The Richest Man of All Time: Emperor Mansa Musa Of Mali

wealthiest man of all time
Portrait of Mansa Musa - © Guru James/flickr

Who was and still the richest man of all time? It wasn’t John D. Rockefeller. It wasn’t Baron Rothschild. It wasn’t William the Conqueror and it’s certainly not Bill Gates. It was Mansa Musa I of Mali. Musa Keita I was the tenth King of the great Mali Empire of West Africa. During his reign, Mali was the world’s largest producer of gold at a period of ever increasing demand.

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Musa Keita didn’t inherit his throne from his father, rather, after the then King, Mansa Abubakari Keita II embarked on an expedition to explore the limits of the Atlantic Ocean failed to return, he was crowned King. As was the practice when a King goes on a pilgrimage or exploration, his deputy would be appointed heir to the throne. According to the Arab-Egyptian scholar Al-Umari, when it became obvious the King wasn’t going to return Mansa Musa said:

“The ruler who came before me did not believe that it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean that encircles the earth (the Atlantic Ocean). He wanted to reach that (end) and was determined to pursue his plan. So he prepared two hundred boats full of men, and a lot of others full of gold, water and provisions sufficient for several years. He ordered the captain not to return until they had reached the other end of the ocean, or until he had finished their provisions and water. So they set sail on their journey. They were absent for a long period, and, at last just one boat returned. When questioned, the captain replied: ‘O Prince, we sailed for a long period, until we saw in the midst of the ocean a great river which was flowing massively. My boat was the last one; others were ahead of me, and they were drowned in the great vortex and never came out again. I sailed back to escape this current.’ But the Sultan would not believe him. He ordered two thousand boats to be prepared for him and his men, and one thousand more for water and provisions. Then he conferred the regency on me for the term of his absence, and departed with his men, never to return nor to show he was alive.”

Mansa Musa was a devout Muslim and when he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca his fame increased across Northern Africa and the Middle East. To him Islam was the gateway into the modern world of the Eastern Mediterranean. For his pilgrimage Mansa Musa had a procession which included over 60,000 men, 12000 of which were slaves who carried gold and heralds who dressed in silk bearing gold staffs, organized the horses and handled bags. He fed and catered for all members of this procession. Musa gave the gold he carried to the poor he met on his journey. He also traded some gold for souvenirs. His generosity eventually affected the economies of the regions he passed through for almost a decade. To rectify this, on his way back he borrowed all the gold he could carry at high interest rates. He virtually controlled the price of gold in this part of the world.

richest man in history
Djinguereber mosque, Timbuktu. Its design is accredited to Abu Es Haq es Saheli who was paid 200 kg of gold by Mansa Musa – © Frank Janssens/flickr

Mansa Musa embarked on large building projects during his reign and the University of Sankore was built during his reign. It was said that he built a mosque every Friday. Timbuktu the capital soon became a powerful trade Centre and merchants from other African kingdoms flocked in

The date of his death is highly debated among scholars but according to most of the accurate figures, he died in 1337. Remember this, the richest man that has ever lived was from Africa.

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