Was History’s Richest Person Black?

Depiction of Mansa Musa
Wikimedia Commons
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

On the way to Mecca, Mali’s king of kings made a three-month sojourn in Cairo, where he met with the sultan and, as a result, helped open key trading routes to North Africa. Great journeys were not uncommon among Mali’s early rulers. In fact, while in Cairo, Musa told the sultan that tale about the mysterious disappearance of his former boss, Abubakari II, who may very well have been Columbus before Columbus. There to capture the tale was Ibn Hajib, a district governor in Egypt and, through him, Arab-Egyptian scholar Al-Umari, who translated Musa’s story as follows, according to Tschanz:

The ruler who preceded me believed it was possible to reach the extremity of the ocean that encircles the earth (meaning the Atlantic). He wanted to reach that (end) and was determined to pursue his plan. So he equipped two hundred boats full of men, and many others full of gold, water and provisions sufficient for several years. He ordered the captain not to return until they had reached the other end of the ocean, or until he had exhausted the provisions and water. So they set out on their journey. They were absent for a long period, and, at last just one boat returned.

When questioned the captain replied: “O Prince, we navigated for a long period, until we saw in the midst of the ocean a great river which flowing massively. My boat was the last one; others were ahead of me, and they were drowned in the great whirlpool and never came out again. I sailed back to escape this current.” But the Sultan would not believe him. He ordered two thousand boats to be equipped for him and his men, and one thousand more for water and provisions. Then he conferred the regency on me for the term of his absence, and departed with his men, never to return nor to give a sign of life.” 


Here’s how Conrad qualifies the tale: “The clearly exaggerated numbers of ships (several hundred in the first expedition and 2,000 in the last) call into question the story’s accuracy, but it offers an unusually detailed account of how one Malian ruler came to power.” Although no one knows for sure what happened to Abubakari II and his massive fleet, researchers in Mali, as reported by the BBC in 2000, think they made it as far as Brazil. Imagine that! (Others point to Egypt.) 

While in Egypt himself, Musa was apparently so generous with his gold that he crashed the local market with it—for the next decade! Reading about him is like reading about Marco Polo’s voyages and the pages of The Canterbury Tales and The Pilgrim’s Progress all in one. And you know what? The pilgrim Mansa Musa and his retinue made it all the way to Mecca—some 300 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. 


By the time Musa returned, he had barely any gold and had to borrow some at soaring interest rates. But he had brought back something else of value—actually, someone: Andalusian architect and poet Abu Ishaq al-Sahili, who soon introduced domed palaces to the skyline of Mali. 

A roaring success

In his 25-year reign as king of kings in Mali, Musa launched diplomatic relations with Morocco. He underwrote students studying abroad (you might call them Musa Scholars). And last, but not least, as a result of his famous pilgrimage, he spread the legend of Mali through the Islamic world to Europe, where, before long, his image began appearing on cartographers’ maps. One from 1375 shows Musa on his throne admiring a golden nugget in one palm and clutching a golden scepter in the other. By then, he had been dead for 40 years, but his legend as “the Lion of Mali” endured.


As I mentioned at the top, according to CelebrityNetworth.com, Musa was worth $400 billion, making him history’s all-time richest person. But there’s another reason he outranks many of tycoons of history. As an anonymous African historian once said, according to Edward W. Bovill in his book The Golden Trade of the Moors: West African Kingdoms in the Fourteenth Century: “[Musa] was [one of] the first to penetrate the iron curtain of prejudice … and to win for the true African a small measure of the respect which, even today, is often grudgingly granted him.”

And the return on that investment is priceless.

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.


Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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