port of harlem magazine
Abubakari II: Africa's Greatest Explorer? And Mansa Musa: The Richest Man Who Ever Lived?
February 11 – February 24, 2021
Praising the Past


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."

He dismissed such a fearful tale out of hand. A bold man, he then took bold and unprecedented action. As the BBC News reported in December 2000, in a retrospective on his unbelievable life: "In 1311, he handed over the throne to a brother, Kankou Moussa, and set off on an expedition to explore the unknown." Kankou Moussa ascended to the throne and is better known to history as "Mansa Musa."

Abubakari II departed from the coast of West Africa from a site in what is now modern-day Gambia with 2,000 vessels filled with sailors, their wives, food, water, and even gold.

Thirteen years later, Mansa Musa described what happened next to a rapt group of Egyptians in Cairo, ending with these words explaining how his predecessor, Abubakari II, renounced his throne, gave the throne to Mansa Musa, and sailed into the Atlantic and was never heard from again: "Then he conferred on me the regency during his absence, and departed with his men on the ocean trip, never to return nor to give a sign of life."

At that time, Mansa Musa was on a history making trip of his own. When he stopped in Egypt, he was on his way to the holy city of Mecca for his hajj or pilgrimage. He had already conquered two dozen cities and through his control of local trade routes and gold fields made the empire of Mali the world's largest producer of gold.

He did not make his pilgrimage by himself. In the mid-1320s, he led a group of 60,000 men adorned with brocade and Persian silk, including 12,000 prisoners who each carried four pounds of gold bars and scores of others clad in silk who walked with gold staffs, handled luggage, and served as hostlers. There were also 80 camels that each carried between 50 and 300 pounds of gold dust. Mansa Musa distributed much of this treasure to the poor he met along his line of march. He led a glittering ebony army of thousands across the gold-colored sands of the Sahara. His net worth has been estimated at $400 billion dollars. Some experts have called him the richest man who ever lived.

"World History," from AMSCO School Publications, Inc notes that "His pilgrimage displayed Mali's wealth to the outside world. Mansa Musa's visit to Mecca deepened his devotion to Islam. Upon his return, he established religious schools in Timbuktu, built mosques in Muslim trading cities, and sponsored those who wanted to continue religious studies elsewhere. Though most West Africans continued to hold onto their traditional beliefs, Mansa Musa's reign deepened support for Islam in Mali."

When he died in 1337, Mansa Musa left behind a wealthy stable Black government.
Next Issue: The Mystery of Abubakari II's Voyage.

POH PODCAST: Feb 13, 2026 - Abubakri II’s Voyage with CR Gibbs

After publishing this article in February 2021, we finally revisited the subject audibly.
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