Mansa Musa: the Rejected Ruler of the Mali Empire?

Renowned the world over for his lavish pilgrimage to Mecca, Mansa Musa, now lauded as the “richest man in history”, literally put the Mali Empire on the map.

He ruled the empire at its peak in the twelfth century, expanded it to its furthest reaches, and made it an international center for Islamic study by developing the great intellectual city of Timbuktu, where ancient manuscripts reside to this day in the shadow of the Djinguereber Mosque that he commissioned.

So where are all the legendary epics of Mansa Musa, the detailed accounts of his life and legacy, the songs praising his name? The griots are far too silent.

Illustration of a playing card featuring Mansa Musa I, also known as Mansa Kankan Musa I, the famous ruler of the Mali Empire between 1280 and 1337, who went on a lavish Pilgrimage.
Mansa Musa by Vision Globe Design.

Could these traditional keepers of oral history, of the memories of an entire people, have somehow forgotten, or failed to take notice of, one of their greatest mansas (“kings”)? Were it not for external sources and a few local written texts, we would not know so much as his name today.

It may be that Mansa Musa’s story simply fell through the cracks of time, obscured by the long shadow of his much-praised ancestor, Sundiata Keïta, the legendary founder of the Mali Empire.

But what if the griots had good reason to omit the period of his reign from the oral corpus, effectively censoring him from West African history?

Succession disputes, deadly court intrigue, external Islamic interests and the very wealth Mansa Musa displayed on Pilgrimage may be the keys to this conundrum that has continually puzzled scholars of African history.

Mansa Musa’s Ascension to the Throne of Mali

Ever since its foundation around 1235 AD, succession was very problematic in the Mali Empire. This proved to be the Achilles heel that eventually led to its steady decline.

In the early decades of the empire, each succession was essentially disputed by two groups: the royalists, direct descendants of Sundiata Keïta, and the hunter’s association who united under Sundiata to fight for the creation of the empire and believed only the best among them should rule, regardless of royal lineage.​1​

By the time Mansa Musa was born, the hunters were disillusioned by their idea of a meritocratic empire, but that did not clarify the matter of succession in the least. Who should inherit the throne? The mansa’s son? His brother? His nephew? A member from another branch of the royal family, more closely related to the founder?

It is perhaps in such a contentious political atmosphere that Musa was enthroned, at an unusually young age.​1​

Mansa Musa is recorded to have died around 1337 and to have reigned 25 years, which means he would have been crowned around 1312. When he arrived in Cairo on the way to Mecca in July 1324, several sources described him as “a young handsome man” and a “young man, brown-skinned, with a pleasant face and handsome appearance.”​1,8,9​

“Young” at the time of the Pilgrimage, Musa would have been even younger when he ascended the throne. Supposing that Musa was 35 years old when he undertook the Pilgrimage, he would have been 23 when he took the throne, and even younger when he was deputized, assuming the story he told in Cairo about being left in charge while his predecessor tried to cross the Atlantic ocean is true.​1​

That Musa ascended to the throne so young in a culture that values age and experience is an oddity that could suggest some court intrigue:

Mūsā’s youth may be indicative of developments he leaves out of his narrative. If too young, he would have required a regent, which may help explain the twelve-year gap between his taking the throne and his advent in Cairo. On the other hand, if he had not in fact been designated the heir apparent, the period may have been one of contestation.

— Michael Gomez, African Dominion

That sort of contestation can easily lead members of other branches of a royal family to consider a ruler illegitimate. Especially if said ruler might be under the influence of external interest groups …

Michael Gomez points out a casual yet eyebrow-raising anecdote in Ibn Battuta’s Rihla, where he relates that a certain Ibn al-Shaykh al-Laban “made a gift to sultan Mansa Musa in his youth of seven mithqals. At that time Mansa Musa was just a boy, without influence.” When Musa became king, he reputedly repaid this kindness with “700 mithqals and a robe of honor and slaves of both sexes”.​1,7​

1897 illustration of the grand mosque of Timbuktu, the Djinguereber Mosque built by Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire.
“The grand mosque of Timbuctoo” by Félix Dubois, 1897. Source: NYPL.

