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Before there was Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, there was Musa I of Mali, one of the most notable rich men in history.

In her hit single “Black Parade”, Beyoncé writes: 

“Waist beads from Yoruba. Four hunnid billi, Mansa Musa.”

This reference to Musa, the great emperor of Mali, didn’t end up in the song by accident. He was reportedly worth over $400 billion in a time when many nations around the world were tangled in civil wars, fighting to retain resources. But his net worth alone isn’t the sole fascinating fact; Mansa Musa was a man of color who owned more than any white King in the world. 

Who exactly was Mansa Musa?

Mansa Musa, I was more than just one of the rich men in history; he was a tenacious military and political ruler of the Mali empire from 1312-37. Although he inherited a wealthy kingdom, Musa controlled massive territories rich in natural resources like Gold, Copper, and salt.

The Mali empire was one of the richest empires in Africa, mainly due to its richness in resources. The empire was brought to life by Sundiata Keita in 1240 from where it continued on till 1645.

The empire’s most important city was Timbuktu, located close to River Niger that opened doors for trade routes. The empire gained enormous wealth due to its capacity to offer trade routes to West and North Africa. North Africa sold salt while the South sold Gold and Ivory. 

Eventually, Mali became the trade hub for West and South African territories, and soon the empire grew out to include Ghana, Walata, Tadmekka, and the regions around the Atlantic coast. As the empire grew, so did the trade. Many Muslim merchants from Arab countries traveled to Mali and became the reason for the widespread adoption of Islam by the indigenous people.

Mansa Musa was the grand-nephew of Sundiata Keita, so he naturally came into power after his predecessor Mansa Abu Bakr II went missing on his voyage to the Atlantic. Mali was already a thriving empire when Musa garnered the throne, but he did contribute to helping it expand more. 

Musa commanded an army of 100,000 with the help of General Saran Mandian. Over just a few years, he was able to expand the empire, making it 2nd largest next to the Mongol empire. To manage his vast empire, he divided the entire kingdom into different sections governed by special governors. 

The wealth gradually began to rise to what most would consider an unimaginable height thanks to the taxes levied on trades and monopolized control over natural resources including Copper and Gold.

While Mali was thriving under Musa, he was unknown to the rest of the world until he decided to take the holy pilgrimage to the city of Mecca just like his other Muslim predecessors. Musa had a big caravan prepared for the journey. It reportedly included over 100 camels that carried 300 pounds of gold. Over 500 slaves carried 2.7-kilo gold staffs. Hundreds of more camels carried food, textiles, and other materials. Additionally, there were thousands of officials and a massive entourage that accompanied Musa on his journey. It was a caravan unlike any other.

On route, Musa stopped in Cairo, Egypt where he impressed the tribal people and their sultan with his gargantuan wealth. He handed out 50,000 gold dimes to the sultan as a first-meeting gesture. His entourage spent humongous amounts of gold dinars in Cairo shops, sending the value of gold dinar crashing by 20%. it is said that it took the Cairo market nearly 20 years to recover from that crash. 

The news of Musa’s journey to Mecca sparked an instant fascination in Europe and surrounding countries that have never heard of a king so wealthy. It inspired a mapmaker to draw the map of West Africa with Musa prominently in the foreground. It would not be wrong to say that Musa essentially put Mali and West Africa on the map, both literally and figuratively. Created in 1375, Africa’s map became a part of Catalan Atlas. This inspired Europeans to travel to Timbuktu and other cities in Mali to see one of the rich men in history in the heart of a desert.


Image/Catalan Atlas of 1375

After his pilgrimage, Musa brought many intellectuals, including architects and engineers, to help enrich his country with modern architecture. The great mosque of Djenne is a fruitful result of Musa’s consistent efforts to revitalize his empire. 


The great mosque of Djenne/image World Atlas

However, the great Mali empire didn’t last too long. And what was once a pumping heart, circulating blood to the west and south Africa beat no more. Musa’s successors could not maintain the discipline Musa was known for and soon succumbed to civil wars that dismantled the empire’s scaffolding that held it in place for years. Meanwhile, new trade routes in Portuguese took away the monopoly that had generated tremendous wealth during Musa’s reign, and a neighboring empire, the Songhai Empire, began to rise. [source]


South-west Kangaba, Mali/ Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1799)

Modern-day Kirina, Mali/photograph by WERNER FORMAN

Lessons learned from Musa’s great empire  

We cannot compare him to modern entrepreneurs or even other rich men in history who built their networth from zero. Musa inherited a lot of his wealth. When you have so much, you can build from it. Donald Trump created his empire from what his father, Fred Trump, left for him. Could he have done it without his father? 

Another aspect of Musa’s success story is the army. In those days, wars were common. So whoever had the army would capture small territories and gain control over whatever natural resources those territories entailed. Musa, like his predecessors, too, expanded his empire through conquest. Additionally, people were enslaved to work in the mines, which is not a very ideal situation. Many of history’s rich men were created because they used slaves and resources that the others had no access to or were unable to access because of other reasons.

So while we are not very impressed with Musa’s wealth, we are, however, in awe of his discipline. He did know how to manage the vast state and find the right people to work with. Something that his successors lacked. Musa knew how to have a work-life balance so he can maintain the wealth of his empire. Jay Z famously said in his song “Family Feud”: 

“Let me alone, Becky. A man that doesn’t take care of his family can’t be rich. Nobody wins when the family feuds.” 

Bey and Jay are clearly fans of Musa (he’s been referenced in at least two of their songs). And I think there’s a great lesson here: Musa’s successors lost everything that took their predecessors hundreds of years to build just because they started feuding.

Musa meticulously chose his generals, governors, army, created laws for taxes and tariffs, created a system to monopolize trade in West And South Africa (something that no one else was doing), and kept strong ties with those around him. In business, no matter how small or large, you need to think about each and every aspect because every detail matters. And you have to take care of those around you because nobody wins when the family feuds.  


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