The fight for the richest man in the world will surely wage on for the next couple of years between Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Tesla genius Elon Musk, both with a combined net worth of $250 billion. But by no means are they the richest men in history. That title is believed to belong to Mansa Musa, the 14th century King of the Mali Empire in West Africa. His indescribable and incalculable wealth caused a great shock in the economy of one of the greatest and longest standing nations in the world, Egypt.
Lord of the Mines of Wangara
Born in 1280 into a family of rulers, Mansa Musa was the great-nephew of Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Mali Empire who claimed to be a descendent of one of Prophet Muhammad’s closest friend Bilal Ibn Rabah, thus giving him religious and royal legitimacy. At the time of Musa’s ascension to the throne, Mali in large part consisted of the territory of the former Ghana Empire, which Mali had conquered. The Mali Empire stretched from the Niger Delta which flowed into the Atlantic Ocean and deep into the desert; consisting of land that is now part of Guinea, Senegal, Mauritania, Gambia and the modern state of Mali. The Mali Empire thus covered lush green lands which were flooded yearly by the great Niger River and “desolate” desert spotted with mines rich with gold and other minerals. In fact, Mansa Musa held many titles one of which was Lord of the Mines of Wangara. During Musa’s reign, he would have been ruler of the largest gold producing empires in the world.
Indeed, under the rule of Musa, the prosperous empire grew to span a sizable portion of West Africa, from the Atlantic coast to the inland trading hub of Timbuktu and parts of the Sahara Desert. As the territory grew while Musa was on the throne, so did the economic standing of its citizens.
Hajj Pilgrimage and Generosity
It wasn’t until 1324 that the world outside of Mali’s border would get a glimpse of the king’s expansive wealth. A devout Muslim in a majority Muslim community, Musa set off on a journey to Mecca for his Hajj pilgrimage. But the king didn’t travel by himself.
The voyage, which would span an estimated 4,000 miles, was travelled by Musa and a caravan that included tens of thousands of soldiers, slaves and heralds, draped in Persian silk and carrying golden staffs. Although records of the exact number of people who participated in the voyage are scarce, the elaborate convoy that accompanied Musa marched alongside camels and horses carrying hundreds of pounds of gold.
Of course, this spectacle was noticed by residents of the territories that Musa passed through—after all, a group so massive was impossible to overlook. The impact the Malian emperor left on the Egyptian people would reverberate for more than a decade.
Arriving in Cairo, the Arab-Egyptian scholar Shihab Al-Umari relays the scenes with which the Cairenes welcomed the Mansa and his caravan:
THe man (Mansa Musa) flooded Cairo with his benefactions. He let no court emir nor holder of royal office without the gift of a load of gold. The Cairenes made incalculable profits out of him and his suite in buying and selling and giving and taking. THey exchanged gold until they depressed its value in Egypt and caused the price to fall… Gold was at a high price in Egypt until they came in that year. The mithqal (approximately 4.25-4.5 grams) did not go below 25 dirhams and was generally above, but from that time its value fell and it cheapened in price and has remained cheap till now. The mithqal does not exceed 22 dirhams or less. This has been the state of affairs for about twelve years until this day by reason of the large amount of gold which they brought into Egypt and spent there.
An indication of the impression Mansa Musa had made is that news of his Cairo visit eventually reached Europe. In Spain, a mapmaker was inspired to create Europe’s first detailed map of West Africa. Created c. 1375AD, the map, part of the Catalan Atlas has Mansa Musa sitting regally on a throne, wearing an impressive gold crown, and holding a golden staff in one hand and, somewhat gleefully, a huge nugget or orb of gold in the other.
It was such tales of gold that would inspire later European explorers to brave disease, warlike tribes, and inhospitable terrain to find the fabled riches of Timbuktu, the golden city of the desert that nobody quite knew where to place on the map even in the 18th century CE.
Edge of the New World
More interesting than the King’s wealth and character are events that led to his acquiring the throne. Mansa Musa’s predecessor was a Mansa Abu Bakr II. A man of great knowledge and insatiable curiosity, he was gripped by his curiosity of what lay on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. Very little is known about the life of Abu Bakr, and only written account about him at present may be found in the work of the same Egyptian scholar who met Mansa Musa.
According to written records of Al-Umari, Mansa Musa explained:
“The ruler who preceded me did not believe that it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean (Atlantic Ocean) that encircles the earth, and wanted to reach that (end) and obstinately persisted in the design. So he equipped two hundred boats full of men, like many others full of gold, water and victuals sufficient enough for several years. He ordered the chief (admiral) not to return until they had reached the extremity of the ocean, or if they had exhausted the provisions and the water. Their absence extended over a long period, and, at last, only one boat returned. On our questioning, the captain said: “Prince, we have navigated for a long time , until we saw in the midst of the ocean as if a big river was flowing violently. My boat was the last one; others were ahead of me. As soon as any of them reached this place, it drowned in the whirlpool and never came out. I sailed backwards to escape this current.” But the sultan would not believe him. He ordered two thousand boats to be equipped for him and for his men, and one thousand more for water and victuals. Then he conferred on me the regency during his absence, and departed with his men on the ocean trip, never to return nor to give a sign of life.”
An argument has been made by researchers Ivan van Sertima and Malian researcher Gaoussou Diwara that Abu Bakr might have in fact reached his dream. Van Sertima cites the log of Christopher Columbus which shows that the purpose of Columbus’s third voyage was to test the claims of King John II of Portugal that “canoes had been found which set out from the coast of Guinea and sailed to the west with merchandise.”
Additionally, the inhabitants of the Caribbean Island of Hispaniola claimed that “from the south and the southeast had come black people whose spears were made of a metal called guanin… from which it was found that of 32 parts: 18 were gold, 6 were silver, and 8 copper.”
Although there are a multitude of researchers who are heavily against any theories of Africa-Americas contacts at any point in the pre-Columbian Era. They cite that there has been no genuine African artifact that has ever been found in a controlled archaeological excavation in the New World. Nevertheless, it is extremely intriguing that Mansa Musa should disclose such information, which, if it was true, would change our whole outlook on the past 500 years and cause us to question a whole science.
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THE BLOCK BARD
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