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.

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

John D Rockefeller (1839–1937)

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Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877)

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


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.