Post-classical history

Chapter Sixty-Five


Mansa Musa of Mali

Between 1312 and 1360, the riches of Mali become known to the outside world

IN 1312, the king of Mali handed the throne over to his first cousin (once removed) for safekeeping, and set off on an adventure.

His name was Abubakari II; he was the nephew of Sundiata, his mother’s brother, the great Muslim conqueror who had founded Mali as an independent kingdom. Mali was now half a century old. It had swallowed the nearby cities of Gao and Mani on the east; the entire Senegal river valley was enfolded; Mali stretched all the way to the West Africa coast.

Beyond this lay the ocean.

“The king who was my predecessor,” his first cousin later explained, “did not believe that it was impossible to discover the furthest limit of the Atlantic Ocean and wished vehemently to do so. So he equipped 200 ships filled with men and the same number equipped with gold, water, and provisions enough to last them for years.” Abubakari gave strict orders to his newly appointed admiral: Sail west, and do not return until you have come to the end of your food and drink.

Long after, a single ship returned. Its captain reported to the king that the entire fleet had been caught in a strong current, with only his craft left behind: “They did not return,” he told Abubakari, “and no more was seen of them and we do not know what became of them.” The Mali expedition had been caught, apparently, in the North Equatorial Current: the Drifts of the Trade Winds, the current that flows westward into the Caribbean Sea.

No trace of the expedition was ever found, but Abubakari still believed that the far edge of the ocean could be found. He prepared another, much larger fleet—two thousand ships, half of them dedicated entirely to provisions—and himself set off at its head. “That was the last we saw of him,” his cousin said, afterwards, “and all those who were with him, and so I became king in my own right.”1

So Mansa Musa, cousin and deputy of the king, became king of Mali. And he cast his eyes in the opposite direction: not west, towards the unknown, but east, towards Mecca. He was, says an acquaintance, “pious and assiduous in prayer, Koran reading, and mentioning God”; it was his greatest desire to make the hajj.

It was twelve years before his plans were finally in place. In 1324, as Ibn Battuta was beginning his travels across the northern edge of Africa, Mansa Musa too set off for the Holy City. With a massive caravan of slaves, soldiers, officials, and his wife’s maids (five hundred of them), he journeyed along the Niger valley and then northeast towards Cairo, crossing over the trade routes and passing through Taghaza on his way.2

Mecca still lay under the protection of the Bahri sultan, and Cairo was an obligatory stop on the path from West Africa to Arabia. There, Mansa Musa became friendly with the court official Ibn Amir Hajib, governor of Old Cairo. “Musa told him,” says the fourteenth-century Arab historian al-‘Umari, “. . . that his country was very extensive and contiguous with the Ocean. By his sword and his armies he had conquered 24 cities, each with its surrounding district with villages and estates.” From all of these conquered cities, Mansa Musa demanded tribute in gold.3

Whatever Mansu Musa told him, the governor came away from the conversation convinced that the gold in Africa grew in the ground, on gold plants, with roots of gold, that simply needed to be pulled up and shaken. He could perhaps be forgiven for the mistake, since the Mali contingent’s behavior gave the impression that gold was as common as goat’s milk in the Niger valley. Mansa Musa had brought with him thousands and thousands of gold ingots: eighty loads weighing 120 kilograms (260 pounds) each, says Ibn Khaldun, a total of over ten tons. During his stay he distributed it so lavishly that the worth of gold in Cairo fell as much as 25 percent. “This man flooded Cairo with his benefactions,” the governor later said. “He left no court emir nor holder of a royal office without the gift of a load of gold.”4


65.1 The Height of Mali

Either the king or his accountants lacked foresight, though; the Mali monarch spent most of his money on his initial passage through Cairo, and by the time he returned through the city after his pilgrimage to the Ka’aba, he was broke. He had to borrow from Cairo’s moneylenders to fund his trip back across the desert, to Mali, and the moneylenders charged him compound interest; he ended up paying back 233 percent on each dinar borrowed.5

ABUBAKARI’S ADVENTURE to the west had brought Mansa Musa to the throne; and thanks to Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage east, Mali appeared more and more often on European maps of the world. The Catalan Atlas, an ambitious world map produced for Peter of Aragon by the Jewish cartographer Cresques Abraham, shows Mansa Musa himself seated on a golden throne, holding a golden scepter and a golden orb, wearing a crown of gold.

