If you were to make a list of the great empires of the world in the year 1300, it would have to start with the Mongol Empires, ruled by the descendants of the great Genghis Khan himself:
- The Yuan Dynasty (which ruled most of the modern nations of China, Korea, and Mongolia)
- The Chagatai Khanate (which ruled over a huge chunk of central Asia that is now divided between China and a number of former Soviet states)
- The Golden Horde (which ruled almost half of modern-day Russia)
- Il-Khanate (which ruled Persia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria)
Those empires are responsible for modern civilization. The Mongols conquered the world, and in their wake they set up trade networks that spread Chinese technologies to the Islamic world, Islamic technologies to China, and both to Europe. The European Renaissance doesn’t happen without Chinese paper, Chinese printing presses, Chinese gunpowder, Islamic (and Indian) mathematics, and Islamic steel–and that all gets to Europe thanks in large part to the Mongols.
Other than that, there are really only three empires of note (given that the Aztec and Incan empires had not yet risen):
- The Delhi Sultanate (which ruled most of Northern India and Pakistan)
- The Mamluk Sultanate (which ruled Egypt and the entire Mediterranean coast between Lebanon and Tunisia)
- The Empire of Mali (which ruled most of West Africa)
As impressive as the Mongols were, there were two empires who defeated them militarily: The Delhi Sultanate, because of a humid climate (which messed with Mongolian bows) and Indian elephants; and the Mamluk Sultanate, thanks to skilled leadership and an incorporation of Mongolian tactics and technologies. And as for Mali? It was only the richest empire of them all, being home to some of the most prolific gold and salt mines in the world. In 1347 the King of Mali, Mansa Musa, went on an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), and he spread so much wealth that it caused massive inflation in the local economies where he passed.
So, now lets say that you are a student of history, interested in learning about these great empires that paved the way for the modern world. Well, a brief perusal of Amazon will demonstrate that there are plenty of books on the Mongols, especially the Russian and Chinese branches. There are fewer books on the Delhi Sultanate, but it still isn’t hard to find good, scholarly work on that period of Indian history. Histories of the Mamluks tend to focus on their roles in the Crusades or their place in the larger swath of Egyptian history, but even so there are good works on the medieval Egyptians as well.
And Mali? A kingdom that ruled most of West Africa for over three hundred years and at it’s height was the largest empire in the world not ruled by a Khan? You have a selection of children’s books to choose from. Oh, I just got through reading one of them, and it was excellent (“The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay” by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack). It is probably the best history book I’ve ever read that is appropriate for a fourth grader, all 100 pages of it. And it is clearly the most highly reviewed history book on West Africa on Amazon.
So why this hole in the publishing industry? After all, archaeologists go to West Africa and study what they find, the same as in China, India, Egypt, and Europe. Mali was an open and literate society; Islamic travelers, including the renowned Ibn Batutta, visited it and wrote about it, and Islamic merchants sent goods in and out of Mali regularly, carrying stories with them about what they saw to the Middle East and even Europe. Mali also had a rich tradition of oral history, which survived into modern times, and provides a jumping off point for historical scholarship. Which is to say that their is no scholarly reason for Mali to be less studied or less written about than any other kingdom or empire of that era.
And besides, there is clearly a market for history books for kids about Mali. There are two overviews of the great West African empires (Ghana, Mali, and Songhai) and two biographies of the greatest Mali kings (Mansa Musa and Kanianga), among others. So is the problem that history books for adults about Mali don’t get written, that they don’t get published, or that they sell enough copies to rise out of obscurity? And why?
To be honest, I don’t know. The obvious answer, of course, is racial bias on someone’s part–the scholarly community, the publishing industry, the book buying public, etc. But if there is one thing I’ve learned as I’ve grown older, it’s that bias of all kinds is a lot more subtle than we often think.
For instance, if the bias is with scholars, then why aren’t African American historians writing books on Mali? In fact, in the 1960s and 1970s there was a period of time when African American thinkers starting trying to look back to their pre-slavery past for inspiration; but that movement seems to have died out. African American historians exist, of course, and many of them write books–but they seem no more likely to write books on Mali these days than their white colleagues.
So I’m left with a frustrated desire to know more and a lingering sense that all is not right with the state of the world.