King Musa I (c. 1280 – c. 1337) – The Wealthiest Ruler of All Time


Mansa Musa I

Mansa Musa I (c. 1280 – c. 1337), commonly referred to as Mansa Musa, was the tenth mansa, which translates as “king of kings” or “emperor”, of the Malian Empire. At the time of Mansa Musa’s rise to the throne, the Malian Empire consisted of territory formerly belonging to the Ghana Empire and Melle (Mali) and immediate surrounding areas, and Musa held many titles, including Emir of Melle, Lord of the Mines of Wangara, and conqueror of Ghanata, Futa-Jallon, and at least another dozen states. He was the wealthiest ruler of his day and perhaps the wealthiest ruler in human history.

What is known about the kings of the Malian Empire is taken from the writings of Arab scholars, including Al-Umari, Abu-sa’id Uthman ad-Dukkali, Ibn Khaldun, andIbn Battuta. According to Ibn-Khaldun’s comprehensive history of the Malian kings, Mansa Musa’s grandfather was Abu-Bakr (the Arabic equivalent to Bakari or Bogari, original name unknown – not the sahabiyy Abu Bakr), a brother of Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Malian Empire as recorded through oral histories. Abu-Bakr did not ascend the throne, and his son, Musa’s father, Faga Laye, has no significance in the History of Mali.

Mansa Musa came to the throne through a practice of appointing a deputy when a king goes on his pilgrimage to Mecca or some other endeavor, and later naming the deputy as heir. According to primary sources, Musa was appointed deputy of the king before him, who had reportedly embarked on an expedition to explore the limits of the Atlantic ocean, and never returned. The Arab-Egyptian scholar Al-Umari quotes Mansa Musa as follows:

The ruler who preceded me did not believe that it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean that encircles the earth (meaning the Atlantic). He wanted to reach that (end) and was determined to pursue his plan. So he equipped two hundred boats full of men, and many others full of gold, water and provisions sufficient for several years. He ordered the captain not to return until they had reached the other end of the ocean, or until he had exhausted the provisions and water. So they set out on their journey. They were absent for a long period, and, at last just one boat returned. When questioned the captain replied: ‘O Prince, we navigated for a long period, until we saw in the midst of the ocean a great river which flowing massively. My boat was the last one; others were ahead of me, and they were drowned in the great whirlpool and never came out again. I sailed back to escape this current.’ But the Sultan would not believe him. He ordered two thousand boats to be equipped for him and his men, and one thousand more for water and provisions. Then he conferred the regency on me for the term of his absence, and departed with his men, never to return nor to give a sign of life.
—Mansa Musa

Musa’s son and successor, Mansa Magha, was also appointed deputy during Musa’s pilgrimage.

Musa was a devout Muslim and his pilgrimage to Mecca, a command ordained by Allah according to core teachings of Islam, made him well-known across northern Africa and the Middle East. To Musa, Islam was the foundation of the “cultured world of the Eastern Mediterranean”. He would spend much time fostering the growth of Islam in his empire.

Musa made his pilgrimage in 1324, his procession reported to include 60,000 men, 12,000 slaves who all carried 4-lb. gold bars, heralds dressed in silks who bore gold staffs, organized horses and handled bags. Musa provided all necessities for the procession, feeding the entire company of men and animals. Also in the train were 80 camels, which varying reports claim carried between 50 and 300 pounds of gold dust each. He gave away the gold to the poor he met along his route. Musa not only gave to the cities he passed on the way to Mecca, including Cairo and Medina, but also traded gold for souvenirs. Furthermore, it has been recorded that he built a mosque each and every Friday.

Musa’s journey was documented by several eyewitnesses along his route, who were in awe of his wealth and extensive procession, and records exist in a variety of sources, including journals, oral accounts and histories. Musa is known to have visited with the Mamluk sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad of Egypt in July 1324.

Musa’s generous actions, however, inadvertently devastated the economy of the region. 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

Satire, but so true for the time.

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