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Mali’s history of learning, trade and colonialism

This article is over 8 years, 11 months old
Siân Ruddick looks at how the West African country was at the forefront of civilisation—before it became entangled with Western imperial conquest
Issue 2339

Mali is at the centre of the new front in the “war on terror”. French forces, aided by the US and Britain, have invaded to fight “Islamic extremism” in the country.

But the region’s history, both before and after France’s imperial rule, shows that the dynamics of the conflict are not simple.

Before imperial conquest this region of West Africa was at the forefront of civilisation.

The Niger river, which runs through Mali, provided transportation and wealth to the Mali Empire that lasted from the 13th century to the 15th century. The area was rich with natural resources like gold and iron ore.

Then, as today, these resources made Mali attractive to France’s colonial and imperial ambitions.

Western rulers portray Africa as uncivilised, naturally corrupt and poor.

But history tells another story.

In the early 16th century Leo Africanus, the Arab traveller and historian, visited Timbuktu. He wrote, “The shops of the artisans, the merchants, and especially weavers of cotton cloth are very numerous. Fabrics are also imported from Europe.”


He went on to describe the book trade that made the city the African centre of Islamic education. “The royal court is magnificent and very well organised. The king greatly honours learning. Many handwritten books imported from Barbary (North Africa) are also sold. There is more profit made from this commerce than from all other merchandise.”

The city was a centre of trade in salt, gold, ivory and slaves.

But Western Africa was impoverished by the far more brutal Atlantic slave trade run by European nations.

This stole between nine and 13 million Africans and shipped them across the Atlantic. Then Western powers carved up the continent.

The French seized the region in 1892. In Mali French troops brutally repressed the resistance of local people. France regrouped, divided up and shifted its West African empire several times.

For example between 1890 and 1899 Mali became known as French Sudan. Mali’s modern borders are a product of its colonial past. The French wouldn’t grant independence until 1960.

Two military coups took place in March and December last year.

People live in grinding poverty, yet the West only cares about its access to the country’s natural resources.

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