Who Was Mansa Musa?
Mansa Musa (Mansa means “Emperor” or “Sultan”), was born and lived from 1280 to 1337 into a ruler family, where his brother, Mansa Abu-Bakr, ruled the empire until 1312. When Abu-Bakr failed to return from an ocean expedition, Musa inherited the throne of the gold-rich kingdom.
The title of the world’s richest person in history belongs to Mansa Musa, the 14th Century West African ruler of the Mali Empire, who was so rich, his generous handouts wrecked an entire country’s economy. You’ve probably never heard of him, but Mansa Musa 1 is the richest person ever. The 14th century emperor was worth a staggering $400 billion, after adjusting for inflation, as calculated by Celebrity Net Worth. To put that number into perspective, if that’s even possible, Net Worth’s calculations mean Musa’s fortune far outstrips that of the current world’s richest man Carlos Slim Helu and family.
Some of the oldest fortunes in question date back 1,000 years. No. 7 on the list, for example, is William the Conqueror. The illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy, William lived between ten28 to ten87 and gained infamy for invading and seizing England in Ten66. Despite Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, having a net worth of $118 billion, he doesn’t come close to Mansa Musa 1, the ruler of Mali Empire, the richest man of all time. Controlling territories rich in gold and copper, as well as monopolising trade between the north and interior of the continent, the Mali elite grew extremely wealthy.
“Contemporary accounts of Musa’s wealth are so breathless that it’s almost impossible to get a sense of just how wealthy and powerful he truly was,” Rudolph Butch Ware, associate professor of history at the University of California, told the BBC.
Mansa Musa 1 was “richer than anyone could describe”, Jacob Davidson wrote about the African king for Money.com in 2015.
Mansa Musa Leadership in Mali Empire?
Musa became ruler of the Mali Empire in 1312, taking the throne after his predecessor, Abu-Bakr II, for whom he’d served as deputy, went missing on a voyage he took by sea to find the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Mansa Musa was emperor of the West African Mali Empire. Covering roughly 500,000 square miles of land, it was the biggest empire West Africa has ever known.
Musa’s rule came at a time when European nations were struggling due to raging civil wars and a lack of resources. During that period, the Mali Empire flourished thanks to ample natural resources like gold and salt.
And under the rule of Musa, the prosperous empire grew to span a sizeable 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.
It wasn’t until 1324 that the world outside of Mali’s border would get a glimpse of the king’s expansive wealth. Musa was a devout Muslim in a majority Muslim community.
Mansa Musa Richest and Mali Empire’s Wealth.
Musa’s wealth was a result of his country’s vast natural resources. The West African nation was responsible for more than half of the world’s salt and gold supply, according to Net Worth. Mali grew significantly as Musa annexed 24 cities, including Timbuktu. Mali accounted for almost half of the Old World’s gold, and all of it belonged to Mansa Musa. Economic historians say it is impossible to establish the correct translation of his fortune.
From the abundance of natural resources he cultivated to the growth and development of communities that he left behind, Musa has a legend that could give the fictional Black Panther a run for his money. As far as wealth goes, it is nearly impossible to quantify the riches that Musa had during his lifetime. The vastness of Musa’s land and material holdings, seems incomprehensible today.
Rudolph Butch Ware, associate professor of history at the University of California, told BBC: “Contemporary accounts of Musa’s wealth are so breathless that it’s almost impossible to get a sense of just how wealthy and powerful he truly was.”
As The Independent points out, while the numbers bandied about by this newest list are shocking, many aspects of the run-down aren’t surprising: there are no women included, for example, and only three of the richest men are still alive today. Americans dominate the list, however, taking 14 of the 26 spots, including slots two and three.
There’s probably no accurate way to estimate just how rich Musa was in modern terms. In 2015, the late Richard Ware of Ferrum College in Virginia told Jacob Davidson at Money that people had trouble even describing Musa’s wealth. “This is the richest guy anyone has ever seen, that’s the point,” Ware said. “They’re trying to find words to explain that. There are pictures of him holding a scepter of gold on a throne of gold holding a cup of gold with a golden crown on his head. Imagine as much gold as you think a human being could possess and double it, that’s what all the accounts are trying to communicate.”
