Mansa Musa: The Richest Man in History
When people think of the richest people in history , more often than not they think of industrialists from the modern era, such as the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, or the Carnegies. Perhaps some would also name current billionaires such as Bill Gates, Carlos Slim, or the many wealthy Arab sheiks. However, the richest person in all of history is a Malian ruler named Musa Keita I, tenth Mansa of the Empire of Mali (Mansa is a title like ‘sultan’ or ‘emperor’). He was so rich and extravagant in his spending that he disrupted Egypt’s economy just by passing through!
Born in the 1280s AD, Mansa Musa expanded the Mali Empire by conquering 24 cities and their surrounding areas. By the time he died around 1337 AD, he had amassed a fortune that is almost too large to fathom. Adjusted for inflation, Mansa Musa I would have been worth over $400 billion.
The runner-up- the combined wealth of the Rothschild family- may be better known, however, they are only worth $350 billion. J.D. Rockefeller is worth $340 billion; Andrew Carnegie is worth $310 billion; Muammar Gaddafi is worth $200 billion; Bill Gates is worth $136 billion; and Carlos Slim is worth $68 billion. In other words, none of the men most often associated with vast wealth come close to the net worth of this African King.
“There's really no way to put an accurate number on his wealth,” said Jacob Davidson of Time Magazine.
Mansa Musa I made his initial fortune from the gold and salt mines of West Africa. The Mali Empire was founded out of the remains of the Ghanaian Empire. At its height under Musa I, the Mali Empire stretched across Western Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to Timbuktu, including parts of modern-day Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal – an empire over 2,000 miles (3218.69 km) across. In addition to incorporating many cities under his direct reign, most notably Timbuktu and Gao, Mansa Musa collected tribute from many others. While Europe was fighting to survive the demons of starvation, plague, and aristocratic warfare, African kingdoms were thriving.
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Artist Illustration of Mansa Musa. (themuslimtimes.info)
According to Malian custom, a king was to appoint a deputy whenever he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca (a requirement of any pious Muslim with the means to do so) or if he embarked on some other endeavor. Should the king not return, his appointed deputy would take the throne. As it happened, Abubakari Keita II (Musa’s predecessor) set out on a quest to find the ends of the Atlantic Ocean and was never heard from again. Before assuming the throne in 1312, Musa I sent out 2,000 ships to search for Abubakari Keita II. When none returned, everyone agreed that Musa I was the rightful emperor of Mali.
Mansa Musa’s Wealth
The wealth of Mansa Musa I was only one part of his legacy. By controlling the important trade routes between the Mediterranean and the West African coast, Mansa Musa established his city Timbuktu as the Western center for Islamic culture and learning. He paid an Andalucía architect about 440 pounds (almost 200 kg) of gold to build the Djinguereber Mosque, which still stands today. Mansa Musa also established the University of Timbuktu to attract scholars and artists from throughout the Islamic world. Within his Empire, Mansa Musa I encouraged urbanization by funding schools and mosques.
Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu. (Public Domain)
Mansa Musa I first caught the world’s attention in 1324 when he made the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. In his book, “Chronicle of the Seeker,” African Muslim scholar Mahmud Kati accounts the events that inspired Mansa Musa to go on his pilgrimage.
“The Mali-koy Kankan Musa was an upright, godly, and devout sultan… The cause of his pilgrimage was related to me as follows by the scholar Muhammad Quma, may God have mercy on him, who had memorized the traditions of the ancients. He said that the Mali-koy Kankan Musa had killed his mother, Nana Kankan, by mistake. For this he felt deep regret and remorse and feared retribution. In the expiation, he gave great sums of money in alms and resolved on a life-long fast. He asked one of the ulama of his time what he could do to expiate this terrible crime, and he replied, "You should seek refuge with the Prophet of God, may God bless and save him. Flee to him, place yourself under his protection, and ask him to intercede for you with God, and God will accept his intercession.” (Kati, 1987)
Musa depicted holding a gold coin from the 1375 Catalan Atlas. (Public Domain)
Extravagant Spending on Mansa Musa’s Famous Pilgrimage to Mecca
The 4,000-mile (6437.38 km) pilgrimage to Mecca was an extravagant display of wealth that even caught the notice of the distracted Europeans. “Not one to travel on a budget, he brought a caravan stretching as far as the eye could see,” reports Jessica Smith in a TED-Ed lesson. “Chroniclers describe an entourage of tens of thousands of soldiers, civilians and slaves, 500 heralds bearing gold staffs and dressed in fine silks, and many camels and horses bearing an abundance of gold bars.”
Mansa Musa also traveled with his wife, Inari Konte, and her 500 serving women. He built many mosques along the way, including those at Dukurey, Gundam, Direy, Wanko, and Bako. Many of his mosques still stand today. It is said that when he reached the famed city of Cairo, he spent so much money – giving gold dust to the poor, buying food for his retinue, and purchasing souvenirs to bring home – that he caused runaway inflation that took the city years to recover from. Medina and Mecca also suffered severe inflation following their contact with Mansa Musa’s spending. It took over a year for Mansa Musa I to complete his journey and return home to Mali.
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The Mali Empire at the time of Mansa Musa's death. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Putting Mansa Musa on the Map (Again)
This dramatic story of Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage has been forgotten by many scholars, though it is being brought back to light as part of the traveling exhibition “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa”. He is a major figure in the exhibition which traces his pilgrimage through luxurious artifacts related to descriptions of his time with the sultan of Cairo in Egypt.
The extravagant wealth of Mansa Musa I also placed him, literally, on the map when a depiction of him was included in the 1375 Catalan Atlas, one of the most important world maps of Medieval Europe.
Mansa Musa died sometime between 1332 and 1337. His son Mansa Maghan I, who ruled as regent while his father was away on pilgrimage, took the throne. But Maghan I only reigned for four years before his uncle, Mansa Sulayman succeeded him. The Mali Empire continued to prosper for about a century after Mansa Musa died, until the Portuguese opened up new trade routes.
Top image: Image of Mansa Musa. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Updated on January 7, 2021.
Hall, John. "Meet Mansa Musa I of Mali – the Richest Human Being in All History." The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 16 Oct. 2012. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/world-history/meet-mansa-musa-i-of-mali-the-richest-human-being-in-all-history-8213453.html
Kati, Mahmud. "The Chronicle of the Seeker." Cengage Learning. Oxford University Press, Inc., 1987. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. http://college.cengage.com/history/primary_sources/world/chronicle_of_seeker.htm
Mansa Musa, One of the Wealthiest People Who Ever Lived. Dir. Jessica Smith. Mansa Musa, One of the Wealthiest People Who Ever Lived. TED-Ed, 18 May 2015. Web. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3YJMaL55TM