Who Was Mansa Musa and Why Is He Called ‘The Richest Man in History’?

Quinn Marriott

4 mins

30 Oct 2019

The Mali Empire was one of the largest empires in West Africa. The spread of its language, laws and customs have played an important role in determining the culture of West Africa today.

One of the Mali Empire’s most famous rulers, Mansa Musa, was celebrated for his piety and fair judgement. But he was also famed for being the richest man to have ever lived.

So who was Mansa Musa, and how did he acquire such unimaginable wealth?

The Mali Empire

The Mali Empire was founded in around 1235 by Sundiata Keita, a powerful prince who took control of Mali and its immediate surroundings. After cementing his hold on this part of West Africa, Sundiata Keita would become considered the founder of the Mali Empire, most famously recorded in the ‘Epic of Sundiata’.

Mansa Musa, or rather Musa I of Mali, was born in 1280 and ruled from 1312 to 1337. He was the 10th Mansa (a sort of king or emperor) to take the throne of the Mali Empire. Unlike his predecessor Sundiata, Musa was considered to be down to earth and in touch with the people.

A golden age

During Mansa Musa’s reign, Mali flourished in an economic golden age. The natural gold resources, which were rare in this period, were available in abundance in this part of Africa.

There were three major goldfields which Mali drew from: Bambuk, between the Senegal and Faleme rivers; Bure, north of the Upper Niger in modern North-West Guinea; and the third was between modern Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana.

The Mali Empire at the time of Mansa Musa’s death. Image source: Gabriel Moss / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Even today, scholars have found it impossible with current sources to put a number on the king’s extensive wealth. Musa’s riches were so immense that people struggled to describe them. It was therefore decided to title the king as ‘the richest man in history’.

Musa as the Mansa  

During his twenty-five year reign, Islam in Mali was in a stronger position than ever before. The king built many mosques, attracted Muslim scholars and was devoted to Islamic studies.

The Muslim traveller Ibn Battuta tells us that Mansa Musa hosted several Islamic festivals and used the religion to consolidate his power and authority as king. Preachers gave speeches to convey the Mansa’s message:

‘the speech was an admiration and a warning to the people, it praised the Sultan and urged the people to obey him’

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Despite this integration of Islam throughout his empire, Musa still accommodated traditional cultures and ceremonies – it was those pre-Islamic traditions which had put him on the throne in the first place and legitimised his rule. He indulged bards and performers in his palace:

‘they stood in front of the king in this ridiculous form and recited their poems …. I have been told that this was an old custom’

Mansa Musa tried to maintain a tolerance of religion and customs for both Islamic and pre-Islamic cultures, disapproved by some of the former and supported by the latter. Ibn Battuta regarded these ancient customs as ‘vile practices’.

Mansa Musa sitting on a throne and holding a gold coin.

Despite this, Mali was still an Islamic empire and Musa was a Muslim king, regarded as such by himself, locals and foreign Muslims. Regardless of its Islamic dominance, Mali was a dualist system in which both customs existed side by side, a policy that made him popular among his subjects.

Pilgrimage to Mecca

In 1324, Mansa Musa embarked on the hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca which was usually took around a year. As well as strengthening his spiritual devotion, this was popularly received by the empire. It was also telling of Musa’s strength of position at this time, that he was able to leave his empire unattended.

It took around nine months to fully prepare for this journey. The king had to gather resources from across Mali and assemble a grand procession of 60,000 men to accompany him.

This consisted of thousands of slaves to carry the provisions (which included bars of gold), soldiers to protect the procession and state dignitaries to advice the king when they entered neighbouring states.

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One of the notable stops on the way to Mecca was Egypt. During the time he stayed in Cairo, the king spent so much gold that the value of gold in Egypt plummeted between 10%-25% and would not recover for at least a decade. Musa spent his gold frivolously wherever the procession stopped on the journey.

This pilgrimage is seen as an important landmark in the history of Mali because it allowed contemporaries of the wider world to be exposed to Musa’s staggering wealth.

An empire of trade and learning

Returning from his pilgrimage in 1325, Musa founded new cities to add to his empire such as Gao and Timbuktu. Famously, Timbuktu became a new centre for trade and learning. It would grow to have its own university and prosper from trade from Egypt.

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Mali would even receive attention from Europe and trade with states such as Venice and Genoa. Further evidence of this lies with the Catalan Atlas, a famous medieval map made in Spain in 1375.

On it is a depiction of Mansa Musa holding a nugget of gold, revealing Musa’s fame well outside the borders of Africa.

The Catalan Atlas. Mansa Musa is highlighted near the bottom.