So, who was Mansa Musa, the richest man to have ever lived, and what would his net worth be today? Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates combined would not have come close to this West African ruler who built his wealth from gold, salt, and land.

Mansa Musa is considered the richest man to have ever lived, according to historians. Photo: @Dr_TheHistories/Twitter

When we think of the richest people in the world, names like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Gautam Adani might spring to mind.

As of October 2022, Tesla CEO Elon Musk is the world’s richest man. Photo: Getty Images

Of course, these are based on the most recent net worth figures, and can fluctuate at any given moment.

John D. Rockefeller in 1909. Photo: Shutterstock

Think further back and some more famous names such as American business magnates John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Henry Ford and the Russian Imperial Romanov family also had toppling fortunes.

William the Conqueror, King of England, in 1087 had an estimated wealth of US$5 billion. Photo: Handout

But what if we were to really go back in time and tell you that the richest person of all time (while factoring in inflation) beat not just today’s tech billionaires and shipping magnates of the industrial era, but also the world’s greatest rulers – Augustus Caesar (US$6 trillion), William the Conqueror (US$5 billion) and Akbar I (incalculable), per The Times of India?

Mansa Musa is considered among many historians to be the richest man to have ever lived. Photo: @mansamusa_official_/Instagram

According to historians, the richest person ever to walk the earth was a man named Mansa Musa, a 14th century West African ruler, whose wealth was simply “indescribable” and “incomprehensible”, per the BBC.

So who was he exactly, and why may you not have heard of him?

Mansa Musa was the ninth sultan of the Mali Empire. Photo: @Dr_TheHistories/Twitter

Mansa Musa was the sultan of the Mali Empire
In Mandinka, “Mansa” means sultan or emperor. It was recorded that Musa Keita was born around 1280 CE during the Keita Dynasty, per BBC.

He was born into a family of rulers and came into power in 1312 CE when his brother Mansa Abu-Bakr abdicated the throne to go on an extravagant expedition at sea. According to historian Shibab al-Umari, Abu-Bakr had always been fascinated with the Atlantic Ocean, and reportedly left with a fleet of about 2,000 ships with thousands of men, women and slaves – but he never returned.

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Mansa Musa became the ninth sultan of the West African kingdom, which was already considered very wealthy by the time he ascended.

Mansa Musa brought plenty of gold with him on his pilgrimage to Mecca. Photo: Shutterstock

His kingdom was rich in salt, gold and land
Historians estimate that the Mali Empire was at that point the largest gold producer in the world, owning more than half the world’s total supply, according to the British Museum.

With Musa on the throne, the kingdom only continued to expand phenomenally, thanks to his work in expanding trade in the region. His wealth continued to skyrocket from mining significant salt and gold deposits, as well as trading elephant ivory, as stated by National Geographic.

The Mali Empire continued to expand under Mansa Musa’s rule. Photo: @NeferFej/Twitter

It wasn’t just the salt and gold that contributed to Musa’s riches though. Under his rule, the kingdom grew immensely, stretching over 3,000km (1,864 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean to modern-day Niger, annexing over 24 cities, including Timbuktu. It was reported that he had never lost a battle and, in many cases, territories joined the Mali Empire willingly due to the higher quality of life.

Mansa Musa embarked on a pilgrimage from 1324 to 1325 to Mecca. Photo: @mansamusa_official_/Instagram

He made the most extravagant pilgrimage of all time
As a devout Muslim, Musa began his voyage to Mecca from 1324-1325, which is now referred to as the “most extravagant pilgrimage in human history”, according to Magnates Media.

Mansa Musa took a 6,500km trip through the desert with tens of thousands of people. Photo: @mansamusa_official_/Instagram

Musa had a vision to get his name out to the world, and this 6,500km desert pilgrimage was the perfect opportunity to do so. BBC reported that the king left Mali with about 60,000 men and women, from royal officials to camel drivers and slaves.

It was reported that much of these travellers were decked in head-to-toe Persian silk and gold brocade – including the slaves. The camels – about 100 of them – meanwhile, carried bags of pure gold.

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How else did he splash his gold?
The journey took Musa and his companions through the Sahara desert and Egypt, reaching Cairo, where the emperor would generously splash his cash – or gold, in this case – in the capital. He spent so much gold that he destabilised the local economy and caused mass inflation for 10 years after his departure.

Mansa Musa also spent his gold on building infrastructure within his kingdom. Photo: @Joe__Bassey/Instagram

Mansa Musa’s legacy …
Upon his return, Musa made it his mission to revitalise the cities in his kingdom. Thanks to his architectural developments in the region, his reputation continued to flourish. He worked with Islamic scholars, including direct descendants of Prophet Muhammad and an Andalusian poet and architect by the name of Abu Es Haq es Saheli, and paid them up to 200kg in gold for their efforts.

Mansa Musa helped build up Timbuktu. Photo: @africaupdates/Twitter

He also built schools, libraries and mosques and helped Timbuktu become an epicentre for culture and education, per the BBC.

Musa died in 1337 at age 57 and was succeeded by his sons, but eventually the empire fell apart.

Mansa Musa is estimated to be worth between US$400 billion and US$500 billion in modern day riches. Photo: @Africa_Archives/Twitter

So how rich was he, really?
Some estimates put Mansa’s modern day net worth at US$400 billion to US$500 billion, though it can be difficult to fairly calculate a fortune based on gold, salt and land. Many historians, however, agree that his wealth was “richer than anyone could describe”.

Mansa Musa will be remembered for his important contribution to society through building iconic monuments. Photo: @Mansa__Musa__/Twitter

Nevertheless, Mansa Musa will be remembered not just for his mountains of gold, but also for his generosity and commitment to his Islamic faith, promotion of education and financing his empire’s greatest cultural developments.

Note: This story was originally published on SCMP and has been republished on this website.

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