Hey, Happy New Year’s guys! Let’s celebrate how roughly two thousand years ago some Roman astronomers from a centuries-old civilization looked at a clock and were like, “welp ok let’s just call it Day One,” paving the way for us as a species to put way too much emphasis on the abstract concept as a way of documenting the speed to which we careen into the inevitable hour of our impending death. I say this of course as a guy who had a Verizon customer service rep horrifically reveal to him without any provocation that she was born the same year that Billy Madison came out in the theaters, but still, hooray for the inexorable march of time towards our own inescapable mortality and all that.
The point here is that I don’t really care what your dumb New Year’s resolution is. Because it doesn’t matter whether you want to spend more time with your lame family, get less fatter solely by building gym-related excel spreadsheets and cutting all gluten-related particles out of your Fascist two thousand calorie diet, or if you just don’t want to (once again) spectacularly screw it up when some marginally-attractive girl lets you mash your lips against her face. It will all pale in comparison to the new beginning forged by the epic thirteenth-century Mandingo warrior Sundiata:
Overcome double paralysis in both legs, avenge the massacre of your family by an evil warlord, and liberate your people from the chains of brutal slavery. And then become the basis Disney’s Lion King because why the fuck not.
The hero of the national epic of Mali and a cultural hero of the Mandigo people in West Africa, Sundiata is what historians call a “semi-legendary king,” which is boring history professor talk for a dude who almost certainly existed in real life but is credited with doing balls-out works of heroic awesomeness so over-the-top heart-devouringly badass that it makes the jerks at those pretentious academic journals all uncomfortable and shit on account of the huge murder-boners they pop when they hear about it.
Sundiata was born in Mali in the late 12th century, back when Mali was just a small little city-state style power on the fringes of the once-powerful Ghana Empire in West Africa. His dad was the King of Mali, which was cool and everything, but Sundiata was the youngest of twelve sons and his mom wasn’t the Queen – who was the mother of all 11 other boys and was rumored to be the most beautiful woman in all of 12th-century Africa – but to some concubine known as “Kediougou,” which I shit you not some encyclopedia I read simply translated to mean “very unattractive,” without offering any further explanation. Sure, if you believe the Epic, Sundiata’s birth was foretold by prophesy and all that, but what we’re more sure of is that he had crippling paralysis in both legs, couldn’t walk on his own, required constant attention from his mother in order to survive, and was ridiculed and heckled by his brothers and everyone else in the village. The whole thing is very Shaka Zulu, and, like his sub-Saharan conqueror counterpart, it wouldn’t be long before Sundiata was back on top beating the fuck out of anyone who opposed him.
Well one day when Sundiata was still a boy some fucking jackass was talking shit to Sundiata’s mom, and this kid got so pissed that he stood up, walked over to a big heavy iron bar, grabbed it with one hand, and stormed over towards the motherfucker so furiously that the idiot ran away. From that point on, the young prince dedicated his life to overcoming his disability and kicking ass old-school like people did when they lived on the edge of the goddamn Sahara Desert in the Middle Ages. He joined a community of hunters, helped bring down mighty beasts for food and profit, honed his skill, and soon became so highly-regarded that he became known as the Simbo, meaning “master of the bush,” and yeah Disney can say it’s Hamlet all they want but we know the truth.
After Simbo’s dad dies, his oldest brother takes over the throne, and all the bros tell Sundiata he has to get the fuck out of there and go Hakuna Matata his shit out in the wilderness because he doesn’t even really count as a brother anyways.
Now, as I said, Mali was located on the edge of the Ghana Empire, but shit was getting intense in West Africa around 1203 AD. The Empire of Ghana had been “the shit” for like a couple centuries, but a bunch of incompetent moron-kings were screwing things up all over the place, and before long they found themselves locked in a war against the Sosso people, who were ruled by a hardcore beard-wielding warrior from hell known as Sumanguru, the “Invincible King,” and a dude so fucking spleen-rupturingly unstoppable in man-to-man combat that everyone in Africa believed he was an evil sorcerer who could call on the dark powers of voodoo and Whoopie Goldberg. Sumanguru ravaged what was left of the Ghana Empire with torch and steel, burned their capital into a heap of molten rock by urinating lava on its ruins, murdered their ruling family, and enslaved huge portions of their population.
Once that was done, he turned his attention to Mali and prepared to crush it with extreme prejudice all the way up its ass. The new King of Mali, Sundiata’s oldest brother, pimped out his own sister as a bride for Sumanguru the Invincible, but it didn’t work – Sumanguru married the sister, then conquered Mali, had every single brother ritualistically and brutally executed, sold the population into slavery, and then married the sister anyway because he was just super diabolically mega-evil like that.
