When we think of the richest people in the world, names like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates or Carlos Slim Helú come to mind. Of course, this data is based on the most recent net worth figures and may fluctuate at any time.
Looking further back, some more famous names, such as American business magnates John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Henry Ford, and the Russian imperial Romanov family, also had devastating fortunes.
But what if we actually went back in time and told you that the richest person of all time (taking inflation into account) beat not only today’s tech billionaires and industrial-age shipping magnates, but also to the greatest rulers in the world?, such as: Augustus Caesar ($6 billion), William the Conqueror ($5 billion) and Akbar I (untold), according to The Times of India
According to historians, the richest person to ever walk the earth was a man named Mansa Musa, a 14th-century West African ruler whose wealth was simply “indescribable” and “incomprehensible,” according to the BBC.
So who was Mansa Musa and why may you not have heard of him?
In Mandinga, “Mansa” means sultan or emperor. Musa Keita was recorded to have been born around 1280 CE during the Keita dynasty, according to the BBC.
Mansa was born into a ruling family and came to power in 1312 AD. when his brother Mansa Abu-Bakr abdicated the throne to undertake an extravagant expedition at sea. According to the historian Shibab al-Umari, Abu-Bakr had always been fascinated by the Atlantic Ocean, apparently setting out with a fleet of some 2,000 ships carrying thousands of men, women, and slaves, but never returning.
Mansa Musa became the ninth sultan of the West African kingdom, which was already considered very wealthy at the time of his accession.
His empire was rich in salt, gold and land
Historians estimate that the Mali Empire was at the time the world’s largest producer of gold, holding more than half of the world’s total supply, according to the British Museum.
With Musa on the throne, the kingdom continued to expand phenomenally, thanks to his work in expanding trade in the region. His wealth continued to soar from the mining of significant salt and gold deposits, as well as the trade in elephant ivory, according to National Geographic reports.
However, it was not just salt and gold that contributed to Musa’s riches. Under his rule, the kingdom grew enormously, stretching more than 3,000 km (1,864 mi) from the Atlantic Ocean to present-day Niger, annexing more than 24 cities, including Timbuktu. It was reported that he had never lost a battle and in many cases the territories voluntarily joined the Mali Empire due to the better quality of life.
As a devout Muslim, Musa undertook his journey to Mecca between 1324 and 1325, which is now known as the “most extravagant pilgrimage in the history of mankind”, according to reports from Magnates Magazine
Musa had a vision to make his name known to the world, and this 6,500 km pilgrimage through the desert was the perfect opportunity to do so. The BBC reported that the king left Mali with some 60,000 men and women, from royal officials to camel drivers and slaves.
Much of these travelers were reported to be dressed from head to foot in Persian silk and gold brocade, including the slaves. The camels, about 100 of them, meanwhile, were carrying bags of pure gold.
How else could Mansa Musa waste his gold?
The journey took Musa and his companions through the Sahara desert and Egypt, until they reached Cairo, where the emperor lavishly squandered his money in cash, or gold, in this case, in the capital. He spent so much gold that it destabilized the local economy and caused massive inflation for 10 years after he left.
The legacy of Mansa Musa
Upon his return, Musa made it her mission to revitalize the cities of his kingdom. Thanks to his architectural developments in the region, his reputation continued to flourish. He worked with Islamic scholars, including direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and an Andalusian poet and architect named Abu Es Haq es Saheli, paying them up to 200kg in gold for his efforts.
Mansa Musa is considered the richest man who ever lived, according to historians
He also built schools, libraries and mosques and helped make Timbuktu an epicenter of culture and education, according to the BBC.
Musa died in 1337 at the age of 57 and was succeeded by his sons, but eventually the empire fell apart.
So how rich was Mansa Musa, really?
Some estimates place Mansa’s current fortune at between $400 billion and $500 billion, though it can be difficult to calculate a fortune based on gold, salt, and land. Many historians, however, agree that his wealth was “richer than anyone could describe”.
However, Mansa Musa will be remembered not only for his mountains of gold, but also for his generosity and commitment to his Islamic faith, the promotion of education and the financing of the greatest cultural developments of his empire.