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Unearthing hidden histories: Mansa Musa, the richest person in history, and the untold African exploration of the Americas.

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By Javan Onguru

Forbes magazine recently named Elon Musk the richest person in history, with a personal fortune of a whopping $245.3 billion. In August 2020, the celebrated American business magazine declared Jeff Bezos the first-ever person to breach the $200 billion threshold.

Texts on ancient African history however detail contrasting a account to Forbes Magazine’s recent valuations.  Musa (1280-1337), also variously answering to Musa I of Mali, Musa Keita I of Mali, and Musa Keita I, was the tenth Sultan of the great Mali Empire, which covered modern-day Ghana, Timbuktu, and Mali in West Africa, and the richest human being to walk the earth, with a personal net worth of an eye-watering $400 billion (after adjusting for inflation).

Mansa Musa gained renown in Europe and the Middle East after he made the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, itself an impossible proposition in his day. His cavalcade consisted of about 60,000 soldiers, slaves and followers who escorted him through the kingdoms en route, alongside hundreds of camels, each carrying 136 kilograms of gold. He spent lavishly and distributed alms to the poor, thereby utterly upsetting the economies of the region. During a stopover in Cairo, for instance, he met with the Sultan of Egypt, and his caravan spent and gave away so much gold that the overall value of gold plummeted in the Middle East for the next 12 years. Musa ruled in an era when Europe was reeling under an economic crisis while his kingdom was producing more than half the world’s supply of salt and gold. He used his wealth to build immense mosques that still stand today.

Another fact that is often overlooked and has been conveniently whitewashed from history is that Abubakari II, Mansa Musa’s predecessor, led sailors from the Great Mali Empire to the Americas in 1311…almost 200 years before Columbus arrived! That an African explorer reached the Americas before Columbus just happens to be a very inconvenient concept, and yet there remains a lot of work to be done in educating the world, particularly Africans, about this remarkable history.

Now it turns out that the gold that Columbus himself found in the Americas has been demonstrated to be the very same alloy as that of West Africa; and the word used for gold by Native Americans­—’guanin’­— is  practically the same word for gold in Mandinka: ‘ghanin’. In his journals, Columbus concedes that Native Americans confirmed that “Black-skinned people had come from the south-east in boats, trading in gold-tipped spears.” Other pieces of evidence include corn and cotton (indigenous to the Americas) being cultivated in Africa before Columbus made his voyage, corroborating primeval contact between the continents.

Meanwhile, skeletons of Black people have been found in pre-Columbus graves in the Virgin Islands. Archaeologists have also discovered other skeletons in Central and South America. Other than Columbus, diverse European explorers, including Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, made record of seeing Black people when they reached the New World.

Abubakari’s life passion was to explore the limits of the Atlantic. To achieve this, he abdicated his throne, a decision that did not go down well with his subjects. The griots, West Africa’s oral historians who act as repositories of oral traditions, are said to have imposed silence on this voyage. They found his abdication a shameful act not worthy of praise, and for that reason refused to sing praises or talk of this great African explorer. This is why his crossing to the Americas has never been told. It is curious that Abubakari’s voyage to the Americas has been silenced, in one way or another, both in written and oral record.

Abubakari was succeeded by the famous Mansa Musa who, after assuming the throne, spoke thus of his predecessor: “The ruler who preceded me did not believe that it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean. So he equipped two hundred boats full of men, and many others full of gold, water and victuals sufficient enough for several years. He ordered the chief admiral not to return until they had reached the extremity of the ocean, or if they had exhausted their provisions and the water. They set out. Their absence extended over a long period and, at last, only one boat returned.”

Musa belonged to the Keita dynasty and inherited the kingdom, and it was under his rule that the Kingdom of Mali grew to its historical stature, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to modern-day Niger, taking in parts of what is now Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, and Ivory Coast. With such a large land mass came great resources such as gold, and all of it belonged to the king.

There are multiple strands of historical sources indicating that African explorers reached the Americas prior to its European discovery and prior to slavery. Let this then be a reminder to all that history is never neutral — we often think of it as a passive subject, with little implication on the present; but we also must actively understand how it affects our identity, our sense of place, and our understanding of the world around us.

There are many conflicting theories about who arrived in the Americas ‘first’, including the Vikings, the Chinese, Irish monks, and others. The point I’m driving at is not to prove that Africans were the first, but to show that they were present in the Americas long before we thought. A more intimate study is contained in the book ‘They Came Before Columbus’ by Professor Ivan Van Sertima.

African people have made significant contributions to world history in ways that we may probably never understand. As we continue to explore our existence, we must remember to ground ourselves in the multiplicity of our being, bearing in mind that what has been taught in the past is not necessarily what is historically true.

It is therefore bang out of order for the Forbes magazine to claim that Jeff Bezos is the first person in history to be worth $200 billion. Far from it. There was an African called Mansa Musa who lived 700 years ago, and he was worth much more!

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