Throughout the past couple of years, we have witnessed quite an intriguing battle for the title of “richest man in the world,” with the two top contenders Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos trading places a number of times. With both these men currently having a net worth of nearly £150 billion, it’s hard to believe that anyone in history could have been wealthier than they are now. However, surprisingly, there were a number of figures in history who far exceeded them.
Even in the modern era, the likes of Musk and Bezos have been surpassed by John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937), the first person to acquire a personal fortune of $1 billion. Adjusting for inflation, however, his wealth would amount to around £250 billion today.
When thinking about ancient history, perhaps the man most famous for having vast riches is the King of Israel from around 1000 B.C., King Solomon, who, according to the Bible, surpassed all his peers in wealth. The New York Times best-selling author Steven Scott even published a book as recently as 2006 entitled The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: King Solomon’s Secrets to Success, Wealth, and Happiness. However, the richest man from ancient history is actually believed to be Julius Caesar, who is estimated to have had a net worth equivalent to £ 3.5 trillion today.
Prior to the modern era, we didn’t have the comprehensive and detailed data we have today of course, so any analysis of the wealth and riches of premodern individuals such as Caesar can never amount to anything more than rough estimates. Nonetheless, historians from all over the globe agree that when it comes to personal wealth, there is one man who far surpassed all others — even Julius Caesar. Ironically this is quite possibly someone you have never even heard of. The richest man in history is believed to be a man by the name of Musa, a fourteenth-century African king, who like his predecessors, received the Malian royal title of Mansa. Mansa Musa ruled the Mali Empire from 1312–1337. Rudolph Butch Ware, associate professor of history at the University of California describes the immense wealth he acquired as follows: “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.” Some have estimated his net worth to have been the equivalent of £ 300 billion, but others contend that even this is an underestimate and that his wealth was too vast to actually be pinned down to a number.
Mansa Musa was a member of the Keita dynasty who ruled Mali from the 11th until the 17th centuries. The dynasty was committed to the Islamic faith and had an ancestor who was a personal companion to Prophet Mohammed. It was during Mansa’s reign that the empire achieved its golden age, however, also ruling over large parts of the former Ghana-empire which it had conquered. The total area over which Mansa Musa ruled consisted of an area more than five times the size of the United Kingdom. His wealth can be attributed to the fact under his rule, the Mali Empire produced a staggering amount of gold and salt. Elephant ivory trade was another major source of wealth.
Musa also achieved renown for his 6,500-kilometre hajj to Mecca in 1324 with a caravan of 60,000 people, literally tonnes of gold along with thousands of camels, elephants and mules as well as a long train of sheep and goats for food. His caravan was so enormous that it took an entire day to pass and so massive that it was literally included in a map — the 1375 Catalan Atlas created by Spanish cartographers. Along the way — especially in Egypt — he gave away so much gold as gifts that the price of gold dropped markedly for more than a decade, which led to the destabilization of entire economies. During his hajj, the nations across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East took notice of his phenomenal wealth and he put his kingdom, relatively unknown until then, on the map, so to speak. Following the publication of the Catalan Atlas, Mansa Musa became a renowned global image of stupendous wealth.
Upon returning from his Hajj, he annexed the important trading hubs of Gao and Timbuktu, which he travelled through, to his empire. He developed these cities into important cultural centres. He even brought architects back from the Middle East back to design the new buildings in these and other cities in his empire. In Timbuktu he famously built a royal palace for himself as well as a mosque, the latter which remains standing to this day. The centres of learning he established in Timbuktu has collectively become known as the University of Timbuktu, which developed into the most important educational institution in Africa and attracted scholars from all over the Islamic world. And so Mansa Musa utilized his immense wealth to turn Mali into a sophisticated centre of learning.
Although Mansa had inherited a kingdom that had already been wealthy, his work in expanding trade and mining made Mali the richest Kingdom in Africa. But his legacy is not only limited to his wealth, but he is also remembered for his devout Islamic faith and promotion of Islamic scholarship as well as higher culture in Mali.
After his death, however, his sons were unable to hold the Empire together as the smaller states broke off and the empire crumbled. And all that wealth? It is said that he squandered and gave so much of it away during his hajj that his generosity actually drastically impoverished his empire. Internal conflicts and wars of succession also weakened Mali’s ability to maintain its wealth, and so most of what was left was looted in the chaos following Musa’s death.