By Gary Oswald
The precolonial history of sub-Saharan Africa is not particularly well taught or widely known in the West, for a bunch of reasons. A major one is a lack of reliable sources (a lot of major incidents are known primarily by oral history, which often gets corrupted and in some cases aren't shared with outsiders). There's also often a lack of funding into research because Africa tends not to be rich. African history has also had to deal with centuries of systemic racism and the blind spots that resulted from that, a lot of 19th century historiography, such as the Hamitic Hypothesis, was based on justifying colonialism.
Beyond those general issues you also have the regional issue that Western countries tend to focus more on their own history than that of other areas. Which is perfectly understandable, to be clear, a lot of things have happened, they can't all have equal focus. The standard narrative of History in the West focuses on Europe and North America, with Africans only entering that narrative when they cross paths with Europeans. This is why North Africans such as Cleopatra and Hannibal are much more famous than Sub-Saharan Africans because they interacted much more with Europe.
Afrocentrism and the desire to claim notable figures like Cleopatra, who was ethnically Greek, as black Africans is bad history. But it's also a reaction to the fact that Cleopatra has cultural cachet and the Sub Saharan Africans of the same period, such as Queen Amanirenas of Sudan, just don't. Saying Amanirenas was a powerful black woman doesn't mean anything, because nobody knows who she is, but saying Cleopatra, a famous person, was a powerful black woman does. And this is despite the fact Amenirenas successfully maintained her country's independence while Cleopatra killed herself after failing to. Its not that Amenirenas achieved less, it's that Sudan does not matter to Western audiences and Egypt does. Which is why it became so important for the disciples of Chiekh Anta Diop to claim Egypt as their own, because Diop was fighting against an establishment that openly claimed sub-Saharan Africans had achieved nothing in books like 'The Races of Africa'.
Since decolonisation, of course, there has been a concerted effort to change this. And I would say there are a now at least a handful of pre 1850 sub-Saharans who have earned fame outside of students of African History. Quite a few slaves or ex slaves rose to positions of influence in non African societies, people like Yasuke, Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano and they are being increasingly emphasised within histories of those countries. This means you can refute the idea that sub-Saharan Africans achieved nothing while still talking primarily about your own national history, though it often amounts in practice to 'this thing happened and one of the people there was black'.
The two precolonial sub-Saharan Africans you are most likely to have heard of are however are Shaka Zulu and Mansa Musa, who were both Kings in Africa and who both have been emphasised in recent pop history. They share the twin honours of being in both the Civilisation video games and Epic Rap Battles of History, for instance. We know quite a bit about both these figures, but because we're relying primarily on oral history and reports from after their deaths, it can be difficult to filter out the facts behind the myths. Even basic details such as when Musa died are hotly disputed.
Shaka, as the founder of the Zulu Kingdom, is a hugely influential figure. He was one of the most successful war leaders during a time period of war and migration that formed a lot of modern Southern Africa. But he's also someone who we primarily know from posthumous accounts where all our sources had motives to exaggerate his impact, Zulu sources to emphasis his innovation and white sources to emphasises his destructiveness. For instance you often encounter the idea that he never lost a battle and while he certainly won more than he lost, he did still lose quite a few. The 1824 Zulu attack on the Mpondo was a disaster, Mzilikazi won his independence from Shaka by battle, the Griqua humiliated a Zulu army at Lapelle and Shaka’s final campaign, against the Gaza Empire of Mozambique, was an utter debacle which resulted in nearly two thirds of the Zulu invasion force dying and the Army assassinating him. Likewise he is often credited with military innovations that other sources make clear predate him and with death tolls that are unrealistic for the weapons used.
Written primary sources are scarce because Zulu history was recorded orally but Shaka did directly meet with white missionaries and traders, who kept diaries, and he himself sent written messages to the Cape. And we certainly know the land he conquered and the area he could raid because 'do not go here, its Zulu land' is the sort of thing you write down if you're a trader in Southern Africa so we know he vastly increased the influence of his people. The legend is exaggerated, other rulers also vastly increased their power in that time period, but it's based on verifiable things. We know he was brutal, that massacres took place, just maybe not exactly how brutal. We know he was innovative and successful, just maybe not how innovative. The classic Boer concept of him as a brutal tyrant who started a series of cascading wars in a previously peaceful region and killed millions is almost certainly hugely exaggerated but that still leaves him as a brutal king who was particularly successful at increasing his influence within a pre-existing raiding and migration system and still killed thousands even if he lacked the technology to do larger scale killing
Mansa Musa, though he's from the 14th century, is similar, we don't know the exact details of when he died or how he took power but we know the basics, that he was the Mansa of the Mali Empire. And we know what sort of King he was and what sort of society he lived in. These details we primarily know from a mix of Malian oral History and Arabic literary sources, of which several talk about him in detail because he was in regular communication with North Africa, had Moroccan traders active in his Kingdom and famously visited Egypt and Arabia in a great Haji in 1324.
