Forget Rockefeller, Gates & Jeff — 14th century Malian emperor Mansa Musa is likely the richest man ever. Imagine how much money the richest person in history would have. Now add a couple hundred billion, and you’ve probably gotten closer to how much wealth Mansa Musa had circa 1324 C.E. Economists have determined that the West African emperor’s vast wealth most likely positions him as the richest person in history. But just how much money did he have? And what did he do with it?
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Emperor Mansa Musa I came to reign over the Malian Empire through somewhat strange means.
Before embarking on a long and somewhat arduous pilgrimage to Mecca (called a Hajj in the Muslim religion), then-emperor Abubakari II deputized Musa to temporarily assume his role. An “on-call” emperor was a common feature throughout the history of the empire. It’s somewhat comparable to the modern-day role of a vice president.
This arrangement worked out fine until Abubakari set out to explore the far side of the Atlantic Ocean and never returned. Musa, then, inherited the throne since he had been deputized. But Musa wasn’t a nobody: His great-uncle was Sundiata Keita, who founded the Malian Empire.
As many a late night infomercial will tell you, there are lots of ways to attain wealth. Musa got his primarily through trading gold and salt, which were found in abundance in West Africa at the time. He also used the money to strengthen the country’s cultural centers, particularly Timbuktu, which he annexed in 1324.