The emperor’s preparations for his hajj had been intense. He had sent out a call for resources to all corners of his vast empire, and for nine months, food and other supplies poured in.
The hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims who are physically and financially able must make in their lifetime. The emperor had another important reason for making this religious journey, this expedition that would quickly become world famous. He wanted to project his empire’s name and status to the world; he wanted the world to know, in no uncertain terms, that a rich and prosperous empire existed in his region.
That emperor was the Mansa (meaning king, or sultan) Kankan Musa, and his empire was Mali, the West African collection of chiefdoms and tributary states that existed during the late medieval era and stretched thousands of miles across the Sahel region from the Atlantic to near Hausaland in modern day Nigeria.
When he left his capital Malli for the pilgrimage in 1324, he took with him a caravan of 8,000 men. Five hundred slaves ran in front of the Mansa as he rode, each carrying a wand made of 4.5 pounds of solid gold—that’s a total value of about $43,200,000 at today’s gold prices. In addition he brought forty mules carrying sacks of gold.
The emperor traveled with “100 loads of gold which he spent on the tribes who lay along his route,” wrote Damascus-born Islamic historian and contemporary, Al Umari, who lived in Cairo where the emperor spent some time during the trip. “The man flooded Cairo with his benefactions. He left no court emir nor holder of royal office without the gift of a load of gold. The Cairenes made incalculable profits out of him and his suite in buying and selling and giving and taking. They exchanged gold until they depressed its value in Egypt and caused its price to fall.”
Another Arabic source describes him thus: “He was a young man with a brown skin, a pleasant face and good figure….He appeared amidst his companions magnificently dressed and mounted…He brought gifts and presents that amazed the eye with their beauty and splendor.”
Mansa Musa’s wife, Queen Inari Konte, also traveled with the emperor, and she brought with her “five hundred other women and her servants.” As the story goes, at some point during the trip, Queen Inari Konte complained to Mansa Musa that she had not bathed for a while, and she felt “filthy”; she wished she had a river to frolic and bathe in. Well, there was no river on the desert route, but Mansa Musa’s chief minister ordered his slaves to dig out a very long ditch during the night, line it with rocks and sand, coat these with melted karite (shea butter), so it was smooth, and fill it with water from the water bags they brought along. At sunrise, when the women got to the artificial river, they “became radiant and joyful…with cries of happiness, they descended into the water and washed themselves.” This story serves to illustrate the power to grant wishes of Africa’s most famous historical monarch.
Mansa Musa achieved his aim of fame for his empire because the sources that have come down to us tell us that in those times the five great sultans of the world were the emperor of Constantinople, the sultan of Baghdad, the sultan of Cairo, the sultan of Bornu, and the Mali emperor. Even today, Mansa Musa is regarded in some quarters as the richest man who ever lived, richer than Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos—Money magazine’s ranking of all-time, all-world rich people simply concludes that he was “richer than anyone could describe.”
The belief among some Africans that Africa was once a splendiferous land of riches derives mostly from the history of the trio of Sahelian empires—Old Ghana, Mali and Songhai. Old Ghana was the kingdom north of modern Ghana (which took the old kingdom’s name at Independence) that flourished circa 1000 AD. The common theme among the Islamic historians and geographers who wrote about that kingdom is that it was awash in gold.
Ibn al-Faqih, an Iranian who lived in the 10th century, wrote, “In the country of Ghana gold grows in the sand as carrots do and is plucked at sunrise.” Yet another Iranian from the same century, Al-Biruni, provides an explanation that we moderns can accept, saying that these were large pieces of gold that resembled carrots and were washed down from the mountains by torrents, to be found gleaming in the silt at sunrise.
The most fulsome descriptions of Old Ghana can be found in Al Bakri’s accounts. He was an Andalusian Arab historian who lived in Spain in the 11th century, and though he never left his home town of Cordova, he wrote some of the most detailed accounts of the kingdom of Old Ghana and the rest of the Western Sudan (“Sudan” means “Black” in Arabic). Among other things, he wrote,
“….The people wear robes of cotton, silk, or brocade, according to their means. All of them shave their beards and the women shave their heads. The king adorns himself like a woman [wearing necklaces] round his neck and bracelets on his forearms, and he puts on a high cap decorated with gold and wrapped in a turban of fine cotton. He sits in audience or to hear grievances against officials in a domed pavilion around which stand ten horses covered with gold-embroidered materials. Behind the king stand ten pages holding shields and swords decorated with gold, and on his right are the sons of vassal kings….wearing splendid garments and their hair plaited with gold….The king of Ghana, when he calls up his army, can put 200,000 men into the field, more than 40,000 of them archers.”
