Was History’s Richest Person Black?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Meet Mansa Musa, the Malian king whose gold-plated legend beats all others.

Depiction of Mansa Musa Wikimedia Commons

On the way to Mecca, Mali’s king of kings made a three-month sojourn in Cairo, where he met with the sultan and, as a result, helped open key trading routes to North Africa. Great journeys were not uncommon among Mali’s early rulers. In fact, while in Cairo, Musa told the sultan that tale about the mysterious disappearance of his former boss, Abubakari II, who may very well have been Columbus before Columbus. There to capture the tale was Ibn Hajib, a district governor in Egypt and, through him, Arab-Egyptian scholar Al-Umari, who translated Musa’s story as follows, according to Tschanz:

The ruler who preceded me believed it was possible 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.” 

Here’s how Conrad qualifies the tale: “The clearly exaggerated numbers of ships (several hundred in the first expedition and 2,000 in the last) call into question the story’s accuracy, but it offers an unusually detailed account of how one Malian ruler came to power.” Although no one knows for sure what happened to Abubakari II and his massive fleet, researchers in Mali, as reported by the BBC in 2000, think they made it as far as Brazil. Imagine that! (Others point to Egypt.) 

While in Egypt himself, Musa was apparently so generous with his gold that he crashed the local market with it—for the next decade! Reading about him is like reading about Marco Polo’s voyages and the pages of The Canterbury Tales and The Pilgrim’s Progress all in one. And you know what? The pilgrim Mansa Musa and his retinue made it all the way to Mecca—some 300 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. 

By the time Musa returned, he had barely any gold and had to borrow some at soaring interest rates. But he had brought back something else of value—actually, someone: Andalusian architect and poet Abu Ishaq al-Sahili, who soon introduced domed palaces to the skyline of Mali. 

A roaring success

In his 25-year reign as king of kings in Mali, Musa launched diplomatic relations with Morocco. He underwrote students studying abroad (you might call them Musa Scholars). And last, but not least, as a result of his famous pilgrimage, he spread the legend of Mali through the Islamic world to Europe, where, before long, his image began appearing on cartographers’ maps. One from 1375 shows Musa on his throne admiring a golden nugget in one palm and clutching a golden scepter in the other. By then, he had been dead for 40 years, but his legend as “the Lion of Mali” endured.

As I mentioned at the top, according to CelebrityNetworth.com, Musa was worth $400 billion, making him history’s all-time richest person. But there’s another reason he outranks many of tycoons of history. As an anonymous African historian once said, according to Edward W. Bovill in his book The Golden Trade of the Moors: West African Kingdoms in the Fourteenth Century: “[Musa] was [one of] the first to penetrate the iron curtain of prejudice … and to win for the true African a small measure of the respect which, even today, is often grudgingly granted him.”

And the return on that investment is priceless.