If you should take it upon yourself this week to take a stroll through your closest city’s financial district, probably to distract yourself from your recent unemployment, you will have the opportunity to enjoy a sound not usually seen among the pristine smiles and pinstripe suits – the song of protest.
The tabloids usually blame such discontent on how we presently dole out all the things that we make as societies, the feeling that we shouldn’t have allowed ourselves to come to a point where a few amongst us, the much abused 1%, can afford supermodel wives, Las Vegas penthouse hotel rooms, or entirely redundant nip/tuck procedures, while many cannot afford to feed their families.
Rather than dashing out, beret in hand, to immediately join the Communist Party, it may be a better idea to put said thoughts in historical perspective. If we take even a quick look at how things have been before, it’s immediately clear that the tendency for wealth to concentrate in the hands of a few is not an emerging grievance but rather an entirely natural, albeit unfortunate, process.
In an effort to demonstrate this, what follows is a short-list of ten of the most obscene hoards of wealth found in human history. Enjoy.
10. Alan Rufus (c. 1040-1093)
Estimated wealth: $178.65 billion.
Little is known for sure of “Alan the Red” – so-called because of the colour of his hair – what is certain, however, is that he holds the enigmatic title of richest non-Royal Briton in history. It is speculated that he was an ally, although some sources cite him as a nephew, of William the Conqueror during the Norman Conquest. This, of course, encompasses the Battle of Hastings of 1066, the last successful invasion of the British Isles.
It was normal during the period for nobles loyal to the Crown to be rewarded with vast holdings of land in recognition for their services in battle. Following his early victories, William sought to consolidate his power throughout England by a series of campaigns directed at the Northern regions. William’s scorched earth policy led to the rapid depopulation of the area, the death toll has been estimated to be as high as 100,000, which was then redistributed to leaders of the conquering army. Alan Rufus was the chief beneficiary among those so rewarded.
The Domesday Survey of 1086 records Rufus’ income of £1,200, only third among the baronial class. However, his enormous holdings of land, which covered 250,000 acres upon which he built Richmond castle, assured him of a place in billionaire history. His wealth was valued in the region of £11,000, approximately 7% of the national income of the time.
9. Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877)
Estimated wealth: $185 billion.
A precocious child, he took great pleasure in charting his father’s boat, ferrying passengers from Staten Island to Manhattan and daydreaming about someday owning his own. He quit school at the earliest opportunity, once famously remarking, “If I had learned education I would not have had time to learn anything else.”
As an adult, he determinedly acquired most of the ferry lines and other lines within the vicinity of New York City. It was these acquisitions that resulted in the nickname “Commodore”, by which he was referred to even in his later years as a railroad tycoon. He established himself as a deft strategist, partnering with other talented businessmen to avoid competing with them and using populist marketing to convince the public that monopolistic companies were in their interest, which they inevitably weren’t.
Living in a time when borderline incestuous marriage was less socially reprehensible, he duly married his first cousin, Elizabeth, with whom he produced thirteen children. Upon her death, his affinity for family continued unabated and he married another cousin, Frank, although, at 74, he seemed unable or unwilling to produce any more children. A 43-year age difference suggests it was more likely the former.
He seemed relatively unconcerned with possessions given his enormous wealth, splurging only on racehorses, but more concerned with his legacy. Disavowing any inclinations towards fairness, he left 95% of his estate to his son William, who he felt was unique among his many children in possessing the ruthlessness to maintain his empire.
8. Henry Ford (1863-1947)
Estimated wealth: $199 billion.
Not merely the only person on this list who can legitimately lay claim to being a product of the modern era, but can arguably be considered as having a major role in its creation. He was the undisputed business titan of his era who, in 1920, was the sole proprietor of the largest industrial empire ever built, and exerted direct control over 60% of the American car market.
Ford split his time between operating or repairing steam engines, factory-work and, where it absolutely could not be avoided, offering grudging labour as a farm worker. Ford’s talent for machinery and his distaste for the monotony of farm life led to him becoming chief engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company in 1893. This afforded him the opportunity to mooch off his company responsibilities long enough to develop his own self-propelled vehicle – the Quadricycle.
