Written by Dr. Ebunoluwa Daramola
As humans, most of us are drawn towards wealth and also the stories behind such wealth. In contemporary times, people such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have served as a comparative yard stick by which most people would like to measure their estimated wealth, whether in reality or at least in some imaginative dream-like way.
In the fictional world of Marvel Comics, Black Panther (T’Challa) was not just the king of Wakanda, but also the richest of all the Avengers, richer than even Tony Stark (Iron Man) who exuded significant wealth in his own right. The array of resources, technological innovation and wealth all well hidden by the fictional kingdom of Wakanda from the outside world in many ways is comparatively similar to that of the wealthiest man in documented history – Mansa Musa; who has more in common with Marvel’s first Black superhero
Mansa Musa (or Musa Keita I) ruled the Mali empire in the 14th century. He came into power in 1312 after having fortuitously succeeded Abu-Bakr II who didn’t return from a voyage to discover the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. At the time, the Mali Empire consisted of land that is now part of Gambia, Senegal, Guinea, Mauritania and the modern state of Mali. At the time of his coming into power, much of Europe was struggling with ravaging civil wars and facing declining gold and silver production, while many African kingdoms were thriving. As ruler of the Mali Empire, he expanded its borders incredibly, annexing Timbuktu and stretching the limits of his empire to about 2,000 miles. This is over three times the distance from Great Britain’s northernmost point in Dunnet Head, Scotland, to Lizard Point, its southernmost point, which is about 600 miles. To further put it in perspective, he ruled all (or parts) of modern day Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad. During his reign, the empire of Mali accounted for almost half of the Old World’s gold, (according to the British Museum) and all of this belonged to the king.
The rest of the known world caught wind of his great fortune in 1324, when he made the nearly 4,000 mile pilgrimage to Mecca, in order to fulfill one of the five pillars of Islam. To Musa, Islam was an entry into the cultured world of the Eastern Mediterranean and this would have made him spend much time fostering the growth of the religion within his empire. He made this pilgrimage passing through the Sahara Desert and Egypt. Several accounts state that he left Mali with a caravan of 60,000 men. He took his entire royal court and officials, soldiers, griots (entertainers), merchants, camel drivers and 12,000 slaves, as well as a long train of goats and sheep for food. It could have been described as a city moving through the desert; a city whose inhabitants, all the way down to the slaves, were clad in gold brocade and finest Persian silk. It’s said that almost a hundred camels were in tow, with each camel carrying hundreds of pounds of pure gold. The grandeur of this spectacle got even more opulent once the caravan reached Cairo, where they could really show off their wealth.
Musa gave the gold to the poor he met along his route. He did not only give to the cities he passed on the way to Mecca, including Cairo and Medina, but also traded gold for souvenirs. So lavishly did he hand out gold in Cairo that his three-month stay caused the price of gold to plummet in the region for 10 years, wrecking the economy. In the cities of Cairo, Medina, and Mecca, the sudden influx of gold devalued the metal significantly causing the prices of goods and wares to become greatly inflated. Though well-intentioned, Musa’s gifts of gold actually depreciated the value of the metal in Egypt, and the economy suffered a huge blow. It took more than a decade for the economy to recover. On his way back home, Mansa Musa passed through Egypt again, and according to records, tried to help the country’s economy by removing some of the gold from circulation by borrowing it back at extortionate interest rates from Egyptian lenders. This is the only time recorded in history that one man directly controlled the price of gold in the Mediterranean region. This extravagant pilgrimage put Musa on the map quite literally to the point that he was included on the 1375 Catalan Atlas, one of the most important world maps of Medieval Europe. Word of his wealth spread across the Mediterranean through Europe and this heralded the subsequent invasion of the Malian empire by naval raids from Europe who sought to plunder the famed wealth, starting in the 15th century.
Mansa Musa wasn’t just concerned about material riches. By virtue of his religion, he took keen interest in Timbuktu which he urbanized by building schools, mosques, and a major university (University of Sankore). The legendary Djinguereber Mosque in Timbuktu, which still stands today, was built by him. Following his death sometime around 1337, after reigning for about 25 years, he was succeeded by his son, Maghan I. Mansa Musa’s rich legacy persisted for generations and to this day, there are mausoleums, libraries, and mosques that stand as a testament to this golden era of Mali’s history.
From managing a plethora of natural resources, embarking on a pilgrimage of legendary proportions, to the accelerated development of establishments he left behind, the legend of Mansa Musa is strong enough to give the first Black Marvel comic superhero a good run for his money.
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