How do modern billionaires stack up against African kings?

Originally published at: How do modern billionaires stack up against African kings? | Boing Boing


A colleague of mine at university wrote his senior honor’s thesis in history on how Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage singlehandedly brought West Africa to the attention of Europe, but in a bad way (i.e. setting the stage for later colonialism). I never got to read his finished thesis, so I am not sure how sound his argument was, but I can sure imagine some people hearing about that much gold and deciding that they want to rob the place.


The dude gave so much gold away it crashed the world economy.


That brings up a major question in terms of how you want to score wealth:

Do you want to measure magnitude relative to the rest of however much economy is in shipping range; or do you want to score according to absolute ability to obtain goods and services?

If you are going by magnitude, having your spending crash gold-standard currencies (along with the presumably-considerable exercises of state power domestically that ‘emperor’ entitles you to) is a pretty clear indicator that Mansa Musa takes the cake. It is much, much, less likely that Bezos could tank the value of USD on his own initiative(and, if he could, it would probably require a scheme that takes advantage of some identified vulnerability and uses some combination of heavily leveraged trading activities and outside investors); while it’s a matter of historical record that Mansa Musa tanked gold.

If you are scoring by procurement power; crashing gold-standard currencies suggests that you are actually running into serious limits imposed by the magnitude of your nominal wealth relative to the capacity of the rest of the economy to produce goods and services you might wish to buy; and that you have reached the point of rapidly diminishing returns(where spending additional gold just makes the value of gold go down/price of goods and services in gold go up; rather than getting you additional goods and services).

For procurement-power scoring; contemporary billionaires likely have it precisely because of their (comparatively) small size relative to the economy as a whole(and the much larger swath of ‘economy’ that is now within shipping range thanks to electronic transactions and container ships and such). There’s also the additional advantage of having access to goods and services that simply could not be had for any price at a 14th century tech level. I’m not sure if Mansa Musa would have been interested in orbital launch capabilities or high performance computing(quite possibly, given that contemporary nation-states love both, and Mali probably would have wanted orbital surveillance capability and climate modelling and stuff had it been available); but he couldn’t have had it even if he possessed all the gold in earth’s gravity well; while it’s expensive but off-the-shelf today.

Bezos certainly couldn’t cash out all his Amazon stock immediately without tanking it, and most of the others on the current rich list also have one or more major stocks that they would need to liquidate slowly and carefully to get a decent fraction of the nominal value; but your odds of spending 100 billion dollars today without just shoving prices up an inelastic supply curve are almost certainly better than trying to spend 400 billion(or even 100 billion) in the 14th century without doing that.


The only time that anyone came close to Mansa Musa’s wealth is John D Rockefeller and that was after the break up of the Standard Oil Trust which multiplied the value of his shares.


It’s a another video, but kudos for bringing this kind of content to the forum; and props to your parents for educating you on Mansa Musa.


Echoing the Ursula Le Guin quote, I look forward to a time when billionaires like Bezos are considered as ridiculously toxic to human societies as we now consider absolute monarchs like Mansa Musa.


That image of someone flaunting wealth and a group of seedy folks thinking “let’s take that!” is the opening scene to every heist movie ever.


I may be missing the /s, but this certainly isn’t true. For one, there was no “world economy.”

[sorry if this next is covered in the video–I’m in my office and can’t watch it at the moment]

But, the legend was always that he gave so much gold away that he crashed some local economies in northern Africa. That’s debatable. He did cause economic chaos in Cairo. Mansa Musa brought to Cairo what was likely the equivalent of around 5.5 billion dollars in today’s money. And he gave it away freely. The current best estimate is that he gave away around 71,000 pounds of gold in Cairo. (The best source for this is the writings of Shihab al-Din Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn Fadlallah al-Umari, who visited shortly after Mansa Musa left the city. He described an economy that had so much gold floating around that it took a decade for the city to recover.)

What’s most interesting about this is that it was probably intentional. Mansa Musa was a trader in gold, and Mali was the center of the gold trade in West Africa. It’s how he came to have so much of it. His main competitor in Northern Africa for the gold trade? Cairo. By handing out so much gold in Cairo, and wrecking the economy, he essentially rendered gold worthless in the city and eliminated his main trading competitor. He then borrowed much of the gold back, at interest. But it was still worth much less in Cairo than before he arrived, and worth much more once he got it back to Mali. Smart guy.


Sounds like he would’ve loved his Civ 6 counterpart’s mechanics then hah.


Mansa Musa was always my least favourite Civ opponent. All smiles and support for most of the game and then he turns on a dime. At least you knew what you were getting with Blow-Your-Stack(-Overflow) Gandhi.


The entire Empire of Mali series from Extra Credits is worth a watch, but here’s the episode on Mansa Musa…

Episode 7 of the Fall of Civilizations podcast also covers his historic pilgrimage…


Yes I was aware I was being glib and simplistic.


They pale in comparison?


Drums Eye Roll GIF


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