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Mansa Musa: The Richest Man in History

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Forbes tells us that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is the world richest person with a net worth of $177 billion. Mansa Musa, if he was alive today, might mutter something about pocket change.

Mansa Masu.

Mansa Masu.

The Mali Empire

From the 13th century CE to the 17th century, the Mali Empire (aka the Manding Empire) dominated West Africa. At the peak of the empire's reach it covered 500,000 square miles, about twice the size of Texas, and held sway over 20 million people.

The empire was established by Sundiata Keita. In 1235, he led a rebellion against a tyrannical ruler and declared himself “Mansa,” which means emperor. Sundiata was a very capable warrior and administrator and united the Mandinka people under his leadership. Under Sundiata Keita, the boundaries of the Mali Empire stretched from the Atlantic coast to what is today Niger.

The empire's wealth was based on gold and copper mining and trade. As goods crossed the Malian borders they were taxed, generating great wealth.

Mansa Musa Takes Charge

Sundiata Keita died in about 1255 and was followed by a succession of descendants until the empire passed into the hands of Mansa Musa. He was the grandson of Sundiata Keita, (some accounts say he was a great-great-grandson) and his rule is reckoned to be the gold age of the Mali Empire.

He inherited the emperorship from his brother, Abu-Bakr, a man who was intrigued by the Atlantic Ocean. In 1312, Abu-Bakr put together a massive fleet of 2,000 ships with the aim of exploring the ocean. He appointed Musa to stand in for him as emperor while he was away. But, Abu-Bakr and the thousands who sailed with him were never seen again.

Mansa Masu was the first devoutly Muslim emperor of Mali and encouraged, but did not force, all to take up the religion. Musa expanded the empire so that it “stretched for about 2,000 miles, from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to modern-day Niger, taking in parts of what are now Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, and Ivory Coast” (BBC).

Among other cities, he captured Timbuktu, which, at the time, was a great seat of learning. He encouraged scholarship and set up the Sankore University in the city of Timbuktu. The university still operates today. Musa also built libraries, schools, and mosques and Timbuktu became a centre that attracted scholars from the known world.

Mansa Musa was immensely wealthy. According to the British Museum, he owned almost half of all the world's gold during his lifetime. He also owned another very valuable resource of the age, salt. With the customs duties exacted from trade he amassed a fortune thought to be worth in the region of $400 billion in today's terms. That figure is widely quoted, but it has to be regarded as what is know in the academic trade as a “SWAG number”— a scientific, wild-arsed, guess.

(The Urban Dictionary tells us that a scientific wild-arsed guess “is generally used by financial, technical professionals and project managers to describe a solid assumption of a numeric target.”)

Pilgrimage to Mecca

Perhaps, the most outstanding feature of Mansa Masu's life was when he went on the Hajj. The pilgrimage to Mecca is a duty of all Muslims to do at least once in their lifetime, but nobody can have performed it with the style of Mansa Masu.

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Getting from Mali to Mecca involved crossing the Sahara Desert, the River Nile, the Sinai Desert, and the inhospitable east coast of the Red Sea. It was a difficult journey of some 4,500 kilometres that began in 1324. Crossing such desolate ground meant being well provisioned, so Musa gathered around him a massive entourage.

The caravan had 60,000 men in attendance, each decked out in silk. Slaves, 12,000 in number, plodded along, each carrying a four-pound gold bar. Horses, elephants, and camels were loaded up with gold dust that was distributed to any poor people that were encountered along the route. There were entertainers and soldiers in the party and large herds of sheep and goats to feed everybody.

Every Friday, this city-on-the-move halted and built a mosque so that Masu and his followers could attend to their prayers properly.

The caravan made a three-month rest stop in Cairo where Masu handed out so much gold that it wrecked the economy and depressed the value of the precious metal for a decade.

Having reached Mecca and performed his submission to Allah, Mansa Masu and his retinue turned about and went back to Mali. The round trip took two years.

The Kaaba in Mecca in the most sacred shrine in Islam.

The Kaaba in Mecca in the most sacred shrine in Islam.

Decline of the Mali Empire

Mansa Masu died in 1337 at the age of 57 and the ruling of the empire passed to his son Mansa Maghan Keita I. However, the new emperor did not have the skills of his father and small parts of the domain started to break away. Within four years, Musa's brother, Souleyman Keita, took over but internal squabbling started the Mali Empire onto a steady road to oblivion.

The World History Encyclopedia tells us that “The ill-defined rules for royal succession often led to civil wars as brothers and uncles fought each other for the throne.”

Emperors came and went in rapid succession and trade routes moved away from Mali. Opportunistic tribes attacked the crumbling empire until, by the 15th century there was nothing left but a rump that was absorbed by the Moroccan Empire.

Today, the United Nations Development Report ranks Mali as 184 out of 189 countries in the quality of its living conditions.

In August 2020, a military council seized power and the BBC reports that “Mali has struggled with mass protests over corruption, electoral probity, and a jihadist insurgency that has made much of the north and east ungovernable.”

Mansa Masu on his gold throne holding a large gold coin.

Mansa Masu on his gold throne holding a large gold coin.

Bonus Factoids

  • The legend of Timbuktu being a “city of gold” drew adventurers and explorers to rediscover the place in the 19th century with sometimes unhappy results. You can read about this here.
  • It has been said the the story of Sundiata Keita was the inspiration for the Disney production The Lion King.

Sources

  • “Forbes World Billionaires List.” Kerry A. Dolan (ed), Forbes, December 2021.
  • “Empire of Mali.” thinkafrica.net, October 3, 2018.
  • “Is Mansa Musa the Richest Man Who ever Lived?” Naima Mohamud, BBC, March 10, 2019.
  • “Mali Empire.” Mark Cartwight, World History Encyclopedia, March 1, 2019.
  • “The 10 Richest People of All Time.” Jacob Davidson, money.com, July 30, 2015.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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