Mansa Musa of Mali – Richest Man in History

Most people don't realize that the richest man in recorded history was a Black African King, Musa of Mali. Mansa Musa came to power in 1311, when Abu Bakr II temporarily handed the throne over to Musa and set off on an expedition to a what many believe is now known as the Americas. Abu Bakr II never returned from his voyage.

Musa Keita I (c. 1280 – c. 1337) was the tenth Mansa, which translates as "sultan" (king) or "emperor", of the wealthy West African Mali Empire. At the time of Musa's rise to the throne, the Malian Empire consisted of territory formerly belonging to the Ghana Empire in present-day southern Mauritania and in Mali and the immediate surrounding areas.

Musa held many titles, including Emir of Melle, Lord of the Mines of Wangara, Conqueror of Ghana, and at least a dozen others. It is said that Mansa Musa had conquered 24 cities, each with surrounding districts containing villages and estates, during his reign. He is known to have been enormously wealthy; reported as being inconceivably rich by contemporaries, "It has been estimated that Mansa Musa was worth between $400 billion and more than $4.6 trillion dollars when adjusted to U.S. dollars. There’s really no way to put an accurate number on his wealth, Mansa Musa controlled more than half the world's supply of gold and salt production, then a very valuable commodity. 

The Catalan Atlas (1375) depicting Mansa Musa holding goldThe Catalan Atlas (1375) depicting Mansa Musa holding gold

Mansa Musa was the first Muslim ruler in West Africa to make the nearly four thousand mile journey to Mecca. Preparing for the expedition took years and in 1324 Musa began his pilgrimage with an entourage of tens of thousands of soldiers, thousands of richly dressed servants, escorts, and supporters who carried 500 heralds bearing gold staffs. Mansa Musa gained the world's attention during his pilgrimage to Meca which made the world aware of the stupendous wealth of Mali.

Musa made generous donations to the poor and to charitable organizations as well as the rulers of the lands his entourage crossed. According to Arab historians, Mansa Musa spent so much gold during his pilgrimage that the value of gold declined and it took about 12 years for the price of gold to stabilize. 

Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage increased Islamic education in Mali by adding mosques, libraries, and universities. The awareness of Musa by other Islamic leaders brought increased commerce and scholars, poets, and artisans, making Timbuktu one of the leading cities in the Islamic world. In the 14th century, Timbuktu flourished from the trade in salt, gold, and ivory was five times bigger than London and was the richest city in the world. Mansa Musa ordered the building of the Djingarey Ber Mosque as a symbol of his kingdom’s prestige. The mosque was completed in 1327 and is the oldest in Timbuktu.

Djingarey Ber Mosque2
Djingarey Ber Mosque in Mali, completed in 1327

Abu Bakr II

Abu Bakr ii was an African emperor who ruled Mali in the 14th century and may have discovered America years before Christopher Columbus. The only known written account of Abu Bakr II is from the account of Chihab al-Umari, an Arab historian, born in Damascus. Al-Umari visited Cairo after Mansa Musa stopped there during his historic hajj to Mecca, and recorded a conversation between Musa and his host, Abu'l Hasan Ali ibn Amir Habib. One English translation of al-Umari’s conversation with Musa is as follows,

“So Abubakar equipped 200 ships filled with men and the same number equipped with gold, water, and provisions, enough to last them for years…they departed and a long time passed before anyone came back. Then one ship returned and we asked the captain what news they brought. 

He said, 'Yes, Oh Sultan, we travelled for a long time until there appeared in the open sea a river with a powerful current…the other ships went on ahead, but when they reached that place, they did not return and no more was seen of them…As for me, I went about at once and did not enter the river.' 

The Sultan got ready 2,000 ships, 1,000 for himself and the men whom he took with him, and 1,000 for water and provisions. He left me to deputies for him and embarked on the Atlantic Ocean with his men. That was the last we saw of him and all those who were with him. And so, I became king in my own right.”

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series