Skip to main content

Sundiata Keita

Sundiata Keita

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.

Further Reading

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). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Sundiata Keita." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 5 Nov. 2018 <>.

"Sundiata Keita." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (November 5, 2018).

"Sundiata Keita." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved November 05, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.