When Wakanda Was Real

Fourteenth-century drawing of Mansa Musa (Wikimedia Commons); Black Panther (Marvel)

The reason people love superheroes is that, when done correctly, they are the perfect combination of our wildest fantasies and reality. There is no white guy born on a distant planet who came to Kansas and discovered that he could fly. If you are ever bitten by a bat, you probably want to get a tetanus shot before making plans to build your bat cave. When I was 8, I tried to convince my cousin to let a radioactive spider (I had put it in the microwave) bite him, but for some reason he had no interest in becoming Spider-Man.

And, of course, when black America streams into movie theaters on Feb. 15 and 16, we’ll do so knowing that Black Panther has nothing to do with reality. We are well aware that there was never a hidden African country so rich that its king would have been the wealthiest man who ever existed. Sure, there were rich African countries, but the leader of the fictional land of Wakanda is supposedly so wealthy that it is impossible to calculate his wealth. Of course, it is a fictional comic book tale that could never really happen.


Except it did.

In 1324 Musa I, the 10th Mansa, or king, of the West African empire of Mali, began his 4,000-mile pilgrimage to Mecca. Before his hajj, the African and the Muslim worlds had heard little about the emperor who was uniting many parts of modern-day Mauritania and Mali (Melle), and the tale was unknown to most of Europe. But after his trip, Mansa Musa literally put the kingdom of Mali on the map, and to this very day, historians universally consider him the richest person who ever lived.

“So abundant is the gold which is found in his country that he is the richest and most noble king in the land.”

—Spanish cartographer, 1375


Musa didn’t gain his wealth through an internet-software startup or the stock market—he got it the old-fashioned way: He earned it.

He was born around 1280 as “Kanga Musa,” a name that refers to his mother, Kankou Hamidou, in the matriarchal Mandinka society. Although his father was not a royal, Musa was appointed a “deputy” to the empire and assumed the throne in 1312 when the previous king took a pilgrimage to Mecca and did not return.


While Europe was slowly emerging from the famine, war, disease and mass poverty that killed 1 in every 10 Europeans between 1315 and 1316, Musa was building universities, mosques and city centers throughout the empire of Mali. Instead of conquering through war, he expanded his empire through annexation as he used his control of gold and salts to connect disparate city-states into one empire. It is said that by the end of his life, it would have taken an entire year to go from one end of the Mali empire to the other.

Because of this, Mansa earned more titles than a Game of Thrones character. He was called Emir of Melle, Lord of the Mines of Wangara, Conqueror of Ghanata, Lion of Mali. The only titles he never earned were Mother of Dragons and King of the North. At its height, scholars say, the kingdom had 400 densely populated cities in the Niger Delta. The University of Sankore in Timbuktu, Mali, still stands where he built it after conquering the area.

Western Europe was basically the PJs, and Mansa Musa’s West African empire was the deluxe apartment in the sky.


Despite his immense wealth and power, very few outside of Africa knew of Mansa until his pilgrimage. Most accounts say that he took 60,000 men on his trip with him and balled out along the way, much to white people’s dismay.


Never one to be stingy with his money, Musa is reported to have handed out gold bars to poor people along his travel route. Almost every version of his hajj tells the same story: King Musa handed out so much gold to the poor, it actually collapsed the entire gold market in the Middle East! To use the academic terms of macroeconomics, Mansa made it rain so much in da’ club, everyone else in the world look broke by comparison!

So what did he do to fix this?

In perhaps the greatest money move ever made, the king borrowed all of the gold his crew could carry from Cairo. Of course he didn’t need it, but the scarcity of the precious metal settled the market. Then, like the baller he was, he simply repaid the Egyptian moneylenders back, plus interest.


I’m sure he also included a note that said: “My bad. I’m not used to hanging out with broke people.”

When he returned to Mali, Musa brought back some of Spain’s and Egypt’s most prized architects and builders, creating an even wealthier kingdom. Historians say that by the time he returned from Mecca, he controlled most of the gold and salt in the Mediterranean. Coincidentally, this is when the kingdom of Mali began showing up on European maps.

Fourteenth-century Catalan map of North Africa showing Mansa Musa (Wikimedia Commons)

So when you’re fantasizing about a fictional African kingdom of untold fortune, remember that there was once a real king who could probably have lent T’Challa a few dollars until Wakanda’s vibranium check cleared the bank.


How and when Mansa Musa died is a topic of fierce debate, but in our extensive research, we could not determine whether Mansa Musa released his tax returns. We could, however, confirm that even after the death of Mansa Musa, for centuries the Mali kingdom made Western Europe look like a collection of shithole countries.

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About the author

Michael Harriot

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.