Sundiata Keita, the Lion King of Mali Empire
One of Africa’s greatest ancient rulers Sundiata Keita is best known for founding the Mali Empire in West Africa. Under his reign, from AD 1235 to AD 1255, the Mali Empire became a regional power as it had control of all the major trade routes and gold mines. According to Mande oral histories, the Emperor accomplished many feats, including liberating his people from the very cruel sorcerer king, Soumaoro of Sosso.
The article below explores a brief biography, major facts and accomplishments of Sundiata Keita.
Sundiata Keita: Quick Facts
Born: c. 1217
Father: King Naré Maghann Konaté
Children: Mansa Wali Keita, Mansa Khalifa Keita, Mansa Ouati Keita
Reign: c. 1235-1255
Predecessor: Naré Maghann Konaté
Successor: Mansa Uli (Mansa Wali)
Epithet: “The Lion King of Mali”, “King of Kings” (Mansa)
Other names: Sogolon Djata, Sogo Sogo Simbon Salaba, Manding Diara
Most known for: Founding the Mali Empire
Birth and early life
Sundiata was born to a local ruler called Naré Maghann Konaté and his wife Sogolon Condé. His father was a reasonably famous ruler (fama) of the Mandinka people. According to the oral story, his father received a prophecy from a hunter that said that was he to marry a hideous looking woman, he would give birth to a powerful king whose reign would be filled with so many heroic feats.
King Naré, who already had a wife, then went ahead to marry Sogolon, a woman severely hunchbacked and widely considered very ugly. Nine months later Sogolon gave birth to a feeble child called Sundiata. It was even said that Sundiata could not walk until he reached the age of 7.
Being the son of a king, Sundiata had numerous half-siblings, including his older half-brother Dankaran Touman Keita.
After the death of King Naré, the throne was inherited by Nare’s first son Dankaran Toumani Keita. This came in spite of Naré’s order that Sundiata be the one to inherit the throne.
Considering how sickly he was as a child, Sundiata was abused and despised by his brother and the royal court. His mother, as a result of her physical deformity, was also on the receiving end of disparaging words.
In spite of all that harsh treatment meted out to him, Sundiata remained very determined to overcome his physical disability. After years of persistency, he was finally able to walk properly. His courage and character made him very endearing to many people, allowing him to become a leader among his friends.
Unfortunately, not everyone was pleased by this. Dankaran and his mother Sassouma Bereté conspired to eliminate Sundiata, as they feared that the prophecy was coming to past.
Fearing that her son’s newfound strength and appeal could cause King Dankaran to kill him, Sogolon went into exile, along with all her children, including Sundiata.
Sundiata and his family settled in Mema (a region west of Lake Debo present-day Mali), where the ruler of the city granted them a safe haven. Once again Sundiata lived an admirable life and was beloved by the ruler of Mema, who appointed him senior counsel in the court.
Sundiata Keita drives out the Sosso rulers from his hometown
While still in exile in Mema, his hometown was overran by an army of Sosso warriors under the leadership of King Soumaoro Kanté. The Mandinka people were enslaved and their lands occupied. Remembering what the prophecy had said, the Mandinka people reached out to Sundiata, appealing to him to return and lift them out of the bondage they were in.
Sundiata marched into his hometown with an army that was gifted to him by the ruler of Mema. His army came face to face with the Sosso army at the Battle of Kirina around 1235. In the end, he defeated the Sosso army and drove out the Sosso ruler from the Mandinka lands.
Following his famous win at Kirina, Sundiata was crowned emperor of the Mandinka people, i.e. the Mali Empire. He selected the title Mansa, which means “emperor” or “king” in Mandingo, the language of the Mandinka people.
Here are some major accomplishments of Sundiata Keita:
Created a powerful army that conquered numerous territories
King Sundiata made Niani (found in present-day Mali) his capital city. From then onward, he and his generals frequently went on military campaigns, conquering large parts of areas, including states in the old Ghana Empire. Many of those rulers – including King Kikikor of Bainuk – of conquered states became vassal states of the Mali Empire. At the peak of Mansa Sundiata’s reign, his empire included places in present-day the Gambia, Mali, Guinea Bissau, and Senegal.
His military successes were partly due to the fact that he had many astute military generals. As a result of his noble activities and fair governance, he was able to earn the trust and loyalty of his courtiers and generals, which in turn bode well for the cohesion and prosperity in the kingdom.
In less than a decade of his reign, he had positioned the empire in such a way that it controlled key trade routes in the region. His empire also thrived economically from the rich gold fields in the region. Agriculture, arts and music also did reasonably well during Sundiata’s reign.
Promoted religious freedoms and cultural diversity
There are some claims that he converted to Islam at some point in his life. And just to show how tolerant of a ruler Mansa Sundiata could be sometimes, he did not force any of his subjects to convert to Islam.
He was described as a fair and just ruler who at all times respected the differences among the various Mandinka clans. His empire included Mandinka clans like Traore, Koroma, Konde, Kamara and Keita. Sundiata was a member of the latter. This explains why he has “Keita” in his name.
Partitioned the Empire into thriving, self-governing provinces
Even though all those vassal states and conquered states answered to Mansa Sundiata, the Malian Emperor still allowed for those states to maintain some level of freedom. In short, the Mali Empire under Sundiata’s reign was run like a federation with Sundiata at the top of the chain of command.
His upright approach to leadership earned him the complete loyalty and respect of leaders of those states at all times.
