and China. 

But this boom didn’t go without drawing attention. As the word of Africa’s wealth spreads, foreign forces mobilised to rob Africa of its wealth, as we shall see. 

Medieval Africa

Murdocks Map (img)

Murdock created this map to show the overlap between ethnic groups and geographic borders. We will later see how the borders of African nations have been created over hundreds to thousands of years by the rise and fall of African Civilisations and the “scramble for Africa” where borders were created with little sensitivity to the culture of the people living either side of each border. But for the moment, appreciate how diverse Africa is. 

Africa has 54 countries and 1.2billion people, however the continent is richly diverse (img). There are estimated to be 10,000 different cultures and languages with distinctive religious practices in Africa. This means that a large variety of people have had to live amongst each other despite having distinctive differences. This has led to the development of huge civilisations and unity throughout history but unfortunately, conflict also.

But it is important to remember how different cultures may categorise their co-inhabitants. In Britain, for example, we have inherited the rudiments of a class system (img) and a racial system. This means that we tend to categorise people dependant on their financial status and their race. We have inherited this from our feudal and imperial past. However the Ottoman Empire (img) and many of its descendants categorise people based on religion. Africans today and historically may categorise their co-inhabitants based on their tribe or their religion. 

We as human beings are pattern spotters. We have evolved to want to categorise things, objects and people. This isn’t a bad thing… unless there are negative and harmful practices associated with this, as we shall see later. 

Task: Divide and conquer (img) has been a common strategy to weaken a population. “Divided we fall but together we stand” is a common saying. Imagine your community such as your school, your football team, your group of friends. How do you think someone would divide your community? Then explore how you would prevent yourselves from being divided. (img)

Early West Africa

By 250AD civilisations we see the first great cities starting to emerge in West Africa (img). By 300AD we had the first king of Ancient Ghana. An observer at the time, called Al Saudi, described these first rulers of Ancient Ghana as being “light skinned berbers” but there seems to be conflicting evidence from other sources. This is due to the many power struggles that occurred at the time between the inhabitants of Ancient Ghana.

Old Djenne, present day Mali (img), in 500AD had a population of 20,000 people. London’s population took another 800 years to reach this number. By 800AD their trade of Gold and Salt had exploded. A 9ft wall was erected around Djenne to protect the city. The Niger river transported goods and aided as a natural defence


  1. Explore why would Gold and Salt be of value in 800AD. What are the multiple uses of salt and gold. What might this say about the population at the time
  2. Explore the benefits of building a city near a fast flowing river

The Soninke

The Soninke (img)

The Sonkinke ethnic group were militarily advanced allowing the expansion of their territory into an empire. They fought with lances and swords made of iron against opponents with mainly wooden weapons. This enabled them to dominate the tribes who they were competing with even when they were outnumbered in combat. The Soninke were instrumental in the construction of the Empire of Ancient Ghana, which is north west of present day Ghana. The ancient Ghanaians migrated southwardly for reasons we shall explain later. 

By 833AD Ancient Ghana (img) had gained an international reputation of being the land of iron and gold. Trade was rich (img) due to its position as an intersect between north and sub-Saharan and North Saharan Africa. The Sonkinke essentially became brokers who would add a commission / tax for the luxury of trading in Djenne. Brokers make their money by charging for their services of managing a transaction. This is the same for our stock brokers today. 

Task: Explore the advantages and disadvantages of being a broker, who charges for his/ her services of being the “middle man” individual deals vs a business owners or entrepreneurs who controls the entire business. 

The Invasion of Ancient Ghana

The Sonkinke (img) divided themselves into castes. This enabled meant that people were born into occupations. This is similar to the Medieval Feudal system in Britain and our class system, or the caste system used in India today. The Kantes for example, were blacksmiths who would have created the metal for the City of Djenne. The Sisse were government officials who served the infrastructure of the City. 

Task: Casts and classes have been used to organise groups of peoples into different uses. This has been present in the UK, Africa and Asia. Explore the pros and cons for dictating what people have to do by birthright

Invasion (img)

Trouble emerged from the north in the 9th Century. Sahnja Berbers of North Africa already controlled the trade between the north and sub saharan Africa. The trade routes were the arteries of Ancient Ghana. They provided wealth to the Civilisation in the form of Gold and tarifs. Up until this point, the Berber tribes had been separated by culture and feuds. In the 9th Century, however, they started to unite. They travelled south to challenge the Soninke in Ancient Ghana. After some effort the berbers triumphed and claimed north Ghana for themselves. This victory however was short-lived when their leader, Tilutane died. The Berbers consequently lost the town of Audoghast and Ancient Ghana was able to resume its course of economic dominance in West Africa. 

The Kings of Ancient Ghana continued to gain a reputation of being “the richest men on the planet”, as mentioned by Ibn Haukal, an Arabic geographer at the time. 