The story was no doubt meant to showcase Musa’s great generosity, but the gift could just as easily be construed as an attempt by expatriate merchants and religious authorities to sway the succession in their favor, which supports the idea of a tumultuous political environment leading up to Musa’s enthronement.​1​

In a not yet fully Islamized empire, Musa may have been held up as the “Muslim candidate” and perceived as sponsored by and indebted to outside influences, every one of his decisions questioned as to their true motives.

Mansa Musa, Matricide?

Another clue as to the griot’s silence may lie in Mansa Musa’s very name: Mansa Kanku Musa Keïta I.

Mansa, of course, is the royal title meaning “king” or “emperor”, Keïta is the royal family name and Musa is his first name. But “Kanku”, sometimes written “Kankan”, is a female Mande name, so “Kanku Musa”, a name he is very frequently referred to by, would mean “Musa, son of Kanku.”​1​

Including a mother’s name in one’s own is not, and was not at the time, a typical naming pattern among the Mande people.​1​ An explanation as to why Kanku Musa was named this way can be found in the Ta’rikh al-Fattash, which also showcases a fascinating account as to one of the possible motivations behind his famous Pilgrimage:​3​

As for his Pilgrimage, the reason for it was told to me by the student and keeper of the traditions of the ancestors, Muḥammad Quma . . . [who] mentioned that Mali-koi [“king of Mali”] Kankan Mūsā is the one who accidentally killed his mother Nānā Kankan, and he was sorrowful about this and regretted it, and feared retribution for it, so he gave large amounts of wealth as alms, and resolved to fast the rest of his life. He asked some of the ‘ulamā’ [“learned ones, scholars”] of his time what he should do to be forgiven for this great offense. One of them said to him, “It is my opinion that you should seek asylum with the Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace . . .” That very day he resolutely made up his mind, and he began to gather wealth and provisions for the journey, calling upon his kingdom on every side in demanding supplies and assistance.

Kanku (or Kankan) could have been Musa’s mother, or his grandmother, or the mother of one of his siblings through a common father. Regardless, matricide, even accidental, would have been an extremely serious matter. It is possible that, despite his attempts at penance by offering alms and fasting, the royal family did not entirely forgive him and attached Kanku’s name to his so that he would never forget. Or perhaps Musa himself took on her name in his bottomless grief.​1​

Interestingly, this story about Mansa Kanku Musa never surfaced in Cairo, where so many other stories about him emerged. It only comes out in the Ta’rikh al-fattash, a sixteenth century chronicle written by a West African Muslim scholar who is very invested in Musa’s good name, making sure to praise Musa’s piety and extoll his virtues before and after recounting this story, as if to mitigate its egregious nature.​1​

That the story surfaces several centuries after Musa’s reign suggests that the griots, despite their silence on the matter, remembered Kanku Musa and this event well…

Mansa Musa’s Pilgrimage

Whether or not part of his goal was to absolve himself of matricide, Mansa Musa clearly wanted to make a mark and bring the Mali Empire to the forefront of world politics. And what better way to impress the world than to display great opulence and generosity with gold, cattle and slaves?

Engraved illustration of a caravan on Pilgrimage from Cairo in Egypt to Mecca, with a long string of camels and people journeying across the desert.
“The March of ye Caravan out of Cairo to Mecha” by John Ogilby, 1670. Image source: NYPL.


