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Mansa Musa: The Richest Man In History

by Krishnendu K

Mansa Musa: The Richest Man In History

May 18, 2021

Who would be the first person to come to your mind when we say 'richest person in the world?' We bet it would be Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, or Mukesh Ambani, closer to home. But the wealthiest person to have ever lived in history was an African emperor by the name of Mansa Musa.

Africa always ends up packing a surprise when we look into the continent, whether it’s about a new ocean forming from a crack or being home to the world’s richest man ever- this is the story of Mansa Musa. 

Who Was Mansa Musa?

To know who Mansa Musa was, we need to go back to the Mali Empire, a West African state; Mansa Musa was the emperor of Mali. He reigned from 1312-1337, a period when most European nations were struggling for power and survival simultaneously due to a lack of resources and impending civil wars. But the Mali empire flourished, thanks to its ‘golden’ pool of natural resources.

Musa’s position on the throne pushed the kingdom’s growth further. It covered the area sandwiched between the Atlantic coast and the inland trading hub of Timbuktu and parts of the Sahara desert, a massive chunk of West Africa.

Mansa Musa on his way to Mecca Credit Print Collector Getty images
Mansa Musa on his way to Mecca (Credit: Print Collector Getty Images)

Pilgrimage to Mecca

The Mali Emperor’s name spread beyond Africa when he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Innumerable soldiers, heralds, slaves escorted his 4000-mile journey, all draped in Persian silk and flashing golden staffs, along with thousands of horses and camels.

Mansa Musa left such a lasting footprint on Cairo that al-Umari, who toured the city 12 years after the Malian king, described how highly Cairo’s people talked of him.

So extravagantly did he hand out gold in Cairo that his three-month stay caused the price of gold to plunge in the region for ten years, disrupting the area’s economics. US-based technology company SmartAsset.com predicts that due to the depreciation of gold, Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage led to about $1.5 billion of economic losses across the Middle East and North Africa.

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economic losses incurred due to his pilgrimage

On his way back home, Mansa Musa crossed through Egypt again. According to some, he tried to help the country’s economy by removing some of the gold from circulation by obtaining it back at extortionate interest rates from Egyptian lenders. Others say he paid so much that he ran out of gold.

Lucy Duran of the School of African and Oriental Studies in London notes that Malian griots, who are the singing historian storytellers, in particular, were upset with him.

"He gave out so much Malian gold along the way that jelis [griots] don't like to praise him in their songs because they think he wasted local resources outside the empire,"

- Lucy Duran, School of African and Oriental Studies

Contribution to Education

He added Gao’s territory to his kingdom during his journey, which then spanned through current day Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Mauritania, in addition to Mali. He built mosques across the empire and pushed its development by adding schools, universities, and libraries. In addition to extensively encouraging the arts and architecture, he also funded various literature projects and built schools, libraries, and mosques over his kingdom.

Later, Timbuktu became a center of education, and people from around the wide world came to study at what would eventually become the Sankore University under his rule. The rich king is often credited with starting the tradition of formal education in West Africa, although his extravagant empire’s story largely remains less known outside West Africa.

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After Mansa Musa died in 1337, aged 57, the empire was inherited by his sons who could not hold the empire together. The smaller states broke off and the empire crumbled

As tales of his wealth and influence spread, Spanish cartographer Abraham Cresques included a drawing of Musa in the 1375 Catalan Atlas, used by medieval Europe’s navigators.

Although Celebrity Net Worth, a US website, estimated his wealth at $400 billion, historians believe it simply cannot be put into figures. Musa left a legacy that even a fictional character hasn’t.

While Midas’s touch turned everything to gold, Musa, as the wealthiest person in medieval times, turned communities under him golden by helping them prosper.

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1 comment

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Yodhaanjali March 7, 2021 - 9:36 pm

Quite informative
I like reading so this platform helps alot to know things which we don’t focus much on. #learning is never ending

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