To put their power into perspective (img), in 1067, 1 year after the last successful invasion of England (the battle of hastings), Al-Ghaba, a city in west Africa, was quickly expanding. Al-Ghaba boasted city walls with domed buildings. Domed buildings and the prefix-Al are common features in Arabic speaking countries. We have inherited many words with the pre-fix Al from the African Moors, for example. Algebra, Algorithm, Alchemy etc are all Arabic in origin. 

Many lawyers and scholars resided in Al-Ghaba. Al Bakri described Al-Ghaba as an intellectual city. But this wasn’t an intellectual, growing city without moral obligation to its weak, poor and vulnerable. It was traditional for the Emperor to parade the poorest areas of the province and speak to the vulnerable about their grievances so that he could have a true idea of how to help them. 

Task: Throughout history, discrepancies between the richest and poorest of society have created huge divides and societal tension. This can lay the foundations for revolution as seen in the French Revolution and English Revolution (Civil War). What do you think the benefits would be if the powerful members of society interacted with the weaker members of society on a regular basis? Are there any disadvantages to this?

Return of the Soninke

Trade was common between the Ghanaians and the Moors (img) and also the Spanish who were occupied by the Moors until the 15th century. Spain is also referred as the Iberian Peninsula. However, another growing threat to the Ghanaians was emerging from the North. The Ghanaians relied on their standing army for their defence. At the time, the Emperor of Ghana had a standing army of 240,000 professional soldiers. King Harold of England, at the same time, had 15,000 soldiers. 

In 1055AD, Ibn Yasin (img), a Moroccan Theologian, had returned from exile. He was exiled by the Berbers of North Africa after he had tried to convert them to Islam from their own traditional religion. Abdallah ibn Yasin was a Gazzula Berber, and probably a convert rather than a born Muslim. His name can be read as “son of Ya Sin” (the title of the 36th Sura of the Qur’an), suggesting he had obliterated his family past and was “re-born” of the Holy Book.

After one failed attempt, Ibn Yasin was able to rally another group of Berbers, the Lamtuna (img) people to Islam. Ibn Yasin believed in strict fundementalist principles of Islam. He rallied the Lamtuna Berbers to overthrow Audoghast. In 1076 AD the Almoravides then founded Marrakesh and declared a holy war, a Jihad, on the Ancient Ghanaians. Ancient Ghana was majoritively Muslim, however according to Ibn Yasin and his Almoravides, didn’t uphold a strict enough practice of Islam. 

Many Ghanains as a result fled south and developed what would later become the Assante and Fante. Gradually however, due to cultural clashes, strict adherence to Islam wasn’t stable and the Soninke returend to power in 1087. 

Introducing Mali

Mali was founded by Muslim Africans and like its neighbours and predecessors, boasted huge wealth in Gold and trade. Mali was the richest nation on the planet whilst the black death killed almost a third of Europe’s population. 

Task: Britain has gone through many changes over the last two thousand years. It has experienced the heights of the Roman Empire where it served as a colony, the ravages of the dark ages and the heights of the British Empire itself. What does this tell us about Civilisation? Is it stable or unstable? How might this change the way we look at other civilisations around the world? 

They Came Before Columbus

The influence of the desert travellers, trade, Muslim technology and science such as celestial navigation (use of the stars for travel) and African Nautical techniques had accelerated the development of the Malian Navy. The Malians had exceptional boats which could travel long distances. 

Taking advantage of this strength, 200 ships were instructed to sail west from Africa in direction of America. This is 181 years before Columbus attempted the same voyage from Europe. One ship returned… the sailor told the tail of violent currents. He turned back when the others continued.  

The Arab-Egyptian scholar Al-Umari[1] quotes Mansa Musa as follows:

“The ruler who preceded me did not believe that it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean that encircles the earth (meaning Atlantic), and wanted to reach that (end) and obstinately persisted in the design. So he equipped two hundred boats full of men, like many others full of gold, water and victuals sufficient enough for several years. He ordered the chief (admiral) not to return until they had reached the extremity of the ocean, or if they had exhausted the provisions and the water. They set out. Their absence extended over a long period, and, at last, only one boat returned. On our questioning, the captain said: ‘Prince, we have navigated for a long time, until we saw in the midst of the ocean as if a big river was flowing violently. My boat was the last one; others were ahead of me. As soon as any of them reached this place, it drowned in the whirlpool and never came out. I sailed backwards to escape this current.’ But the Sultan would not believe him. He ordered two thousand boats to be equipped for him and for his men, and one thousand more for water and victuals. Then he conferred on me the regency during his absence, and departed with his men on the ocean trip, never to return nor to give a sign of life.[6]

The Malian King at the time, Mansa Abukari left with another 2000 ships to see for himself and also never returned. According to 14th Century Syrian historian Shibab al-Umari, Abu-Bakr was obsessed with the Atlantic Ocean and what lay beyond it. Historian Ivan Van Sertima, 181 years later, after arriving on the shores of Christopher Columbus describes finding African metal. 

