Nigel has been in the regulated financial services industry for nearly a decade, has previously owned a financial brokerage and has written many times for sites relating to personal finance and trading.
All of the richest people in history tried to make the best of what they were given. One of our top-10 was fortunate to be an emperor sitting on gold reserves, but he made a lot of his wealth from opening up new markets. Some entrants on the list are classic rags-to-riches stories.
Some ended up with nothing, but each have an interesting story to tell and each took a shot at being the richest person ever.
Born in Bordeaux in 1750, the son of a common sailor, by 1812 Stephen Girard was saving the US government from financial collapse. He travelled to the United States as a 10-year old cabin boy and once there amassed a fortune based on trade and banking.
Upon his death in 1831, Girard was classed as the richest man in America. He bequeathed a significant proportion of his fortune to charitable causes.
French-born Girard became a naturalised American and is estimated to be the fourth richest American of all time.
As the founder of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford certainly didn’t invent the car or the concept of the assembly line, but he exploited both so successfully that he became the 9th richest man in history.
The business magnate made his fortune by delivering a car that was affordable to the masses — the Model-T Ford. By 1932, the Model-T. Ford’s factories were responsible for the manufacture of one-third of all the world's automobiles.
From humble beginnings, Ford never lost his work ethic or ambition. In 1943 Ford, then 80 years old, Ford came out of retirement to steer his firm out of financial trouble.
Muammar Gaddafi’s 41 years as ruler of Africa’s most oil-rich country allowed him to syphon off state assets and turn them into personal wealth.
In fact, the lines between the accounts of the state and its leader were particularly blurred. Money was held by government institutions like the Central Bank of Libya and the Libyan Investment Authority, but Qaddafi was able to withdraw money at will.
The sourcing of the funds may have been controversial, but Gaddafi’s investment approach was a text-book lesion in conventional investment principles. He invested in Italian bottling plants, London shopping centres and UK residential property.
To date, $37bn of Gaddafi’s assets have been traced to Britain and Germany. The whereabouts of the rest remains a mystery.
Born into a family of textile merchants, Jacob Fugger was representing his family on foreign business trips by the time he was 14 years old. Over his lifetime he amassed so much wealth that his assets were valued at 9% of German national output.
The shrewd banker built a network of informants and bribery, which covered Europe and revolutionised how business was carried out.
It was one of Fugger’s money-making schemes that so enraged the German Monk, Martin Luther, and started the Reformation. Luther’s project involved nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church and starting the process that would divide Christianity into Protestants and Catholics.
The first Norman King of England, William the Conqueror was a ruler who famously conquered the country in 1066, seized lands and plundered treasures from Sussex to Yorkshire. His haul of assets would be worth $228 billion in today's money.
England was the only country operating a tax system on landholdings, so just by remaining on the throne William benefited from a strong and consistent revenue stream called ‘danegeld’.
William not only benefited from being king and able to use state funds for his own purposes. He was also the largest private landowner in the country.
Osman Ali Khan was the last Nazim of Hyderabad state in India, an area the size of England and Scotland combined. His rule coincided with a period of great economic growth in the region. By the time of his death in 1967, he was the world’s richest man.
Reported to be the father of 149 children, the Nizam was a man of contradictions. The paperweight on his desk was a £50m diamond the size of an ostrich egg, yet he was known for knitting his own socks and preferring to wear old patched-up clothes.
Political upheaval may have robbed the Nizam of his power, but he did manage to hide away some of his wealth. One cash deposit is still being fought over today.
A £1m deposit, placed with a UK high street bank in 1948, is now worth upwards of £30m. With 470 descendants all fighting for a share, the money will remain tied up until the squabbling stops and while inflation eats away at it.
Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov, known as Nicholas II of Russia, and referred to as ‘Nicholas the Bloody’ by his rivals was one of the world’s richest people. He died at the hands of an impromptu firing squad.
He started his reign in 1894, and while in charge, saw Imperial Russia transform from being one of the foremost great powers of the world, to economic and military collapse.
