Abubakari II and Mansa Musa (King Moses in Mandinka) ruled as emperors, one after the other, in one of the greatest states to arise in the medieval world. Their lands brimmed with prosperous cities. They commanded large and formidable armies. They lived in sumptuous palaces and the riches of the mountains, plains, and deserts were spread at their feet. They amazed the world with their exploits and created enduring legends that still tantalize and amaze us today.
The empire of Mali arose out of the ruins of the earlier empire of ancient Ghana and exceeded its predecessor in size and wealth. Forged into existence by Sundiata Keita (the original "Lion King," but that is a story for another time), the empire of Mali became rich and powerful through its control of the transport of gold, salt, cowrie shells, copper, and other goods across the daunting Sahara Desert, the largest in the world.
Backed by its military prowess, Mali also taxed nearly all the other trade entering West Africa. Most of its residents were farmers who raised rice and sorghum. The citizens of this Black empire lived in splendor even after these men’s reign while England and France tore each other apart in the One Hundred Years War (1337 to 1453.)
The fabled city of Timbuktu, Mali gained an international reputation for academic vigor. In "Lost Cities of Africa," the British historian Basil Davidson reminded us that "Scholars sheltered in relative ease and security in Timbuktu." The empire's rulers promoted intellectual excellence, commercial expansion, as well as progress in the arts and industries.
Upon Mansa Musa's return from Mecca, he established religious schools in Timbuktu, built mosques in Muslim trading cities, and sponsored those who wanted to continue religious studies elsewhere.
Abubakari was a nephew, some say great nephew of Sundiata Keita, who had died in 1255. Abubakari was chosen as the ninth "mansa" (ruler) of imperial Mali after a series of palace intrigues and murders rivaling anything in Shakespeare or "Game of Thrones." He became known as Abubakari II.
It soon became evident that power and riches were not enough for him. Riding along the borders of his great realm, he became frustrated. As many scholars have noted "He became obsessed with finding out what lay beyond the vast Atlantic Ocean." He scorned those who said it could not be crossed. He mocked those who were fearful of its roaring waves.
He commissioned a fleet "of at least 200, or possibly up to 400 ships," according to a recent edition of the British magazine "HistoryExtra" to search for the opposite shore. The same article reports that "from this voyage, just one solitary vessel returned with the surviving captain telling terrible tales about the other boats having been swept away by a colossal current and consumed by whirlpools."