The most impressive thing about Musa’s visit in Cairo was, of course, the large amounts of gold he carried with him and spent freely. Ibn al-Dawādārī says he brought so “much gold with him” that he and “his followers bought all kinds of things from New and Old Cairo. They thought that their money was inexhaustible.”​6​

The gold Musa brought and spent in Cairo was, famously, enough to depress its value for a long time after his visit. Ibn Kathir wrote that “they had so much gold with them that the rate of gold fell by two dirhams in each mithqal” and al-Umari later confirmed this by saying that the price of gold, which rarely sold for less than 25 dirhams prior to Mansa Musa’s visit, never exceeded 22 dirhams after it.​1,5,8​

So how much gold did the mansa import, exactly?

Engraved illustration of two West African gold merchants carefully weighing their goods with a scale.
“Gold Merchants” by Félix Dubois, 1897. Source: NYPL.

Most sources are vague as to the exact amount of gold Musa brought, but we can get a rough estimate from some:​2,5,9​

  • 50,000 dinars (180 kgs or 400 lbs) of gold was personally given by Musa to the Mamluk ruler al-Nasir Muhammad, according to Ibn Khaldun.
  • An estimated “80 loads of gold dust (tibr), each load weighting three quintars” (12,192 kgs or 13 tons) was imported by the Malians into Cairo, according to Ibn Khaldun.
  • The mansa “left his country with 100 loads of gold” (15,240 kgs or 17 tons), according to al-‘Umari.
  • The mansa left with “500 slaves, and in the hand of each was a golden staff each made from 500 mithqals of gold” (900 kgs or 2000 lbs, nearly a ton), records the Tarikh as-Sudan.

In total, Mansa Musa may have left his country with as much as 16,000 kg or 18 tons of gold.​1​

Cattle & Slaves

Ibn Khaldun noted that within “their own country [the Malians] use only women and men for transport but for distant journeys such as the Pilgrimage they have mounts.” Such a large amount of gold would have required hundreds of camels and pack animals for transport across and beyond the desert.​1,9​

To care for all the livestock, protect the precious caravan from robbers and generally serve the mansa, a large number of people would also have been called for.

The Tarikh as-sudan states that Mansa Musa departed for Pilgrimage “with great pomp and a large group, with an army of 60,000 men who walked before him as he rode.”​2​

No journey through the desert is ever casualty-free, however, and many of the people accompanying the caravan either perished or turned back. One story illustrates this:​1,2​

“He proceeded along the Walata route in the upper lands to the location of Tuwat, and many of his companions stayed behind there because a foot ailment, called ‘Tuwat’ in their language, befell them there . . .”

When he arrived in Cairo, the numbers of Musa’s retinue, while still impressive to the Egyptians, had reduced drastically. Badr al-Din al-Halabi describes that he “appeared on horseback magnificently dressed in the midst of his soldiers” with a retinue of more than 10,000. Ibn Kathir cites Musa being accompanied by “20,000 maghribis [West Africans] and slaves.” Al-Maqrizi notes that “he brought with him 14,000 slave girls for his personal service.”​4,8​

Mansa Musa, the Richest Man in the World?

Mansa Musa is often said to have been the “richest man on Earth”, yet it is inconceivable that the fortune in gold, cattle and slaves described above came from his own personal coffers.

However, Musa was at the head of a very opulent empire and there is little doubt the copious wealth he washed over Egypt was requisitioned through the state. But the opulence described above would not have been immediately available on hand. Meticulous preparations had to be made over the ten years between Musa’s coronation and his Pilgrimage to gather such a large quantity of resources.​1​

The 18 tons of gold Musa may have departed with is well within the reasonable range of what the goldfields of Bambuk and Bure could produce over ten years.​1​ The problem was that Mansa Musa was not directly in control of either of these goldfields:

“Under the authority of the sultan of this kingdom [Mali] is the land of Mafāzat al-Tibr [“deposits of raw gold”]. They bring unworked gold (tibr) to him each year. They are uncouth infidels. If the sultan wished he could extend his authority over them but the kings of this kingdom have learnt by experience that as soon as one of them conquers one of the gold towns and Islam spreads and the muezzin calls to prayer there the gold there begins to decrease and then disappears, while it increases in the neighbouring heathen countries.”