And gold was what made West Africa indispensable to the rest of the world during the Middle Ages. Berzock tells Johnson she wants the Block exhibition to demonstrate “Africa’s role as a kind of fulcrum in that interconnectedness.”
“It’s because of the gold resources and the importance of gold in economies of that period of time,” she continues, “That is the impetus for this trade to really expand. But along with that comes a lot of other things: People move and ideas move and other types of materials move. And what the exhibition does is it traces all of those things, and you begin to see how these networks really extend across a very vast area.”
Musa Pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324.
The wider world did not know much about King Mansa Musa until the devout Muslim pilgrimaged to Mecca in 1324. During his pilgrimage to Mecca, he passed through the Sahara Desert and Egypt. 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.
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, Musa’s character was put on full display during his reluctant encounter with Cairo’s ruler, al-Malik al-Nasir. According to texts from the ancient historian Shihab al-Umari, Musa was greeted in Cairo by a subordinate of al-Nasir, who invited him to meet with the fellow monarch. Musa declined the proposition, claiming that he was only passing through on his pilgrimage to Mecca.
The reason why soon became clear to onlookers. “I realized that the audience was repugnant to him, because he would be obliged to kiss the ground and the sultan’s hand,” said a man named emir Abu, as chronicled in the documents. “I continue to cajole him, and he continued to make excuses, but the sultan’s protocol demanded that I should bring him into the royal presence, so I kept on at him till he agreed.”
But the king’s trip wasn’t all about giving. On his voyage, he acquired the territory of Gao within the Songhai kingdom, extending his territory to the southern edge of the Sahara Desert along the Niger River. He would go on to have an empire that spanned several territories, including current-day Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Mauritania, in addition to Mali.
However, Gao would be of special importance to the king. This territory, in today’s Mali, is where Musa would build one of several mosques after completing his Hajj. Timbuktu was also an important city for the affluent king, who used his wealth to build schools, universities, libraries, and mosques there. The burgeoning trading hub was where Musa commissioned the Djinguereber Mosque, a famed place built of mudbrick and wood that has stood the test of time, remaining active for more than 500 years.
Mansa Musa Wealth and The Cairo Gold Crash.
From the markets of Cairo to royal offices to the impoverished people that crossed his path in Egypt, Musa’s generosity and purchase of foreign goods left the streets littered with gold, a resource that was greatly appreciated and in short supply. The people were thrilled, at least at first. Though well-intentioned, Musa’s gifts of gold actually depreciated the value of the metal in Egypt, and the economy took a major hit. It took 12 years for the community to recover. United States based technology company, SmartAsset.com, estimates that due to the depreciation of gold, Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage led to about $1.5 billion of economic losses across the Middle East.
On his way back home, Mansa Musa passed through Egypt again, and according to some, tried to help the country’s economy by removing some of the gold from circulation by borrowing it back at extortionate interest rates from Egyptian lenders. Others say he spent so much that he ran out of gold. Lucy Duran of the School of African and Oriental Studies in London notes that Malian griots, who are singing historian storytellers, in particular, were upset with him.
“He gave out so much Malian gold along the way that jelis [griots] don’t like to praise him in their songs because they think he wasted local resources outside the empire,” she said.
Mansa Musa Death and Legacies.
Musa died sometime in the 1330s, he left behind an empire filled with palaces and mosques, some of which still stand today. A key figure in the story of sub-Saharan trade is Mansa Musa, the 14th-century king of the Empire of Mali. Musa’s kingdom controlled access to one of the most productive gold regions in the world, making him one of the wealthiest people in history.
The wealthy king is also believed to be the one who started the tradition of education in West Africa. The ruler funded literature and built schools, libraries and mosques, in addition to encouraging arts and architecture.
Word of Musa’s wealth and influence only spread beyond Africa after his voyage to Mecca. Tales of his enormous convoy and generosity continued to be passed on long after his death. After Mansa Musa died in 1337, aged 57, the empire was inherited by his sons who could not hold the empire together. The smaller states broke off and the empire crumbled. The later arrival of Europeans in the region was the final nail in the empire’s coffin.
