Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world with an estimated fortune of $171 billion. He holds the accolade of being the richest man today and alongside is Bill Gates worth an estimated $110bn and Mark Zuckerburg who is worth a paltry $85bn. The three of them are worth just slightly more than the current GDP of Singapore.
How does such wealth compare with others in the past? Well, the wealth these guys have amassed would not have been possible without current technological advances and the last time there was a similar situation was back in what has been termed the ‘Gilded Age’ that occurred in 1870 in the US.
The driver of wealth back then was the railroad and the catalyst was the First Transcontinental Railroad that was built across America in the 1860s, linking the railroad network of the east with California.
Back then we had the steel magnate Andrew Carnagie who amassed wealth estimated to be $370bn in today’s money. Close to him was John D Rockefeller the oil tycoon who was worth $340bn and someway back was Cornelius Vanderbilt the rail and shipping businessman who was worth $200bn. These three were worth the equivalent of the GDP of Indonesia.
Now let’s have a look at some serious wealth and to do so we must go back to the period 1280 to 1337 when Mansa Musa was king of the Mali Empire in West Africa. There is no number I can use to explain his wealth but let’s just say it was incalculable.
Mansa Musa was born in 1280 and inherited the kingdom after his brother, Mansa Abu-Bakr abdicated to go on an expedition. He was obsessed with the Atlantic Ocean and what lay beyond it and embarked on an expedition with a fleet of 2,000 ships never to return.
The kingdom of Mali grew significantly under the rule of Mansa Musa. The kingdom stretched for about 2,000 miles, from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to modern-day Niger.
The empire of Mali accounted for almost half of the Old World’s gold, according to the British Museum and all of it belonged to the king.
Though the empire of Mali was home to so much gold, the kingdom itself was not well known. This changed when Mansa Musa, a devout Muslim, decided to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. The king reportedly left Mali with a caravan of 60,000 men. He took his entire royal court, soldiers, entertainers, merchants, camel drivers and 12,000 slaves, as well as a long train of goats and sheep for food. It was a city moving through the desert.
There is no doubt that Mansa Musa spent, or wasted, a lot of gold during his pilgrimage. But it was his excessive generosity that also caught the eyes of the world. Mansa Musa had put Mali and himself on the map and his empire became an African El Dorado and people came from near and far to have a glimpse.
In addition to encouraging the arts and architecture, he funded literature and built schools, libraries and mosques. Timbuktu soon became a centre of education and people travelled from around the world to study at what would become the Sankore University.
After Mansa Musa died in 1337, aged 57, the empire was inherited by his sons who could not hold the empire together. The smaller states broke off and the empire crumbled. The later arrival of Europeans in the region was the final nail in the empire’s coffin.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at [email protected]