Musa is famous primarily because of that visit but he was certainly a formidable and powerful West African king, who was known in Morocco, even without that. His reign is often referred to as a Golden Age for Mali, he oversaw the creation of a great centre of Islamic learning at Timbuktu, an increase in the trans Saharan trade and the conquest of the Songhai city of Gao. But he had inherited a great empire and his successors maintained that, he was a steady hand rather than a game changer. Within the context of West African Rulers, he had far less impact than Askia the Great of the Songhai Empire, the Fulani Scholar Usman Dan Fodio or even Ahmad al-Mansur of Morocco, all of whom rewrote the map in a much bigger way. There's even strands of Malian Folklore that paint Masa as an unpopular ruler who neglected his Kingdom and foolishly spent its money abroad. It's not Musa, but Sundiata Keita, the Mali Empire's founder and Musa's great uncle, who is the true hero figure of Malian folklore. What made Musa special to the West was he came to Egypt, and so entered our historical narrative, in a way Askia or Sundiata Keita never did.
In Mamluk Egypt, Mansa Musa supposedly gave away so much gold to beggars that he ruined the Egyptian economy for 12 years through hyperinflation and also wrecked the Italian economy, too. So if you need to justify teaching about Africa, and sadly we often do (adding Musa to American syllabuses led to accusations of it being anti West) then you can point at the effect on Italy. He wasn't just a powerful King within his region, he had a global impact and that's why he mattered and so is worthy of being talked about. European figures, of course, rarely need to pass the same hurdles, Henry VIII or William the Conqueror had little direct effect on Africa or Asia but are still viewed as significant.
The question in the title of this article (How rich was Mansa Musa?) has been answered a million times online, with the conclusion normally being that he was one of the richest men to ever live. The main source used for this is Ibn Fadlallah al-Umari who, writing around 15 years after the event, described Musa as bringing to Egypt 100 camels, each with 300 pounds of gold, a total of 30,000 pounds of gold. This may be true, certainly Umari is a useful source. But he had his biases, he was writing to please his patron, the Sultan of Egypt, and so wanted to emphasises the richness and power of the Sultan's guest which means I personally take that figure with a pinch of salt. Umari also ends the tale with Musa having given away all his gold, having to borrow more and being ripped off by the money lenders as a result. The Egyptians, needless to say, have the last laugh. This is part of a narrative tradition of sub-Saharan Africans being portrayed as naïve bumpkins in Arab stories at the time. Again there's probably some truth to it, if he was rich and he was generous, he will get ripped off a bit by people taking advantage, but its maybe exaggerated a little. And Umari's peers do emphasise Musa's riches less.
From this starting point, things get exaggerated even more, as other Arabic writers and, then later, Islamic Scholars in Mali began retelling Umari's version only with extras. Umari, who wrote more about Musa than his peers and certainly emphasised his riches more than them, was also the first Mamluk historian to be translated into French and so his account took hold in Europe, spreading this story of Mali's wealth, whereas had other historians been translated instead Musa might be seen as less significant. And the Europeans would embellish the legend further.
Another thing you often see used to answer the question in the title is the number of servants Musa had with him on his journey. You can find figures for that which range from 10,000 to 60,000 but they all come from hundreds of years after Musa's death from people who weren't there and aren't based on any first hand accounts. Neither Umari nor the other primary sources ever numbers his entourage.
But a lot of people certainly believed in the exaggerated tales. When Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan travel writer, visited the Mali Empire under Musa's successor, one of his chief complaints is that no one just gave him gold because that's what he expected. When a symbol is needed for Africa in the Catalan Atlas, made by the Spanish, it's of Musa juggling gold. The message was out, this guy was rich. An idea of a continent of ever growing riches then settles into the heads of the Mediterranean world as a result.
But how rich was Musa actually? Very rich obviously because he controlled gold and salt mines. We know that, because he built new cities, outfitted armies and travelled to Arabia, that his country was rich enough to supply him in grandeur. None of that is unique by any means, a lot of Kings could do that sort of thing, but it certainly means he was doing well. And his generosity did have a provable effect on gold prices in Egypt.
