With an estimated of $400 billion USD, Mansa Musa I of Mali is considered to be the wealthiest man in the history of humanity.
The other day, I was watching a documentary about those iconic men who made fortunes in America by bringing industrialization to the country. Of course, the documentary included Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller, all of whom had a great idea that turned them into the wealthiest men in the world. Today’s billionaires don’t even come close to those legendary tycoons. For instance, Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, has been crowned this year as the wealthiest man on Earth with about $118 billion USD, beating Bill Gates’s $90 billion, but it was John D. Rockefeller who amassed a fortune of an estimated $300 billion in today’s currency. However, not even Rockefeller could top the man whose legacy is even richer than his wealth, and who has been forgotten by history, or at least in the Western world.
In the 14th century, with an estimated $400 billion USD, Musa Keita I, became known around the world when he decided to embark on a pilgrimage to Mecca, as was the custom by Mali’s Mansa (emperor) at the time. Perhaps this reference will sound a bit childish, but do you remember the animated Aladdin movie, and the scene where he enters Agrabah disguised as a prince? Well, Mansa Musa’s caravan was even more over the top than that. With more than 60,000 animals, an entourage of thousands of soldiers, slaves, servants, and heralds carrying a serious amount of gold that they would give to the poor, Mansa made a huge entrance in each of the cities he passed through, even putting the economy of these states at stake with a huge inflation. This was probably the first time he made history, becoming a famous figure, but what was his story, and how was he able to become the richest man who ever lived?
Born in the 1280s, Musa’s rise to power actually started when Mansa Abubakari Keita II, his predecessor, embarked on his customary pilgrimage to Mecca, which was considered mandatory for the Malian king in order to preserve and reinforce their faith. The law dictated that they had to appoint a deputy to take care of the empire while the Mansa was absent, and as you can guess, Musa was the one selected by the king to do so. However, time went by without any news of the king’s whereabouts. A concerned Musa sent about 2,000 of his men to find him before taking the throne in 1312. It’s said that after the customary visit to Mecca, Abubakari had decided to explore the limits of the Atlantic ocean and got lost along the way. In the end, Musa was the new king, and he was determined to make his country thrive as his great uncle had done so when he founded the Malian Empire.
One of his main ambitions was to make his empire the biggest and wealthiest of all in the African continent. We’re talking about a time when Europe, for instance, was knee deep in the worst of miseries with the plague lurking and bringing devastation to almost every European city. Yet, it was also a time when almost every African kingdom was flourishing culturally and economically. Still, for Musa, this wasn’t enough. It’s said that as a pious and devout Muslim, instead of keeping that immense fortune all to himself, what he really wanted was to have as much money as possible to spread his faith all over the continent. During his reign, he managed to conquer twenty-four important cities near Mali, including Timbuktu, which he transformed into one of the most important Muslim religious centers with a huge mosque and universities.
But how did he manage to get all that wealth to conquer and build mosques at such an impressively rapid pace? I mean, it became a legend that he built a mosque every Friday during his reign for over twenty years. His main focus was the trade and exportation of Mali’s natural resources. The kingdom was really rich in precious stones, mainly gold, and salt, which was exported throughout the continent. However, as usually happens in stories of wealthy men, what makes these men stand out and gives them an edge is their ability to see beyond, and Musa wasn’t the exception. Apart from trading goods, he strategically conquered cities with important ports to control the main trading routes between the Mediterranean and Africa.
As was mentioned before, no one outside of Africa really knew about this burgeoning kingdom until his majestic and over-the-top caravan to Mecca literally put him on the map (there’s a very interesting image of him holding a golden scepter and a round piece of gold representing all his wealth). The pilgrimage took him over a year, during which he ordered the construction of mosques and universities along the way, making him one of the most influential rulers in history in terms of architectural and cultural legacy. One of the most interesting things about him was how detached he was from his money, giving the equivalent of billions to the poor people he encountered, to the point that there was so much of his gold circulating in the area that its value decreased substantially. However, at the same time, he started lending money to important merchants in Cairo and other important cities, so he soon controlled the price of gold in the Mediterranean and the west coast of Africa.
It’s believed that he died during the first half of the 1330s after a 25-year reign, during which Mali became one of (if not the most) important kingdom at the time. He based his government on religion and education, believing that he needed to prepare his people to make the country thrive and make its splendor last for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, as was the case with practically all African countries, eventually, European colonizers took everything. In the case of Mali, it was actually Musa’s fame and Mali’s world-renowned riches what lead the Portuguese to do naval raids in the kingdom in the 15th century, although it wasn’t until the nineteenth century when the French actually colonized the country. Sadly, Mali never saw again the greatness it experienced with Musa on the throne.