Each year Forbes releases its richest Americans list, which includes well-knowns such as Bezos, Gates, and Buffet. Although these men are considered among the richest in modern history, they are not the richest of all times. That title belongs to 14th-century West African ruler and king of the Mali Empire, Mansa Musa (1280–1337), who held so much wealth that his handouts alone crippled an entire country’s economy.
In 2012, Musa’s wealth was estimated at $400 billion. Some economic historians however, agree that the exact number is impossible to pin down.
In a 2015 interview with Money, the late Richard Ware of Ferrum College said that people had trouble even describing Musa’s wealth. “This is the richest guy anyone has ever seen, that’s the point. They’re trying to find words to explain that. There are pictures of him holding a scepter of gold on a throne of gold holding a cup of gold with a golden crown on his head. Imagine as much gold as you think a human being could possess and double it, that’s what all the accounts are trying to communicate.”
Musa was born into a family of rulers. His brother, Mansa Abu-Bakr, ruled the Mali empire until 1312, when he surrendered his power and left to embark on an expedition. Musa then inherited the kingdom his brother abandoned; Abu-Bakr never returned.
Mali flourished under Musa’s rule. Twenty-four cities were annexed, including Timbuktu. Along with this mass of land came great resources: gold and salt. The empire of Mali accounted for almost half of the Old World’s gold, according to the British Museum. And all of it belonged to the king.
In 1334, Musa made the pilgrimage to Mecca. On the journey with him were slaves, courtiers; and 100 camels bearing 300 pounds of gold each. It was on passing through Egypt that the gold began to flow.
Musa proved generous while in Egypt, making large purchases of foreign goods. Gold there was in short supply and the people who crossed Musa’s path were initially thrilled with his gifts. But the table soon turned.
The West African ruler had given 50,000 gold dinars to the sultan of Egypt. His actions were well-intended, but so much gold was being exchanged for goods that its value depreciated. This led to a currency crisis; Egypt took 12 years to recover.
While on the same expedition, Musa purchased the territory of Gao. This extended his territory to the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. Continuing on his pilgrimage, he acquired an empire that spanned several territories, including current-day Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Mauritania.
The date of Musa’s death has been the subject of debate by many historians and Arab scholars. The year 1337 is the most common on record.