After a couple of false starts, where he started companies that he felt had issues with cost or quality, Ford established the Ford Motor Company in 1903. The Model T, introduced in 1908, became an instant sensation. Ford's ability to utilise an assembly line process that minimised costs allowed him to pass on such savings to a grateful public, who rewarded him with 100% sales growth in some years with production peaking at just over 15 million in 1927. Such incredible production numbers were inevitably complemented by stratospheric monetary growth. His net worth was estimated at well over a billion dollars as early as 1920.
Ford's political legacy has generously been described as mixed. Given more recent findings of prominent historians, this characterisation now almost certainly appears apocryphal. His anti-Semitic zeal bordered on the maniacal. His involvements in such activities are too numerous to explain in detail, however, by way of example; on his seventy-fifth birthday he was delighted to receive the Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle from Adolf Hitler. Hitler, on his part, reportedly kept a photo of Henry Ford in his office. This was probably an acknowledgement of the influence that Ford’s publication, “The International Jew”, had had on Hitler’s perverse philosophy.
7. William the Conqueror (c. 1028-1087)
Estimated Wealth: $229.5 billion
Descended from Viking raiders, William II was born into one of the great noble families of Europe. Because of his questionable heritage he acquired the early nickname “William the Bastard”. Presumably, the possibility of a better moniker provided the incentive for his later military exploits.
Most of William’s life was marked by struggle to consolidate his authority in whatever territory he happened to find himself. His father died early in his childhood, and much of the period between this and his ascent of the Norman Throne was besieged by conflict. Having finally crushed a series of baronial rebellions in 1055, William turned his attention overseas.
In 1066, Edward, king of England died and Harold, Earl of Wessex was crowned king. Harold had earlier promised the Crown to William who, feeling reneging on promises didn’t constitute royal behaviour, raised an army against him. They met at the battle of Hastings in Southern England where the last Saxon king of the British Isles was duly dispatched with an arrow through the eye.
William displayed nothing but contempt for the indigenous Saxons, both on the battlefield and as ruler, happily tossing Harold’s body into the sea and mercilessly oppressing native peoples. He’s a polarising figure among historians, being seen either as the creator of English greatness or the lasting destroyer of English purity.
6. Osman Ali Khan, Asaf Jah VII (1886 – 1967)
Estimated wealth: $230 billion.
The last Nizam of the of the Princely State of Hyderabad, Khan is among a select group of contemporary Royalty to have complete and unadulterated private access to their private treasury. If you suffer from chronic cynicism, he demonstrated this freedom by buying so many pearls he could have conceivably paved Piccadilly. This aside, he owned hundreds of racehorses, dozens of Rolls-Royces and - for the man who had everything else - the $100 million Jacob Diamond he allegedly used as a paperweight.
Although Khan certainly knew how to have fun with his inherited wealth, an education by some of the leading scholars of the era ensured that his reign would be marked as one of the most progressive of any period or place in Indian history. His vision was to make Hyderabad one of the great cities of the world, and when a great flood destroyed much of the city in 1908, he seized his opportunity. Daring to challenge the British influenced fashion of the time; he rebuilt the city as a testament to Indo-Islamic-Saracen culture, with arches, domes and columns taking prominent positions. Never content, he continually pushed for health reform, built Osmania University, and donated to many worthy institutions both at home and abroad.
Despite being largely stable at home, his reign was besieged by the rampant instability which characterised the political era globally. After Indian Independence was granted in 1947 Khan originally sought for Hyderabad to become a fully independent country within the British Commonwealth. In 1948, with the British denying Khan any assistance, Indian forces invaded and annexed Hyderabad. For the remainder of his life he held a series of ceremonial roles whilst fighting a series of bitter legal disputes with relatives, which more than halved his fortune.
His death in 1967 was followed by one of the most highly attended funerals in Indian history, a testament either to his enduring popularity, or the lack of anything better to do in India that day.
5. William Henry Vanderbilt (1821 – 1885)
Estimated Wealth: $239 billion.
The second Vanderbilt on this list, it would be tempting to dismiss William’s success as simply being the fortunate consequence of his birth. Consideration of his achievements, however, gives him a worthy place on this list.
In childhood, William seemed stifled by the formidable personality of “The Commodore”, who occupies the number nine spot on this list. Cornelius considered his eldest son frail and sickly, often calling him a “blockhead”, with a tendency to ramble; quite incompetent to run the family business. This constant belittling apparently steeled the youngster, preparing him for the mercenary persona he would later take on in his business dealings. His acumen became apparent when, at age 19, William was shipped off to a farm on Staten Island over – what else – a disagreement with his father. William surprised his father by restoring the farm to profitability.
