The Trans-Saharan Gold Trade (7th–14th century) Gold Trade and the Kingdom of Ancient Ghana

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Reading Packet # 2-3: Gold and Salt Trade in Africa

The Trans-Saharan Gold Trade (7th–14th century)
Gold Trade and the Kingdom of Ancient Ghana
Around the fifth century, thanks to the availability of the camel, Berber-speaking people began crossing the Sahara Desert. From the eighth century onward, annual trade caravans followed routes later described by Arabic authors with minute attention to detail. Gold, sought from the western and central Sudan, was the main commodity of the trans-Saharan trade. The traffic in gold was spurred by the demand for and supply of coinage. The rise of the Soninke empire of Ghana appears to be related to the beginnings of the trans-Saharan gold trade in the fifth century.
Leaders of the ancient kingdom of Ghana accumulated wealth by keeping the core of pure metal, leaving the unworked native gold to be marketed by their people.

From the seventh to the eleventh century, trans-Saharan trade linked the Mediterranean economies that demanded gold—and could supply salt—to the sub-Saharan economies, where gold was abundant. Although local supply of salt was sufficient in sub-Saharan Africa, the consumption of Saharan salt was promoted for trade purposes. In the eighth and ninth centuries, Arab merchants operating in southern Moroccan towns such as Sijilmasa bought gold from the Berbers, and financed more caravans. These commercial transactions encouraged further conversion of the Berbers to Islam. Increased demand for gold in the North Islamic states, which sought the raw metal for minting, prompted scholarly attention to Mali and Ghana, the latter referred to as the "Land of Gold." For instance, geographer al-Bakri described the eleventh-century court at Kumbi Saleh, where he saw gold-embroidered caps, golden saddles, shields and swords mounted with gold, and dogs' collars adorned with gold and silver. The Soninke managed to keep the source of their gold (the Bambuk mines, most notably) secret from Muslim traders. Yet gold production and trade were important activities that undoubtedly mobilized hundreds of thousands of African people. Leaders of the ancient kingdom of Ghana accumulated wealth by keeping the core of pure metal, leaving the unworked native gold to be marketed by their people.

Gold Trade and the Mali Empire
By 1050 A.D., Ghana was strong enough to assume control of the Islamic Berber town of Audaghost. By the end of the twelfth century, however, Ghana had lost its domination of the western Sudan gold trade. Trans-Saharan routes began to bypass Audaghost, expanding instead toward the newly opened Bure goldfield. Soso, the southern chiefdom of the Soninke, gained control of Ghana as well as the Malinke, the latter eventually liberated by Sundiata Keita, who founded the Mali empire. Mali rulers did not encourage gold producers to convert to Islam, since prospecting and production of the metal traditionally depended on a number of beliefs and magical practices that were alien to Islam. In the fourteenth century, cowrie shells were introduced from the eastern coast as local currency, but gold and salt remained the principal mediums of long-distance trade.

The flow of sub-Saharan gold to the northeast probably occurred in a steady but small stream. Mansa Musa's arrival in Cairo carrying a ton of the metal (1324–25) caused the market in gold to crash, suggesting that the average supply was not as great. Undoubtedly, some of this African gold was also used in Western gold coins. African gold was indeed so famous worldwide that a Spanish map of 1375 represents the king of Mali holding a gold nugget. When Mossi raids destroyed the Mali empire, the rising Songhai empire relied on the same resources. Gold remained the principal product in the trans-Saharan trade, followed by kola nuts and slaves. The Moroccan scholar Leo Africanus, who visited Songhai in 1510 and 1513, observed that the governor of Timbuktu owned many articles of gold, and that the coin of Timbuktu was made of gold without any stamp or superscription.

Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. "The Trans-Saharan Gold Trade (7th–14th century)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2000)

Saharan Trade: A Link Between Europe and Africa


The Saharan trade extended from the Sub-Saharan West African kingdoms across the Sahara desert to Europe. The Saharan Trade linked such African empires as Ghana, Mali, and Songhay to the European world.


Saharan Trade and the Empire of Ghana

In their book A Glorious Age in Africa, authors Daniel Chu and Elliot Skinner state that the "lifeblood of the [Ghana] empire was trade." Therefore, the Saharan trade routes were instrumental to the empire's success. Merchants carrying foodstuffs to the kingdom would trade them for locally produced goods such as cotton cloth, metal ornaments, leather goods, and above all GOLD. Koumbi was the trade center and capital of the empire.


The Gold-Salt Trade


While the Sudan, where the Empire of Ghana was situated, posessed a large amount of gold, the region lacked adequate salt for the survival of Empire's population. The Desert regions of present day Morocco and Algeria, however, contained huge salt resources, and desert inhabitants were always in search of valuables. Not surprisingly, the gold-salt trade between the Ghana Empire and the Arab desert merchants flourished.

