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Lock, Stock, and History

The Might of the Mali Imperial Army,

One of the great empires of history, Mali is seldom known by many outside of Africa.  However from the 13th century up to the late 16th century Mali rules a very wealthy and powerful empire which dominated the Northwestern portion of Sub Saharan Africa.  Mali’s wealth and power came from four important trade goods; salt, gold, copper, and ivory.  Among it’s most popular cities was Timbuktu, a rich city that was home to the University of Timbuktu, one of the oldest universities in history and a hotspot of science and learning.

The Mali Empire came to power around the mid 13th century when the Mali kingdoms united, then conquered the other tribes and kingdoms around it.  By its height in 1350, the Mali Empire stretched from the Atlantic Ocean and followed along the Niger River all the way to modern day Niger.  To conquer, rule, and police such an empire, Mali needed an especially strong and powerful army, and a strong and powerful army it did have.  Throughout most of the empire’s history, the Mali Imperial Army numbered around 100,000 infantry and 10,000 heavy cavalry.  For the Middle Ages, this was a truly massive military force.  As a comparison, the French Army at the Battle of Crecy in 1346 numbered only 30,000 while the English Army numbered a mere 10,000.  In addition, the Mali Empire was supported by numerous militia forces supported by the many tribes that made up the empire.

The backbone of the Mali Imperial Army were the infantry.  Typically the average footsoldier was armed with an iron tipped spear, a bow with poisoned arrows, a leather helmet, and a leather covered shield made from reeds. Light infantry usually only carried a small light shield and a saber. Most infantry were conscripts with each tribe required to supply a quota of soldiers, although a number of soldiers were experienced professionals.  Every tribe within the Mali Empire were required to produce of regiment of soldiers for the army, while the soldiers themselves were required to supply their own weapons and equipment.  

The elite of the Mali Imperial Army were the 10,000 strong heavy cavalry, which were recruited from upper class nobility, much like the knights of Europe.  Also like European knights, Mali cavalry were heavily armed and armored.  Typically Mali cavalrymen wore steel helmets and chain mail armor imported from North Africa and Europe.  Armaments included lances, sabers, and longswords also made of steel.  Essentially the Mali cavalry were the elite shocktroops of the Empire.  Typically, they were positioned at the head of the army, where they would charge the enemy, riding them down and breaking up their formations while the Mali infantry mopped up what was left.  

With its massive army and control over trade routes, the Mali Empire thrived in the 14th and 15th centuries.  However in the early 16th century international trade shifted away from the Middle East and Africa to the newly discovered America’s.  This resulted in Mali’s economy stagnating a trade routes through Africa dried up due to competition from the Far East and the America’s.  As the empire weakened, many of the kingdoms and tribes that made up the empire revolted and declared their independence.  Then Mali faced a series of invasions from the Moroccans, Taureg, and Portuguese.  Finally in 1599 the empire collapsed entirely, forming a dozen or more successor states and kingdoms.  The last remnants of the Mali were conquered by a people called the Bambara in the 17th century.

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    Always appreciate a little love being shown to the West African empires! My students are always amazed that the richest...