If you think modern-day Russian oligarchs are wealthy, Tsar Nicholas was richer than the top 20 Russian billionaires of the 21st century combined.
Ruthless oil baron, J. D. Rockefeller, used ground-breaking technology to revolutionise oil production techniques. His rivals were simply blown away. He then turned to the rail-road industry and extended his influence by dominating that industry as well.
At one time, Rockefeller controlled 90% of all US oil, and he was the first American billionaire.
The ‘richest American of all time is quite a title’ and Rockefeller’s net worth puts him in with a shout for the title. He could have been even wealthier but ran into trouble from anti-trust forces in the government, which forced him to break up his companies.
Rockefeller didn’t wait until he made it before he engaged in philanthropy. In fact, even when he was a 20-year-old clerk, he was already donating 10% of his income to charity.
Born in Dunfermline, Scotland, Andrew Carnegie emigrated to the United States with his family in 1848. After arriving, young Andrew Carnegie started working in a factory as a bobbin boy, earning $1.20 a week. By 1865, his income was $50,000.
An industrial genius who specialised in steel production, Carnegie had a gift for spotting the next big thing, then going all-in.
Following his death in 1919, $30m of his fortune was donated to charities and foundations.
Carnegie once said, “The man who dies rich dies disgraced”.
Carnegie’s net worth would have been greater if his charitable exploits had been an ever-present feature of his working life. He came in as the second-wealthiest billionaire of all time, and just missed out on being the richest person to ever live.
Musa reigned as The King of Timbuktu and Malian emperor between 1312–1337 and was the richest man ever. The fortune he acquired came down to skill and acumen. After his death, his descendants squandered it. Being responsible for half of the world’s gold resources was not as easy a job as it might look.
Musa developed business relationships with agents as far away as Venice, Genoa and Egypt. These helped him exploit his empire’s salt and gold reserves.
Mansa Musa’s net worth allowed him to set the mould for spend, spend, spend! On one pilgrimage, his entourage included 60,000 people, 21,000 kg of gold, 100 elephants and 80 camels.
Musa’s travels through Egypt on his way to Mecca crippled the country. His passion for sharing lavish gifts with the locals caused the supply of gold to increase and the Egyptian economy to crash. It didn’t recover for 10 years.
The top 10 richest men in history all had a different path to success. We can only hope that modern economies remain a fluid and progressive place where a female candidate come through the ranks.
They will have their work cut out, however. One stand-out fact about the list is that modern-day contenders, despite many getting rich quickly by investing bitcoin, don’t feature. The figures relating to Bill Gates’ and Jeff Bezos’s net worth are of course staggering, but it’s just not enough to make it onto this list.
The contenders for title of richest person in the world right now come from the technology sector. Jeff Bezos net worth at the beginning of 2020 was estimated to be $115bn, which made him the richest man in the world at that time.
With tech-stocks booming in 2020, Jeff Bezos has seen his net worth continue to rise. With the Amazon price at current levels, Jeff Bezos’ net worth could be as high as $175bn and that makes him the richest living person.
African emperor, Mansa Musa, ruled over an empire holding half of the world’s known gold reserves. As this was during the 13 century, when gold was the measure of wealth, it’s Musa who holds the title of richest man in history.
His fortune is conservatively estimated to have been $400bn, which is more than double what Jeff Bezos’s net worth is calculated to be. While $400bn in any era is a lot of money, as the global economy was smaller back then, his real wealth would have felt even greater.
Unfortunately for him, the King of Pop was never the richest man in the world. He is, however, the highest-paid dead celebrity and last year his estate received revenues of $60m.
In 2018 his estate sold off certain artistic rights to music corporation Son. That year, his ‘income’ topped $400m.
Donald Trump’s net worth is estimated to be $2.5bn. That means he is the first billionaire president of the United States, but he’s a long way off being the richest man in America, let alone the richest man in the world or richest person in history.
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