Whoever Dies with the Most Stuff Wins

The content below is from Season 2, Episode 31 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast.

Just to give credit where credit is due: the title for this episode is a quote by English author David Mitchell from his book Number9Dream published in 2001.


  • Shannon did this week’s recommendation segment again… sorry blog readers. But if you want to listen to it all you have to do is click the link above. Shannon’s segment is at the very beginning of the audio podcast.


  • This week’s episode is about a guy in history named Musa and what I learned from his story.
    • Throughout his lifetime Musa would accumulate so much wealth but we aren’t exactly sure how much. Every record historians found in hopes of tallying up just how much money Musa had is just a guy who basically wrote “I can’t even describe it.”
  • Musa was born in the year 1280 into a royal family.
    • Musa would become King in the year 1312. At which point people started calling him Mansa Musa as the word “Mansa” means sultan, king, or emperor in the Mandinka language.
    • The story of how Musa became Mansa Musa does come with some mystery and wonder, but we’ll get to that later.
    • When Musa inherited the kingdom of Mali in North West Africa he had already inherited one of the richest kingdoms on Earth.
      • The kingdom of Mali sits on a huge amount of natural resources, namely Salt and Gold. Both of which were and still are very valuable.
      • For whatever reason, gold has always been valuable and you and I can easily wrap our heads around that, but salt might be more difficult for us, people of this modern era.
      • But until relatively modern times, salt was prized mainly for its ability to preserve foodstuffs as well as season food. While gold looks nice, salt can make your food taste good and can preserve food so you and your family don’t starve. There have been times throughout history where salt was just as, if not more valuable than gold.
  • Even though Musa inherited an already prosperous kingdom, he didn’t just sit back and enjoy the labors of his predecessors. He got to work building upon the wealth he already had and turned it into something even greater.
    • Under his rule, the kingdom of Mali grew significantly. He annexed 24 cities, including Timbuktu.
    • The kingdom stretched for about 2,000 miles, from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to modern-day Niger, taking in parts of what are now Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Ivory Coast.
    • Historians estimate that during Mansa Musa’s reign the kingdom of Mali had about half of the “Old World’s” gold… and when you are king, what ever the kingdom has is yours. So Mansa Musa had about half of all gold in the Eastern Hemisphere (keep in mind that they didn’t know there was a western hemisphere during the 1300’s).
      • Even though having half of all known gold and a lot of salt is one heck of a first step to becoming unconceivably wealthy, that wasn’t the only factor that contributed to Mansa Musa’s wealth. He also had MAJOR trading ports and cities within his territory such as the legendary Timbuktu.
      • So not only did he have the largest supply, he had one of the best distribution networks as well. If you’ve seen Breaking Bad or perhaps Miami Vice then you know it isn’t just about the supply. It’s also about the crew you got runnin’ in.
  • Mecca Bound
  • Mali was filthy rich, but it wasn’t particularly famous. Other than its citizens and neighboring lands, Mali wasn’t spoken about by commoners throughout Europe or even the Mediterranean. That is until Mansa Musa’s legendary road trip!!!
    • No, this wasn’t a road trip with gas station stops for slim jims and soft drinks, no, it was MUCH more epic than that.
    • You see Mansa Musa was a devout Muslim and like all Muslims he wanted to make a trek to Mecca before he died. This is known as a Hajj is the religion of Islam. What made this trek so legendary? Well when you are the wealthiest known-person to have ever existed you aren’t going to travel 3,000+ miles through the Sahara Desert in modesty.
      • Reports say Mansa Musa’s army of servants, soldiers, and followers prepared for months before their King’s Hajj and when they set out they were 60,000 strong.
      • He took his entire royal court and officials, soldiers, griots (entertainers), merchants, camel drivers and 12,000 slaves, as well as a long train of goats and sheep for food.
      • This wasn’t a travel party, it was a community moving through the desert. And keep in mind that every single person on this journey was covered head to toe with the finest silk and golden jewelry in existence… Mansa Musa even had the slaves blinged out in the finest garb.
      • Along with their livestock brought along for food, they also brought camels as pack animals. Each of the 100 camels was carrying about 100 pounds of pure gold.