The route began in Northern Africa in a commercial city known as Sidjilmassa ( near the present-day Moroccan-Algerian border). It passed through the salt-rich village of Taghaza, through the Sahara and finally to the gold region of the Ghana Empire known as Wangara. No one knows the exact location of this region but it was probably near the Bambuk and Bure regions near the Senegal River.

The king maintained tight control over the kingdom's gold production in order to keep gold prices high. Only the king, for example, could possess gold nuggets; other residents could own only gold dust. The king also made profits of the trade by taxing traders who used trade routes that passed through the empire.


Saharan Trade during the Mali Empire

Despite the change in political control of West Africa due to the fall of the Ghana Empire and the rise of the Islamic Mali Empire in 1235, control of the gold-salt trade remained the economic lifeline of the region. Merchants established a second major gold-salt trade route northeast across the Sahara that passed through Tunis, and Cairo, and ended in Egypt's interior. This route complimented the traditional Western Sudan--Maghreb--Europe trade route. As the second trade route grew in popularity, Egypt's influence on the Western Sudan grew as well.

While the kings of the Ghana Empire restricted gold's availablilty during their reigns, the rulers of Mali did not. In fact, Mansa Musa, the most famous ruler of the Mali Empire, spent and gave so much gold during his celebrated hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) in 1324 that he severely lowered the value of the precious metal in Egypt .

Egyptian and Malian leaders continued to visit the two different kingdoms, but their voyages never could meet Mansa Musa's in splendor.

The Songhay Empire and Trans-Saharan Trade

When the Songhay people, under the leadership of Sunni Ali Kolon rose up to challenge the Mali Empire in the late 1400s, they understood the importance of controlling the trade centers of the Empire. The Songhay captured Timbuktu, a center of education and trade very well known outside of Western Africa, as well as Jenne, a beautiful city located in the backwaters of a tributary of the Niger River that was also a trade and learning center.

Gao, a city that had started to grow in importance during the Mali empire, continued to grow in population and in importance as a market center. In addition, the copper mining town of Takedda, located on the eastern trans-Saharan trading route, contributed to the Songhay empire's financial growth. Finally, during Sunni Ali's reign (late 1400s), trade along the eastern trans-Saharan route created during the Mali empire reached a peak.

 Religion and the Trans-Saharan Trade

Merchants transported more than valuable commodities along the trans-Saharan routes. Just as Buddhism reached the Chinese Empire via Indian merchants travelling the Silk Road, Islam reached black West Africa through Arab Merchants on Saharan caravan routes. During the Ghana, Mali, and Songhay empires Arab merchants brought the Koran and the written language Arabic to the traditionally oral cultures each empire encompassed.

Although the common citizens usually felt no pressure to convert from their traditional religions, royal families and merchants often did convert to Islam in order to curry favor with the Arab traders. Kings and merchants understood the importance of extensive trade to their region.

Trade Across the Sahara

By Alistair Boddy-Evans, Guide

Medieval Trade Routes Across the Sahara

between the 11th and 15th centuries west africa exported goods across the sahara desert to europe

Between the 11th and 15th centuries West Africa exported goods across the Sahara Desert to Europe and beyond.

Image: © Alistair Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

The sands of the Sahara Desert could've been a major obstacle to trade between Africa, Europe, and the East, but it was more like a sandy sea with ports of trade on either side. In the south were cities such as Timbuktu and Gao; in the north, cities such as Ghadames (in present-day Libya). From there goods traveled onto Europe, Arabia, India, and China.

Muslim traders from North Africa shipped goods across the Sahara using large camel caravans -- on average around a thousand camels, although there's a record which mentions caravans travelling between Egypt and Sudan that had 12,000 camels.

They brought in mainly luxury goods such as textiles, silks, beads, ceramics, ornamental weapons, and utensils. These were traded for gold, ivory, woods such as ebony, and agricultural products such as kola nuts (which act as a stimulant as they contain caffeine). They also brought their religion, Islam, which spread along the trade routes.

Nomads living in the Sahara traded salt, meat, and their knowledge as guides for cloth, gold, cereal, and slaves.

Until the discovery of the the Americas, Mali was the principal producer of gold. African ivory was also sought after because it's softer than that from Indian elephants and therefore easier to carve. Slaves were wanted by the courts of Arab and Berber princes as servants, concubines, soldiers, and agricultural laborers.

When Sonni Ali, the ruler of the Songhai Empire, which was situated to the east along the curve of the Niger River, conquered Mali in 1462, he set about developing both his own capital, Gao, and the main centers of Mali, Timbuktu and Jenne, into major cities which controlled a great deal of trade in the region.

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