Mansa Musa: The Financial Recklessness of the Richest Man in History

It was in July 1324, the 17th year of the reign of Mansa Musa I of Mali, when the African emperor set out on his famous pilgrimage to Mecca. It was this pilgrimage that awakened the world to the stupendous wealth of Mali.

While on his way to Mecca, Mansa Musa stopped over in Cairo, Egypt, where he spent so much gold that the sudden influx of the currency led to a super-inflation, with the price of goods skyrocketing. Even 12 years after his journey, the markets couldn’t fully recover in Cairo.

Interestingly, Mansa Musa’s financial recklessness would change the history of the Mali Empire…forever.

Who was Mansa Musa?

The enormous entourage could not be missed, it was like a moving city. Servants clad in not the expected typical attire but in fine Persian silk and embroidered apparel, horses, camels carrying pounds of pure gold, sheep and goats, thousands of slaves all constituted the retinue of the king said to be the richest man in history.

Mansa Musa’s reign lasted for about 20 to 25 years and was documented as the most prosperous era of the Malian Empire/Wikimedia Commons.

This group was headed for Mecca to carry out the Hajj, a periodic Muslim pilgrimage embarked on by only a privileged few in those days. Going on this religious journey was the trigger that brought about the global fame of the ninth ruler of the Mali Empire, Mansa Musa.

Believed to have had riches that surpass that of any of the richest men that have ever existed before and after him, Mansa Musa amassed so much wealth that he crippled a nation’s economy just by his financial recklessness. He has been described by historians as the richest man in history with wealth that was incalculable and unquantifiable. He was so rich that he could give out gold lavishly without thinking twice. His full name was Musa Keita before he took on the title of “Mansa” which was their local depiction of “king/emperor”. His great grandfather, Sundiata Keita was also a great ruler and founder of the Mali Empire. He also established the capital city, Niani.

The Mali empire spanned across various present-day African countries today such as Ghana, Guinea, Senegal, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Gambia, Chad, and Mali. Mansa Musa would eventually add the cities of Timbuktu and Gao to his vast empire further cementing his affluence and wide reach. Within his empire, he built mosques and universities including in Timbuktu, where he made the epicenter of Islamic learning. His reign brought so much growth and development to the Mali Empire as he was intensely involved in many building projects that brought people from far and wide.

How Mansa Musa Became the Richest Man in History

Mansa Musa ascended the throne in 1312 after his predecessor Abu-Bakr failed to return from his fatal voyage. Mansa Abu-Bakr had gone on an expedition with about a fleet of 2000 ships, thousands of men and women to explore the Atlantic Ocean but no one returned. The first fleet of 200 ships had gone out for this expedition without Abu-Bakr but only one ship had returned bearing horrifying tales. This did not deter the Mansa as he set out on the second voyage, never to return.

Mansa Musa began extending the shores of the empire alongside amassing great wealth and riches. His reign came with huge physical, economic and intellectual development in the Mali Empire. Gold, copper, and salt were a major source of income in the 12th century and the empire happened to be blessed with it, even more as it expanded.

Mansa Sundiata Keita
Mansa Musa’s great grandfather, Sundiata Keita was also a great ruler and founder of the Mali Empire who established the capital city, Niani.

The Mali empire had three major gold mines that positioned it as a source of most of the gold in circulation at that time. They also had copper mines that were manned by thousands of slaves. Salt was in high demand then being a major preservative for meat and food.

Musa monopolized the trade of these products within the northern region and interior parts of Africa. The empire was also the major source of salt and gold to Europe and the Middle East. So much money was made from the taxes placed on the trade of these high-demand commodities and many other goods that were being traded during that time.

As was the rule of the day, every wealth that belonged to the kingdom automatically belonged to the king. This was how Mansa Musa became the richest man in history. His wealth is estimated today at over $400 billion, placing him above the world’s current richest men like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates.

The 14th-century king was also a great scholar, military leader, and devout Muslim who invested in building the military and financial strength of the Mali Empire. But he had one weakness, he was extremely generous to a fault and this financial recklessness would eventually make the glorious reign of the Mali Empire short-lived.

Mansa Musa’s Journey to Mecca

Mansa Musa embarked on the Hajj in 1324 and being such a lavish spender, this pilgrimage saw him waste a major bulk of his riches. Perhaps, it was his life’s mission to embark on the journey and whatever happened after didn’t matter. His destination was thousands of miles away and Musa adequately prepared for it such that it took years to put everything in place. Being the great man and king that he was, everyone in his entourage had to be adequately catered for.

Detail of Cresques Abraham’s ‘Atlas Catalan’, 1375.

By the time all the provisions for the trip were made available, the journeying group consisted of about 60,000 men and women, servants, slaves, merchants, horses, camels, mules, elephants, soldiers, goats, and sheep for feeding and even entertainers.

These servants were dressed in the finest of silk-wielding gold staffs. The caravan also consisted of his wife’s group of personal servants and attendants who were not left out in this display of affluence. He wanted to ensure that his wealth was well noticed by all who saw the convoy approaching. Mansa Musa’s entourage was so large that a part of it could have entered a city for a full day before the rest of it joined in.

