Musa of Mali – Mysteries in Africa

Rich as Croesus” is an expression that’s in common parlance even today.

History is filled with tales of men (maybe that’s why it’s termed his story) of fabulous wealth. Croesus, the King of Lydia (c. 500 BC) was probably the first man to be tagged as the richest in history.  The first occurrence of this phrase was in 1390 in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, according to Wikipedia. Even earlier references exist in Greek and Persian sources that pre-date the Christian Era.

Readers of historical fiction may know of another wealthy man, Marcus Crassus, contemporary of Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeii. Crassus is considered the wealthiest man of Roman times and even of all time. Yet it appears neither Crassus or Croesus, legendary as they may have been, were as wealthy as King Musa of Mali (c. 1300). When magazines such as Time or Forbes compile lists of the 10 richest men of all time, they rarely agree on #2 through #10, but they all agree that Mansa Musa of Mali was #1 – the richest man of all time. Of course, given more people may know of Timbuktu than of Mali, it’s not surprising that Musa of Mali is not a household name.

catalan_atlas_bnf_sheet_6_mansa_musaUnfortunately, news about Africa invariably seems to be centered around disaster – famine or civil war. It’s only occasionally that the promise of African history breaks through the clutter. The attacks on historical monuments in Timbuktu have drawn attention once again to Mali’s resplendent past. Alas, the news cycle did not allow for much attention as to what makes Timbuktu, Mali and West Africa a place of immense interest to fans of history and historical fiction.

Most of the attention in historical fiction seems to get heaped on Egypt. Historical mysteries set in Africa have rarely featured the sub-Saharan part of the continent. Granted both mysteries – real and fictional – abound in Egypt, but it is still only a small part of Africa. Does the rest of the continent not provide adequate fodder for mysteries?

Before you despair, thanks to Margaret Tomlinson’s amazing site, HistoricalNovels, I did discover a slew of mysteries set in Africa, outside of Egypt. A great number of them are set in South Africa and a preponderance of others are set in colonial times and around the World Wars I & II. Two of them actually feature Mali:

D.T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali and
Rafael Scott, Beyond Mali which actually features Musa’s son

Given the amount of ink that Crassus has received in historical novels and mysteries, I’m surprised that more hasn’t been written about Mansa Musa. This is particularly interesting given contemporary accounts of Musa’s famous trip to Mecca, during which he triggered a currency crisis in Egypt with his splurging of gold. As Rudolph Ware, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, puts it: “Musa’s riches were so immense that people struggled to describe them.”

To me, it sounds like a rich vein for writers to tap into – with so much money, can crime be far behind?



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