Carol Thompson. The Empire of Mali. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998. 64 pp. Grades 4-8, Ages 9-12. $22.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-531-20277-7.
Reviewed by Jonathan Rotondo-McCord (Department of History, Xavier University of Louisiana)
Published on H-AfrTeach (September, 1999)
Kings, Wealth, and Culture in Mali
This book, part of a series of introductory readers about African history for grades four through seven, explores the second of the three large medieval Sudanic states of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. Reaching a zenith of power and wealth between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, the fame of Mali spread far and wide--even to Europe--especially because of the prosperous rule of Kankan Musa in the fourteenth century. Even before Musa's reign, Mali was associated with the formation of the griot tradition of epic storytelling, which saw Musa^Òs predecessor Sundiata as its great patron.
An introduction, five brief chapters, a timeline, glossary, and bibliography (including Web resources) make up this book. The introduction explains the historical context for the rise of Mali: the gold-salt trade and the decline of Ghana in the eleventh century. Chapter One, "Mali before the Empire," introduces the griot tradition as historical source, Sundiata as the first mansa or ruler of a united kingdom, and the sacred shrine at Kangaba, still celebrated today as the ancestral center of Mandinke society. The story of Mali's first emperor is the subject of the next chapter, "Sundiata: The Hungering Lion." The author summarizes the Sundiata epic story, discusses tribute and the Niger River trade as the economic foundations of the mansa^Òs power, and notes the presence of Islam in Mali. Chapter Three, "The Wealth of Empire," examines the relationship between daily life and Mali's prosperity, in areas such as agriculture, textile production, iron production, hunting, pottery, and local and long-distance trade. Chapter Four focuses on the fourteenth-century reign of Mansa (Kankan) Musa, noted for his famous pilgrimage to Mecca and the wealth and organization of his court. Chapter Five, "The Decline," explains fifteenth-century depredations by rival African states at the expense of Mali, and notes examples of European contact, including the intriguing story of a high-born Songhay woman who married a Frenchman and traveled to France, where a physician accompanying her from Africa treated members of the French royal house. This final chapter also mentions the beginnings of the trans-Atlantic trade in slaves, and Mali's final collapse in the wake of the Moroccan conquest of Songhay just before 1600.
The Empire of Mali is written in a clear, straightforward style, which should make it accessible to most readers in its intended grade levels. Fourth- and fifth-grade teachers might need to supply more background, however. There is one egregious misspelling ("allegience", p. 16), which teachers might also need to correct. The fact that the book blends its discussion of culture and history is both a strength and a weakness: while a richer view of literary and cultural developments is presented, the historical impression conveyed is somewhat disjointed. Many excellent full-color photographs illustrate the text; the sole map at the book's beginnings is inadequate. In sum, The Empire of Mali is a useful introduction to one of the high points of the west African Middle Ages.
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Jonathan Rotondo-McCord. Review of Thompson, Carol, The Empire of Mali.
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