Van Sertima cites the abstract of Columbus’s log made by Bartolomé de las Casas, according to which the purpose of Columbus’s third voyage was to test both the claims of King John II of Portugal that “canoes had been found which set out from the coast of Guinea [West Africa] and sailed to the west with merchandise”. There are also claims of the native inhabitants of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola that “from the south and the southeast had come black people whose spears were made of a metal called guanín … from which it was found that of 32 parts: 18 were gold, 6 were silver, and 8 copper.”[9][10]

(img) American villages with Malian names such as Mandiga port, Mandiga bay, Sierre de Mali were also discovered. 2 negro skeletons were found in the Danish Virgin Islands dated back to 1250AD, over 200 years before Colmbus’ first voyage in 1492. In Reef Bay Valley, African Tifinagh script has also been found. Similar facial markings and sculptures have been found in Native American tribes that are also present in West African tribes. 

The website Global Black History summarises Ivan Van Serima’s work in “They Came Before Columbus”.

Examining navigation and shipbuilding; cultural analogies between Native Americans and Africans (img); the transportation of plants, animals, and textiles between the continents; and the diaries, journals, and oral accounts of the explorers themselves, Ivan Van Sertima builds a pyramid of evidence to support his claim of an African presence in the New World centuries before Columbus. Combining impressive scholarship with a novelist’s gift for storytelling, Van Sertima re-creates some of the most powerful scenes of human history: the launching of the great ships of Mali in 1310 (two hundred master boats and two hundred supply boats), the sea expedition of the Mandingo king in 1311, and many others. In They Came Before Columbus, we see clearly the unmistakable face and handprint of black Africans in pre-Columbian America, and their overwhelming impact on the civilizations they encountered.

Mansa Musa, the richest man who has ever lived

Mansa Musa means “Leader Moses” or “King Moses”. Moses is a prophet in all three of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Arabic pronunciation, Musa, is a popular Muslim name. Mansa Musa was the brother of Mansa Abukari and inherited the throne in 1324 in his brother’s absence whilst he travelled westwardly towards America. African Historian, Robin Walker, describes Mansa Musa as one of the most colourful west african personalities in history. 

Mansa Musa completed Hajj, an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca (img), with 60,000 men, caravans of gold and 12,000 slaves, 500 in front of each horse, each carrying a golden shaft which weighed 3kg. Observers described his entourage as a “city moving through the desert”. Mansa Musa’s net worth was equivalent to OVER $400 billion. To put this into perspective, founder of Amazon, Jeff Besoz’s net worth is less than half of that. Most of Mansa Musa’s wealth came from Gold and Salt.

Musa was a devout Muslim, and his pilgrimage to Mecca made him well known across northern Africa and the Middle East. To Musa, Islam was “an entry into the cultured world of the Eastern Mediterranean”.[20] He would spend much time fostering the growth of the religion within his empire.

Whilst in Egypt, on his way to Mecca, Mansa Musa spent so much gold that he crashed their Gold economy. It would take years for their gold economy to recover, but the people of Cairo would speak his name for years after

Because of his nature of giving, Musa’s massive spending and generous donations created a massive ten year gold recession (img). In the cities of Cairo, Medina, and Mecca, the sudden influx of gold devalued the metal significantly. Prices of goods and wares became greatly inflated. This mistake became apparent to Musa and on his way back from Mecca, he borrowed all of the gold he could carry from money-lenders in Cairo at high interest. This is the only time recorded in history that one man directly controlled the price of gold in the Mediterranean.[20] Some historians[who?] believe the Hajj was less out of religious devotion than to garner international attention to the flourishing state of Mali. The creation of a recession of that magnitude could have been purposeful. After all, Cairo was the leading gold market at the time (where people went to purchase large amounts of gold). In order to relocate these markets to Timbuktu or Gao, Musa would have to first affect Cairo’s gold economy. Musa made a major point of showing off his nation’s wealth (img). His goal was to create a ripple and he succeeded greatly in this, so much so that he lands himself and Mali on the Catalan Atlas of 1375.

“He gave out so much Malian gold along the way that jelis [griots] don’t like to praise him in their songs because they think he wasted local resources outside the empire,” she said.

“Contemporary accounts of Musa’s wealth are so breathless that it’s almost impossible to get a sense of just how wealthy and powerful he truly was,” Rudolph Butch Ware, associate professor of history at the University of California, told the BBC. (img)

Mansa Musa returned from Mecca with several Islamic scholars, including direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad and an Andalusian poet and architect by the name of Abu Es Haq es Saheli, who is widely credited with designing the famous Djinguereber mosque. 

