BBC History Revealed

Abubakari II

The 14th-century emperor of Mali renounced his throne to explore the blue expanse of the Atlantic, but what became of him? Pat Kinsella traces his myth and legend


Discover the Malian emperor who gave up his throne to find out what lay beyond the blue expanse of the Atlantic

When the words ‘Africa’ and ‘explorer’ are paired in a sentence, most people’s minds immediatel­y leap to the well-known European adventurer­s who famously felt their way around the ‘Dark Continent’ in the heady days of the 19th century. But Africa was populated by sophistica­ted civilisati­ons and governed by advanced empires for centuries before the likes of David Livingston­e and Henry Morton Stanley showed up, and these societies had homegrown explorers of their own – people who yearned to know what lay outside their realm and beyond the big blue horizon.

Chief among these – or so the story goes, because little remains in the form of written history – was a man called Abubakari II (also known as Abu Bakr II and Abu Bakari), who ruled Mali and a gold-rich area that incorporat­ed most of West Africa in the 14th century. Life as the head of arguably the largest and wealthiest empire on the planet seemingly wasn’t enough for Abubakari, however, and no amount of treasure could soothe his itchy feet.


A nephew (or possibly great nephew) of Sundiata Keita, founder of the mighty

Mali Empire, Abubakari became the ninth ‘mansa’ (ruler) of the vast and immensely rich and powerful West African realm after a series of feuds and coups wiped out Keita’s sons and heirs – both blood and adopted.

Once installed as emperor, Abubakari became obsessed with finding out what lay beyond the vast Atlantic Ocean. Seemingly unwilling to accept that it was impossible to reach the far ‘bank’ of this great blue enormity, Abubakari dispatched a large expedition – comprising at least 200, and possibly up to 400 ships, depending on which source you believe – to search for the opposite shore. From this voyage, just one solitary vessel returned, with the surviving captain telling terrible tales about the other boats having been swept away by a colossal current and consumed by whirlpools.

Dismissive of this story, Abubakari apparently decided to set off himself, in the pursuit of knowledge and discovery. He assembled an even larger expedition­ary fleet – allegedly ten times the size of the previous one – and passed control of the empire to his deputy Mansa Musa (an individual who is often described as his brother, and was also known as Kankou Moussa). In 1311, this immense armada – 2000 pirogues carrying crews of men and women, and loaded with livestock, food, drinking water and gold – set off from the coast of West Africa, from a spot now incorporat­ed in modern-day Gambia.

The fleet sailed across the Atlantic waves, heading into the complete unknown, and were never seen again

– at least not in the account told to a contempora­ry Arab historian by Mansa Musa nearly two decades later.


Written records of events in medieval Mali are scarce, with the vast majority of West African history being remembered through oral traditions and controlled by griots – traditiona­l storytelle­rs who have acted as keepers and teachers of knowledge for centuries. On the narrative of Abubakari II, however, the griots appear to have been somewhat tight-lipped.

Virtually the only account of this adventure comes from Arab-Egyptian scholar Chihab al-Umari, who encountere­d Abubakari’s successor Mansa Musa during the latter’s famously excessive pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, some 13 years after he had been gifted control of the world’s wealthiest empire. Al-Umari recorded the words of Mansa Musa about the ruler who had relinquish­ed the crown to pursue a quixotic quest:

“The ruler who preceded me did not believe that it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean that encircles the Earth [the Atlantic], and wanted to reach that [end] and obstinatel­y 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 [admiral] not to return until they had reached the extremity of the ocean, or if they had exhausted the provisions and the 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 backwards 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 to give a sign of life.”


The ultimate fate of Abubakari II and his fleet is shrouded in mystery, but while some historians cast doubt on the entire story (pointing in part to the unrealisti­c size of the supposed fleet) other scholars – including the Malian historian Gaoussou Diawara – believe that Abubakari did in fact travel all the way across the Atlantic, and successful­ly made landfall in South America. If true, this would place Abubakari II in the New World 140 years before Christophe­r Columbus was even born.

In his book The Saga of Abubakari II, Diawara claims the African explorer came ashore in Brazil, somewhere very close to the spot where the city of Recife is now situated. Another name for this area is ‘Purnanbuco’, which supporters of this theory suggest is an aberration of the Mande name for the rich gold fields that made the Mali Empire so incredibly wealthy: ‘Boure Bambouk’.

Other historians also claim to have found indicators of African culture and influence in pre-Columbian America, both in the southern and northern parts of the conjoined continents, including in modern-day Mexico and Colorado. This has fuelled debate about travel and trade taking place between parts of western and northern Africa and the Americas many centuries before Europeans became involved in the New World.