Emboldened by the success of his shrewd enterprise, William attempted to convince his father to enter the railroad business. Cornelius, now suspecting he had a worthy heir in the making, conceded. Together, the two men successfully merged five rail lines in the New York area into a regional behemoth, the aptly named New York Central Railroad. Henry took an active role in the running of the company and when his father died, in 1877, he became the sole manager of all Vanderbilt holdings. Cornelius, for his part, died knowing his life’s accomplishments would remain safe in his sons’ capable hands.
Upon his fathers demise, it soon became apparent William had been holding back so as to embarrass his father by his brilliance. By 1885, he had doubled the family fortune. This was a truly astonishing achievement. In contemporary terms, it is the equivalent of Bill Gates deciding that monopoly control over the software industry is not enough, and somehow finding a way to double his wealth inside ten years. His motivations, whatever they were, were certainly not material, once famously remarking, "The care of $200 million is too great a load for any back or brain to bear. It is enough to kill anyone. There is no pleasure in it." Insightful indeed, given that he died shortly after.
4. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia
Estimated Wealth: $300 billion
A Greek – er, Russian - tragedy worthy of the name, the Tsar’s life was one marked by epic drama – born into Royalty, a reign besieged by conflict, and finally, dying with his family, bullet ridden on the floor of a cell.
Nicholas obviously inherited his massive wealth however, in contrast to the previous entry, he couldn’t have done much less to deserve it. His reign saw Russia go from being one of the great economic and military powers of Europe to a global pariah. Despite having visited Britain before his accession and seemingly being impressed with the workings of democracy, he remained staunchly autocratic. This was no doubt partly the influence of his wife, Alix of Hesse, a Lady Macbeth figure, who wielded considerable influence over his policy.
His unyielding stubbornness precluded the possibility of constitutional reforms that not only would probably have preserved his monarchy, but ensured progress for Russian society as a whole. His incompetence in domestic policy was only matched by his inept handling of foreign affairs. Under his rule, Russia suffered catastrophic defeat to the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War and lost 3.3 million men in World War 1.
When a weary populace, who had finally decided that even communism had to be better than this fresh hell, decided to take up arms against him he was forced to abdicate. His cousin George V, who seemed to be worried that incompetence was contagious, refused him asylum in the United Kingdom. Originally kept at the pleasure of the Kerensky government, power was soon won by the Bolsheviks. First-hand accounts seem to suggest Nicholas was unaware of the significance, perhaps believing all governments to be ephemeral against the majesty and permanence of monarchy. The Bolsheviks clearly had other ideas.
Almost certainly under the orders of Lenin, Nicholas, his family, and a small band of faithful servants were awoken in the early hours of 17 July 1918. They were moved to a small room on the pretext that anti-Bolshevic forces threatened their safety. Upon being informed by an officer that he had been condemned to death, he replied with all the immortal conviction of a man aware his words would be inscribed in history, “What?” at which point he was shot several times in the chest. Sadly, his family and servants were executed alongside him. The diamonds and jewels that Nicholas’ wife had so coveted in life were sewn into their clothes and probably acted as crude body armour, prolonging their dreadful experience.
3. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919)
Estimated Wealth: $310 billion
Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, into a poor weaver’s family. Living accommodation consisted of half the ground floor of a small cottage. Finding their circumstances incongruous with the business of survival, the family borrowed money to move to Pennsylvania, USA, when Carnegie was aged thirteen. An intelligent and voracious reader, Carnegie moved up quickly through the ranks of various companies in which he found employment, most notably that of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company where be became the assistant to the Superintendent of the Western Division, Thomas Scott.
Scott was fond of his young protégé, often rewarding him with insider information and arranging the loan of funds that enabled Carnegie to accumulate capital early in his career. Succeeding his mentor as superintendent, Carnegie continued to shrewdly invest in promising enterprises. As part of his duties, he would often have to visit Britain where, in 1870, he observed the development of the steel industry. Realising that steel would soon replace iron in the production of all heavy goods, Carnegie decided to build a steel company. In 1870, Carnegie erected his first blast furnace, which was followed by many more.
