Reading an art history book recently, I was so intrigued and inspired by single, uncontextualised sentence in a timeline graphic that I had to do some more research. The sentence was:
“AD 1324: Mansa Musa, the emperor of Mali, spends so much gold in Cairo on the way to pilgrimage in Mecca that he ruins the value of money.”
He ruined the value of money? How? In some ways this seems like a brilliant idea, especially nowadays when most of the money in the world is essentially conjured out of nothing and totally imaginary anyway. Money’s a problem, why not trash the whole idea of it and try something else? He didn’t do it deliberately, though.
The most reliable and most quoted from primary source seems to be a 1957 article by A.J.H. Goodwin, ‘The Medieval Empire of Ghana‘ (JSTOR 3886971)
Mansa Musa, Emperor of Mali in the 14th century, from a Catalan atlas by Abraham Cresques of Mallorca, 1375. Musa’s brandishing a gold nugget. Text on the right says: “This Negro lord is called Musa Mali, Lord of the Negroes of Guinea. So abundant is the gold which is found in his country that he is the richest and most noble king in all the land.”
Musa (Mansa is a title, roughly equivalent to Emperor) was a Muslim who embarked on probably the most extravagant and blatantly blinging pilgrimage to Mecca of all time. The contemporary historian Chihab al-Umari recorded that Musa’s hajj involved travelling with 60,000 men and 12,000 slaves carrying 4lb gold bars, plus eighty camels bearing between 50lbs and 300lbs of gold dust each. Needless to say, even with adjustments for inflation and differing trade conditions, Musa was one of the richest people in Earth’s history. He’s also the only recorded individual to directly and single-handedly dictate the price of gold throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. But first he inadvertently left a trail of economic devastation in his wake. He spent or gave away so much gold that everywhere he went– from Mali, through Cairo, Medina and all the way to Mecca– he depressed the value of gold for a decade. This in turn caused massive inflation as local economies attempted to cope with the unprecedented wealth that had landed on them.
To his credit, Musa did attempt to fix things by borrowing some of the gold back at high interest rates from moneylenders in Cairo. Rather than just flinging it off the back of his camel at random strangers he also spent a lot of his money in places like Timbuktu, building mosques, madrasas and universities.
So there it is. You need to be super rich and not very sensible to ruin the value of money and fuck up the economy. I think we all knew that already.