The corollary to the “Africa used to be very rich” belief is that “the Europeans came and stole our stuff and impoverished us.” This view was popularized in song by Nigerian Afro-beat star Fela Kuti in the 1970s hit “Why Black Man Dey Suffer” (why the black man suffers today):
We dey sit down for awa landi jeje
We dey mind awa business jeje
Some people come from far away land
Dem fight us and take awa land
They take awa people and spoil our towns
Our riches dem take away to their land.
Na since then trouble start o
–Fela, Why Black Man Dey Suffer
(We were minding our business in our land quietly and peacefully
Some people came from a faraway land
They fought us and took our land
Took away our people and destroyed our towns
They took away our riches to their land.
That’s when the troubles began)
How much do the undoubted riches of a Mali, or a Ghana or Songhai represent the levels of wealth of pre-slavery sub-Saharan Africa? What can we really know about the rest of West Africa before European’s arrived on the coast in the 15th century? In the tropical zones particularly, very few if any African written records survive before the 16th century. Much of our information for the forest regions is derived from archaeology and oral traditions; for the Sahel we rely on the Muslim historians and geographers for events before the 16th century, many of whom depended on what they heard from merchants and travelers who actually visited the Bilad al Sudan (Land of the Blacks). Of course, a few like the traveler Ibn Battuta actually visited the places they wrote about, but most did not.
Archaeological discovery is not yet what it could be for many parts of Africa because archaeology is expensive and difficult to carry out where people already live—in some situations, the people who live in these areas either refuse outright to let archaeologists excavate, or create problems during excavations. Much remains unknown and mysterious—in some cases, cultures and civilizations pop up unexpectedly when archaeological excavations can be done, but then further digging reveals no further trace of such cultures.
One of the more interesting of these sudden appearances is the Igbo-Ukwu culture in the East of Nigeria, represented by a series of metal artifacts that suggest a bronze-casting art culture of a very high degree of sophistication. The Igbo-Ukwu bronzes have been described as “among the most inventive and technically accomplished bronzes ever made.”
The artifacts have been carbon-dated to about 850 AD. No one knows how they arose, and no one knows what subsequently happened to the culture that made them (some suggest they were destroyed by war and invasion). Initially all kinds of theories were postulated about the source of the copper and the casting skills to make the bronze. Before 1980, some scholars considered the Mediterranean a source of these metals. Other scholars even questioned the radio-carbon dating, suggesting that the metals must have come via European contact, and thus the artifacts were of later provenance. But more recent research has confirmed that the metals for the casting were likely to have developed in the region independent of outside influence and supply.
There is much that is hidden about the so called Dark Continent, much to be discovered, much that we don’t know. More and more is being unearthed. For example, archaeological excavation and radio-carbon dating has revealed the existence of iron smelting in the Nsukka region (in Eastern Nigeria) from as far back as 2000 BC. For comparison, iron smelting was introduced to Europe much later around 1100 BC.
Finally, the Timbuktu Manuscripts reveal an abundance of written records (an estimated 700,000 manuscripts) for the Sahel region whose existence was unknown to the outside world until recently. They contain works of philosophy, astronomy, religion, history, and even sex advice. Much of it was compiled at a time when Europe was still in the Dark Ages; some of the manuscripts are in Arabic, others in the local languages of Malinke, Peul and Bambara. At the moment, this vast literary treasure and history of Africa still awaits translation into English and French. Perhaps, with time, money, and devoted scholarship we will be able to confirm unequivocally that the African continent was nowhere near as dark as the rest of the world imagined it to be.
SELECT SOURCES AND BOOKS YOU MIGHT WANT TO READ
Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, N. Levtzion and J.F.P. Hopkins, Editors
Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sa’di’s Ta’rikh al-sudan, and other contemporary documents, translated by John O. Hunwick.
Ta’rikh al fattash: The Timbuktu Chronicles 1493-1599 by Al Hajj Mahmud Kati, translated by Christopher Wise and Hala Abu Taleb
A Short History of African Art by Werner Gillon
Igbo History and Society: the essays of Adiele Afigbo, edited by Toyin Falola.
Unearthing Igbo-Ukwu by Thurstan Shaw
UNESCO General History of Africa, Vol IV: Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century, edited by D.T. Niane. (See Chapter 6, Mali and the second Mandingo expansion)