Mansa Musa: The Richest Man of All Time

The world has witnessed the rise and fall of great men: Alexander the Great, King Solomon, Aristotle, Bill Gates etc. But none is wealthier than the legendary Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire. Mansa Musa lived between 1280 and 1337, and according to the great historian, Ibn-Khaldun, he was the nephew of Sundiata Keita, the founder of the West African Mali Empire. Before Mansa Musa became king, he was appointed the deputy of the then king of Mali, Abubakari Keita II.

History has it that Abubakari (Mansa Musa’s predecessor) was fascinated by the Atlantic Ocean and wanted to know its limit. Consequently, Abubakari embarked on an expedition with 2,000 ships and thousands of people to see the end of the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, he never returned and Mansa Musa became the king.

Mansa (meaning conqueror) Musa was indeed a conqueror. He brought under his control, 24 cities including the famous Timbuktu. Musa’s empire was so great that it stretched from the Atlantic Ocean and included parts of modern day Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Ivory Coast. But most fascinating is the fact that Musa’s Mali Empire accounted for more than half of the Old world’s gold and this gave Musa access to such wealth that had never been seen before. 

One day, Mansa Musa who was a faithful Muslim decided to embark on his famous journey to Mecca. Before Mansa Musa journeyed to Mecca, his kingdom, Mali was not well known, but this was soon to change. The people in the whole Mediterranean region were not prepared for the luxurious spectacle he was going to afford them.

On his voyage to Mecca, Mansa Musa’s took a caravan of 60 000 men with him and they were all dressed in gold brocades and the finest of Persian silks. He also took his entire royal court and officials, soldiers, griots, merchants, camel drivers and 12 000 slaves who each carried 1.8 Kb of gold bars. There were also about 500 heralds dressed in silks and each bore gold staffs. In addition, there was also a long train of goats and sheep for food and 100 camels each carrying 23-136 kg of gold dust. It was a city moving through the desert, a city of gold. Indeed, Mansa Musa’s caravan was as long as the eyes could see and it was a sight to behold.

During the course of Mansa Musa’s voyage, he passed through Egypt and visited the Sultan of Egypt, Al-Nasir Muhammad. As he passed, he traded gold for souvenirs and gave gold to the poor he met along his route. He was as generous as he was rich! Musa was so generous that his gifts crashed the economy of the regions he passed through (Cairo, Medina and Mecca), as there was an excess supply of gold which lead to inflation. In fact, for the next 10 years, the value of gold greatly plummeted in those regions (despite that he stayed there for just 3 months). Luckily, Mansa Musa intervened to normalize the economy of the region by intentionally borrowing gold from gold lenders in Cairo at high-interest rates. According to historians, this is the only time recorded in history when one man directly controlled the prices of gold in the Mediterranean.

The splendour of Musa’s wealth was such that in a Catalan Atlas map from 1375, a drawing of an African king sits on a golden throne atop Timbuktu, holding a piece of gold in his hands. In describing Mansa Musa’s wealth, Rudolph Ware, University of Michigan professor said, “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. This is the richest guy anyone has ever seen.”

When Mansa Musa was returning to his empire from Mecca, he took along with him several Islamic scholars including a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and Abu Es Haq es Saheli an Andalucian poet and architect who designed the Djinguereber mosque. It was reported that Mansa Musa paid the poet the modern equivalent of $8.2 million in gold.

Furthermore, Mansa Musa built Schools, libraries and mosques. He encouraged and funded literature and Timbuktu soon became a center of learning as people traveled from around the world to study at what would become the Sankore University.

In fact, up until the 19th Century (500 years after Mansa Musa’s voyage), Timbuktu attracted European fortune hunters and explorers and it soon possessed a mythical status as a lost city of gold at the edge of the world.