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Category: Gold - according to Dominic Frisby

Gold – according to Dominic Frisby: The richest man in history owed it to gold

I always thought that Jakob Fugger, the German who made his fortune in the 16th century through gold and copper mines, lending money to kings and, abo...

29 July 2021

Dominic Frisby

I always thought that Jakob Fugger, the German who made his fortune in the 16th century through gold and copper mines, lending money to kings and, above all, selling absolution, was the richest man in history. By the time he died his net worth was equivalent to nearly 2.5% of European GDP, tantamount to 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 by the name of Mansa Musa the Ninth, or King Musa IX to use English lexicon.

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 Hall of Fame. Fugger doesn’t even get a look in.

So who was this Mansa Musa the Ninth?

Musa was born in 1280 in Mali in West Africa, and at some point in his early 20s became Mansa, the Mande word for ruler or king. The 8th 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.

Conspiracy theorists argue that Musa actually saw to it that Bakr never came back – and the whole “exploring the edge of the Atlantic Ocean” thing was just a ruse. Who knows? Perhaps Bakr did make it to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, also known as Brasil, found it to his liking, as many visitors there do, and decided to settle.

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 – and that’s how Musa came to be so rich. Salt and gold, mainly, and West Africa has always had lots of gold.

Even today Ghana is Africa’s second largest producer, beaten only by South Africa, whose premium deposit, the Witswatersrand, 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, worse even than record label Decca passing on Harrison’s namesake’s band, the Beatles, sold his stake for £10. The first Harrison was never heard of again, but his discovery would provide the world with 20% of all the gold ever mined.

But, until the Wits 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 – and Musa sure did enjoy the trappings.

Musa had tens of thousands of slaves to his name and in 1324 set off with 12,000 of them and a retinue of 38,000 others, all of them dressed in gold, brocade and silk, apparently – 60,000 in total (including soldiers and entertainers) – on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Like today’s mega billionaires, Musa liked attention. He didn’t have rocket ships, Twitter or potential appearances on Saturday Night Live to get it, so Musa’s means of getting noticed was this hajj – a pilgrimage to Mecca, the spiritual home of Islam. The 2,800 mile round trip took him some two years.

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

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

Ever the businessman, the devaluation of the gold price was apparent to Musa, and on his way back from Cairo, Musa borrowed from money-lenders all the gold he could carry. It’s thought his strategy – causing inflation then collapse – was a deliberate ploy to undermine the Cairo 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. Musa started throwing his gold about back in Mali. For 440 pounds of gold, he hired the services of poet and architect Abu Isaq Silla 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 one historian.

One of Musa’s buildings, the Sankore Madrassah, 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 after.
The inescapable laws of unsustainable spending applied as much then as they do today.

* Dominic Frisby is the author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.

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