Meet Mansa Musa, The Richest Person In History

CULTURE | November 25, 2019

A map showing Mansa Musa of the Empire of Mali. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

In the 14th century, there arose a king in Mali whose wealth was so legendary, that tales of his fabulous kingdom have passed down through the ages.

The King’s name was Mansa Musa, the richest person in history.

Terracotta Equestrian figure from Mali; 13th-15th century; National Museum of African Art (Washington D.C., USA). Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The Mali Empire

The Mali Empire of West Africa was founded by Sundiata Keita who had conquered the Empire of Ghana in 1240. He took the ruling title of Mansa, which essentially means emperor, ruler, or sultan. The Mali Empire grew to be extremely wealthy due to its possession of trade routes from sub-Saharan Africa into the north but especially for its control of salt and gold. Gold was key since the empire controlled large mines. The empire largely converted to Islam due to its contact with Muslim traders.

A portion of a late 14th century atlas showing the Empire of Mali, caravans from the Sahara and Mansa Musa on his throne with a golden crown looking at a golden coin. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

How Mansa Musa came to Power

Musa Keita, also known as Kankou Musa, Kankan Musa, and Kanku Musa was born into this empire around the year 1280. He was either the grandson or grandnephew of Sundiata Keita. Not much is known about his early life. He took power in 1312 after being purportedly being appointed a deputy ruler by his predecessor, Abu-Bakr II (also called Mansa Qu) after he wished to explore the limits of the Atlantic Ocean. Musa was quoted by Arab sources as relating the following account:

“The ruler who preceded me did not believe that it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean that encircles the earth.... 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 was 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.”

This account has given rise to theories that the Mali Empire came to the western hemisphere two centuries before Christopher Columbus. It should be noted that the evidence for this seems to be very conjectural and was unlikely to occur.

Mansa Musa on His Way to Mecca. From The Worlds History, Volume III, by Dr. H. F. Helmolt [William Heinemann, London, 1903] Artist: Unknown. Source: (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

The Pilgrimage of Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa, a devout Muslim, burst onto the world stage in 1324 with an epic pilgrimage, or hajj to Mecca. The Malian emperor traveled in a flamboyant style. He crossed the Sahara with some 60,000 soldiers and 12,000 slaves. All were lavishly dressed in Persian silk and brocade. His caravan also contained 100 camels carrying 300 pounds of gold each — an incredible number. Mansa Musa himself rode on horseback, with 500 slaves bearing golden staffs acting as a vanguard. After arriving in Cairo his caravan spent so much gold in Egypt and gave so much of it away as gifts to the poor and local rulers that it devalued local currency ruining the economy for about a dozen years. Eyewitnesses were in awe of him. One chronicler wrote, “He was a young man with a brown skin, a pleasant face and good figure…. His gifts amazed the eye with their beauty and splendour.”

It is pretty clear that Mansa Musa was rich and money.com ranks the Malian emperor as the richest single person in all of human history. Still, Musa and his entourage spent so much that he actually fell into debt while in Egypt. But he was lauded throughout and treated as high nobility from a mysterious as a faraway land.  

The Mali Empire. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Mansa Musa Expands the Empire

Musa set to expanding Mali’s power using a talented general, Saran Mandian, to conquer multiple cities such as Timbuktu and the Songhai capital of Gao. He probably controlled about 400 cities which he ruled through governors called farba in what was then the second-largest empire in the world after the Mongols. Musa himself ruled in Niani. The Empire encompassed modern-day Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Mauritania.

The Djinguereber Mosque in Timbuktu. Source: (Sebastien RIEUSSEC/AFP via Getty Images)

Developing the Empire

Upon Mansa Musa’s return in 1325 he brought home with him architects who built palaces in Niani, the Great Mosque at Gao and the Djinguereber Mosque at Timbuktu. The Djinguereber Mosque is of unique construction, being built of pounded earth and wood. This became part of a university in Timbuktu, the Sankore Madrash. The university was not a university in the modern sense, but rather a collection of scholars that served as a major center of learning. Under Mansa Musa, the city of Timbuktu rose from obscurity to become a center of commerce and culture. 

kore Madrasah, Timbuktu. Source: (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)


The details of Mansa Musa’s death are cloudy including the date of his death which seems to be between 1332 and 1337. Musa was the pinnacle of the Mali Empire and although it would continue to prosper for well over another century, it would gradually weaken as other trade routes were found, and civil war wracked the empire. This weakened it enough to be subject to attack from rival kingdoms. The Mali Empire finally fell in 1670.

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