R03f_Ch.15: West African Trade Empires and the Gold – Salt Trade
The gold-salt trade prospered in Western Africa, particularly in the empires of Mali from 1200-1400 C.E. and in Songhai from 1450-1600 CE. The economy of these empires depended heavily on the trade of gold and salt. The government’s economic policies reflected the centrality of these two natural resources.
The Kingdom of Ghana
Up until the 1200s, the former Ghana had controlled the gold-salt trade. But, due to war and depletion of their mineral deposits, the center of the gold-salt trade shifted eastward to the Kingdom of Mali, and subsequently (1400s) to Songhai. As the center of gold-salt trade shifted eastward so did the trade routes. Gold was traded with the Berbers, Muslim desert dwellers in the North, in exchange for salt. In fact, the unification of the different Berber tribes and the spread of Islam among West African rulers had promoted the expansion of the gold-salt trade by providing safe trade routes. The major trading cities in which West African merchants traded were Timbuktu, Walata, Alexandria, Nian, Marrakesh, Tunis, Tripoli and Lenne. The Empire of Mali controlled the trading routes from 12th century to early 15th C. until the control was transferred to Songhai in the 15th C. as a result of wars.
The Kingdom of Mali
At its height in the 14th century, the Empire of Mali, which included Songhai, stretched from the Atlantic coast to the Songhai capital of Gao, further East along the Niger river. In the south, it stretched to the forest and included the gold fields of Bure and Bamduck. To the North, it stretched across the Sahel to the border of the Sahara.
By the 12th century, the Malinke’s attained their independence from the Soninke, which resulted in the birth of Mali. The Mandingos of Mali became the controllers of the salt-gold routes. Sumanguru was their first ruler. He killed all his son’s except Sundiati to prevent possible rebellion against him. However, in 1235 Sundiati fought against his father and won. He became a great leader who promoted agriculture, and re-established the gold-salt trade.
In 1255, a Muslim leader named Mansa Musa took over the reigns of Mali. He made Mali into a powerful empire that dominated West Africa. He maintained a strong army and provided an efficient government. By the early 1400’s the Empire of Mali had begun to weaken.
The Kingdom of Songhai
By 1450, the people of Songhai had replaced the Mandingo as the controllers of the gold-salt trade routes. In the 15th C., Songhai, which was previously under Mali rule, became independent and established its own empire within the region. Songhai became the leading commercial kingdom in West Africa. Sunni Ali, one of Songhai’s great kings, expanded his wealth and made his empire the most powerful state in Africa. Askia Muhammad (1493-1528), who became king after overthrowing Sunni Ali’s son, was another great Songhai king. He took Songhai to new heights and further proclaimed Islam the official religion of the empire. He brought education to his empire through the Muslim culture.
Both Mali and Songhai had similar government and economic policies since their main trade depended on gold and salt. These empires had developed contacts with foreign traders who brought various commodities, the main import being salt. The contact with the foreign traders increased the inflow and the outflow of commodities. Increased taxation on these commercial activities brought sizable revenue to the kings. The kings did not have direct controls of the gold fields. However, they controlled the commercial routes and ensured that the value of the gold did not decrease as a result of a new outside source.
Trans-Sahran Caravan Trade
Trade between West Africa and the Mediterranean coast (to the North and West) was exclusively handled by Trans-Sahran Caravan trade. At regularly scheduled intervals, caravans, using camels as cargo carriers, would depart from ‘land ports’ in West Africa and North Africa (like Gao and Tunis, respectively). During the 13th, 14th, and 15th C., you might have Gold shipped from West Africa and Salt would be brought back on the return trip.
The empires of the Niger River valley could, and did, bring a variety of goods to West Africa. But, Salt was of special significance since it serves a biological and practical purpose. Salt is needed by the human body for good health, more so in an extreme climates like that of the Sahara region. Salt is also a critical food preservative for a region and era lacking refrigeration.
Salt may have been scarce in the Niger River valley, but it’s abundance in areas North and West of the valley was manifest in the architecture of nearby cities, like Taghazi. This city was located near the salt mines, which were between the Niger River valley and the Moroccan coast. Chroniclers, like Ibn-Battuta, made sure to mention in his chronicles that the buildings of Taghazi were made of Salt; Not totally surprising since Salt is a mineral and can serve as ‘stone’ for buildings.
The Trans-Saharan Caravan trade could only be a source of immense wealth if the mineral wealth of the region could be safeguarded and controlled by the kings of the empires (Ghana, then Mali, and finally Songhai). Its when this didn’t occur that the health of the empire was threatened.
Questions to Ponder:
1. The gold wealth of the West African Trading Empires was legendary. However, is there any reason to conclude that dependence on one resource (Gold) automatically condemns the region to failure?
2. Is there any nation in our modern world that displays the same dependence on a single resource?
3. To what extent Is the Trans-Saharan Caravan Trade similar/ different to the Silk Road?