In the fourteenth century, two major expeditions set out from the Mali Empire in West Africa, which was reaching the height of its power and wealth. Both of these expeditions show how rich and advanced the Empire was at this stage, especially in comparison to other parts of the world.
THE FIRST EXPEDITION: AMERICA
The Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, is usually given the credit for “discovering” the Americas in 1492. But, according to a Malian scholar called Gaoussou Diawara, a Malian fleet found the Americas nearly two hundred years before Columbus. In 1311, the emperor Abubakari II received word that a fleet of 400 ships had accidentally discovered a land on the other side of the Atlantic. Only one of the 400 ships had survived, and it was from this ship that Abubakari heard the news. Apparently, the emperor then gave up his throne and set off to explore the Atlantic Ocean. His fleet arrived in Brazil in 1312.
We do not know for certain whether all this is true, but there is a lot of evidence. When he arrived in 1492, Columbus reported that there were black traders in the Americas already. Modern scientific analysis of the spears which Columbus found in America suggests that the gold on them was originally from Africa. This means that African traders must have sold this gold in the Americas before Columbus arrived. Even if this story isn’t actually true, the reports we have of massive Malian fleets suggests that the Empire was very powerful at this time.
THE SECOND EXPEDITION: MECCA
The rulers of the Mali Empire were Muslims. Mansa Musa was the most powerful Malian emperor, and in 1324 he made a pilgrimage to Mecca. According to some accounts, he brought 60,000 men with him, 12,000 of whom were slaves. He built a mosque every Friday and handed out gold to every city he passed on the way, including Cairo and Medina. Perhaps surprisingly, giving away all this gold actually hurt these places in the long term. Now there was so much of it that the metal became worth less. This led to inflation – meaning an increase in prices – which lasted for the next decade.
Although it is likely that these accounts of the pilgrimage exaggerate Mansa Musa’s wealth, it seems that there is at least some truth in them. This incident shows how rich Mali was in comparison to the Middle East, and how the Empire was able to use its power in other countries. Exports to the rest of the world – Africans not the long-distance traders, but key to the trade. Gold from West Africa; East African trade with Asia.