Bill Gates and the Rockefellers have nothing on Musa I, Mansa (or Emperor) of the gold-rich Mali Empire from 1312 to 1337. The amount of money Musa was said to have is estimated to be a staggering $400 billion in today's money. In fact, he was so rich that when he took a pilgrimage to Mecca and handed out gold to almost everyone he met on the way, he unintentionally devastated the local economy.
The Rise Of MaliYoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images
There are many legends of "cities of gold" and ultra-rich civilizations in history, but at least one such place was no fairy tale. For a little less than 400 years, from 1230 to 1600 CE, the Mali Empire of West Africa was the dominant culture of the area in every conceivable way.
An Empire Built On GoldEmaze
The gold in Mali came from three massive gold mines at Bambuk, Boure, and Galam that were added to the Empire's lands in the early days of conquering. With these three mines, it's estimated that Mali provided half of the gold for the entirety of Africa, Europe, and Asia by the 14th century. With these riches, Mali became the greatest empire in African history and, in fact, only the Mongol Empire was larger in the world in the time of Mansa Musa I.
How Musa Became EmperorBlackPast.org
The previous mansa disappeared when he tried to take a journey around the world by boat, and so the crown went to Musa. He became known as the greatest ruler in Mali history and presided over the golden age of the empire.
The New Emperor Heads Off To MeccaAfrican Globe
A devout Muslim, Mansa Musa was riding high as emperor of the richest nation on the planet in 1324, when he decided it was time to go check out the holy land of Mecca.
Musa's Entourage Was Insanely LargePrint Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
He Carried Over $500 Million In Gold With HimIslam Today
According to Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, Musa was very generous on the trip. Khaldun said, "At each halt he would regale us [his entourage] with rare foods and confectionery." Khaldun also claimed that Musa brought with him "80 loads of gold dust, each load weighing three qintars," which in total would be 26,455 pounds of gold for the trip. If we take that number and multiply it by the cost of gold per pound today, that's over $566 million in gold that this guy just took around with him on his trip.
Free Gold For EveryoneHow Africa
The tales of Musa’s generosity are echoed by many writers and historians of the time, and while the actual amount of gold he gave out is debated, what is known is that gold in Egypt and Arabia lost most of their value for 12 years after his journey. Just talking about his stop in one city, historian al-Maqrizi said that "the members of his entourage proceeded to buy Turkish and Ethiopian slave girls, singing girls and garments, so that the rate of the gold dinar fell by six dirhams."
Musa Breaks The Whole EconomyTeetering Bulb
This whole "free money" thing was, it might surprise you to hear, not great for the areas that Musa traveled through. Because the entire rest of the economy at that time was based on gold, when gold stopped being all that valuable and everyone had some, everything else in the economy went crazy and essentially broke. That alone is enough to make Mansa Musa I rich in a way that nobody else has ever been, because if there's anything that says "rich," it's got to be being able to give out so much money that you break the whole concept of money.
Musa Fixes What He Brokeemaze
What Musa did next is also a hotly debated question in history circles, but it’s believed that on his return trip he went back through the same areas, saw what he had done to the economy and attempted to correct it by borrowing the gold back from money-lenders at a very high interest rate. By taking the gold back but at a higher value, he is said to have righted the economy that he'd just finished wrecking.
A Legend In Life And A Legend In DeathPhilippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images
Musa's legacy today is tremendous, both in terms of his crazy monetary exploits and for things like creating one of the world's best libraries and universities in the city of Timbuktu (which made that city a legend itself), but until recently, few people knew this incredible man's name. However, the Internet is bringing Musa's story to the masses, and it seems that, over 700 years after his reign, the richest man earth has ever seen is finally getting his due.