Sundiata Keita (ca. 1210-ca. 1260) was the founder of the Mali empire in West Africa. He is now regarded as a great magician-king and the national hero of the Malinke-speaking people.
Sundiata, or Sun Djata, was also known in the Tarikhs (Moslem chronicles) as Mari Djata. Keita is a widely used family name. He is to West African history what King Arthur is to English history, in that both are popular figures about whom very little is known with certainty. Most knowledge about both has come to us orally from traditions passed down through the centuries. Moslem chroniclers wrote very little about Sundiata because he was not a devout Moslem. Much of what was written can be regarded with some skepticism because it is very difficult to separate fact from legend in such old oral traditions. We can, however, be sure that he was a real historical personage.
Sundiata was the son of Maghan Kon Fatta, ruler of the small Malinke kingdom of Kangaba, situated on the Niger River a short distance to the southwest of Bamako, the capital of modern Mali. Sundiata was handicapped from birth, and his life story follows the universal theme of a culture hero's overcoming of extreme adversity to attain greatness.
About 1224 the Susu people to the north conquered Kangaba in a wave of expansion under their magician-king, Sumanguru Kante. There are several different traditions concerning Sundiata's experiences at this time. According to a contemporary version, he and his mother went into voluntary exile from Kangaba about 1220 to avoid the risk of assassination by his jealous half brother, Kankaran Tuman, who had become king about 1218. Kankaran then meekly submitted to Susu rule, and later Sundiata was recalled by his people to free them from this foreign tyranny.
A version written into the Tarikh al-Sudan in the 16th century has Sumanguru Kante first conquering Sundiata's father and then killing 11 of the King's 12 sons, sparing only the handicapped Sundiata. Sundiata then went into exile, later to return as a liberator.
In either case, about 1230 Sundiata put together a rabble force in the far north and slowly advanced to the south, increasing his troop strength with successive victories over Susu provinces. By 1234 he was ready to take on the main Susu army, which he met and defeated in the epic battle of Kirina northeast of Kangaba. This victory is clearly the major event in his life, and it marks the beginning of the Mali empire. Before he retired from active leadership of his armies about 1240, Sundiata and his generals expanded the new empire in all directions, even incorporating the formerly great Ghana empire and the previously unconquered gold fields of the Senegal River valley.
We know that Sundiata ruled for about 25 years, but little is known about his later life. He died about 1260, apparently the victim of an accident in his capital.
An exciting and colorful full-length account of Sundiata's life in English is D. T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (1965). Otherwise, there is almost no literature dealing mainly with Sundiata. Several general works that touch on him and his times are A. Adu Boahen, Topics in West African History (1966), and Basil Davidson, A History of West Africa to the Nineteenth Century (rev. ed. 1967; 1965 edition entitled The Growth of African Civilisation). □