Mansa Musa was one of the first Muslim rulers to embark on this pilgrimage in such grand style. This journey brought Mansa Musa and the Mali Empire to fame, even the European regions got to hear about Mansa Musa and his magnanimous caravan journeying to Mecca. It also placed him and his empire on the 1375 Catalan Maps, one of the most important world maps at that time. He was depicted sitting on a golden throne, wearing a golden crown and holding a golden scepter in one hand and a small golden globe in the other.

Although many biographers claim he was a religious man and had only embarked on the Hajj out of devotion, this singular act was enough to proclaim his riches far and wide. This fame also came at a price. It aroused the interest of European explorers and traders but would also lead to invasions and plummeting of these resources in the 15th-century even though Mansa Musa would not be alive to witness it.

During the economic prosperity of the Mali Empire, there was a sharp dissimilarity ongoing in European nations which were experiencing plagues, wars, and lack of resources. Hearing about an African king who owned so much wealth seemed like a fantasy to that part of the world. It fanned the flames of their curiosity and led to further explorations of Africa.

The journey to Mecca saw the peak of Mansa Musa’s financial recklessness. He and his companions bought as many goods that they could take back as souvenirs without negotiation. The emperor gave away so much gold to the poor on the street priced at over $100 million today. This same generosity also crippled Cairo’s economy, one of the cities he had to pass through on his way to Mecca.

By the end of his stay in Egypt, Mansa Musa had given out about 20,000 pieces of gold and its value had diminished drastically. When Musa got to Mecca, he also gave large amounts of gold to the holy city and Madinah. On his way back, he attempted to salvage Egypt’s economy by borrowing the same gold he had squandered away at very high-interest rates. Even so, it took Cairo’s economy about 12 years to recover from his “generosity”.

Mansa Musa’s Construction Projects

When Musa returned from the Hajj, he did not come back empty-handed but with strategic people such as descendants of the prophet Mohammed known as sharifs, scholars comprising architects, astronomers, lawyers, theologians, historians, mathematicians, bureaucrats including a renowned poet and architect Abu Ishaq al-Tuedjin who had traveled to Mecca from Spain.

These artisans and scholars helped to further develop the Mali empire with the different construction projects he got involved in. Ishaq al-Tuedjin introduced Musa to advanced structural methods employed in the building projects. This same architect was said to have introduced the burnt brick construction method due to the absence of stones in Mali. This method became popular in Africa afterward.

Rene Caillie’s drawing of Timbuktu, Mali, 1830.

The Mali empire had also further expanded with the addition of the cities of Gao which was a major trading center and Timbuktu, a small desert town. Mansa Musa started investing heavily in building projects, especially in libraries, schools, mosques, and universities.

So rich was the African king that he was said to have built a mosque every Friday. He also built a new palace for himself in Niani, the capital city of the Mali Empire. The epicenter of these constructions was Timbuktu which became a major center for Islamic education and other studies. It was in Timbuktu that he built the prominent Djinguereber Mosque designed by al-Teudijn, which is still in existence today.

Musa’s investments paid off as the city saw increased commercial activities. Many notable scholars, poets, were drawn to the empire further validating its fame and position in Sub-Saharan Africa. A major University was also erected in Timbuktu, currently known as the University of Sankore, and scholars whom he had returned with became the pioneer teachers of these learning institutions. Mansa Musa also sent some of his scholars to Fez, a major learning city in Morocco to acquire more knowledge, such was his passion for education and religion.

Mansa Musa’s Death and End of Reign

There is no specific known date of his death with some historians stating that he died in 1332 while others say 1337. Mansa Musa’s reign lasted for about 20 to 25 years and was documented as the most prosperous era of the Malian Empire. He was succeeded by his son, Maghan I who reigned for only a short period. He had intended to return to Mecca once again but died before he could make the journey.

Heinrich Barth approaching Timbuktu on September 7, 1853
Heinrich Barth approaching Timbuktu on September 7, 1853/Wikimedia Commons.

Mansa Musa played a major role in spreading the religion of Islam through his many constructions and relationships formed with the Arabs. He had been a good administrator, having properly controlled over 24 cities that made up the empire and paid tribute to him. He had also set a standard too high that his successors could not maintain. His legacies and exploits were passed down many generations even after his death.

The Mali Empire would prosper for about another century until multiple trade routes were opened and goldmines discovered in other parts of West Africa. Its inability to monopolize trades any longer and internal fights which led to civil wars saw its division and downfall.

Invaders began conquering regions of the empire starting with Gao, the empire’s trading center, followed by Timbuktu. Other smaller cities began to break off and Musa’s successors could not keep the empire together. It was eventually taken over by the Songhai empire and when the first Europeans touched down on African soil, Mali Empire which they had been hearing about would be one of their first ports of call.

The Benin Bronzes, actually made of brass, made their way beyond West Africa as a result of colonial conquest.

The Europeans’ invasion of Africa would lead to the plunder and loss of many precious resources and African artifacts most of which are yet to be recovered, even to this day. You can check out the full story here.

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