Africa History Who was...?

Who was Qasa?

‘Who was…?’ a new series that explores the African women who pop up in history yet remain mysterious.

After Mansa Musa, the most famed Malian king, came Mansa Maghan I and after him, Mansa Suleiman. Suleiman assumed the throne in 1341, he was described as miserly, forgetful or a liar by ibn Battuta the medieval Amazigh globetrotter who was in Mali from February 1352 to December 1353. Who was Qasa? Qasa was Suleiman’s “wife”, she was also at the centre of a scandal that ibn Battuta witnessed and wrote about in his journals.

Now I read ibn Battuta’s writings years ago and the full story does not come to mind immediately. All I have are notes I jotted down in my usual disjointed style:

Mansa confided Qasa (his legal wife, his African Queen) in a military man’s house and replaced her with Banju who was not a King’s daughter.
The people disapproved.
Mansa’s cousins (his uncle’s daughters) came to congratulate Banju and put ashes on their arms.
Qasa was released later and the cousins poured dust on themselves.
Banju reported to the King which made him angry with his cousins.
His cousins sought refuge in the mosque, Mansa pardoned them and they took off their clothes and came naked in his presence.
Qasa rode out with her girl and boy slaves with dust on their heads, came to audience with her face veiled.
Amirs talked about her and Mansa assembled a court.
Qasa’s slave-girl brought in, shackled with her hands to her neck and told to say what she knew.
Qasa sent her to a prince Mari Diata (Djata) II, son of Mansa Magha, Sulaiman’s nephew who was a fugitive in Konbere in the Bendugu region beyond the Bani river inviting him to depose the Mansa saying ‘I and all the troops obey you’.
Qasa frightened took refuge in the preacher’s house.

To make sense of all that, Qasa was the “African Queen” that was associated with Suleiman’s rule. “African Queen” because this is not queen in the sense that she was married to a king but a queen who had her own powers and office. Qasa would have been a sovereign in her own right likely a princess related to Suleiman. Apparently she may not have even been married to him exactly, at least not in the sense that she was his wife. I mean legal wife here, likely refers to the position she occupied as queen as opposed to being the Mansa’s wife…is that clear at all?

That may have been why Suleiman wanted to replace her position with Banju who was not of the royal family and may have likely been his wife wife. I must have read somewhere, cannot remember where because initial notes were written in 2008, that Suleiman’s attempt to replace Qasa with Banju was one where the “African Queen” was reduced to the consort-type Queen who owed her position to that of her husband. Qasa may have been the daughter of Suleiman’s paternal uncle.

The Historical Dictionary of Women in Sub-Saharan African suggests that Qasa was born in 1241. Apparently the drama ibn Battuta witnessed came after Suleiman divorced her to marry Banju.

Noblewomen of the court supported [Qasa] and refused to recognise the rule of her successor and she convinced her cousins to rebel. The conflict was part of a larger struggle over who was the legitimate ruler, and Qasa was charged with treason and banished when her plot with her cousins was discovered. Her son, Kassa, ruled Mali briefly after Suleyman.

This Wikipedia page says that Qasa is a Manding term meaning queen, so we do not even know this Qasa’s name. Apparently Qasa wanted to overthrow Suleiman and hatched a plot with some army commanders. However Suleiman was able to fight back and eventually imprisoned her. You can’t imprison royalty for long, Suleiman’s move was unpopular and he had to pardon her. Perhaps this was when Qasa “came to the audience with her face veiled” and the amirs “talked about her and Mansa assembled a court”.

Women in World History again suggests that Qasa may have plotted with Suleiman’s cousins in retaliation. She may have wanted revenge for being imprisoned or to humiliate Suleiman for not only divorcing her but snatching her office from her. Still Qasa’s alliance with Suleiman’s cousins was enough to raise fears of civil war.

We will never know. What position did Qasa, and other “African queens” like her really play? Why did Suleiman marry Banju? Was Banju really just an innocent commoner bystander or did she have her own aspirations to be queen? Was Qasa imprisoned for plotting a coup, or was it because she objected to Suleiman divorcing her? But wait did Suleiman actually divorce her, or did he just strip her of her position/office? What were Qasa’s reasons for reaching out to Suleiman’s cousins and/or nephews? Was she just trying to get back her original position that was taken from her?

*sigh* One thing we know from all this is that in Mali, like in other West African empires and kingdoms, women were active players in politics. More frustrating questions to come in the next installment of this series.

What (else) I read
The Thirteenth- and Fourteenth- Century Kings of Mali by N. Levtzion
The Travels of ibn Battuta

Featured image
Timbuktu from the terrace of the traveller’s house, Barth, Heinrich (1858)