Mansa Musa I of Mali was the richest man of all time
Most of us have pretty good creative skills when it comes to envisioning vast wealth, but Mansa Musa truly had “riches beyond your wildest imagination.” The 14th-century African king’s accounting department would scoff at the treasure rooms of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. This Medieval king of the former Mali Empire had incomparable wealth, a total of $400 billion circa 1324. He was quite simply the richest man in the world. Ever.
Did he let wealth go to his head? Did he ever just long to nosh on some rice and sweet potato and forgo the grilled goat or camel worthy of his rank, or eat from earthenware instead of a gold vessel? We’ll never know those things for sure, but Musa used his vast wealth to do a lot of good and left a lasting legacy that extends to this day. The man, the legend: Here’s some of what we’ve learned about the richest man of all time in the seven centuries since his death:
The Mali crown comes to Musa
Also known as Musa Keita, Manku Musa, or Kankan Musa, this regal African was no rags to riches story. His great-uncle Sundiata Keita founded the Malian Empire and Musa was standing in for his predecessor, Abu-Bakr II when the man went on a pilgrimage and never returned home. (Musa waited for a year with no word.) Once he was crowned “Mansa,” Musa never looked back. A devout Muslim, he tried to inspire the Mali nobility to take Islam as their faith but abided by an imperial tradition of not inflicting a state religion on the people of his empire. He’s also known for establishing a national ceremony to celebrate the end of Ramadan.
Always ambitious and with an incredible (seriously, it was unbelievable) ability to amass wealth, Musa put himself and the Mali empire on the map. Part of the accomplishment was timing, another location, but a lot of the credit goes to Musa himself and the way he controlled both gold and salt production. In this period of Medieval history, silver and gold production was screeching to a halt across Europe. Mali was ideal to make up the shortfall, with its own resources and also as a gateway to other African kingdoms. Before his reign ended, Mansa Musa had extended his borders from the Atlantic to Timbuktu. The distance was almost 2,000 miles, but Musa did even more by setting out on a pilgrimage of faith.
Musa makes his way to Mecca
Musa was West Africa’s first ruler to make a journey to Mecca. This spiritual journey was years in the making and involved the resources and talents of many from his empire. It’s hard to sort legend from history about this epic trip, but Musa definitely brought a huge group of servants and supporters on the journey. He had his own personal guard of about 500, for example.
Along the 4,000-mile route, Musa played up the pageantry and also was generous in the way only a man of unequaled riches can pull off. (Think Oprah and the studio audience car giveaway multiplied by a million). The entourage passed out gold like valet tips and purchased so many cultural and sustenance items that they literally depreciated the value of gold in Egypt for 12 years after Musa and Co. passed through. This drew the kind of attention that put Mali on the maps made by Italian cartographers.
But bear in mind that this journey was also spiritual. Musa generously donated to vulnerable populations along his journey as well as rulers of the lands his group traversed. He brought back all sorts of souvenirs and some people, including scholars, city planners, and architects and they built universities and hundreds of new mosques.
The lasting legacy of the 400 Billion Dollar Man
Musa died in 1337 and his son Maghan I became emperor. As so often happens, Maghan I was nothing like his ambitious dad, but even his lackluster efforts at ruling weren’t enough to trash the legacy established by Musa. Musa’s brother took the throne in 1341 and Mali rocked on.