Mansa Musa, the king of Timbuktu, is often referred to as the wealthiest person in history. According to Ferrum College history professor Richard Smith, Musa’s west African kingdom was likely the largest producer of gold in the world—at a time which gold was in especially high demand.
Just how rich was Musa? There’s really no way to put an accurate number on his wealth. Records are scarce, if non-existent, and contemporary sources describe the king’s riches in terms that are impossible for the time.
Year: 1280–1337, Country: Mali Wealth: Richer than anyone could describe
Some tales of his famous pilgrimage to Mecca—during which Musa’s spending was so lavish that it caused a currency crisis in Egypt—mention dozens of camels each carrying hundreds of pounds of gold. (Smith says one year of Malian gold production probably generated about a ton.) Others said Musa’s army consisted of 200,000 men, including 40,000 archers—troop numbers even modern superpowers would have a difficult time bringing to the field.
But to get caught up in the king’s exact wealth is to miss the point. As Rudolph Ware, an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan, explains, Musa’s riches were so immense that people struggled to describe them.
“This is the richest guy anyone has ever seen, that’s the point,” says Ware. “They’re trying to find words to explain that. There are pictures of him holding a scepter of gold on a throne of gold holding a cup of gold with a golden crown on his head. Imagine as much gold as you think a human being could possess and double it, that’s what all the accounts are trying to communicate.”