“The history of the medieval period is still largely seen only as a Western history,” says Lisa Corrin Graziose, director of the Block Museum of Art, explaining why the story of Mansa Musa is not widely known.
“Had Europeans arrived in significant numbers in Musa’s time, with Mali at the height of its military and economic power instead of a couple hundred years later, things almost certainly would have been different,” says Mr Ware.
By the late 14th century, Musa had been drawn in the 1375 Catalan Atlas, an important resource for navigators of Medieval Europe. Created by Spanish cartographer Abraham Cresques, the atlas depicted Musa sitting on a throne with a gold scepter and crown, holding a gold nugget.
Kathleen Bickford Berzock, who specialises in African art at the Block Museum of Art at the Northwestern University, told BBC: “As the ruler, Mansa Musa had almost unlimited access to the most highly valued source of wealth in the medieval world.
“Major trading centres that traded in gold and other goods were also in his territory, and he garnered wealth from this trade.”
The story of Musa, and the fact that many people outside West Africa have never heard of him, shows just how much the history of the region and its artifacts have been buried over time. “Why didn’t we understand,” Lisa Graziose Corrin, director of the Block Museum asks, “how important Africa was to that period where, you know, the greatest and purest gold reserves in the world sat in Mali and in the hands of the emperor of Mali?”
Mansa Musa returned from Mecca with several Islamic scholars, including direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad and an Andalusian poet and architect by the name of Abu Es Haq es Saheli, who is widely credited with designing the famous Djinguereber mosque. The king reportedly paid the poet 200 kg (440lb) in gold, which in today’s money would be $8.2 million.
In addition to encouraging the arts and architecture, he also funded literature and built schools, libraries and mosques. Timbuktu soon became a centre of education and people travelled from around the world to study at what would become the Sankore University. The rich king is often credited with starting the tradition of education in West Africa, although the story of his empire largely remains little known outside West Africa.
- During his long reign as Mali’s emperor, Mansa Musa led his empire into its Golden Age.
- Already a seat of intellectual excellence, Mansa Musa’s renewal of Timbuktu included building madrassas (educational institutions), libraries, archives and mosques. Timbuktu held hundreds of thousands of texts and became one of the most prominent cities in West Africa.
- Mansa Musa was emperor of the West African Mali Empire. Covering roughly 500,000 square miles of land, it was the biggest empire West Africa has ever known.
- Abu Bakr, Mansa Musa’s predecessor, was desperate for the Mali Empire to expand. Known as the Voyager King, he personally led thousands of ships on an expedition to conquer the Atlantic Ocean. Neither the ships nor Abu Bakr were ever seen again. Later in 1312, Mansa Musa became ruler.
- During his pilgrimage to Mecca, Mansa Musa gave away such a significant amount of gold that the economy of Cairo was affected for years after. Historian al-Umari said he “flooded Cairo with his kindness”.
- Historians estimate that Mansa Musa, in modern currency, was worth around $400bn. That is more than twice as wealthy as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos – the richest person alive today. Most of Mansa Musa’s wealth came from gold and salt.
- Mansa Musa was a devout Muslim, and observed one of the five pillars of Islam by undertaking a pilgrimage to Mecca (known as Hajj). When he embarked on his Hajj in 1324, he travelled thousands of miles across treacherous terrain with 60,000 people, 21,000 kilograms of gold, 100 elephants and 80 camels. That is a lot of packed lunches!
- Mansa Musa’s arrival in Cairo carrying a ton of the metal caused the market in gold to crash, suggesting that the average supply was not as great. Undoubtedly, some of this African gold was also used in Western gold coins. African gold was indeed so famous worldwide that a Spanish map of 1375 represents the king of Mali holding a gold nugget.
- When Mossi raids destroyed the Mali empire, the rising Songhai empire relied on the same resources. Gold remained the principal product in the trans-Saharan trade, followed by kola nuts and slaves. The Moroccan scholar Leo Africanus, who visited Songhai in 1510 and 1513, observed that the governor of Timbuktu owned many articles of gold, and that the coin of Timbuktu was made of gold without any stamp or superscription.