Picture all the gold you could possibly imagine. Now double it. That’s how much wealth the richest man who ever lived controlled.
Yet, most people will go their entire lives without ever learning his name. When asked who the richest man who ever lived is, given the rise of wealth inequality and the creation of money out of thin air in the form of cryptocurrency, it might be tempting to mention some modern billionaires. People like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or maybe the anonymous Satoshi Nakamoto.
But all of these answers would be wrong. To find out who the richest person who ever lived was, you’d have to go back to West Africa in the 1300s during the Mali empire.
If you’re not familiar with the greatness of the Mali empire during that time period, don’t feel bad, it’s not your fault. Western history tends to ignore the achievements of African nations before colonialism. History books often focus on the progress made by great thinkers in the West, even when there is plenty of evidence to suggest that a lot of those discoveries had already been found somewhere else in the world. This is especially true in terms of mathematics and astronomy, but that's a subject better suited for its own video.
The Mali Empire was an exceedingly wealthy one. With three large gold mines that accounted for half of the world’s gold reserves at the time, the region was thriving. Add to this the fact that they were also blessed with salt and copper, and you start to see just how wealthy this African nation was. In 1312 CE, Muhammad Ibn Qu, the reigning emperor of Mali, set sail across the Atlantic to look for new land. Sadly, he was never heard from again. In his absence, Mansa Musa took over as emperor and would go on to make Mali one of the wealthiest empires in the history of humanity, and make himself the wealthiest man who ever lived.
When he took over as emperor, Musa quickly discovered that simply processing half the world’s gold isn’t enough to put you on the map. So, he looked to expand the trading network of his empire in a bid to bring more business to the nation. At the time, Mali wasn’t well known to Europe or the Middle East, where most of the large trading cities and city-states were.
Mansa Musa was a devout Muslim who knew how to speak and write Arabic. This allowed him to expand his trading network to the Middle East. You see, at least once in their lives, every Muslim is supposed to take a Hajj, or pilgrimage, to the sacred sites in Mecca, a city in today’s Saudi Arabia. Mecca is the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, and this Hajj is believed to be the most intense of spiritual experiences for Muslims. In 1324 C.E. Mansa Musa set forth on a 4000-mile Hajj to Mecca, a journey that would literally put him and Mali on the Catalan Atlas, a medieval world map. On his Hajj, Mansa Musa traveled with his entire royal court. His officials, soldiers, griots, merchant camel drivers and 12,000 enslaved people - all of whom were dressed in gold brocade and the finest Persian silks.
Everyone on the pilgrimage carried large amounts of gold through the Saharan desert, with their camels taking the majority of the burden. Along the way, Mansa Musa and his entourage stopped at different cities, including Cairo in Egypt. They gave away gold to the poor, funded the construction of mosques, and contributed to a variety of public projects like public housing. By doing these things, he hoped to make the Hajj easier and less hectic for other Muslims, a show of empathy that was rare for the leaders of his day. Mansa Musa gave away so much gold that he decreased its value, creating an economic crisis in the Middle East. In total, his generosity caused roughly $1.5 billion in economic losses. Once he realized what he had done, he tried to buy back as much gold as he could to fix the crisis, as he hadn’t intended to cause financial distress to the cities he had visited.
His generosity was spoken highly of wherever he went. He gave so much away to strangers that his griots, who were singing historical storytellers, did not like to praise him with their songs. They believed that he was wasting resources outside of the kingdom. But in reality, the emperor had so much wealth that he could give the entire world and still have more than enough to advance his empire, and so did he. Upon his return from Mecca, he annexed the region of Gao, the key trading city of Timbuktu, and many other cities. In total, he annexed 24 cities. He then transformed Timbuktu into an enormous commercial hub. It had so much gold that it was considered a real-life El-dorado - the lost city of gold.
Emperor Musa continued to grow his wealth by expanding his business outside his empire. He helped establish the trans-Saharan trade route, which connected the Mali empire to the Mediterranean and most of the world. He contracted great architects to build enormous mosques and universities that still stand today. He had the Sankore Madrasa mosque converted into a university that hosted 25,000 students, one-fifth of the population of Timbuktu at the time. At its peak, Sankore University hosted the largest collection of books and scrolls in the world, roughly one million in total.
