Written by Amy Hendrie
Mansa Musa, leader of the Mali Empire in the fourteenth century, was the richest man who has ever lived. Today, business giants such as Jeff Bezos spring to mind as the wealthiest on earth; Bezos’ net worth presently stands at an impressive $190.7 billion. Historians’ estimates place Mansa Musa’s net worth at $400 billion in present-day value – over twice as wealthy as the richest man currently alive. Yet Mansa Musa is a name largely unknown to the British curriculum. This article aims to reorient African history in the European mind by shining a light on Mansa Musa’s riches, his travels, and his incredible contributions to the Mali empire. The German philosopher Hegel famously stated that Africa “is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit” – as this article will attempt to show, this statement is fundamentally false, and Mansa Musa proves a helpful entryway into deconstructing such harmful stereotypes.
The Mali Empire spanned approximately 500,000 square miles – the same size as the United States – and was the largest empire ever known to West Africa. Established by King Sundiata Keita in the 1240s, the Mali Empire lasted for four centuries and amassed a large fortune during this time from two key commodities: gold and salt. The empire was headed by a Mansa, which means ‘emperor’ or ‘sultan’ in Mali. Before Mansa Musa I came to power, his predecessor, Abu Bakr II, met an interesting end. Abu Bakr was known as the Voyager King, as he was keen to expand the Mali Empire overseas. Indeed, Abu Bakr personally supervised thousands of ships in their efforts to conquer the Atlantic Ocean, only to never return. It has been speculated by American historian Ivan van Sertima that Abu Bakr discovered South America; however, this has never been confirmed. As a result of Abu Bakr’s disappearance, Musa became the Mansa of Mali in 1312. Mansa Musa I was instrumental in the expansion of Mali’s economic, cultural, and military presence.
Mansa Musa expanded the territory of the Mali Empire by annexing 24 cities through military conquest, among them the famous Timbuktu. For example, one of Musa’s top generals, Sagmandia, extended the empire through the conquest of the Songhai capital of Gao. It was noted by the fourteenth-century traveller Ibn Battutah that it took four months to travel from the northern borders of the Mali empire to the southern.
This acquisition of vast new lands facilitated the spread of Mali influence not just militarily, but also culturally. Mansa Musa was a devout Muslim and went on pilgrimage – or Hajj – to Mecca in 1324. Embarking on this pilgrimage saw Mansa Musa’s reputation of wealth and devotion sweep across Africa. Musa made sure to display his riches en route: he brought with him 21,000 kilograms of gold, 100 elephants, 80 camels, and 60,000 people. When he passed through Cairo, Mansa Musa gave away so much gold that its value in Cairo fell significantly for years after. According to historian al-Umari, Mansa Musa “flooded Cairo with his kindness”.
Not only did Musa seek to spread his economic influence, he also sought to convert those who came under the fold of the Mali Empire to Islam. One key way in which he did this was through the building of new mosques; it was reported that he built a new mosque every Friday. Perhaps the most famous example is in Timbuktu. Here, Mansa Musa established educational institutions, libraries, and archives as well as mosques. Hundreds of thousands of significant texts and documents were held here and, as a result of Mansa Musa, Timbuktu became one of the most important cities in the empire, still known today for its academic significance. This was a site of academic debate and research, of religious devotion and curiosity. Mansa Musa cultivated this cultural and religious centre in an effort to expand the empire’s reach in a way that went beyond the military occupation of territories. Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford argues that this explains Mansa Musa’s success in empire building; he sought to make those within the empire feel as though they were part of something, to convince them that the empire benefited even those living on its outermost edges. It was because of this sense of shared culture that the Mali Empire’s influence in the region succeeded.
Mansa Musa’s key role becomes even more stark upon his death in 1337. Following his death, the empire suffered greatly: poor leadership combined with competing trade centres and civil wars saw the decline of the Mali Empire. The Mali Empire was drastically reduced by the middle of the fifteenth century. Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford makes the case that Mansa Musa himself was instrumental in keeping the empire together through his emphasis on shared culture and religion, which was not prioritised by his successors. In this way, Mansa Musa himself was significant in the military, economic, and cultural expansion of the Mali Empire.
It is important that we remain curious about people such as Mansa Musa. For too long, African history has remained invisible in the UK’s curriculum. As a result of this Eurocentric understanding of history, Africa is swept to the side and deemed irrelevant. This article argues that African history is not so distant as it may seem; indeed, royal artwork found in Europe features much stunning gold mined from the Mali Empire. Mansa Musa was widely known throughout the globe and his influence, and riches, spanned continents.
Jenner, Greg. “Mansa Musa,” You’re Dead To Me (podcast). Accessed 23rd March 2022
De Graft-Johnson, John. “Musa I of Mali.” Britannica. Accessed 23rd March 2022
National Geographic, “The Mali Empire.” Accessed 23rd March 2022
Mohamud, Namia. “Is Mansa Musa the richest man who ever lived?” BBC Africa, 2019