Think of some of the richest people alive today. Who’s on your list? You’ve probably included Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and the Queen of England. Yes, they’re all big shots. But, believe it or not, their bank accounts wouldn’t have come close to matching the wealth of African emperor Mansa Musa. That 14th-century ruler still tops many lists as the richest person of all time.
Musa was mansa, or king, of the West African empire of Mali. He ruled from 1312 to 1337. During his reign, he controlled about 80 percent of the world’s gold. His net worth would have topped $400 billion in today’s dollars (see “The Richest People in History,” below).
But Musa’s claim to fame went far beyond money. The emperor was a skilled leader. Under his leadership, Mali became one of the largest empires in African history.
Original accounts about Musa and his reign still exist. And lately, many people have drawn parallels between Musa and T’Challa, the wealthy king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda in the movie Black Panther. So why haven’t more people heard of Musa, nicknamed the “Lion of Mali”?
Mainly because he lived hundreds of years ago. Many world history classes don’t discuss events that happened before 1450. And those that happened centuries ago in Africa might get talked about even less.
Musa’s kingdom, says Richard Smith, an expert on ancient Mali at Ferrum College in Virginia, is a symbol “of once-powerful states in the interior of Africa that were often overlooked by historians until very recent times.”