Thanks to the University, the average citizen of Timbuktu learned how to read and write in Arabic, which was an astonishing literacy rate at the time.Mansa Musa invited scholars from all over the world to teach at the university on subjects like astronomy, mathematics, Quranic studies and legal affairs. Over time, the university produced its own leading scholars who astounded even the most knowledgeable men of Islam. Many would go on to become professors at universities in Morocco and Egypt. It was a citadel of knowledge. Although the school hasn’t been an active university for hundreds of years, the structures stand as a testament to the rich intellectualism of Western Africa before the age of colonialism.
Mansa Musa’s projects had a tremendous impact on the socio-economic well-being of the people of the Mali empire. They helped shape and transform the values and quality of life of the Mali people in a way that astonished visitors.
During his visit in 1354 C.E. the great world traveler, Ibn Batuta, observed that the people of Mali were very timely in all their endeavors including their daily prayers and business dealings. They also competed with each other to give generously to charity. Poetry and culture flourished and the people followed strong rules of cleanliness. The women of Mali enjoyed freedoms not seen in most other places in the medieval world.
So, Mansa Musa was able to provide a decent life for his subjects, but how much wealth did he actually control? All historical accounts resist putting a figure on it. They want you to imagine the most amount of gold you can possibly think of and double it. One of the only estimates of Mansa Musa’s wealth is from the website Celebrity Net Worth, which wasn’t even around in the 1300s. They estimate his wealth was around 400 billion in today’s dollars. That would make him richer than any existing billionaire, but we can assume his net worth would have been far greater than that.
It’s also possible that Mansa Musa wasn’t really the wealthiest man who ever lived. His successors technically had the same resources he did, and the gold mine and empire existed before he became the ruler of Mali. But what separates his wealth from the rest is how he used it. He gave so much of it away, and what he kept, he invested in his homeland and his people.Mansa Musa’s notoriety came from spending and giving away his wealth, not hoarding it. Because at the end of the day, what good is a person’s wealth if it doesn’t touch people’s lives?
Many of us admire the billionaires of today, but for the most part, their wealth just sits idle or is used for vanity projects like buying a social media platform or the world’s largest yacht. Yes, it’s their money, and only they get to decide how they use it. The reality is if we didn’t have media sources constantly reporting on their personal wealth, it would largely be meaningless to us. Yes, some billionaires do have large philanthropic ambitions, like Bill Gates’ efforts to eradicate smallpox and his fight against malaria. Then there’s Jeff Bezos’s plan to give away the majority of his wealth before he dies. But on the whole, most billionaires are not exactly handing out gold bars to the poor, are they? Or in modern terms: sending Bitcoin to their crypto wallets.
Though it’s fun to imagine Elon Musk driving around in his Tesla, transferring Bitcoin or Dogecoin to people on the street. The reality is that Mansa Musa isn’t some progressive hero by today’s standards. He ran a slave-owner state, albeit with a notable emphasis on standardizing the quality of life for the enslaved people. He was also an accomplished military leader. In his lifetime, he managed to annex 24 cities, growing his empire even more. And that’s another quality that isn’t exactly beloved by modern people. Details of how he annexed these cities are also not well recorded.
All I’m trying to say is that he was no saint. He was still an emperor in the 14th century. But it is possible to admire the way he used his good fortune. He spent his wealth changing people’s lives. He embraced the values of Islam in a way that lifted the average Mali person.
Religious fundamentalist leaders today typically use their religion to control and harm the welfare of their people. Mansa Musa is a great example if you’re ever searching for one, of a religious leader who used his values earnestly to help his people instead of harming them.
After he died, his sons took over the empire, letting it dissolve over time. It was strange, they had similar resources but seemed to lack something their father had. Musa had a good strategy and a desire to better his empire for his people. That, combined with his wealth, is what put him on the World Map. Otherwise, I doubt we’d remember him as the wealthiest person who ever lived. He’d just be another forgotten king bound for the faded records of history.
What would you do if you were the richest person on Earth?