Was History’s Richest Person Black?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Meet Mansa Musa, the Malian king whose gold-plated legend beats all others.

Depiction of Mansa Musa
Depiction of Mansa Musa Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 82: Who was history’s wealthiest person?

Mansa Musa was emperor of the West African kingdom of Mali in its golden years between 1312 and 1337 A.D. He became something of an international celebrity in 1324 (the year Marco Polo died) when he made the 3,000 mile, nine-month pilgrimage to Mecca, accompanied by 60,000 porters in a caravan of 80 camels, each carrying 300 pounds of gold. In fact, according to a new inflation-adjusted list compiled by CelebrityNetworth.com, Mansa Musa was worth $400 billion, which, incredibly, places him as the No. 1 richest person in history, ahead of the Rothschild family ($350 billion), John D. Rockefeller ($340 billion) and Henry Ford ($199 billion).

Strength in numbers

“Mansa” means king of kings or emperor, and Musa’s empire touched the Atlantic Ocean in the west and the Niger River in the east. It was thought to be the world’s largest depository of salt and gold. During a three-month stay in Cairo, Egypt, Musa told a chronicler that he had become emperor only because his predecessor, Abubakari II, convinced that new lands lay far to the west across the Atlantic, set sail from the kingdom with an entourage of 2,000 boats (and an additional 1,000 boats for water and supplies). They never returned, and no one knows the fate of the expedition.

We know about Mansa Musa through a weaving of Arabic sources, inherited oral history and, perhaps most important, the 17th-century historian from Timbuktu, Ibn al-Mukhtar. The founder of Musa’s dynasty was Sundiata, who was either Musa’s grandfather or great-uncle, according to Britannica.  

In Mali, the mansa generally spoke publicly through an interlocutor, called a jeli, David Conrad explains in his entry on Musa in the Dictionary of African Biography, which I edited with Emmanuel K. Akyeampong. But Musa’s actions spoke far louder. Everywhere he turned he saw—and seized upon—opportunities to build.

The legend of Mansa Musa starts with a common trope: A powerful ruler is persuaded by mystics to make an extraordinary sacrifice of time and treasure (another illustrious example is the Bible’s three wise men). Musa, a devout Muslim, was told by his diviners to plan for an ambitious trans-Saharan journey that would take him to Mecca, the birthplace of Islam. Today, Mecca is a plane ride away; back then, the trip felt like a journey to a distant planet. But it shows that our African ancestors were curious about the world and traveled like everybody else, contrary to stereotypes that they remained in their homes on the continent waiting to be “discovered.”

Musa was joined on his pilgrimage by his senior wife, but this was anything but a second honeymoon. Accompanying the royal couple were 60,000 porters in a caravan of 80 camels, each carrying 300 pounds of gold, according to David Tschanz in his essay “Lion of Mali: The Hajj of Mansa Musa” in the May 2012 issue of Makzan. “Leading the host were 500 heralds, clad in Persian silk and bearing four-foot-long golden staffs glistening in the sun and nearly blinding anyone who looked at them,” Tschanz writes. “Next came the royal guards some bearing spears and sword, others the flags of their empire.” Also in tow, Tschanz notes, was “a retinue of 12,000 of the king’s personal slaves” and 500 of his senior wife’s maids.  

Journey to Mecca