Just maybe not as big an effect as the legend states.
Umari states that Musa gave away so much gold that the value fell from one gold coin being worth 25 silver coins to one gold coin being worth 22 and remained at that lower price for twelve whole years. Other sources have it starting at a lower base (around 20 silver for one gold), and some Jewish sources even have it as low as 14 silver for one gold, but around 20:1 to 25:1 seems the generally agreed rate of silver to gold in the 1310s and early 1320s, prior to Musa's arrival. Five other sources agree that in 1324 that value fell, some say by as little as two silver coins, others by as much as 6. Al-Maqrīzī (who wrote about 60 years after Musa's visit) says it fell by 10 whole coins, from 30:1 to 20:1 in that year. Whoever we believe, the consensus is that after Musa's visit gold was worth less.
And most sources blame this decline on the influx of Malian gold. Only most though, Maqrizi himself doesn't mention Musa at all and instead blames the selling of jewellery in large amounts by Mamluk leaders. It might be that if the value of gold did fall, this led to a rush of nobles selling gold before it devalued further which then deepened the effect. This is something Maqrizi, who was much more critical of the Mamluk regime of the day, is more likely to emphasise as the cause than Umari, who would like to blame it all on the foreigner instead. If Maqrizi's figures are correct, than the price would have also already been inflated and was to an extent correcting itself. On the other hand, Maqrizi is writing 60 years after the event, much later than Umari, and might just be wrong given his figures are an outlier.
Whether it's 2, 3, 6 or 10 coins the value falls by, that is a significant effect. But well, the normal range of gold in Egypt was between 20 and 25 silver for one gold, and that does seem to have changed yearly anyway. Musa caused market fluctuations yes, but he didn't topple an economy entirely, he just nudged the needle. 30 would be seen as high and 20 as low but a drop from 25 to 22, which is what Umari claims, would be entirely normal. Especially since all sources other than Umari have it bouncing back to 25 within a year.
We can perhaps compare the effect of Musa's visit on the gold markets to that of the effect of the Mongol capture of Damascus in 1300. The panic of people selling gold then saw gold coins go from being worth 25.5 silver coins to 17.5 silver coins within months. And it had only been at 25.5 for six months, having risen rapidly from 18.5 silver due to speculation. That's two changes, both of which are more dramatic than what most sources argue happened in 1324.
The price of gold in Mamluk Egypt just fluctuated. Musa affected it sure, but not to a point that anyone would hugely worry about it. More in the same way any big seller or buyer of a product will cause fluctuations. Certainly the beggars he gave a gold coin too, would still be much better off as a result even if that gold coin was now worth 22 silver coins rather than 25.
And, on that point, there is little doubt that Musa was generous and gave money to beggars and the poor, that is attested multiple times, but he wasn't so generous that he was changing the social structure of Egypt. We know this because Umari talked to the families of the peasants he gave money to and, decades later they talked about it, it was clearly a memorable act of generosity, but they were still peasants. They weren't now living in their second homes in Somalia. They just had a good month.
Mansa Musa was a rich man and he spent a lot of money while making the Haji but the idea of him being the richest man to ever live and that his generosity toppled economies is based on exaggerated figures. If, in an alternate universe, Musa did not take the Haj, that is less likely to have a significant effect on the Arabic Economy than it is to effect
the European and Arabic view of Africa.
That legend of wealth had a huge effect on how Europe and Arabia viewed Africa, as this promised land of El Dorado, in the same way that Shaka's rumoured brutality and military effectiveness effected how Europeans viewed the Zulus. You still find British Officials viewing the Zulus as this super militaristic aggressive empire in the 1870s, when in reality the Zulus had been at peace for a generation at this point. Likewise France's conquest of Mali was based on the idea of Timbuktu being this city lined with Gold, when it had, in reality, been in decline for centuries.
Its the legends that endure and which shape how people view the world long after the facts are forgotten. The probable truth, that Musa was just a rich ruler, among the lines of hundreds of other rich rulers, who gave away some gold and had a minor effect on market value as a result, is much less interesting that that legend. Centuries after Musa's visit to Cairo, Mali was still remembered as the place where gold came from and Arabic scholars were still telling the story with increasingly ludicrous details (in later versions he had destroyed Egypt's economy so much that he had to come back and buy all the gold so it could recover).
In fact we're still doing that retelling to this very day. It's just now we do it in Articles titled things like 'How rich was Mansa Musa? (The Answer might surprise you!)'.
Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' Anthology.