— Al-‘Umari​5​

This means that Mansa Musa couldn’t directly reap the revenue of the goldfields. However, the ruler of Mali did impose “a heavy tribute on [the gold] which is brought to him every year” according to al-‘Umari, which must have been the main source by which the gold came into the empire.​1,5​

It’s unclear what Mansa Musa may have done to increase and encourage the production of gold during the decade preceding his Pilgrimage. One way to stimulate gold production in the “heathen lands” may have involved the production and export of copper. The faqih al-Zawawi told al-‘Umari that the Malian Empire controlled its own copper mine: “This sultan Mūsā told me that at a town called Zkry he has a copper mine from which ingots are brought to Byty [Mali’s capital]. . . . ‘We send it to the land of the pagan Sūdān and sell it for two-thirds of its weight in gold, so that we sell 100 mithqals of this copper for 66 2/3 mithqals of gold’.”​1,5​

Such a favorable conversion rate would have filled the mansa’s coffers while also stimulating the production of gold in the neighboring “uncouth” lands, which would have in turn increased the tribute Musa was receiving in order to prepare for his stunning entrance into Cairo.

If the acquisition of gold on Mansa Musa’s part was probably peaceful, it was not so for the procurement of the many slaves he needed, especially since he was stockpiling gold and didn’t want to spend it. Indeed, by all accounts, the majority of Mansa Musa’s entourage during the Pilgrimage was enslaved.​1​

If he left with 60,000 people, he would have had to capture more than 6,000 people per year over the previous decade for this purpose. This would imply a large increase in raiding and warfare and many sources mention the conflicts the Malian Empire was involved in.​1​

Based on the testimony of the governor of Old Cairo, al-‘Umari recorded Mansa Musa’s claim that “by his sword and his armies he had conquered 24 cities each with its surrounding district with villages and estates.”​1,5​

Illustration of West African men capturing slaves from a West African village.
“Capturing Slaves” by Frederic Remington, 1893. Source: NYPL.

Ibn Amīr Ḥājib explains that Mali was involved in an interminable war against an unrelenting enemies who “shoot well with [bow and] arrows (nushshāb). Their horses are cross-bred (kadīsh) with slit noses.”​5​ It is unclear who exactly these enemies were, but they may have been non-Islamic populations like the neighboring Bambara, who are said to have fiercely resisted the Malian Empire before ultimately creating their own Bambara kingdoms.​1,10​

Al-‘Umari describes unrelenting slaving campaigns on the part of the Mali Empire: “The King of this country wages a permanently Holy War on the pagans of the Sūdān who are his neighbours.”​1,5​

Musa’s singular focus on preparations for the Pilgrimage during the first decade of his reign, which entailed endless wars and the stockpiling of wealth intended for foreign leaders rather than domestic affairs, may have displeased the griots of the time, especially since Mansa Musa came back empty-handed. Upon the mansa’s return, the griots might have caught wind of Musa’s ultimately unfulfilled intention to abdicate the throne in order to return to Mecca, and observed the string of erudite scholars invited to live and work in Timbuktu, who, with their scrolls and ink, could have been undermining the griots’ very role in society.

A Scapegoat in Mansa Sakura

The story told by the Malian griots of another king, Mansa Sakura, shares many similarities to Mansa Musa’s story.

Mansa Sakura is said to have initially been a slave who rose through the military ranks before illegitimately taking the royal throne and ruling the empire some time before Mansa Musa. Mansa Sakura is credited with many conquests of expansion and with re-subjugating the lost territory around the rebellious eastern reaches of the empire, around Gao, just like Mansa Musa. He also undertook a Pilgrimage to Mecca and is said to have perished on the way home. Notably, Sakura was also guilty of parricide by killing his own brother.​1​

“Arrival at Timbuktu”, 1857. Source: NYPL.