The Great Assembly (the Gbara) and the ‘Kouroukan Fouga’
He shied away from maintaining absolute power as he often consulted with the Great Assembly (the Gbara). The 32-member assembly was established by Mansa Sundiata to advise him on so many important issues. Members were selected from the various Mandinka clans of the Empire. The leaders of those clans were very pivotal in Sundiata’s win against Sosso ruler Soumaoro Kante. Sundiata reasoned that it made so much sense to give those clans a voice in his empire, thereby preventing him from veering off into an autocratic rule.
The Gbara, which was headed by a belen-tigui (a chairman), basically served like a parliament as members could vote on issues. They also had sub-committees divided into religious (Mori-Kanda-Lolou), economic (Nyamakala), political (Maghan or Princely Clans) and military (Djon-Tan-Nor-Woro) groups.
Out of the Gbara came ‘Kouroukan Fouga’, the first unwritten constitution of Mali that was born after the famous Battle Kirina.
Sundiata and the King of Jolof
After defeating Soumaoro Kante and his Sosso army, Sundiata turned his attention to the allies of Soumaoro. One of those allies was the King of Jolof.
According to some accounts, Sundiata got infuriated after the king of Jolof stole his gold-loaded caravan meant to procure horses from the latter. Sundiata dispatched one of his most trusted generals, Tiramakhan Traore, to Jolof to murder the king of Jolof.
Epithets and meaning of his name
In English, Sundiata’s name is spelled as Sunjata (“Son of Jata”). Sundiata has also been referred to as Sogolon Djata, Sogo Sogo Simbon Salaba, or Manding Diara. The name Sogolon was taken from his mother’s name. And Jata translates into “Lion”. Together, the names form “the lion of Sogolon” or “Sogolon’s lion”. Other epithets of Sundiata include “King of Kings” (Mansa).
As for the name Keita, a royal name, that name translates into “inheritor” or “heir” in the Mandinka language. His other surname was Konaté or Conateh.
Was Sundiata Keita a Muslim?
Sundiata was a Muslim, according to to the Guinean historian and playwright Djibril Tamsir Niane (1932-2021). However, other historians beg to differ, stating that the evidence from the written accounts and oral traditions don’t give any indication of Sundiata being a Muslim.
According to some Muslim griots, Sundiata Keita could trace his family roots to Bilal ibn Rabah, one of Prophet Muhammad’s trusted companions (Sahabah). Bilal ibn Rabah is considered by many as the first mu’azzin, the person who calls Muslims to pray at a mosque. However, some scholars and historians state that Muslim griots and historians that make the above claims are simply trying to make the famous African ruler gain some level of “Islamic legitimacy”.
Epic of Sundiata
The Sundiata Epic, also known as Epic of Sundiata, is an epic poem that narrates the heroic feats accomplished by Sundiata Keita, the first emperor of the Mali Empire. It comes in the form of oral tradition dating all the way back to the 13th century. The stories were often passed down from one generation to another by historians from the Malinke people or griots (West African historians, storyteller, singer, poet, or musicians). The latter, who were praised for their remarkable knowledge of history, often acting as repository of oral tradition and advisors to rulers of the era.
During French colonial era, the stories were generally collected by scholars at École William Ponty (now known as École de formation d’instituteurs William Pointy) in in Senegal. Guinean historian and playwright Djibril Tamsir Niane French translation published in 1960.
How did Mansa Sundiata die?
1255 AD is the widely accepted year that Emperor Sundiata died. It remains unclear what exactly killed Sundiata, who was at the time in his late 30s. After his death, three of his sons – Mansa Wali Keita, Mansa Ouati Keita and Mansa Khalifa Keita – went on to become emperors of Mali Empire.
Some accounts state that Sundiata Keita drowned as he tried to go across the Sankarani River, one of the tributaries of the Niger River. In his honor, a shrine (Sundiata-dun), which still exists to this day, was set up near the river.
Another account states that he died after an arrow was accidentally shot at him during a ceremony in the capital Niani. There are also some claims that he was taken out by an assassin at a ceremony.
Other interesting facts about Sundiata Keita
Sundiata’s father Naré Maghann Konaté was also known as Maghan Kon Fatta or Maghan the Handsome
Due to the inadequate nature of written accounts about Sundiata Keita, much of what historians know about the ruler came from stories told in Mande oral forms which were passed down from one generation to another over the years.
Sundiata was the first Mandinka ruler to use the title Mansa (king or emperor).
Many a time, some stories about the Malian ruler border on the fringes of outright legend. However, it is an undisputable fact that the Malian ruler was a real figure in history.
It has been sometimes stated that producers and writers of the hit Walt Disney film The Lion King (1994) took an immense amount of inspiration from the story and legend of Sundiata Keita of Mali Empire. The title of the film bears a strong resemblance to the nickname of Sundiata, the “Lion King of Mali”. Disney, however, credits William Shakespeare’s Hamlet to being the inspiration for the film.
It is widely held that Sundiata Keita’s grandnephew was Mansa Musa – the famous and wealthy king of the Mali Empire who many consider as perhaps the richest man to ever live.
Some Mande oral stories claim that Sundiata Keita loved to eat. The Emperor always had evening feasts and parties at his palace in the capital city Niani.
The dates that are so commonly associated with the reign and birth of Sundiata were given by historians from North Africa who visited the Mali Empire about a century after Sundiata’s death. Many of those written sources came from the famous Tangie-born, Moroccan scholar, jurist and explorer Muhammad ibn Battúta (1304-1368) who visited the Mali Empire about a few decades after the passing of Sundiata Keita. Similarly, some of parts of the oral traditions were independently verified by ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), a Tunisian historian and philosopher, although about half a century after the Emperor’s death.
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