Book Review: Mansa Musa and the empire of Mali

Friday, January 18, 2019

P. James Oliver

Oliver’s debut, about one of West Africa’s most powerful and charismatic leaders, delivers a vibrant mix of history and historical fiction for young adults, which is equally fascinating for older readers. This well-researched biography of Mansa Musa reads like an adventure story of gold and glory. During his long reign as Mali’s emperor, Mansa Musa led his empire into its Golden Age; presided over a spectacular, 60,000 person, 9,000 mile pilgrimage; founded a university in Timbuktu; and helped revolutionize architecture across the Sudan. Many of the African ancestors of today’s African-Americans came from West Africa. From 700 -- 1600 A. D., one after the other, three great, black, commercial empires dominated West Africa. They were powerful, prosperous, complex, stable -- and large. At its height, the Empire of Mali was the size of all of Western Europe.

The book introduces the medieval empire of Mali with several short narrative essays on trans-Atlantic exploration, trade and mining and soon narrows its focus to the compelling life story of the emperor Mansa Musa, who ruled Mali in the early 1300s. Oliver shows how Musa gained influence while making a lavish, politically important trip to Mecca, and his deft explanation of how Musa crossed the vast Sahara Desert briefly but skilfully conveys the difficulty of the lengthy voyage. This enjoyable work smoothly blends historical text with memorable anecdotes from primary and secondary sources, photos and sketches of replicas of ancient and medieval African art, and well-drawn maps.

The book moves at a fast pace, and the author’s clear, straightforward style is easy to read. He easily switches between topics, discussing history (how Musa gained recognition in Egypt and North Africa), religion (how Islam shaped Musa and his empire), architecture (the methods of construction for Malian mud-brick buildings) and fables (the legend of the Malian “gold plant”). However, Oliver always strives for historical accuracy; even his fictional account of a young sandal maker who travels to Niani’s great market contains period-appropriate language and scenery. The book also includes a lengthy glossary that is amply illustrated with drawings and photographs of West African boats and buildings. The work’s one shortcoming is its abrupt ending after Musa returns home; it lacks a thorough explanation as to how and why the empire of Mali eventually dissolved.

Well-crafted and fast paced, Oliver’s book is enhanced by a liberal sprinkling of enjoyable drawings, clear and helpful maps, and interesting photos. Not only are Mansa Musa’s triumphs and dilemmas clearly portrayed, but so are the lives of the people of medieval Mali. This is a thoughtful, engaging history for all students interested in Africa.

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