      • I can only imagine a rural desert dwelling people waking up one day to see 60,000 people dressed flyer than Puff Diddy walking through the desert eating the finest of foods and acting like the heat wasn’t all that bad with slaves fanning them as they went. What a trip.
  • Then they visited Cairo.
    • The BBC describes it here: “”So lavishly did he hand out gold in Cairo that his three-month stay caused the price of gold to plummet in the region for 10 years, wrecking the economy.””
      • Mansa Musa gave so much gold to peasants and overpaid for just about everything. Imagine going in to a gas station today for a coke and paying the cashier with a brick of gold. Can you guess what kind of societal unrest that would have on the communities that Mansa Musa visited?
    • “”US-based technology company estimates that due to the depreciation of gold, Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage led to about $1.5bn (£1.1bn) of economic losses across the Middle East.
    • On his way back home, Mansa Musa passed through Egypt again, and according to some, tried to help the country’s economy by removing some of the gold from circulation by borrowing it back at extortionate interest rates from Egyptian lenders.””
      • THAT is a baller move. Give away so much money to the peasants and merchants of a region that you tank the local economy. THEN on your way back through those communities you buy back most of the gold you gave but at ridiculous interest rates so you aren’t just helping to stabilize the economy back to normal, you also pay in to the financial institutions of the region.
  • That brings us to how Musa became king.
    • The world only knows about Mansa Musa’s ascension to the throne because a scholar wrote it down a long time ago.
    • “”According to “The Age of Mansa Musa of Mali: Problems in Succession and Chronology” by the International Journal of African Historical Studies. Publishing, for the Boston University African Studies Center
    • Mansa Musa stayed in Cairo for three months in 1324 while en route to Mecca for the hajj.[1] While there, he befriended an emir (or local chief) named Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Amir Hajib, who was the governor of the district of Cairo that Musa was staying in.[2] Ibn Amir Hajib later recounted what he had learned of Mali from his conversations with Musa to the scholar al-Umari. In one such conversation, Ibn Amir Hajib had asked Musa how he had become king, and Musa responded:
      • -This is a bit long, but it is Musa’s own words… well sort of. It is actually his words through a scholar twice removed from Musa.-
      • We belong to a house which hands on the kingship by inheritance. The king who was my predecessor did not believe that it was impossible to discover the furthest limit of the Atlantic Ocean and wished vehemently to do so. So he equipped 200 ships filled with men and the same number equipped with gold, water, and provisions enough to last them for years, and said to the man deputed to lead them: “Do not return until you reach the end of it or your provisions and water give out.” They departed and a long time passed before anyone came back. Then one ship returned and we asked the captain what news they brought. He said: “Yes, O Sultan, we traveled for a long time until there appeared in the open sea [as it were] a river with a powerful current. Mine was the last of those ships. The [other] ships went on ahead but when they reached that place they did not return and no more was seen of them and we do not know what became of them. As for me, I went about at once and did not enter that river.” But the sultan disbelieved him. Then that sultan got ready 2,000 ships, 1,000 for himself and the men whom he took with him and 1,000 for water and provisions. He left me to deputize for him and embarked on the Atlantic Ocean with his men. That was the last we saw of him and all those who were with him, and so I became king in my own right.”
    • Al-Umari’s record of this conversation is the only account of this voyage, as it is not mentioned by other medieval Arab historians or West African oral tradition.[4] Nonetheless, the possibility of such a voyage has been taken seriously by several historians.
    • No uncontroversial evidence of pre-Columbian contact between Africa and the Americas has ever been found.[22] Regardless of whether any of the Malian ships ever reached the Americas, they apparently never returned to Africa and there were not any long-term economic consequences of the voyage
    • The river on the sea described by the survivor of the first expedition is presumably the Canary Current.[6] The inclusion of this fact in Musa’s account indicates that Musa had some awareness of the oceanographic conditions of the open Atlantic. The Canary Current flows from West Africa to the Americas, which would have facilitated travel from Africa to the Americas but prevented it in the opposite direction.“”
