WHAT IS MANSA MUSA TO ME: REGAL BLACK OR WASTEFUL KING?

When I was a teenager in secondary school back in Nigeria, my West African History teacher loved to speak glowingly of the Mali Empire at its “apogee” during the reign of Mansa Kankan Musa (1312-1337). Barely able to contain himself, the history teacher would go on at length about the glorious riches of that fabled golden kingdom, and about how Mansa Musa’s largesse during his pilgrimage to Mecca caused steep economic inflation in Egypt and Arabia

Republic of Gambia gold coin commemorating Mansa Musa
Republic of Gambia gold coin commemorating Mansa Musa’s reign

My rebellious reaction at the time was, “Kini big deal? So he went to Mecca and gave away lots of money along the way. So what?”

Years later, in 1992, I interviewed the famous African-American Afrocentric scholar Molefi Kete Asante in Toronto for the defunct Black news magazine Metro Word. Asante’s final comment during the interview was a message to African-Canadians. “We must go to the great historical traditions of West Africa, particularly the West African kingdoms,” he said, “and we must see the meaning of all the great kings and queens, and teach our children to walk tall, to assume their place in the leadership of our world as we have done in the past.” (p 11, Metro Word, June 1992)

Molefi Kete Asante source The Spectator
Professor Molefi Kete Asante. Source The Spectator (Ghana)

This has stuck with me over the years. But I have also asked myself, “What, really, is the meaning of those great kings and queens? Is it all glorious and great?” The other day, in a thread about Mansa Musa in one of the African Web forums I visit, one of the members answered that question bluntly: “Another stupid African leader squandering the resources of his country instead of investing!”

Is this right? Is there another side to the Mansa Musa gold coin, a side made not with gold but with dross? This post will examine the two sides of Mansa Musa, and what it meant for West Africa.

Mansa Musa’s achievements and value to African history are undeniable—he did much that would please Asante and other Afrocentrics, as well as make most Africans proud.

For one thing, the trip promoted a better image of the Sudanic (Black) region in the Arab world and in Europe, and changed the negative stereotypes of Black Africa that existed then. One of these purveyors of unflattering views, Al Masaudi of Egypt, wrote in the 10th century that “Among the descendants of Sudan, son of Kana’n, are many nations, among them the Ishban, the Zanj, and many peoples ….They differ in their customs and have their own kings. Among them are peoples who clothe themselves in skins, going otherwise naked; others cover themselves with grass, and those who fix horns of animal bones on their heads. One of them may marry ten women, and sleep each night with two of them.”

The Mali emperor’s spectacular pilgrimage presented a different picture and put West Africa on the map—literally. It wasn’t just North Africans and Arabians who became aware that there was a wealthy empire in sub-Saharan Africa—the Europeans too were taking notice and writing about Mali, and in 1375, the Catalan map maker Abraham Cresques produced an illustrated atlas that pointed out the dominion of Mansa Musa. The caption beside the figure of the Mansa said: “This negro lord is called Musa Mali, Lord of the Negroes of Guinea. So abundant is the gold which is found in his country that he is the richest and most noble king in all the land.”

Mansa Musa map Wiki public domain
Mansa Musa as portrayed in the 1375 Catalan atlas. Source Wikipedia

At about the same time the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta wrote about Mali, “…. there is also the prevalence of peace in their country, the traveler is not afraid in it nor is he who lives there in fear of the thief or robber by violence.” And Battuta was not averse to complaining bitterly about what he did not like in a place he visited.

While on this famous journey, Mansa Musa by all accounts conducted himself with a proud dignity. In Cairo, he would not go to see the Sultan al-Malik al-Nasir as protocol demanded because he knew he would be required to kiss the sultan’s hand and kiss the ground, and probably felt that he should not bow to anybody but God. Eventually, he did go, and when he got to the sultan’s presence, the sultan’s aides kept whispering to him to kiss the ground, but Mansa Musa adamantly refused. It must have been embarrassingly awkward, but the aides of the Mansa found a solution and whispered it to the great king, who then announced, “I make obeisance to God who created me,” prostrated, and went forward to meet Sultan al-Nasir.

The trip also provides information about events in the kingdom that are yet to be properly investigated. The Mansa told learned men and courtiers in Cairo that his predecessor, Mansa Abubakari, gathered “2,000 ships, 1,000 for himself and the men he took with him and 1,000 for water and provisions,” left the kingdom to be ruled by Musa, and he went off to discover “the furthest limit of the Atlantic Ocean,” a voyage from which he did not return. This information—narrated by Damascus historian Al Umari, who moved to Cairo shortly after Mansa Musa’s visit—forms part of the evidence for Ivan Van Sertima’s controversial book They Came Before Columbus. In it, the Guyanese-born Rutgers historian claims that there is evidence that Africans visited the Americas almost two hundred years before Columbus. Many mainstream historians, however, dispute that claim.

And finally, historian D.T. Niane, one of the editors of the UNESCO General History of Africa, says that “the important thing is that [Mansa Musa] established sound economic and cultural relations with the countries he traveled through.” Niane does not provide a source, nor does he elaborate on these economic relations.

It is often difficult to find anything negative about the African emperor in modern writings. But the forum poster’s acerbic comment is not completely off the mark.

Mansa Musa’s showy gift-giving and spending in many ways resembles the behavior of the modern leaders of Nigeria when that country found black gold in the 1960s and 1970s. The leaders acted as if the money spigot would never stop gushing. Like the religious structures built by Mansa Musa on his return, Nigerian leaders constructed white elephants that made no contribution to the national economy. The worst of the lot, the Ajaokuta Steel Mill, never produced anything, and some say it was just a prestige project that was never meant to produce any steel.

Ajaokuta-steel-plant-1
The derelict Ajaokuta steel mill today. Source: Premium Times of Nigeria

The common refrain among Nigerian leaders in the 1970s was said to be “Money is not the problem, but how to spend it.” It appeared that the idea of investing for the future was alien to their thought processes, and they only pretended to invest in the country in order to “chop,” or “swallow money,” as people refer to corrupt practices in Nigeria. So you can imagine the surprise of the Nigerian people when their government told them in the mid-1980s that their erstwhile oil-rich country was now broke, and had to borrow money from the IMF.

Mansa Musa also spent the money he brought with him as if it could never run out. But it did. According to Al Umari, he ran out of money on his way back and had to borrow from Cairo merchants at very exorbitant rates of interest—apparently they made a profit of 700 dinars on every 300 he borrowed, a profit of 233%.

To make matters worse, the merchants of Cairo jacked up prices for everything they sold to his entourage, duping and deceiving them at every turn, and selling them trifles for large sums of money. It appears that the level of profiteering practiced by the Egyptians was so outrageous that the Africans “later formed a very poor opinion of Egyptians,” as Al Umari tells us. The Egyptian merchants, in turn, regarded the Africans as simpletons to be milked of every drop of their wealth.

There is a final, more ominous consequence of the famous journey. It drew unwanted attention from the rest of the world. According to Niane, the Western Sudan “haunted men’s minds thereafter.” Europe became deeply interested as news of his fabulous trip spread around the Muslim world and beyond. “Mansa Musa, who was very proud of his power, did much to make the rest of the world think of his empire as an El Dorado.” The Europeans came looking a century later.

SOURCES AND BOOKS YOU MIGHT WANT TO READ

Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, Levtzion & Hopkins, Editors.

UNESCO General History of Africa, Vol IV. Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century, D.T. Niane, Editor.

Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, translated by Said Hamdun and Noel King.

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