AN03f_Ch.15-West African Trade Empires
Timeline: 13th – 16th C.
FQ: To what extent did the West African States exploit their environment to achieve commercial success?
Main Idea: West Africa contained several rich and powerful states: Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. The gold – salt trade prospered in the region particularly during the empires of Mali (1200-1400) and Songhai (1450 – 1600). The economy of these empires depended heavily on the trade of gold and salt. Their government and economic policies revolved around the control of that trade. These civilizations maintained contact with Europe, Northern & Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Near East regions via commercial activity. Gold deposits, proximity to a major river, and a strong ‘market’ contributed to a degree of prosperity that was legendary.
-RST.9-10.1 (Cite sources on mindmap)
A. Time: 14th C.
B. Place: West Africa/ Niger River Basin
C. Circumstance: Intra-African trade network connecting sub-Sahara Africa and North Africa (Cairo & Mediterranean Basin) with the West African Trading Empires of Ghana, then Mali, and finally Songhai.
II. Concerns of a trading society.
A. Transportation: Niger River & Trans-Saharan Caravan (1)
B. Labor: Agriculturally productive society supports a high population density & a huge labor force. (2)
C. Product: Gold is the available trading item. Gold is used to acquire other ‘Needs’ and ‘Wants’
D. Needs & Wants: Salt is the ‘Need’ for biological and food preservation purposes. Manufactured goods=\> metal products & luxury goods, are the ‘Wants’.
E. Favorable Political Condition: Strong leadership, safe roads, standard weights & measures,… Mali=\> Sundiata & Mansa Musa. Songhai=\> Sunni Ali & Askia Muhammad. (3)
III. Evidence of Commercial Growth
A. Large Urban Centers [Timbuktu, Gao, Jenne]
1. Important commercial centers on the Niger river bank.
2. Intellectual and spiritual centers. Home to a prestigious Quranic universities and great structures (e.g. Mosque of Jenne).
3. Religious, Commercial, and Scholarly activity make these cities centers for cultural diffusion.
B. Arts Flourish (textiles, metallurgy, adornments)
C. Contact w/ Foreigners (Arab Merchants, European Ambassadors)
IV. The Commercial Societies of Mali & Songhai
A. The Government & the Gold – Salt Trade
Mali and Songhai shared similarities since their economic and political interests 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. This resulted in increased taxation and sizable revenue to the kings. The kings did not have direct controls of the gold fields. However, they controlled the commercial routes of gold and salt and ensured that the value of the gold did not decrease as a result of a new outside source.
Trans-Saharan trade routes were established by the empires. The power of the kings increased due to revenues from gold – salt trade. Because of their wealth and popularity they were able to get recognition inside and outside of the region. The gold markets were controlled by the kings who had passed laws that gave them authority, among other things, to control the market, to regulate the gold supply and to establish barter mode trading. The kings also passed a law that limited the gold-salt trade to the upper class that was loyal to the kings.
Up to the 1200s, Ghana controlled the gold-salt trade but due to war and depletion of gold reserves, the center of the gold-salt trade shifted eastward to the Kingdom of Mali, and subsequently in the 1400s to Songhai. As the center of gold-salt trade shifted eastward so did the trade routes. Gold was traded with the Berbers, Moslem desert dwellers in the north, in exchange for salt. In fact, the unification of the different Berber tribes and the spread of Islam religion among West African rulers had promoted the expansion of the gold-salt trade. The major trading cities in which West African merchants traded were Timbuktu, Walata, Alexandria, Nian, Marrakesh, Tunis, Tripoli and Jenne. The Empire of Mali controlled the trading routes from 12th century to 14th century until the control was transferred to Songhai in the 14th century as a result of wars.
