Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Man Who Was Worth $400 Billion

The following letter-to-the-editor appeared in FT:

Medieval African king Musa was great at amassing gold

Sir, I hesitate to disagree with such an eminent economist as John Kay but when writing about the world’s richest person in history I fear he may be wrong (“The second richest man of all time was poorer than us”, Comment, November 5).

Citing Forbes magazine as his source, Prof Kay says “a Roman general who was the power behind Julius Caesar’s throne” was the world’s richest person ever, whereas many historians point to a medieval African king.

Mansa, or King, Musa of Mali, whose capital was Timbuktu, was worth an estimated $400bn (adjusted for inflation) thanks to his kingdom’s vast reserves of gold and salt, two of the world’s most precious resources at the time.

On his hajj to Mecca via Cairo beginning in 1324, his entourage included 60,000 porters, 12,000 slaves who each carried 4lb gold bars and 80 camels carrying 300lb of gold dust each. The king’s most senior queen is reported to have taken with her 500 maids.

Every day throughout his journey Musa held banquets for the poor and is said to have built a mosque for every Friday of his hajj.

In Egypt his generosity flooded the country with so much gold that the value of the metal plummeted and the economy was destabilised for 20 years. In an attempt to restore its value, Musa borrowed all the gold he could carry, at high interest, and – amazingly considering the distances and time span – repaid every money lender on his eventual return to Timbuktu.

According to the historian David W Tschanz, this is the only time recorded in history that one man directly controlled the price of gold in the Mediterranean.

The sophistication of the Musa’s Mali empire, including the “dignified freedom of women”, was such that some historians believe that if Europe’s 19th-century explorers had arrived in Africa then instead of 500 years later, by which time the region had been devastated by the (European) slave trade, our relationship with the continent might have developed on a far more equal footing.

Michael Street
Noto, Sicily, Italy

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