      • I got all that from International Journal of African Historical Studies. I know it says there is no hard evidence that Africa went to the Americas before Christopher Columbus, but boy does the Tin Hat part of my personality get all giddy at the thought of it. What amazing story that would be. If only 1 survivor lived to tell the tale.
      • I would do an entire episode on Musa’s predecessor if his story only had an ending other than “we never found out what happened to them.”
      • Anyway, now back to Mansa Musa himself.
  • Mansa Musa the Philanthropist
    • Mansa Musa had put Mali and himself on the map, quite literally. In a Catalan Atlas map from 1375, a drawing of an African king sits on a golden throne atop Timbuktu, holding a piece of gold in his hand. After his hajj, Mansa Musa had become a household name.
      • That is how Timbuktu became part of the popular saying “From here to Timbuktu.” People all over the Old World now heard of the unconceivably rich king from this mysterious far away land.
    • On his way to Mecca, which he did reach by the way, Mansa Musa gave away a lot of money. Some, including his own singsong historians known as griots, thought Mansa Musa was too wasteful with his money. However, not all of his spending was on a whim.
    • He used much of his wealth to build a great number of mosques (legend says he built one every Friday during his reign), the most famous of which is the Djinguereber Mosque.
      • LOL when I sound out the name of that Mosque my mind wants to put a Francophone sound to it like it is a French word. Must be my old French Minor from college clawing to get out of my mind.
    • Mansa Musa also commissioned several universities throughout the kingdom. Many of these historic buildings — both the schools and the mosques — are still standing today, some 700 years later.
    • He returned from Mecca with several Islamic scholars, including direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad and an Andalusian poet and architect by the name of Abu Es Haq es Saheli, who is widely credited with designing the famous Djinguereber mosque. The king reportedly paid the poet 200 kg (440lb) in gold, which in today’s money would be $8.2m (£6.3m).
    • In addition to encouraging the arts and architecture, he also funded literature and built schools, libraries and mosques. Timbuktu soon became a centre of education and people travelled from around the world to study at what would become the Sankore University
This was on a BBC article written in March of 2019.
    • What happened to the Mali empire you ask? Well Mansa Musa died at the age of 57 in the year 1337. His sons took over as rulers of the empire, and they screwed it up. The smaller states of the empire that were annexed by their father broke off.
    • Even though Mansa Musa was the wealthiest person we know of, he is only a small footnote in the pages of history. The reason being that European countries went on to conquer and lay waste to much of West Africa. The acts of Europeans are what make up most of our history books because they were the ones that won the right battles at the right time.
      • And Europeans didn’t really venture in to Africa that much during Mansa Musa’s era. Had they done so I’m sure there would tales about his massive wealth all throughout European history books.
  • Let us compare Mansa Musa to some of the richest men in recent history:
    • Jeff Bezos: $190.7 Billion
    • Bill Gates: $130.8 Billion
    • Elon Musk: $186.8 Billion
    • John D Rockefeller: *$418 Billion (*converted to USD worth of today)
    • Mansa Musa: closest estimates of his wealth was measured by the amount of economic instability he created in the towns he visited because he gave away soooo much money
  • I did this episode because Mansa Musa’s story is entertaining. It is exciting to try and comprehend that much wealth and of course my mind puts myself in Musa’s shoes. “What would I do with all that money? The possibilities are ENDLESS!”
    • But ultimately I think that is foolish thinking. ‘What would I do with all that money?‘ … I’d probably see the futility of it all and come to the same conclusion Musa did:
      • What good is all this money if I don’t share it?
      • Why have all this wealth if I can’t improve the lives of those around me?
      • Instead of buying another gold plated camel, maybe I’ll improve my community.
    • Some people go through life as if they were told “Whoever Dies with the Most Stuff Wins” when they were younger. But life isn’t a game… or… if it is that certainly is not the ultimate goal.
      • Sure it is important to have enough wealth. We need food, water, shelter, and a decent WIFI connection. And I think it is fine to have a bit more than the necessities… and then some.
      • But look at Musa. The guy had more wealth than the people of his time could even fathom… and he gave it away by the camel load.
      • I hope you were able to take something away from this episode.

Thanks for tuning in Who’d a Thunkers!