Mansa Musa Is Not the Richest Person of All-Time
Last updated: Saturday July 13th, 2019
Who's the richest person of all-time? If you believe the internet, the answer might be someone you have never heard of: Mansa Musa. In fact, when I searched Google for "richest person of all time", Google displayed an information box saying "1. Mansa Musa, $400 billion". Mansa Musa has also been chosen as the "richest person in history" in articles on popular websites like The Independent and Business Insider.
Who Was Mansa Musa?
Musa I of Mali was the tenth "Mansa", or sultan, of the Mali Empire in West Africa. The internet is devoid of many hard facts about Musa, but apparently he controlled a large empire which included the famous city of Timbuktu. His wealth appears to have come from gold mining.
How Rich was He?
No one knows. Many sources quote a net worth of $400 billion, but this number seems to be pulled out of thin air. The Wikipedia article does give one intriguing example of his wealth. According to the story, Musa went on pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. On the pilgrimage he brought brought as much as 72,000 pounds of gold to give to the poor. At today's prices, that would be worth an astounding 1.5 billion dollars.
Of course these figures, like many from history, are probably wildly inflated. And even if Musa did give away $1.5 billion, that doesn't give any indication of his total net worth. So where does the number of $400 billion come from? Many of the articles quote "celebritynetworth.com" as their source. And what's their source? If they have one, they aren't saying. Its possible that the number is simply made up.
$400 Billion in Gold With Nothing to Buy
But what if Musa did have $400 billion worth of gold? Would he be as rich as a person with $400 billion in gold today? I would say no. With apologies to Scrooge McDuck, gold in itself is not wealth. Real wealth can be used to buy goods and services. But for Mansa Musa, living in West Africa in 1300, there was little to buy. Slaves, yes. Camels, yes. But nothing compared to the vast amount of goods one could purchase today. The global market economy barely existed. There was nothing to buy.
Let's go back to that pilgrimage where Musa gave away 1.5 billion dollars. According to Wikipedia, "Musa's generous actions inadvertently devastated the economy of the regions through which he passed. In the cities of Cairo, Medina, and Mecca, the sudden influx of gold devalued the metal for the next decade. Prices on goods and wares greatly inflated". And that's from introducing a mere 1.5 billion dollars into the economy. Imagine trying to spend 400 billion dollars. It simply couldn't be done without causing astronomic inflation. Since there is no record of this inflation, it is likely that the $400 billion never existed in the first place.
$400 Billion. Mere Pocket Change
Mansa Musa probably didn't have $400 billion in gold. Even if he did, there was nothing to buy. But the biggest reason that Musa wasn't the richest person of all time is simple: other people were far richer.
Let's consider some obvious examples through history:
How about the Augustus, the first emperor of Rome? Augustus personally owned the entire country of Egypt. Unlike other Roman provinces, Egypt was not a part of the Roman state but was owned by Augustus personally.
Or consider Genghis Khan who controlled most of the continent of Asia, the land value of which is tens of trillions easily.
Or perhaps the richest people of all time were the emperors of China, who controlled the world's wealthiest and most populous country, with a GDP orders of magnitude higher than ancient Mali.
Finally, let's consider King Salman, the current King of Saudi Arabia. While his "personal" wealth is estimated at only $20 billion or so, he could theoretically pay himself an arbitrary amount of the state oil wealth. The value of the national oil company Saudi Aramco has been estimated at between $2 and $10 trillion dollars.
Heads of State Don't Count Anyway
If the above examples seem ridiculous, it's because they are. Heads of state shouldn't be considered for the title of "richest person" in history. It's impossible to determine where the wealth of the individual ends and the wealth of the state begins. For this simple reason Mansa Musa shoudn't even be considered.
In conclusion Mansa Musa was almost certainly not the richest person in history because:
- He probably didn't have nearly as much gold as people say he did
- Even if he did, there was nothing to buy with it
- Other people were far richer
- Heads of state almost never count on these lists for good reason
So, Who is the Richest Person in History?
There really isn't a definite answer to that question. For one, we don't really know how much wealth certain historical people had. John D. Rockefeller is another popular answer found on the internet. We know he had $1 billion in 1916. According to U.S. inflation numbers, this would be worth "only" $22 billion today. Estimates of $300 billion or higher are derived by extrapolating his "share" of the U.S. economy to modern times. Which is ridiculous since the U.S. is far, far wealthier than it was during Rockefeller's time.
If I was forced to say, I would say the richest private individual of all time is ... Bill Gates. His wealth of $100 billion in 1999 would be worth $144 billion in 2016 dollars. And unlike Mansa Musa, he'd actually be able to spend it!
Update: In July 2019, Jeff Bezos reached a net worth of $163 billion.