Finding the Edge of the World

Finding the Edge of the World

The richest man in the world, of all time, came from Africa.  Many people know the story of Mansa Musa, the rule of the Empire of Mali, who spent so much gold during his journey to Hajj that the price of gold was devalued for several years after he went home.  

A representation of Mansa Musa

Lesser known is the story of his father Abu Bakr II.  Or maybe it was his uncle Mansa Qu.  The name and the actual person are rather difficult to track down, because the only record we have is one written by the geographer Shihab al-Din a-Umrari, who overheard a conversation between Mansa Musa and his host in Cairo.  

According to the conversation, Mansa (which means King) Musa was discussing the ruler of Mali who had come directly before him.  This ruler had became obsessed with the idea of journeying to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, and eventually outfitted two enormous fleets of ships to try to reach this edge.  

The ruler who preceded me did not believe it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean that encircles the earth, and wanted to reach that and obstinantly persisted in the design.  So he equipped two hundred boats full of men, like many others full of gold, water, and victuals sufficient enough for several years.  He ordered the chief not to return until they had reached the extremity of the ocean, or if they had exhausted the provisions and water.  They set out.  Their absence extended over a long period, and at last only one boat returned.  on our questioning, the captain said, “Prince, we have navigated for a long time, until we saw in the midst of the ocean as if a big river was flowing violently.  My boat was the last one; others were ahead of me.  As soon as any of them reached this place, it drowned in the whirlpool and never came out.  I sailed backward to escape this current.”

But the Sultan would not believe him.  He ordered two thousand boats to be equipped for him and for his men, and one thousand more for water and victuals.  Then he conferred on me the regency during his absence, and departed with his men on the ocean trip, never to return nor give a sign of life.

One year later, Mansa Musa was crowned, and the rest is economic history.  

A few historians have posited that Abu Bakr II/Mansa Qu reached the shores of the South American continent and have given various circumstantial evidence for that landing.  

Most historians, however, hold that there is no real evidence of any such landing.  As one study of the possibility of Abu Bakr II’s journey wrote, “No genuine African artifact has ever been found in a controlled archeological excavation in the New World.”


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