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The history rich list: the 10 wealthiest people ever

Who is the richest person in history? In the list of the world’s all-time wealthiest there are both bad pennies and hearts of gold, as Emily Brand reveals…

Side profile illustration of Mansa Musa accompanied by the text 'The History Rich List'
Published: May 25, 2022 at 12:00 pm
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1

Mansa Musa of Mali (Unknown–c1337–9)

Ruling a kingdom that stretched across Africa, Mansa Musa I’s lands held the world’s most abundant stores of gold and controlled vital trading routes. During a pilgrimage to Mecca, he astounded onlookers with a glittering parade of slaves and camels transporting gold staffs, bars and dust. But he was also noted for promoting scholarship and a system of law.

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Was Mansa Musa the richest man ever?

It’s impossible to know this for certain. However, here is what the historical sources do tell us: in 1324, Mansa Musa, ruler of the medieval Mali empire, which stretched across west Africa (not to be confused with today’s Mali), set off on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities of Islam.

He undertook a lengthy trip across the Sahara, journeying from the banks of the Niger river towards the Nile and Red Sea. His party included thousands of soldiers and hundreds of enslaved people carrying salt, gold and other riches. During his trip he stopped in Cairo, where he reportedly injected so much gold into the local economy that the metal’s value dropped throughout Egypt, earning him his reputation as the richest man of all time.

Mansa Musa’s spectacular pilgrimage signalled to the world the capabilities of a powerful west African state, and the aspirations of its ambitious ruler. In the pilgrimage’s wake, the cities of Timbuktu and Jenne in Mali grew into major hubs for the trade in commodities – especially those derived from the region’s natural resources, as well as slaves and books – welcoming local scholars and intellectuals from throughout the Islamic world.

Mansa Musa’s fortune was certainly colossal by any historical or contemporary standards. However, numbers floating around estimating it in hundreds of billions of today’s dollars are pure speculation. Moreover, these sky-high estimates obscure the fact that there remains a lot that scholars don’t know about the economy, politics and organisation of the empire.

Answered by Madina Thiam, doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, who specialises in Mali and the Sahel

2

John D Rockefeller (1839–1937)

Rockefeller was the founder and major shareholder in Standard Oil Company which, at its peak, produced 90 to 95 per cent of the US’s oil. Following the success of his first refinery in Ohio, through canny investments he eventually became America’s first billionaire. He donated at least $540 million to charity.

3

Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919)

This Scottish-American tycoon worked up through the ranks of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, before setting up his own business to supply steel. His company sold in 1901 to financier J. P. Morgan for a record sum of $480 million, and Carnegie received $250 million as his personal share, but, by his death, his fortune had depleted thanks to vast philanthropic donations.

4

Marcus Licinius Crassus 'The Rich' (c115–53 BC)

This Roman statesman had fingers in many pies, the most lucrative being property he had confiscated or bought at knock-down prices while it burned. Having profited from these “public calamities”, his fortune was estimated at 200 million sesterces. It was reported that after his death in battle, his opponent punished his greed by filling his mouth with molten gold.

5

Nicholas II of Russia (1868–1918)

Inheriting the wealth of the centuries-old Romanov Imperial dynasty in 1894, Nicholas II was the last Tsar of Russia’s glittering court. Much was tied up in the state, but also displayed in magnificent palaces, jewellery and works of art. Following the slaughter of Nicholas and his immediate family in 1918, most of the assets were seized by Bolshevik revolutionaries.

6

Mir Osman Ali Khan (1886–1967)

Taking the princedom of the Indian state of Hyderabad in 1911, his vast inheritance included the world’s most productive diamond mines and a flourishing pearl industry. His loyalty to the British Empire was rewarded with the title ‘His Exalted Highness’, and he poured funds into state education and transport. Despite his enormous fortune, it was said he wore the same fez for 35 years.

7

William the Conqueror (c1028–87)

Despite his illegitimate status, this 11th-century Norman nobleman secured his influence in France through inherited lands and marriage, before claiming the throne of England by conquest. Ruling from 1066-87, he generously bequested land and titles to his friends, setting them up in lavish style.

8

Jakob Fugger (1459–1525)

Expanding the family textile firm in his 30s, this German merchant and banker advanced his wealth through silver mining, banking and commercial trade – eventually dominating European business. He used his financial weight to promote the prosperity of the Habsburg monarchy, buying him considerable political influence too.

9

Henry Ford (1863–1947)

A farmer’s son fascinated with machines, Ford worked with railroad cars and steam engines before experimenting with “horseless carriages” as an engineer in Detroit. Following two failed ventures, Ford Motor Company was established in 1903, and the introduction of the Model T made the motor car available to ‘the great multitude’, as well as making him a great personal fortune.

10

Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877)

Vanderbilt, who was born in Port Richmond, Staten Island, borrowed money to set up a ferry service as an enterprising teenager. Through determination (and luck) he slowly assumed management of various steamboat ventures, before buying stocks in railroads. Though often considered a ‘robber baron’, part of his legacy was the advancement of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

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This feature was first published in the December 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Authors

Emily Brand, author, historian and genealogist
Emily BrandAuthor, historian and genealogist

Emily Brand specialises in social history and romantic relationships during the long 18th century. She is the author of The Fall of the House of Byron (John Murray, 2020) has previously worked as an editor of history and classic literature for the University of Oxford, and has since provided historical consultancy for television – including reality dating show The Courtship.

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