Learning history at school in Zambia was very interesting. We learnt about exotic people and places like Kublai Khan, the Kingdom of Sundiata, Thaba Bosiu and our icon for the month of May, Mansa Kankan Musa. A list compiled by the website, Celebrity Net Worth, places him as the richest man of all time with an inflation adjusted fortune of $400 billion. The King of the empire of Mali in the early 1300s made his fortune from his empire’s salt and gold wealth. Who was this man? This edited material from http://wysinger.homestead.com/mansamusa.html and from al-Omari, Masalik al Absar fi Mamalik al Amsar, in the French version of Gaudefroy-Demombynes (Paris: 1927). Translated by Basil Davidson, The African Past (1964) tell the story.
Mansa Kankan Musa
When Mansa (“king of kings”) Musa came to power (1312 AD), Mali already had firm control of the trade routes to the southern lands of gold and the northern lands of salt. Now Musa brought the lands of the Middle Niger under Mali’s rule. He enclosed the cities of Timbuktu and Gao within his empire and imposed his rule on trans-desert trading towns such as Walata. He pushed his armies northward as far as the important salt-producing place called Taghaza, on the northern side of the great desert. He sent them eastward beyond Gao to the borders of Hausaland and westward into Takrur.
Eventually, Musa enclosed a large part of the Western Sudan within a single system of law and order. He did this so successfully that the Moroccan writer Ibn Batuta, travelling through Mali about twelve years after Musa’s death, found ‘complete and general safety in the land’. This was a big political success, and made Mansa Musa one of the greatest statesmen in the history of Africa.
The Dyula (Wangara) traders were greatly helped by all this. Their trading companies began to travel in many parts of West Africa. These Dyula traders were men of skill and energy. But they also drew strength from being Muslims. Belonging to Islam gave them unity. They stuck together even when members of their trading companies came from different clans or territories.
Like the Mali kings before him, Musa was a Muslim. But most of his people were not Muslims, so he supported and allowed the religion of the Mandinka people as well as Islam. Different religious customs and ceremonies were allowed at his court in a display of religious tolerance and broadmindedness.
A pilgrimage to Mecca is a dream for every Muslim and Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca, begun in 1324 became famous. His magnificent journey through the Egyptian capital of Cairo was long remembered with admiration and surprise throughout Egypt and Arabia, for Musa took with him so much gold, and gave away so many golden gifts, that ‘the people of Cairo earned very big sums’ thanks to his visit. So generous was Musa with his gifts, indeed, that he upset the value of goods on the Cairo market. Gold became so plentiful that in the cities of Cairo, Medina and Mecca, the sudden influx of gold devalued the metal for the next decade. Prices on goods and wares super inflated in an attempt to adjust to the newfound wealth that was spreading throughout local populations. To rectify the gold market, Musa borrowed all the gold he could carry from money-lenders in Cairo, at high interest. This is the only time recorded in history that one man directly controlled the price of gold in the Mediterranean. (Goodwin 1957, p. 110)
The North African scholar, Ibn Fadl Allah al-Omari, who lived in Cairo a few years after Mansa Musa’s visit and wrote about it, declared that of all the Muslim rulers of West Africa Musa was ‘the most powerful, the richest, the most fortunate, the most feared by his enemies and the most able to do good to those around him’. Behind these words of praise we can glimpse the power and reputation that Mali in the 14th century drew from its control of a very wide region of trade in precious goods such as gold, salt, ivory and kola nuts.
Kankan Musa’s preferred title was Lord of Mali. By then, Mali was a power of more than local or even regional significance. Under Mansa Musa, Mali ambassadors were established in Morocco, Egypt, and elsewhere. Mali’s capital was visited by North African and Egyptian scholars. On returning from his pilgrimage, Musa brought back with him a number of learned men from Egypt. These settled in Mali and Timbuktu. One of them, called as-Saheli, designed new mosques at Gao and Timbuktu, and built a palace for the emperor. The fashion of building houses in brick now began to be popular among wealthy people in the cities of the Western Sudan. At its height, the Malian Empire covered modern day Ghana, Timbuktu and Mali in West Africa. His kingdom and wealth didn’t last much longer after his death. His heirs were not able to fend off civil war and invading conquerors. Just two generations later, his world record net worth was gone.