By 1889 Carnegie had built Carnegie Steel into the largest steel company in the world, valued at $25 million. Well before this, as early as 1970, Carnegie had developed philanthropic urges, famously remarking, “To die rich is to die disgraced!” Not merely words, Carnegie sold his stake in Carnegie steel in 1901 for a reputed $225 million, which allowed him to pursue the protection of his honour full-time. By the time he died of bronchial pneumonia in 1919, he had given away $350 million. If you live in the English-speaking world then, chances are, there’s a library somewhere nearby that was funded through his generosity.
2. John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937)
Estimated Wealth: $340 billion.
Often regarded as the richest man there ever was, Rockefeller stands in monotonous contrast to the previous entry on the list. His insipid dullness probably reflects the volatility of his early years, where he was constantly forced to move around at the behest of a polygamous and unpredictable father, which resulted in a desire for order and stability. That being said, he did not lack ambition, remarking when he was young that his two life goals where to make $100,000 and live until he was 100.
Rockefeller was in many ways a contradictory figure, a biographer going so far as to write, “-his good side was every bit as good as his bad side was bad.” This seems to be a pretty concise analysis. His modus operandi in business was horizontal integration, he would use his cost-cutting acumen to aggressively and militantly pursue competitors until he had monopolised entire industries. Once such enemies were within his grasp, however, he would always offer them a fair price for their assets. This was not altogether necessary, as he could simply have driven them into bankruptcy and picked up their assets cheaply at auction. By 1896, when Rockefeller had run out of competitors to destroy, he was worth $200 million.
Around this time a suspicious public were presented with a serious of articles from one of the era’s leading muckrakers, Ira Tarbell, which provided them with all the prejudiced excuse they needed to vilify Rockefeller. Rockefeller, for his part, responded in private by referring to her as Miss Tarbarrel (the wit!). Within this culture of suspicion, the Supreme Court upheld Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to dissolve Standard Oil in 1911. John had the last laugh, however, as the competition helped the companies to increase in value five-fold over the next nine years.
In an effort to address this image problem, Rockefeller devoted himself more fully to philanthropy. He had always tithed 10% of his income to the Church, but over the next few years Rockefeller gave over $500 million in aid of medical research, universities and Baptist churches. He was also a major supplier of funds to organisations such as the Anti-Saloon League that was involved in the campaign for prohibition, feeling that if he didn’t get to enjoy alcohol, then no one else should either.
1. Mansa Musa I (c. 1280-c. 1337)
Estimated Wealth: $400 billion.
Likely to be another name on this list that no one with any kind of hobby has ever heard of, Musa was the enlightened “King of Kings” of the vast Malian empire, which existed in West Africa from about 1230 to 1600.
Musa’s rise to the wealthiest thrown in human history came via an unusual practice that may strike the uninformed as vaguely surreptitious. Whenever a king ventured off on a pilgrimage to Mecca, or an otherwise more fanciful exploit, they would appoint a holding king to take care of business in their absence. Traditionally, the caretaker would then be named as the rightful heir upon the king’s return. By all accounts, Musa seemed like quite an intelligent guy, so one can imagine whenever his king told him to keep the house in order while he went off to explore the outer limits of the Atlantic Ocean, at a time when accurate navigational instruments were purely imaginary, he had to suppress a wry smile. Musa, of course, found himself saddled in his new job permanently.
Musa made his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, a command ordained by Allah according to core teachings of Islam. Of course, any self-respecting king of kings has a reputation to maintain. Accordingly, he brought along 60,000 men, 12,000 slaves who each carried 2kg of gold and, apparently nonplussed with being too bling, gold staff wielding heralds dressed in silken robes. Given that he casually gave the gold away to the poor he met along the way, it’s just about possible to forgive such ostentatious displays.
During his arduous return from Mecca in 1325, he received news that his army had recaptured Goa, an important but often rebellious trading centre of his empire. Feeling that he should take the time to peruse this latest addition to his kingly estate, Musa visited Goa, and took as hostages the two sons of the Goan king. In stark contrast to what would have been the approach in Western Europe at that time, Musa took the boys, along with all the architects and scholars he could find, under his wing and had them educated at his court.
When he finally retuned from his pilgrimage, Musa embarked upon an intellectual and economic building plan, one that would see Mali become one of the first economic global powers, the effects of which which would continue well into the middle ages. Unfortunately, his tenacity of character was not shared by his subsequent heirs, as only two generations later, his vast personal wealth was lost to civil war and invading conquerors.