A West African empire built on gold

Mansa Musa the Ninth loved gold – and knew how to use it, says Dominic Frisby

Gold coins
(Image credit: Getty Images)

I once presented a documentary for Italian television declaring that Jakob Fugger – Fugger the Rich – was the richest man in history. He was a German who made his fortune in the 16th century through gold and copper mines, lending money to kings and popes and, above all, selling absolution. 

By the time he died his net worth was equivalent to nearly 2.5% of European GDP, or half a trillion dollars in today’s money.

But, according to the internet (and we all know the internet is never wrong) there was someone even richer: a Malian gentleman, Mansa Musa the Ninth, or King Musa IX. 

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The BBC deems his wealth “indescribable”, placing him above the likes of Augustus Caesar, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, William The Conqueror and Colonel Gaddafi in its Wealth Hall of Fame. Fugger doesn’t even get a look in.

So who was this Mansa Musa the Ninth? He was born in 1280 in Mali. At some stage in his early 20s he became king. The eighth Mansa, his brother Abu Bakr, had wanted to go and explore the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and Musa stood in for him while he was gone. Bakr never came back and so Musa become Mansa. 

Many with a dark view of human nature argue that Musa actually saw to it that Bakr never came back: the notion of exploring the edge of the Atlantic Ocean was just a ruse. Who knows? Perhaps Bakr did make it to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, now known as Brazil, found it to his liking, as many visitors do, and decided to settle there.

At the time, the Mali empire extended through 2,000 miles of West Africa, from what today is Niger in the east, through parts of Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal, Mauritania, Sierra Leone and Gambia. With land ownership came ownership of the natural resources that lay within a territory, and that is how Musa came to be so rich – via salt and gold, mainly. West Africa has always had lots of gold.

A rich region

Even today, Ghana is Africa’s second-largest gold producer, beaten only by South Africa, whose premium deposit, the Witwatersrand Basin, was only discovered in 1886 by an Australian mining prospector called George Harrison. 

Harrison, in what must be considered among the worst business deals in history, sold his stake for £10. That deal was even worse than the record label Decca passing on Harrison’s namesake band, The Beatles, 70 years later. Harrison was never heard of again, but his discovery would provide the world with over 20% of all the gold ever mined. 

However, until the emergence of the Witwatersrand Basin, West Africa was top dog. Indeed, according to the British Museum, something like half of the Old World’s gold came from the Mali empire. 

Musa certainly enjoyed the trappings of wealth. Indeed, he had tens of thousands of slaves to his name. In 1324 he set off on a pilgrimage to Mecca with 12,000 of them – in addition to a retinue of 38,000 others, including soldiers and entertainers, all dressed in gold, brocade and silk. 

Like today’s billionaires, Musa liked attention. He didn’t have rocket ships or Twitter to get it, so Musa’s means was this hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, the spiritual home of Islam. The 2,800-mile round trip took him two years. 

Each slave carried four pounds of gold, while camels walking behind towed as many as 300 pounds of gold dust so that the entire procession had around 18 tonnes of gold in tow. There were heralds who bore gold staves and en route, every Friday, this devout servant of Islam had a mosque built.

When he arrived in Cairo, he went shopping. He did the same in Medina and Mecca. The sudden dramatic rise in the supply of gold in those cities caused an inflationary collapse that took about 12 years to recover from.

Ever the businessman, Musa realised that the gold price was being devalued by the new supply, so on his way back, Musa borrowed from money-lenders all the gold he could carry. 

Cynics argue that Musa’s strategy of causing inflation and then collapse was a deliberate ploy to undermine Cairo’s economy and relocate Africa’s commercial centre out to Mali in the west, to Gao or Timbuktu.

Over the course of his reign, Musa conquered some 24 cities (and their surrounding districts), among them Timbuktu, which he took on his way back from Mecca. Once back in Mali, Musa started throwing his gold about there too. For 440 pounds of gold, he hired the services of poet and architect Abu Ishaq al-Sahili to give Timbuktu a makeover. 

Universities and mosques were built and Timbuktu became something of a cultural centre, the “Paris of the Medieval World”, according to some. One of Musa’s buildings, the Sankore Madrasah, where maths, science, languages and the Koran were taught, is still operating today in the same capacity.

Musa died in 1337, at the ripe old age of 57, and the Mali empire began to fall apart soon afterwards. The inescapable laws of unsustainable spending applied as much then as they do today.

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Dominic Frisby

Dominic Frisby (“mercurially witty” – the Spectator) is as far as we know the world’s only financial writer and comedian. He is the author of the popular newsletter the Flying Frisby and is MoneyWeek’s main commentator on gold, commodities, currencies and cryptocurrencies. He has also taken several of his shows to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

His books are Daylight Robbery - How Tax Changed our Past and Will Shape our Future; Bitcoin: the Future of Money? and Life After the State - Why We Don't Need Government

Dominic was educated at St Paul's School, Manchester University and the Webber-Douglas Academy Of Dramatic Art. You can follow him on X @dominicfrisby