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A gold glitter map of Mali and an illustration of Mansa Musa sitting on a throne and holding a gold coin.

Mansa Musa: The African king who was the richest man in history

Image Credit: (Left) | Above: (Left) A gold glitter map of Mali (Right) Mansa Musa sitting on a throne and holding a gold coin.

For most of us, the thought of becoming a millionaire is the stuff of dreams. We’ve all sat down with friends and family and debated what we’d do if our bank accounts suddenly swelled after an imaginary lottery win.

Yet, such numbers are arbitrary to those who sit on top of the 'Forbes Rich List'. These people deal in the 11 and 12-figure range, numbers that are defined by us mere mortals as ‘silly money’.

As of September 2022, the richest person in the world, according to Forbes, is Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk with a fortune of $241 billion. Lying in his wake is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos with $151 billion, Indian industrialist Gautam Adani with $141 billion, French business magnate Bernard Arnault with $132 billion, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates with a relatively paltry $114 billion.

These people are very, very rich, but they are far from the wealthiest to have lived on this planet. In fact, they wouldn’t even make the top 10. So, who does sit upon the golden throne adorned with riches unparalleled in human history?

That crown goes to Mansa Musa, the 14th-century king of the Mali Empire.

His wealth was so vast that historians and economists struggle to put an official number on it. Speaking to the BBC, Rudolph Butch Ware, a historian of West Africa at the University of California said, ‘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.’ Mansa Musa’s wealth was beyond words, an indescribable tally that towers above all others.

Whilst economic historians are unwilling to put a figure on Mansa Musa’s net worth, the internet is less fussy and spews out a multitude of numbers that may or may not be in the ballpark. The most popular number floating around tends to have his wealth at around $400 billion in today’s dollars. However, it is just pure speculation. This figure could quite frankly be insulting to the true monetary value of his bank account.

Much of what we know about Mansa Musa (‘Mansa’ translates as king) comes from the writings of ancient Arab historians and scholars. Born in 1280, Mansa Musa came to power in 1312. Much like a modern-day United States Vice President, he had been appointed deputy by his successor, Abu-Bakr II. This meant that when Abu-Bakr took 2,000 ships on an expedition to find the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, Mansa Musa ruled in his absence.

This temporary position became permanent after Abu-Bakr failed to return. Neither he nor his expansive fleet of ships were ever seen again.

When Mansa Musa came to power, the Mali Empire was already of an impressive size. However, during his reign the kingdom grew far and wide with the new king annexing around 24 cities, stretching the border of the empire from the Atlantic Ocean on the east to what is now Niger in the west.

The growth of the empire was fuelled by the abundant supply of natural resources within that part of West Africa, including gold and salt. According to the British Museum, during Mansa Musa’s reign, the Mali Empire accounted for nearly half of the Old World’s gold, an astonishing amount to be controlled by just one kingdom. With major trading centres within his boundaries, the king made the most of what his lands offered and accumulated a wealth unseen before or since in history.

In this day and age, fame and fortune are seemingly intertwined. During the Medieval period, this wasn't always the case and very few knew of the Empire of Mali or the wealthy king who sat atop its throne. This all changed in 1324, when Mansa Musa, a devout Muslim, decided to undertake a Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca.

Although the 4,000-mile journey required some men and resources to accomplish, what Mansa Musa had in mind can only be described as a spectacle. Around 60,000 men, including the entire royal court, soldiers, and 12,000 slaves accompanied the king along with a huge caravan of resources such as goats and sheep. Described as a city moving through the desert, each person was adorned with gold finery and even the slaves wore Persian silk. The camels were laden with gold, opulence oozed from the front to the very back of this desert train.

Luckily for those who encountered the caravan, Mansa Musa was a benevolent ruler and wilfully handed out gold, especially to the impoverished. His fame spread far and wide as he left a mark on everywhere he visited. However, his impact on Egypt would last for over a decade. He so generously handed out gold that the precious metal devaluated in Egypt so much that the country’s economy took 12 years to bounce back.

He attempted to help the situation on his return from Mecca by borrowing gold at high-interest rates from Egyptian money-lenders. It is the only time in history that the entire gold industry and pricing were controlled by one man.

Although a great deal of the journey included giving, some of it included taking. Mansa Musa added several lands to his bulging empire, including the territory of Gao and the city of Timbuktu.

Timbuktu became an important place culturally and economically for Mansa Musa as he built schools, libraries, and mosques, including the still-standing Djinguereber Mosque. It also became a place of Islamic education with the construction of what would become Sankore University. The university was said to boast around one million manuscripts, one of the largest libraries in the world at that time.

The pilgrimage put him on the map. Word of his extravagant caravan and generous spending spree made its way to Medieval Europe, where Spanish cartographer Abraham Cresques drew Mansa Musa in his 1375 Catalan Atlas. The map depicted Mansa Musa sitting upon a throne in Timbuktu whilst holding a nugget of gold. This, in part, created an enduring mythical legend in the minds of Europeans about Timbuktu as a distant lost city of gold.

After his return home, the history books are less definitive on what happened next. Some say he died in 1332, whilst others say 1337. Either way, his sons inherited the throne but couldn’t keep the empire together. Whilst the sun had set on the Empire of Mali, the legend of Mansa Musa and his enormous wealth was only just beginning.

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