In the remaining years of Mansa Musa’s rule, European traders and embassies from European governments traversed the Sahara again and again, seeking gold, forging alliances; and after Musa’s death in 1337, Mali remained strong. But outside the country, the exaggerated legends of Mali’s wealth, of the riches that needed only to be plucked from the ground, continued to grow. And inside Mali, factions and political parties began to clot towards critical mass.

Mansa Musa’s son Maghan, who had served as regent during his father’s extended absence from the country, inherited his crown. But he died after a brief four-year reign, and the throne was claimed by his uncle Mansa Sulayman. “A most avaricious and worthless man,” Ibn Battuta calls him; arriving in Mali halfway through Mansa Sulayman’s reign, Ibn Battuta was told that the sultan had a gift for him, and was then presented with “three crusts of bread, with a piece of fried fish, and a dish of sour milk.” Highly offended—he had expected at least a horse and a golden robe or two—Ibn Battuta sent the sultan a piece of his mind and was rewarded with a house and provisions during the rest of his stay.6

Sulayman had reason to be suspicious of new arrivals to his kingdom. In Mansa Musa’s wake, more and more outsiders had made their way to Mali, looking for the gold plants that lay on the ground, and counting on the gullibility of the Malians. The governor of Old Cairo, a generation before, had noted that the merchants of Cairo exploited Mansa Musa’s caravan with happy abandon: “Merchants . . . have told me of the profits which they made from the Africans,” the governor explained to the historian al-‘Umari, “saying that one of them might buy a shirt or cloak or robe or other garment for five dinars when it was not worth one. Such was their simplicity and trustfulness that it was possible to practice any deception on them.” And then he added, “Later, they formed the very poorest opinion of the Egyptians because of the obvious falseness of everything they said . . . and their outrageous behavior in fixing the prices.”7


65.1 Mansa Musa of Mali on the Catalan Atlas.
Credit: John Webb / The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY

But Sulayman had apparently concluded that Ibn Battuta was harmless, and the honors soothed the traveler’s offended pride somewhat. During the two months he remained in Mali, Ibn Battuta paid grudging respect to the safety and justice of the kingdom: “A traveller may proceed alone among them, without the least fear of a thief or robber,” he noted. He also praised their piety, noting that it was common for the men of Mali to commit the entire Koran to memory. In al-‘Umari’s words,

Their king at present is named Sulayman, brother of the sultan Musa Mansa. He controls, of the land of Sudan, that which his brother brought together by conquest and added to the domains of Islam. There he built ordinary and cathedral mosques and minarets, and established the Friday observances and prayers in congregation, and the muezzin’s call. . . . This king is the greatest of the Muslim kings of the Sudan. He rules the most extensive territory, has the most numerous army, is the bravest, the richest, the most fortunate, the most victorious over his enemies.8

In Sulayman’s twenty-four years on the throne, Mali remained firmly under his authority. His subjects, Ibn Battuta says, “debase themselves . . . in the presence of their king” more than any other people, prostrating themselves and throwing dust upon their heads. Sulayman surrounded himself with the trappings of an emperor: gold arms and armor; ranks of courtiers and Turkish mamluks, warrior slaves bought from Egypt, surrounding him. They were required to keep solemn and attentive in his presence: “Whoever sneezes while the king is holding court,” al-‘Umari explains, “is severely beaten.”9

But at Sulayman’s death, in 1359, the political factions that had been slowly coalescing during his reign—each one centered on a different descendant of Mansa Musa—broke the country apart.

A civil war erupted between the supporters of Sulayman’s son Fomba and one of the sons of Maghan, Mari Diata II. After a year of fighting, Fomba was killed and Mari Diata II seized the throne: “A most wicked ruler over them,” says the fourteenth-century chronicler Ibn Khaldun, “because of the tortures, tyrannies, and improprieties to which he subjected them.”10

In the wake of the coup, a chunk of Mali between the Senegal and Gambia rivers revolted. Instead of submitting to the despotic Mari Diata, three distinct but neighboring clans—Waalo, Baol, and Kajoor, all of them Wolof-speakers—formed a confederation, each independent but all three united under a single king. This king was elected, much like the German rulers, by a group of high-ranking clan members who joined together to choose a ruler from one of the clans.

Tradition gives a name to the first-elected Emperor of the Wolofs: Ndiadiane N’Diaye. Little else is known about him, but legend preserves at least one telling detail. Ndiadiane was a magician; not an Islamic king, but a traditional African ruler. The kings of Mali had ruled an Islamic realm, but beneath the surface veneer of Muslim loyalty, the old practices had survived.


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