Who is the richest person to have ever lived? No, it’s not Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates. It’s not Carnegie, or Rockefeller, or even Augustus Caesar (though he is second). The wealthiest person of all time was so rich he supposedly collapsed Medieval Egypt’s economy when he passed through Cairo by generously spending gold bars to the point of devaluing them, and yet, you may never have heard of him.
Step forward Mansa Musa, the 14th-century West African ruler of the Mali Empire, who ruled from 1312 to his death in 1337, and amassed a fortune so big historians describe it as incomprehensible.
Already a rich empire thanks to West Africa’s natural resources – not just its infamous gold, but copper, cowry shells (used as a currency for centuries in parts of Africa), spices, beads, salt, and other luxury goods – Musa secured his empire’s success by ensuring everybody knew about it.
Of course, it’s impossible to say whether his wealth was exaggerated by his contemporaries – there are written accounts of his time in Cairo as told by eyewitnesses, but we still have to view those accounts through a critical lens – yet modern estimates put his worth at around $400 billion. For comparison, Bezos’s fortune is listed as $131 billion by Forbes.
So who was this legendary figure?
Musa was born in 1280 into the wealthy Mali Empire. He inherited the kingdom when the emperor, or Mansa, Abu-Bakr abdicated his position in 1312 to embark on an expedition across the Atlantic, never to return.
Musa himself would go on a legendary pilgrimage, and it was this that cemented his place in history – a history not well known outside of Africa.
“The way that in the West, Africa’s history is seen, more times than not is through the lens of the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism,” Kathleen Berzock, curator of Caravans of Gold, an exhibition exploring the global impact of medieval West Africa first shown last year at Northwestern’s Block Museum and now at the National Museum of African Art, told IFLScience.
“Because of that bias, and that emphasis, there’s a perception that gets generated that Africa doesn’t have an important history that predates those global events.”
In truth, Mali was a rich and successful empire, where trade, people, and ideas traveled freely across the Sahara between West Africa, the Middle East, and even East Asia. Stretching 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) from the Atlantic coast, it included parts of what are now Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Cote d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, and Chad.
During his reign, Musa expanded the empire significantly, annexing 24 cities, including Timbuktu, already an important center of learning and trade, where he built his grand palace, mosque, and university – the latter two of which are still standing today.
Musa was an ambitious ruler, but it was the natural resources found across his lands that offered him unimaginable wealth. Most famously, gold, the purest, most valuable in the world at the time.
“Mansu Musa was the ruler of a state that included in his territories several of these major gold sources,” Berzock said.
“In the Arabic language description of the Mali empire that was written at that time, they suggest that for every gold nugget that was found or mined, you had to give a gold nugget to the king. I don’t know if you want to call it 'taxes', the tribute you had to pay probably varied at the time. Undoubtedly, he was given tribute in the form of gold.”
His determination to increase the wealth, trade, and economic clout of his lands, as well as his devotion to Islam, led him to go on his famously epic pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. It was this trip – a calculated PR stunt, his dedication to Islam, or both – that saw him fatefully pass through Cairo, whose economy reportedly took years to recover, and eventually led him to be portrayed in the most famous medieval map in the world, the Catalan Atlas, dripping in gold and bringing him to international attention.
Trip of a lifetime
Most of what we know about this lavish pilgrimage is from the writings of Ibn Faḍl Allah al-Umarī (1301-49), an Arab scholar and historian in Egypt 10 years after Musa's visit, who described, based on first-hand accounts, Musa’s stay in Cairo en route to Mecca.
“They [the witnesses] talk about the gifts he’s given but also the gold he has brought with him and his generosity,” Berzock told IFLScience. “Whether or not it actually undercut the value of gold at that time, I don’t know – I don’t think anybody really knows for sure if that’s true – but it’s certainly part of [Musa’s] mystique.”
Musa reportedly took his entire royal court on this expedition, including servants, officials, merchants, camel drivers, and 12,000 slaves, resulting in 60,000 people, as well as a train of livestock, goods, and, of course, gold.
“He was very, very wealthy and was traveling in the style you would expect this hugely wealthy and powerful leader to travel,” Berzock explained. “That entourage reflects his power and wealth.”
According to Al-Umari’s writings, Musa liberally spent his gold along the route to Egypt, and when he ran out, he borrowed it, pledging credit with the Cairo merchants at an extraordinarily profitable rate and paying them back amply, ensuring his access to gold was widely reported. Al-Umari also wrote of Musa's gifting so much gold its value plummeted, the effect on Cairo's economy still felt a decade later. However, since Musa's devotion to Islam was the reason he was traveling to Mecca, Al-Umari also documents the ruler’s charity, kindness, and devoutness, and that he and his entourage were well-mannered, grave, and dignified.
He was undeniably clever in the way he conducted himself during this trip. Berzock points out Musa’s use of “really underscoring this place (Mali) as a source of gold, so that’s going to inspire you to want to seek out gold from that source.” But, Berzock said, we shouldn’t assume he was just “performing” devoutness. “I think we should take that at face value and imagine he really was a devout Muslim. But also a very strategic ruler of his state,” she adds.
Mansa Musa was not the first or only wealthy successful West African ruler. He is probably the most well known, though, thanks to his depiction in the Catalan Atlas, commissioned by the ruler of Mallorca in 1375 as a diplomatic gift for his cousin, the King of France. Now housed in the National Library of France in Paris, it's a map of the known world in medieval times from a Mediterranean perspective, including major ports of trade and trade partners, kings and rulers, what resources come from where, and who to trade with and how.
"There’s a portrait of a king in west Africa and he’s enthroned and has a gold orb in his hand. The caption says the king is Mansa Musa and he’s the 'Lord of Guinea' and he is hugely wealthy because of the gold in his lands," describes Berzock, a replica of the map featuring in the exhibition. "He gets written into and represented within this important document that’s a part of European history, so that might be one reason why he’s so well known."
Mansa Musa and his outrageous wealth may have put West Africa and its riches on the map, but it wasn't just commodities circulating at that time. "People were traveling: kings and diplomats, and enslaved people. Ideas were circulating, technologies, it was a much broader exchange," Berzock told IFLScience. "West Africans were participating in the intellectual dialog that was traveling along these routes." Mansa Musa's fame offers a glimpse into this cultural exchange that shows not all riches are material.
From now until December 31, 2021, you can catch the Caravans of Gold exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.