Task: why would spending more Gold, crash the value of Gold? Explore the concept of supply and demand, inflation etc

Task: Mansa Musa and Jeff Besos had amounted more wealth than many countries. This lead to the development of a middle class (more poor people became wealthy) but this also means they’re hoarding more wealth which could help other people. Explore the pros and cons of allowing people to amount huge wealth vs forcing wealthy people to share their wealth more via taxation

Timbuktu and other constructions

Mansa Musa embarked on a revolutionary building program. He built mosques and madrasas. Madrasas are educational establishments built besides Mosques (img). Most notably, Mansa Musa commissioned the ancient centre of learning Sankore Madrasah (University of Sankore) (img). The university was staffed by Mansa Musa himself, who recruited jurists, astronomers and mathematicians. Scholars came from around the African continent and the middle east.  Many of the architects who built these developments came from Moorish Spain and Cairo. They also built Mansa Musa’s grand palace in Timbuktu and the Djinguereber Mosque which still stands today. It was an African development which drew from the best talents in the world. Merchants came from modern day NIgeria, Egypt and other African Kingdoms. It was an international attempt to build an urban city with a rich focus on trade and educational betterment. 

Timbuktu (img) was a great city situated in Mali and is still visited today. Due to the trade routes between north and sub-saharan Africa, Timbuktu developed into a centre of trade and an exceptional international centre for education. By the 14th century, Timbuktu had a population of 115,000 people with 30,000 of them in school and 25,000 of them in University education. London at the time had a population of 20,000 people and even Canterbury today, despite having 3 universities has less than half the population of Medieval Timbuktu. 

Timbuktu was the centre of Islamic Scholarship. Unlike other religions which have historically repressed the education of the masses to control information distribution, Islam encouraged all followers to learn Arabic so that they could read the Quran. This provided exceptionally high literacy rates for the time in the Islamic world. 

(img) The city set the standards for urban living around the world. Sergio Domain, an italian scholar of art and architecture wrote “Thus was laid the foundation of an urban civilization. At the height of its power, Mali had at least 400 cities, and the interior of the Niger Delta was very densely populated.”[28

After recapturing the city from the Kingdom of Mossi (who invaded in 1330), Musa build a rampart and stone fort and placed a standing army to protect the city from future invaders. 

By the end of Mansa Musa’s reign, Sankore university had been converted into a fully staffed university with the largest collection of books in Africa since the Library of Alexandria, holding around 1,000,000 manuscripts. Many scholars regard the Malian’s trade of books being a greater source of their gross domestic product than their gold or salt

Task: Explore the modern equivalents of Timbuktu today? Can you draw parallels to other demographic areas which pride innovation? Such as Silicon Valley? How might Tiimbuktu have encouraged the development of Africa? 

Task: Explore as to why in Medieval times, books may have been more valuable than Gold or Salt? Think that this is before mass printing and was during a time of fast technological progression. Why might books have been so valuable?

The Fall of West Africa

(img) West Africa’s golden age was on it way out. Medieval Ghana and Mali, once great nations, were increasingly fragmented. Songhai, which had been in development since the year 690AD under the Zuwa dynasty, was the last great Empire left. 

The Songhai empire was the last great west African empire left. Songhai became rich trading gold and cotton (img). It had an organised government and took much heritage from Moorish Spain and North Africa. Every ruler of the Songhai empire revealed a seal, sword and Quaran, much like our English Monarchs. 

In 1335 Sunni Ali Kulum established a new dynasty after recapturing Gao from the Malians. In 1469, Sunny Ali 18th in the dynasty, captures Timbuktu. He was later mummified, taking from Ancient Egytian tradition. The descendants of Sunny Ali were later overthrown after they refused to convert to Islam and instead worshipped traditional west African deities. 

(img) After overthrowing the descendants of Sunny Ali, Muhammad Toure rose to power in 1493. He changed his name to Askiya Muhammad Toure and comleted his pilgramage to Mecca. After gaining permission from the Imam of Islam (equivalent to the Catholic Pope), Askiya Muhammad Toure became the West African representative of Islam. 

By 1514, Askiya had conquered an area of Africa which was larger than the entire continent of Europe. Some regional kings were kept in power but forced to pay tribute. However instability erupted as Askiya’s son, Askiya Musa, was overthrown by the army for his violent tyrannical behaviour. 

Unfortunately, as Songhai was becoming destabilised, Al Mansur of Morocco was planning to take advantage. 

Task: it seems that much of the decline of civilisations were as much to do with poor strategy as they were to do with luck. Explore how much you think success has to do with the right work, strategy vs a good amount of luck. If you want to be successful at something, how would you ensure you have the best chances of success? Can luck be created?