1311: The Year the Malians (Almost) Discovered America

R&I – TXPAT *** We all know the popular saying “In 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” For the longest time it was thought that Columbus was the first of the Old World to have stepped foot in the Americas only to find out later that it had actually been medieval Norsemen who first made contact with the Natives hundreds of years before Columbus.

In another stranger reality it was almost Sub Saharan Africans who first made the discovery. In 1311-12 CE a group left the kingdom of Mali intending to explore the Atlantic. They never made it back.

Admittedly a lot of the information for this story stems from medieval rich Malians bragging to equally rich Arabs in what amounts to basically wealthy pub gossip, so take a lot of it with a grain of salt. Mali was in the 14th century one of the wealthiest kingdoms on Earth. The famous Mansa Musa went on pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 and spent so much money in Arabia that he shattered the Arabian economy. So suffice it to say Mali had excess gold to spend on risky endeavors.

Malian rulers at the time were like the Jeffrey Bezos of their era in that they often engaged in fruitless spending and typically had more money than God. Mali itself was linked to the Arab world via camel routes to North Africa where they made ample money shoveling slaves into. The Malians were Muslims so that coupled with the slaves they sold them made them friendly with the Arab world. The nearly endless mounds of gold mines in their southern tip also made them Batman-level rich.

With all that excess wealth what does one do with it? Discover America of course! They were actually trying to explore the unknown waters of the Atlantic but “America!” sounds sexier.

In 1324 the year uberrich Mansa Musa was visiting Egypt he bragged to a local that his predecessor in Mali had sent a voyage into the Atlantic. The voyagers never made it back but surely it would return any day now with exotic goods and untold stories of adventure. Well…the untold part was true.

Theoretically this supposed journey took place in 1311 or 1312 and scholars think would have been led by Mohamed Ibn Gao. Some scholars swear that the journey was a success and that Malians made contact with the Native of South America but no concrete evidence exists to suggest that. The Malian voyagers themselves simply disappear from record.

All that’s known for sure is that an attempt was made. In 1311-12 Africans did  set out across the sea. They did want to understand the Atlantic more. Had they been more careful and planned better Malians could have feasibly discovered Brazil. Unfortunately with the evidence that historians and the majority of scholars have gathered it seems the adventure was a bust.

Still though the fact that the attempt was made raises the imagination. Had the Malians simply tried again, sent more men, more supplies, or attempted the journey on a different year things might have gone differently. We might have seen African Muslims colonizing South America. Columbus might have come across Islamic Natives wielding metal swords that they’d picked up from their Malian neighbors. Things could have gone much differently had one little voyage in 1311 out of Mali been a little more successful.

Some References: 






What happened to Mohamed Ibn Gao, Mansa of Mali? No source accurately states what happened. Some state he died in the atlantic, while others state nothing at all. from AskHistorians

Some Questions:

  1. Had the discovery occurred do you think Africans would have attempted to colonize the Americas? 
  2. Would an African discovery of America caused a conversion of some Natives to Islam? What effect would this religious interaction have had on the Americas? 
  3. Do you think the 1312 Malian voyage was a bust or do you think they possibly saw part of the Atlantic? 


Dollarmenu Jesus

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