Business tycoons Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are currently in a tug-of-war for the title of “World’s Richest Person.” And their attempts to outdo each other have resulted in an amusing rivalry. However, if we take history into account, these 2 pale in comparison with the richest man of all time — an African King named Mansa Musa.
Born as Musa I in the year 1280, he was given the title “Mansa” (which means “sultan” or “emperor” in the Mandinka language) after he took the throne in 1312.
He came to power after his predecessor and brother, Mansa Abu-Bakr, abdicated to go on an expedition across the Atlantic Ocean — a voyage which he unfortunately never returned from.
The kingdom of Mali grew under Mansa Musa’s rule and stretched 2,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the modern-day nation of Niger. It also covered parts of what are now Senegal, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast.
It was one of the largest empires in West Africa, and its language and laws have influenced the current culture within the region.
Back in the 14 century, the Mali Empire accounted for almost half of the world’s old gold. And every piece of it belonged to Mansa Musa.
As one specialist explained, the kingdom’s ruler had unlimited access to the world’s most valued resource at that time.
Trading centers for other goods were also located within Mansa Musa’s territory, so he acquired wealth from those businesses as well.
While net worth constantly fluctuates, both Bezos and Musk have registered values that reached the $200-billion mark.
They are still about hundreds of billions behind the inflation-adjusted, $400 billion figure that experts computed for Mansa Musa. This wealthy ruler would have probably given the fictional Wakanda a run for his money too.
One professor told BBC in an interview that “contemporary accounts of Musa’s wealth are so breathless that it’s almost impossible to get a sense of just how wealthy and powerful he truly was.”
When Mansa Musa embarked on a pilgrimage in 1324, he reportedly brought 60,000 men with him.
His travel detail included all of his royal officials, soldiers, merchants, slaves, some goats and sheep for food, and about a hundred camels that each carried loads of gold.
And they also traveled in style, as most of them were allegedly clad in gold and fine Persian silk.
According to historical accounts, Mansa Musa gave gold to the poor people he met along his journey, and also traded gold for souvenirs when he passed through Cairo and Medina.
Ancient historian Al-Umari wrote about his conversation with an emir from Cairo, who met Mansa Musa. He said the African king spoke through an interpreter, even if he himself was fluent in Arabic. And he also gave the treasury lots of native gold and other valuables.
According to the emir, Mansa Musa “flooded” Cairo with his riches. The surplus of gold caused its value to drop, and that resulted in economic losses to the tune of around $1.5 billion all over the Middle East.
“He gave out so much Malian gold along the way that jelis [griots] don’t like to praise him in their songs because they think he wasted local resources outside the empire,” said one academic.
It appears simple travel souvenirs just didn’t cut it for Mansa Musa. He also took the territory of Gao within the Songhai kingdom and expanded the empire to the southern end of the Sahara Desert.
On the upside, he also used his immense wealth for the greater good. During his reign, he commissioned universities, libraries, and other structures across the kingdom. Some of these ancient buildings are still standing today.
In a Catalan Atlas map from the year 1375, on top of Timbuktu (which became part of the Mali Empire), there was a drawing of an African King who was depicted sitting on a throne and holding a piece of precious metal in his hand.
During the 19 century, Timbuktu gained the mythical status as the “Lost City of Gold” and became a popular destination for treasure hunters and explorers.
The opulent ruler is credited with starting the tradition of education in West Africa. But if he was so rich and revered, why haven’t we heard of him?
After Mansa Musa died, sometime around the 1330s, his sons inherited the throne. Sadly, they were not able to hold the empire together and the smaller states broke off one by one.
When the Europeans arrived in the region, the kingdom finally ended. And according to one expert, “The history of the medieval period is still largely seen only as a Western history,” which is why Mansa Musa’s story was relatively unknown.
If Mansa Musa were alive, what one question would you like to ask him? And if you had billions at your disposal, how or where would you spend it?