Oral sources refer to him as Sekure, meaning “the usurper”, or Jonnin Sekure “the little slave”. If Sakura was a usurper, he may have wanted to gain the legitimizing benefits of the hajj while also strengthening ties with the middle East and project Mali’s power to the world. With these ambitions, he may have anticipated Musa’s reign.​1​

Mansa Sakura reputedly performed the Pilgrimage during the reign of al-Malik al-Nasir, which is the same ruler Mansa Musa encountered on his own Hajj. Since al-Malik al-Nasir ruled in installments from 1294-1295, 1299-1309 and 1309-1340, Mansa Sakura could have been in power during one of his previous installments, and Mansa Musa during the last.​1​

However, there are no references to him in Cairo as there are for Mansa Musa. It is possible that his passage in Cairo simply didn’t attract much attention: several Malian kings undertook the pilgrimage before and after Mansa Musa and their passages barely made the footnotes of some Egyptian documents.​1​

But if Sakura was indeed a usurper, he must have been very secure in his power to dare leave the realm for the lengthy Pilgrimage…

Mansa Sakura’s rule also throws off the tenuous timeline of kings of the Mali Empire that scholars are still trying to pinpoint.​1​

So what are the chances that a predecessor of Mansa Musa lived such a parallel life to his?

Coincidences do happen, of course, but some researchers of West African history have speculated that Mansa Sakura might be a purely fictional figure, a clever analogy for Mansa Musa’s reign on the part of the griots of the time, invented in order to criticize the king from a safe temporal distance.​1​

Illustration of three griots, traditional musicians and historians of the Mali empire.
“Griots musiciens du haut Sénégal”, 1890. Source: NYPL

If this is the case, it would show what the griots of his time thought of Mansa Musa: an illegitimate, homicidal king metaphorically enslaved to external Islamic powers for whom he squandered the country’s resources, unworthy of praise and legend despite his great achievements.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. 1.
    Gomez MA. African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa. Princeton University Press; 2018.
  2. 2.
    Hunwick JO. Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sa’Di’s Ta’Rikh Al-Sudan Down to 1613 and Other Contemporary Documents. Boston, USA: Brill; 2003.
  3. 3.
    Kuti M. Ta’rīkh al-Fattāsh, Timbuktu Chronicles 1493-1599. (Wise C, ed.). Trenton, USA: Africa World Press; 2011.
  4. 4.
    Levtzion N, Hopkins JFP, eds. Al-Maqrīzī. In: Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History. Princeton, USA: Markus Weiner Publishers; 2000:350-356.
  5. 5.
    Levtzion N, Hopkins JFP, eds. Al-’Umarī. In: Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History. Princeton, USA: Markus Weiner Publishers; 2000:252-278.
  6. 6.
    Levtzion N, Hopkins JFP, eds. Ibn al-Dawādārī. In: Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History. Princeton, USA: Markus Weiner Publishers; 2000:249-251.
  7. 7.
    Levtzion N, Hopkins JFP, eds. Ibn Bațțūța. In: Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History. Princeton, USA: Markus Weiner Publishers; 2000:279-304.
  8. 8.
    Levtzion N, Hopkins JFP, eds. Ibn Kathīr. In: Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History. Princeton, USA: Markus Weiner Publishers; 2000:305.
  9. 9.
    Levtzion N, Hopkins JFP, eds. Ibn Khaldūn. In: Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History. Princeton, USA: Markus Weiner Publishers; 2000:322-342.
  10. 10.
    Roberts RL. Warriors, Merchants, and Slaves: The State and the Economy in the Middle Niger Valley, 1700-1914. USA: Stanford University Press; 1974.
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Lesley Lababidi
Lesley Lababidi
1 June 2020 11:19 pm

This article is fascinating and particularly important now to understand that empires of Africa were highly organised, wealthy and cultured. There was trade of ideas and objects between North Africa and West Africa and beyond during medieval times.