Libération blogt over onderzoek Jan Jansen naar Mali-rijk

Naar aanleiding van zijn artikel ‘In Defense of Mali’s Gold’ werd Jan Jansen geïnterviewd voor het AFRICA4 blog van het Franse dagblad Libération. Zijn bevindingen over de politieke en militaire geschiedenis van de bovenloop van de rivier de Niger, in het huidige zuidwest Mali/noordoost Guinée, zijn niet erg welkom bij historici aldaar.

Middeleeuwse oorsprong orale tradities verworpen

mansa moussa

Journalist Vincent Hiribarren vroeg Jansen naar zijn onderzoeksresultaten die onlangs werden gepubliceerd in het Journal of West African History. Ze bestrijden het gangbare idee dat het beroemde middeleeuwse Mali-rijk aan het begin van de zestiende eeuw uiteen zou zijn gevallen. Historici die deze neergang van het rijk veronderstelden, baseerden dit op enkele geschreven bronnen en een onjuiste interpretatie van orale tradities over het Mali-rijk. Jansen toont aan, door (her-)studie van de orale tradities, de geografie van het landschap en de militaire organisatie, dat het rijk niet ophield te bestaan na 1500. Deze bevindingen zullen echter niet met veel enthousiasme worden onthaald in Mali in Guinea, stelt hij. “De Malinezen zijn erg trots op hun orale tradities, omdat ze denken dat die uit de Middeleeuwen komen; ze zullen het niet leuk vinden als dat in twijfel wordt getrokken.”


By Jan Jansen, lecturer at the University of Leiden and specialist of Mali. Jan Jansen has just published a new article on the history of the empire of Mali in The Journal of West African History (see the attachment).

How would describe the empire of Mali?

The Mali Empire which flourished in the 14th and 15th century used to dominate a large part of the Western Sudan. It is famous because of its rich kings; Mansa Mussa, one of its kings, is considered to have been the richest man ever alive in the history of mankind. The economic source of the Empire’s riches was its gold — before the Americas were discovered, most of the gold in Europe came from West Africa. About the social and political organization of the Empire is not much known. But we know from reports by fourteenth and fifteenth century Arab travellers that the Mali kings trace descent to Soundiata. The story of Mali’s foundation by Sunjata is still, after all these centuries, the historical metanarrative for the present-day Maninka (or “Mali-nke”), the ethnic group that lives in southwestern Mali and northeastern Guinea. This orally transmitted metanarrative has gained recognition in history books as the Soundiata epic. Present-day Malians – who named their country in 1960 after the legendary Empire – are very proud of having an intangible heritage with such a long history!

Many historians argue that the empire of Mali collapsed after 1500. Was it really the case?

After the discovery of the Americas, Europe’s dependence on gold from West Africa dramatically decreased. Moreover, European powers exported more and more weapons into Africa, supporting local rulers who helped the Europeans to acquire slaves for their American plantations. As a result, warfare and internal slave trade dramatically increased in the interior of West Africa. On the basis of numerous academic studies undertaken on petty warlords and violent conflicts, it has been believed by professional historians (and the people in West Africa as well) that the magnificent Mali Empire collapsed and disintegrated after 1500. When the French occupied the area in the 1880s, they neglected the history of the rulers of Kangaba, who claimed to be the descendants of the Mali kings, and who fiercely resisted the colonial armies. The French sent these rulers in exile and replaced them by a rival branch of the same family; for the French, the rulers of Kangaba were just another group of warlords. My article rigorously rejects the assumption that the Mali Empire disintegrated after 1500. I base my argument on sources that have hitherto been overlooked. While the historians have always focused on written sources, I have a more integral approach, starting with the reality of the landscape. As a student, specializing in Medieval History, I was under the spell of the French Annales School (Bloch, Braudel, Le Roy Ladurie) and its anthropological approach. Now, three decades later, I see that I have been able to transfer this approach to the African savannah. Since 1988, I have been working in the area south of Bamako, which is the area where the oral traditions locate the political strongholds of the Mali kings. I learned to know the landscape by cycling through it for years; you may call it a Dutch interpretation of Annales methodology. By doing this, I learned about village foundations, land claims, military strategies, habitation strategies, architecture of fortifications, hiding places, and, not in the least, gold mining. I have thus gathered the data to reconstruct the history of a stable military and political organization around the town of Kangaba, 100 kilometers south of present-day Mali’s capital Bamako. I demonstrate that 50 kilometres north of Kangaba a defence area was constructed, exactly north of the area where gold was mined. Thus, this defence area protected the economic power base of Kangaba, which was the same power base as the Mali Empire had. This defence area successfully functioned for about two centuries, more or less until the arrival of the French armies.

Your article focuses on Kangaba. Can you elaborate on the role played by this town located in the south-west of modern-day Mali?

The organization of the Mali Empire consisted of three interrelated areas; Kangaba was the political centre of the northern area; the other two parts being located in present-day Guinea. In Kangaba every seven years, a huge ceremony takes place around the Kamabolon sanctuary, an event during which the power of Kangaba’s rulers is celebrated and their descent to Soundjata emphasized. There is a plain in the North of Kangaba (used as an airstrip by the French in the 1920s) where Kangaba’s armies used to gather in precolonial times. On this plain – called Kurukanfuga – it is believed that Soundiata put “all the families in place”, thus establishing a sound society.

Nowadays, the Kamabolon ceremony and the so-called “charter” of Kurukanfugan are highly popular, and they even have gained UNESCO recognition as Monuments of Mankind or Intangible Heritage. These monuments owe much of their prestige and ideological attraction through their link with Soundiata, thus making them “medieval”, “centuries-old” and “authentic” in popular imagination. My analysis of Kangaba’s rule in the period 1600-1850, however, (implicitly) demonstrates that much of the alleged centuries-old oral evidence refers to a much more recent period. Thus, my suggestion that the Mali Empire did not collapse after 1500, undermines the enormous prestige enjoyed by oral traditions on Soundiata in Mali and Guinea. Therefore, I expect that historians in Mali and Guinea won’t appreciate my article; the idea of rethinking the evidence for the great West African Empires being politically and identity-wise unwelcome.

For the French version of this blog see:

For the profile of Dr. Jan Jansen see:

For the article ‘In Defense of Mali’s Gold’ see: