Sundjata Keita

ca. 1205–1255
Founder of the Empire of Mali

Abrilliant military leader and skilled administrator, Sundjata Keita founded the empire of MALI, one of the great SUDANIC EMPIRES OF WESTERN AFRICA. Under his rule Mali adopted various laws and customs that are still followed by the people of the region.

Born in the west African city of Dakajala, Sundjata was the second son of the ruler of Manding, a kingdom of the Mandinka people. When Sundjata was only seven years old, his father died and his elder brother, Dankaran-Tuma, took the throne. Persecuted by his brother, Sundjata went into exile with his mother, sisters, and younger brother. The king of Manding owed allegiance to the emperor of GHANA.

Sundjata Keita

When Sundjata’s brother became king, Ghana was being torn apart by civil war and was in a state of decline. Another powerful monarch in the region, King Sumanguru Kante of Susu, gained control over much of Ghana and dominated the kingdom of Manding. Unable to defend Manding, Dankaran-Tuma gave up his throne and fled.

The king of Susu brought a reign of terror to Manding and put down several revolts by the Mandinka and the nearby Malinke people. These groups sent a secret mission to Sundjata, asking him to return. The ruler of the kingdom where Sundjata was living gave him an army to lead back to Manding. Sundjata returned to his homeland, and the Malinke revolted against Susu. A fierce battle led to the defeat of Susu and the destruction of its capital.

Under Sundjata’s leadership, the Malinke won victory after victory over other kingdoms and peoples in West Africa. They eventually built a vast nation—the empire of Mali—which extended from TIMBUKTU to the Atlantic Ocean. Sundjata, who ruled Mali from 1235 to 1255, created a fairly loose governmental structure. He gave the various kingdoms and peoples in the empire a great deal of autonomy and allowed each community to follow its own traditions and customs.

Sundjata kept the roads of the empire secure, established new laws and rules, and created alliances among Malinke clans and between Malinke clans and others. Because of his grand accomplishments, Sundjata is known by many names and prestigious titles in the Malinke ORAL TRADITION. Among these are Sundjata the King, Lord Lion, and Master Hunter with the Venerable Bearing.