If you’re the type who browses Forbes’ lists of the world’s richest people while twirling coins between your fingers, you probably have a pretty good idea of who the richest of the rich are. Maybe you idolize names like Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, or Jeff Bezos.
But are they the wealthiest men who ever lived? While it may be impossible to accurately compare wealth across centuries, historical records indicate that some people in ancient history actually earned far more money than Bezos. As for who was the wealthiest, look no further than African King Musa Keita I, who ruled 14th-century Mali.
This isn’t the story of some guy who was really rich in just heart and spirit. Nope, this was a guy who made some serious cash…
If you’ve ever aspired to reach that upper-echelon of elite and obtain a net worth higher than most small countries, you’ve probably studied the rich of the rich: people like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (pictured here) or Microsoft creator Bill Gates.
But are these truly the richest men who’ve ever lived? While it’s impossible to know for sure, oral reports and ancient documents tell us that, no, people like Bezos aren’t the first to amass such impressive wealth. For the true king of wealth, you have to look back to 14th-century Africa.
African King Musa Keita I was richer than any modern document can describe. As Time Magazine‘s Jacob Davidson wrote, “There’s really no way to put an accurate number on his wealth.” In other words, modern terminology just can’t capture all the money this king had. So how’d he get it? And what did he do with it?
In the 14th century, C.E, King Keita—also known as the King of Kings—ruled the Mali Empire. The empire encompassed 2,000 miles of fertile African lands laden with natural resources, like salt. And gold—lots and lots of gold.
As king, Keita made a few strategic decisions that capitalized on the wealth of the region. He annexed Timbuktu and asserted dominance over Gao, two cities that controlled trade from the Mediterranean Sea and the West African Coast. With important trade routes and resources at his fingertips, King Keita made his fortune—some estimates say it’d be worth $400 billion today.
And what do you do with all that money? Well, if you’re King Keita, you show it off on a 4,000-mile pilgrimage to Mecca. He made the journey with a train of people behind him so large and extensive that oral reports and documents can’t get the facts straight. But one thing all reports did confirm: King Keita’s group was massive.
As educator Jessica Smith reported in a TED Talk, “Chroniclers describe an entourage of tens of thousands of soldiers, civilians and slaves, 500 heralds bearing gold staffs and dressed in fine silks, and many camels and horses bearing an abundance of gold bars.”
Along the way to Mecca, King Keita stopped in cities like Cairo and spent gold on trinkets, donations for the poor, and erecting mosques along the way. All his spending actually destabilized the region’s economy and caused a mass inflation that would take years for the regions to recover from.
You don’t spend unspeakable amounts of gold over a year-long journey without attracting the attention of countries around you. All of King Keita’s spending earned him and the Mali Empire a spot on Europe’s 1375 Catalan Atlas—the most important map in medieval Europe.
King Keita wasn’t some gold-hoarding monster who flipped gold coins to peasants in exchange for embarrassing dance routines, either. He gave back to the land he ruled. A devout Muslim, he saw the legendary Djinguereber Mosque built in Timbuktu and established a university that attracted many great minds.
When he died in 1337, his son, Maghan I, took over the reins of the country—and he’d have big shoes to fill. “The king’s rich legacy persisted for generations,” Smith said, “and to this day, there are mausoleums, libraries, and mosques that stand as a testament to this golden age of Mali’s history.”
Watch Jessica Smith’s concise re-telling of history in the video below. When you hear the complete story of King Keita, you might be tempted to work a few hours of overtime tonight. Maybe some day you’ll be able to inflate a small economy, too!
King Keita I may have been the richest man to ever live, but he used his money to make the world around him a better place. Thankfully, that’s a route many modern philanthropists—including Jeff Bezos—take, too.
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