S01E46 Mansu Musa

Ep 46: Mansa Musa- The Richest Person Ever You’ve Never Heard Of

What do large scale sea travel, the Hajj, Parson Weems’s biography of George Washington, and Welsh naming customs have to do with the richest man in history? EVERYTHING, folks! They all help tell the story of how Mansa Musa became Emperor of Mali, amazed a fortune of $400 BILLION in today’s dollars, and used business incentives and savvy PR stunts to do it.

Additional Links & Resources

Here’s the article that started it all for us: “The 25 Richest People Who Ever Lived – Inflation Adjusted“. Mansa Musa is, of course, #1. Sorry, Bill and Warren.


This is the amazing Catalan Map of 1375 we discuss in the podcast. You can see Mansa Musa sitting in the bottom right corner holding up a nugget of gold. Click through here to get a more up-close look at different parts of the map. Here’s the detail of Mansa Musa:

mansa musa map detail

John Green did a great 10-minute Crash Course episode on Mansa Musa and Islam in Africa. Watch it here.

Here‘s an excerpt from the African Muslim scholar Mahmud Kati’s “The Chronicle of the Seeker” about Mansa Musa, including that tantalizing bit about his motivation for undertaking the hajj:

This Mali-koy was an upright, godly, and devout sultan. His dominion stretched from the limits of Mali as far as Sibiridugu, and all the peoples in these lands, Songhay and others, obeyed him. Among the signs of his virtue are that he used to emancipate a slave every day, that he made the pilgrimage to the sacred house of God, and that in the course of his pilgrimage he built the great mosque of Timbuktu as well as the mosques of Dukurey, Gundam, Direy, Wanko, and Bako.

His mother Kankan was a native woman, though some say she was of Arab origin. The cause of his pilgrimage was related to me as follows by the scholar Muhammad Quma, may God have mercy on him, who had memorized the traditions of the ancients. He said that the Mali-koy Kankan Musa had killed his mother, Nana Kankan, by mistake. For this he felt deep regret and remorse and feared retribution. In expiation he gave great sums of money in alms and resolved on a life-long fast.

He asked one of the ulama of his time what he could do to expiate this terrible crime, and he replied, “You should seek refuge with the Prophet of God, may God bless and save him. Flee to him, place yourself under his protection, and ask him to intercede for you with God, and God will accept his intercession. That is my view.”

Kankan Musa made up his mind that very day and began to collect the money and equipment needed for the journey.

Read al-Umari’s description of Mansa Musa’s visit to Cairo here. While he arrived in Cairo a few years after Mansa Musa’s visit, he spoke to many people who had seen Mansa Musa firsthand and this is one of the best contemporary accounts we have.

From the beginning of my coming to stay in Egypt I heard talk of the arrival of this sultan Musa on his Pilgrimage and found the Cairenes eager to recount what they had seem of the Africans’ prodigal spending.  I asked the emir Abu…and he told me of the opulence, manly virtues, and piety of his sultan.  “When I went out to meet him {he said} that is, on behalf of the mighty sultan al-Malik al-Nasir, he did me extreme honour and treated me with the greatest courtesy.  He addressed me, however, only through an interpreter despite his perfect ability to speak in the Arabic tongue.  Then he forwarded to the royal treasury many loads of unworked native gold and other valuables.  I tried to persuade him to go up to the Citadel to meet the sultan, but he refused persistently saying: “I came for the Pilgrimage and nothing else.  I do not wish to mix anything else with my Pilgrimage.”  He had begun to use this argument but I realized that the audience was repugnant to him because he would be obliged to kiss the ground and the sultan’s hand.  I continue to cajole him and he continued to make excuses but the sultan’s protocol demanded that I should bring him into the royal presence, so I kept on at him till he agreed.

When we came in the sultan’s presence we said to him: ‘Kiss the ground!’ but he refused outright saying: ‘How may this be?’  Then an intelligent man who was with him whispered to him something we could not understand and he said: ‘I make obeisance to God who created me!’ then he prostrated himself and went forward to the sultan.  The sultan half rose to greet him and sat him by his side.  They conversed together for a long time, then sultan Musa went out.

To get an idea of just how large the Mali Empire was at the height of Mansa Musa’s reign (500,000 square miles!), take a look at this map (Credit):

MALI_empire_map (1)

And if you still haven’t gotten your fill of the fascinating Mansa Musa, there are some great brief biographies here, here, here, and here.