Ancient Malians: Astronomers and Seafarers

The Mali Empire was the largest and wealthiest empire in West Africa from the 12th-16th century CE, and the Malians were scholars and explorers of the land, sky and sea.

The city of Timbuktu was the heart of learning in Mali, and students from around the world came to study alongside Malians at Sankoré University, Sidi Yahya University and Djinguereber University. Subjects taught included mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, law, medicine, arts, navigation, business, carpentry, farming, fishing and construction. By early 14th century CE, Sankoré University itself hosted 25,000 students and held 400,000-700,000 manuscripts, making it one of the largest universities and libraries in the world then.

Timbuktu manuscripts indicate that astronomy thrived, and that Malians were serious scholars of the sky, including emperor and scientist Askia Mohammad I (15th-16th century CE). Heliocentrism (whereby the Sun is center of the Solar System, and planets revolve around it) was the predominant view in Timbuktu at a time when geocentrism (where Earth is the center) still dominated in Europe. Many Timbuktu manuscripts are full of diagrams of planets and orbits alongside mathematical calculations utilizing algebra, geometry and trigonometry. Malian astronomers kept meticulous records of astronomical events, for example, that of a meteor shower in 1583, and developed methods to accurately orient Timbuktu to Mecca.

Malians were also explorers and sailors of the sea. King Abubakari II (14th century CE) was fascinated by the sea and the unknown, and he wanted to find out how far the Atlantic Ocean extended and whether it had another bank, and so he sent out an expedition of 200 ships. When only one ship returned, King Abubakari II gave up the throne to his brother Mansa Musa and personally led a second expedition of 2,000 ships (equipped with both oars and sails) in 1311. They were never seen again. Some have speculated that Malians under King Abubakari II reached America almost 200 years before Columbus. Whether this is true or not, the Malians were nevertheless among the finest astronomers and seafarers of their time, in pursuit of knowledge and discovery.

By Rahim Mawji

(Image: Wikimedia)

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