In 1992, toxicologi­st Svetlana Balabanova found traces of cocaine and nicotine in the hair of a mummified Ancient Egyptian, Priestess Henut Taui of the 21st Dynasty (who would have lived around 1,000 BC). More traces discovered in other mummies from the same era prompted a furious debate (and some accusation­s of fakery) about how this could be possible given that the source plants for these drugs were not thought to have grown on the African continent until well after Columbus had travelled to and from the Americas.

There has also long been debate (some of it academic, but much of it amateur and highly speculativ­e) about the similariti­es in the architectu­ral design of pyramids found in Egypt and in advanced pre-Columbian American civilisati­ons, including the Olmec, Aztec, Inca and Maya. However, these structures were built in completely different eras (some separated by thousands of years) and were used in different ways by various people.

More compelling, though, is evidence of human remains that appear to be of medieval African origin, but which seem to have been buried in the Americas a long time prior to the arrival of Columbus. Polish professor and craniologi­st (someone who studies human skulls) Andrzej Wiercinski has written about the discovery of ‘African’ skulls at Olmec sites in Tlatilco, Cerro de las Mesas and Monte Alban, and older

remains of apparent African descent have been unearthed throughout Central and South America, and even in California.

Eleven giant stone heads have also been found along the Gulf coast of Mexico, along with other artwork, all clearly depicting features that seem distinctly African. Carbon dating of some such remains in the 1950s placed them around 814 BC, around the time when and maritime trade and travel on (and possibly, according to this evidence, even across) the Atlantic was commonplac­e.

This remains a contentiou­s realm, however, with historians continuing to debate the strength of the evidence pointing to interactio­n between Africa and the indigenous people of the Americas, and the vast majority of it is far removed from the enigmatic odyssey of Abubakari II.


Perhaps the strongest indication­s that Abubakari II’s fleet (or even some of the ships from the earlier expedition he dispatched) had indeed reached the coast of South America come from the writing of Columbus himself.

In his 1920 book Africa and the Discovery of America, Professor Leo Wiener, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature­s from Harvard University, highlighte­d excerpts in the journals of the Italian explorer, where Columbus notes that the Native Americans he encountere­d claimed “black-skinned people had come from the southeast in boats, trading in gold-tipped spears”.

On his return route to Europe after his first expedition to the New World, in March 1493, Columbus was driven off course by a storm and ended up in Portuguese waters, where he eventually had a tense meeting with King John II of Portugal. During a dinner with this monarch, Columbus was apparently told (or perhaps taunted) about West Africans having travelled and traded with the indigenous peoples of the New World.

On his third voyage to the Americas – during which he followed the route supposedly used by the aforementi­oned Africans and made landfall on Trinidad and then mainland South America – Columbus acquired some of those spear tips, made with a yellow metal referred to as guanín. He seemingly took them back to Spain, where they were tested and found to comprise six parts silver, eight parts copper and 18 parts gold: the same mix as used in West Africa.

Other wandering Europeans, including Vasco Núñez de Balboa, also wrote about encounteri­ng ‘Negroes’ when they reached the New World, but nothing concrete is known about what ultimately became of Abubakari II and the thousands of men and women who allegedly accompanie­d him on his quest. What is certain, is that the man he left in charge of the wealthiest realm on Earth had a lot to thank Abubakari II’s wandering spirit. Mansa Musa seized his good fortune with both hands, expanded his empire, expertly exploited Mali’s surplus of gold and the massive contempora­ry demand for it, and became the richest man of the era – very probably the richest man to have ever lived in comparativ­e terms.

Thirteen years after being gifted the throne by his restless sibling, Mansa Musa undertook a journey himself – a pilgrimage to Mecca, during which he splashed so much cash that he devalued the rate of the gold dinar in the region, and accidently devastated several local economies en route. It’s said that he travelled with 60,000 men, all dressed in Persian silk, including 12,000 slaves, each carrying 1.8kg of gold, plus 80 camels, which each carried between 23kg and 136kg of gold dust. Gold was distribute­d to the poor along the way and dished out liberally in cities such as Timbuktu, Gao, Cairo and Medina.

Whether or not medieval Malians really made it across the Atlantic, the region’s reputation as one of the world’s wealthiest places was cemented by Mansa Musa during this journey – forging and stoking gold-plated stories that would later inspire European explorers to venture deep into Africa in search of treasure.


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 ??  ?? We have Malian emperor Mansa Musa (bottom right)
– perhaps the richest man who ever lived – to thank for one of the few accounts of Abubakari’s adventures
We have Malian emperor Mansa Musa (bottom right) – perhaps the richest man who ever lived – to thank for one of the few accounts of Abubakari’s adventures
 ??  ?? A Kaba-blon (shrine) of the Keita clan, whose ancestor Sundiata was the founder of Mali
A Kaba-blon (shrine) of the Keita clan, whose ancestor Sundiata was the founder of Mali
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