The kings established strong armies to protect their empires and to control and safeguard the trade routes. The army was also used to expand the empire to get more gold-mine territory. Inter-marriage took place between tribes to strengthen their empire and control the trade routes. In addition, the governments established vigorous competition among the most powerful trading centers along the Niger River, namely Timbuktu, Gao, and Jenne. They had instituted excellent financial system to support the prosperous trade and commerce. They had also established good trade relations with neighboring civilizations so that the gold and salt trade would not be hampered.
The kings levied taxes on all goods passing in, out of, and through the empire. They also collected taxes from their subjects. When Mali conquered new provinces, the traditional rulers were left in place provided that they collected and forwarded tribute, which is a form of tax to the king. The king kept a large standing army whose duties included ensuring that district chiefs paid the tribute to the king. In Songhai, when a new province was conquered, the traditional rulers were replaced by governors appointed by the king. Each governor recruited his own local army which oversaw the regular payment of tributes by farmers.
B. The “Silent Trade”
Mali’s gold was exchanged for Saharan salt at a specific spot by traders. The salt traders would pile the salt in rows then retreat. The gold traders (from Mali) would advance and heap the equivalent gold ore beside the salt before also leaving. If both traders were satisfied, they took the gold and salt. If not satisfied, they would wait for a better deal. The two parties did not meet face-to-face during this activity.
At its height in the 14th C., the empire of Mali, which included Songhai, stretched from the Atlantic south of Senegal to the Songhai capital of Gao on the Niger bend. In the south, it stretched to the forest and included the gold fields of Bure and Bamduck, while in the north it stretched across the Sahel to the border of the Sahara.
By the 12th C., the Malinke people attained their independence from the Soninke, and that resulted in the birth of Mali. The Mandingos of Mali became the controllers of the salt – gold routes. Sumanguru was their first ruler. In 1235, Sumanguru’s son, Sundiati, fought against him and won. He became a great leader who promoted agriculture and re-established control over the gold – salt trade.
In 1255, Mansa Musa took over the reigns of Mali. He made Mali into a powerful empire that dominated West Africa. He maintained a strong army with emphasis on cavalry. His government provided the stability and leadership to promote commerce. By the early 1400’s the Empire of Mali had begun to weaken.
In the 15th century, Songhai, which was previously under Mali control, became independent and established its own empire. By the 16th C., Mali was incorporated into the Songhai kingdom.
By 1450, the people of Songhai had replaced the Mandingo as the controllers of the gold-salt trade routes. In the 15th century 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 also brought education to his empire via the Muslim culture.
V. Elements contributing to Decline [Compare/ Contrast with other great civilizations]
B. Depletion of Natural Resources (Gold mines exhausted and new reserves located beyond current borders)
C. Foreign Invasion [Moroccans vs. Songhai]
D. Technological Disadvantage [Moroccan firearms=\> handheld firearms as well as Cannon]
VI. Summary: Why it matters now.
These civilizations demonstrate the richness of African culture before European colonization.
A. Consider how these regions/ societies experienced similar circumstances, and outcomes, to that witnessed by Mali & Songhai.
1. Venice, Florence, & Genoa as examples of commercial societies.
2. OPEC & nations dependent on a single natural resource.
3. Movement caused by commercial need: Mongols (12th-13th C)
4. New technology contributing to collapse of a civilization: Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (1453- Cannon)
B. View film and respond to select questions. A discussion focusing on the responses will follow.
(1) Through this trade network, Arab merchants acted as ‘middlemen’ between North Africa (incl. Europe and Asia, via Cairo) and West Africa (incl. sub-Sahara Africa).
(2) Provides the manpower
(3) Consumers can rest assure that the transactions are ‘honest and true’ without the confusion caused by regional differences. Those wishing to participate in commercial activities can do so without fear of theft and victimization.
-World History: Perspectives on the Past, World History: Patterns of Interaction
-Millennium Video Series, CNN Productions, Inc. ©1999.
-Data Source: \ last accessed 2001
-Data Source: \ last accessed 2001
-Data Source: \ last accessed 2001
-Koslow, Philip. Songhay: the Empire Builders. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1995.