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The richest person who ever lived

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The wealth of Mansa Musa is believed to have been greater than all modern billionaires.

Video Transcript

ADRIAN HARTRICK: In 1324, the city of Cairo was taken by storm by one of the most awe-inspiring sights its citizens had ever seen. Marching through its winding streets was an entourage of thousands of African soldiers, courtiers, traders, scholars, and slaves all laden in gold. Horses and camels with gold leafing on their fur pulled vast amounts of riches that were handed out to the poor and traded for goods. So much gold was handed out that the Cairo economy crashed and would not recover for 10 years. At the helm, sitting on a gold throne and holding a gold staff was their leader, widely believed to be the richest human in the history of the world, Mansa Musa, the emperor of Mali.

In the era of Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Wall Street, and big tech, it is hard to fathom a more prosperous time in human history. However, many believe Mansa Musa's wealth outdoes that of all modern billionaires.

RUDOLF WARE: Musa was the, um-- kind of the crowning jewel, so to speak, of a long lineage of West African imperial rulers. Depending on who's doing the estimating, you know, people will suggest that his net worth, adjusted for inflation, is, you know, $400 billion, or $500 billion, or $600 billion. People don't actually know.

KATHLEEN BICKFORD BERZOCK: There's a lot of subjectivity to that type of claim, but it's really based on, um, the kind of access Mansa Musa had to gold.

ADRIAN HARTRICK: Mansa Musa ruled over the Mali Empire, a vast and powerful entity that stretched from the Atlantic coast of Western Africa to the deserts of modern day Niger.

KATHLEEN BICKFORD BERZOCK: This region that the Mali Empire extended across was a source for some of the purest gold that circulated in that period of time when the most powerful polities were, um, largely based on a gold standard.

RUDOLF WARE: In the medieval period, without any question, um, there's probably only one state that-- that has anything like the kind of military, economic, and political strength of the Empire of Mali and that's probably China.

ADRIAN HARTRICK: A devout Muslim, Mansa Musa's legendary trip to Cairo was part of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Inspired by the experience, he returned to Mali in 1325 and kickstarted a golden age for one of Africa's most famous cities.

RUDOLF WARE: He invests the resources of his empire into cultivating the really, really important Islamic scholarly tradition in West Africa. So in Timbuktu, for example, there were 80 universities in the city of Timbuktu in 1400s. This is a complex literate society that there are scholars from all over the world, literally, that are coming to learn Islamic, uh, law, and astronomy, and theology, and new sciences in this West African empire.

ADRIAN HARTRICK: The Mali Empire continue to thrive for the rest of Mansa Musa's life. Even after his death in approximately 1337, the empire continued to flourish under the rule of his sons. However, with the rise of rival empires and new forms of trade, the empire went into decline in the 15th century. Despite his global legacy, Mansa Musa has largely disappeared from the Western historical imagination.

KATHLEEN BICKFORD BERZOCK: Colonialism and the Atlantic, um-- the Atlantic slave trade, um, have a major impact on the way that the European, Euro-American world writes about and perceives Africa and Africans.

RUDOLF WARE: Stories of Africans who were writing dozens of languages in a city like Timbuktu, who were the wealthiest and most powerful kings on the planet, um, don't jive well with what Africa has come to mean in European discourse. This is one of those, kind of, treasures of African history, um, that if we can unthink some of our received wisdom about what Africa is and isn't, if we can unlearn some of the things that we think that we know, um, about Islam, we can have a, a glimpse back into an entirely different world, um, before the, kind of, contemporary discourses of racial-- racial marginalization came into being. A Black Muslim ruler, um, could rightfully considered himself, um, second to none.