Word reached Sundiata a few weeks later – your family is dead. Your people are enslaved. Your father’s throne is in the hands of a foreign tyrant. And only you, the rightful King of the Mandingo People, can save them.
Fun fact, Mr. T first cut his hair into a Mohawk
after seeing a picture of a Mandingo warrior.
This is actually true.
Sundiata, once the crippled youngest son of the ugliest girl in Africa, was now a hardcore Charles Bronson motherfucker on a vengeance quest to save his entire civilization from the ruinous choke hold of a diabolical evil sorcerer-king so unstoppable that his epithet was literally “the Invincible.” He went to work immediately.
The Prince’s first insurmountable task was to build an army out of warriors from across Western Africa, unite them, and then lead them as a fighting force against a hardened enemy military with tons of battle experience. Now, if you follow the news in Africa these days, you’re probably aware that it’s not exactly super easy to get a bunch of rival tribes to agree and work together on anything, but Sundiata had the balls and the charisma to pull it off. Appealing to honor, pride, wealth, and a mutual Muslim faith (the vast majority of this region had been converted by the Moors several centuries earlier), Sundiata quietly assembled warriors from twelve tribes along the Niger River and Sahara Desert – noble-born cavalrymen in imported chainmail riding mighty Arabian steeds, desert nomads with fire-tipped arrows, and river-going hunters armed with spears and shields fashioned from reeds. He found tribal medicine men who could fashion him custom homemade poisons to smear on his weaponry and veteran blacksmiths from the iron-producing region of Mali that were skilled in creating armor and blades. He freed slaves to fight for him and even promoted some of the more competent soldiers to high-level command positions (one even became Emperor later on). Then, after he assembled sixteen clans and cherry-picked the most badass warriors and equipment he could find, he took the war to his enemy.
The Mandingo and the Sosso fought in five epic battles across Mali, each time clashing in a huge bloody engagement that littered the desert with broken bodies and sprayed blood like seriously all over the place everywhere. Sundiata took a few hard losses but fought on, finally engaging Sumanguru the Invincible in a furious fight at the Battle of Krina in 1235. The Epic tale itself describes Sumanguru as an evil wizard who invented the xylophone (you just know the xylophone was invented by an evil wizard) who could only truly be killed after Sundiata shot him with an arrow fletched with a rooster’s feathers, but in real life history it probably involved a little less cock action and a little more face-shanking awesomeness. The Sosso army was destroyed, Sundiata stood atop a pile of massacred enemy soldiers that included the once-Invincible enemy king, re-claimed his throne, and then went on to conquer all of the Sosso lands including the shit they’d taken from Ghana. It was pretty much a fifty-fifty toss-up whether Sundiata would be merciful with captured Sosso lands or just enslave/murder everyone, which is pretty much standard operating procedure in the Medieval period of human history.
Once all that was done he went home to his awesome palace, had like a hundred kids, and spent many long nights on top of piles of gold with many beautiful women.
Known as “The Lion King” for his heroism, bravery, and sense of justice, Sundiata took the title Mansa, meaning “King of Kings.” He built a new capital for his people, constructed mosques, opened his borders to Muslim traders from North Africa (an act that put Mali on world maps from as far away as Europe), opened up gold mines, maintained West Africa’s first standing army, and continued expanding an empire that would last for the next two centuries. At the height of his power, the Mali Empire would sprawl across about 435,000 square miles of territory – twice the size of fucking France.
Sundiata would die in 1255, but his legacy would live on – in 1324 Sundiata’s grandson Mansa Musa would make his religious pilgrimage to Mecca. When he passed through Cairo, Mansa Mursa was preceded by a parade of 500 slaves, dozens of wild animals, and was decked out in a golden robe carrying a huge staff of solid gold. He gave out so much gold, especially to the poor of the city, that the fucking currency of gold was devalued in Egypt for the next twelve years.
Not a bad legacy if you ask me.
A mosque built during the reign of Sundiata
Asante, Molefi Kete and Ama Mazama. Encyclopedia of Black Studies. SAGE, 2005.
Juang, Richard M. Africa and the Americas. ABC-CLIO, 2008.
Meri, Joseph W. Medieval Islamic Civilization. Psychology Press, 2006.
Shinnie, Margaret. Ancient African Kingdoms. New York: Mentor, 1965.