For many centuries, the people of West Africa had engaged in trans-Saharan trade. This was a trade between North Africa and West Africa which had existed from the ancient times. There are evidences that the trade goes back to ancient Egypt. Early transport system at this period was probably oxen. Later, camels were used around the 4th century which made desert travel much more easier.
During the Middle Ages, the Arabs pushed in from the east, the North African tribes moved to the west and later to the south. As time went by, the Arabs followed the same route and more contact was made with the tribes in the Sudan.
In 1076AD, El-Bekir described Negro-land as a place where Trans-Saharan trade had been firmly established and was very important to the people of Western Sudan because of its role as a major link between North Africa and West Africa. Trading activities increased rapidly because races on both sides of the desert possessed goods and services required by the other.
Organisation of the trade
The routes were controlled by the Tuaregs of North Africa who at the same time provided guides for the caravans. They equally kept the wells in order and levied tolls for these services. Merchants were compelled to use the guides in order not to miss the wells. The wells were used by both humans and the camels in the desert to refresh themselves during their journeys across the desert.
The trans-Saharan trade routes, which depended entirely on the use of camels, were extremely dangerous. Sometimes, a whole caravan died if they lost their way or if an important well dried up. All these dangers and hardship did not prevent brave merchants in search of means of livelihood to forge ahead in their business.
The trade itself was organised by the merchants of North Africa who provided the capital and goods and arranged the caravan. These merchants had agents at gathering (collecting) points like Sijilmasa and Walata who equally collected the articles for trade and provided accommodation for traders during their stay. The agents were also responsible for maintaining good diplomatic relations with the rulers of Sudanese empire, by means of appropriate gifts.
Methods of travel
The traders gathered themselves together in large caravans for the purpose of safety before setting out. The meeting place was a place like Sijilmasa at the beginning of the dry season. These traders moved together from one oasis to another. Guides were used at every stage of the journey in order to keep up with the caravan. Those who could not keep-up with the caravan were left to perish in the sand. However, South of the Sahara travel was much more easier and safer. Guides were also used but traders did not need to move in convoy or carry provision.
Commodities traded during the trans-Saharan Trade
Over the centuries, West Africa built up a complicated network of markets and trade routes. The most important article of trade needed by the Negroes of the Sudan was salt, which was obtainable by those people who lived on the coast, and was not easily transported through the forest land. Thus, trade routes were early established from the saltline deposits at Taghazza, Bilma and later Taodeni by the North Africans who also wanted gold and slaves from the Sudan. The gold traded by Ghana, Mali, Jenne, Timbuktu and Walata was obtained from Bambuk and the gold-bearing areas of Upper Volta. The war captives at the Sudanese empire war of expansion provided a regular supply of slaves.
As trade progressed, other articles were added- beads, cowrie shells, cloths, brass vessels, dried fruits, and horses from the North, ivory, civet, hides and gum from the South.
Great trading centres were established north and south of the Sahara, and as one fell, its place and importance were quickly taken over by another. In the north were towns of Fez, Marrakesh, Constantine, Kairouan, Tunis, Tripoli, Alexandria, Cairo and Sijilmasa. To the south of the Desert were Walata, Ghana, Mali, Timbuktu, Jenne, Gao and Kano.
In conclusion, the articles of trade included export of gold, ivory, gum, Moroccan leather, ostrich feathers and slaves and import of North African goods like salt, clothing, carpets, horses, European textile and hardware.
Currencies used during trans-Saharan Trade
These currencies were locally invented and some introduced to West African economy.
- Cowrie shell from the Indian Ocean.
- Horseshoe-shaped copper manillas.
- Iron bars, and
- Copper wire.
- Some were used imported. Maria Teressa dollars which was specially manufactured for the African Market.
Main trade routes of the Middle Ages
- The western route was from Morocco, beginning at Sijilmasa, going via Taghazza to Walata, then the route divided to Ghana, Jenne, Mali and later Timbuktu.
- The middle route was from Tunisia via Ghadames, Ghat and Agades to the fertile area between the Niger and Lake Chad in Hausaland.
- Another route which later came into use connected North Africa with the Niger bend by way of Gao and then to Timbuktu.
- The oldest route from North Africa to the Susan probably went from Tripoli via Fezzan and Tibersti to the Lake Chad area.
From the above trade routes, other routes ran through Savannah to the towns and cities of the forest areas to the south. Important junctions of trade including Timbuktu, Katsina, Kano, Kuka, Wara and Abeche at the south of the desert, Jenne, Salaga and Zaria further in the Savannah and Kumasi, Abomey and Abeokuta in the forest zone. All these were the further routes from these forest towns of the coast.
TIMBUKTU was a main commercial and educational centre of the region of the Niger in the 16th century. It was a trading centre for goods from the North and South, where traders from Morocco and Egypt, and from Ghana and Hausaland met.
By mid 19th century, trade in Timbuktu began to decline. Little wonder, a French writer, Felix Dubois who visited Timbuktu in 1894, described it as a ghost of its former self. Its role as a trading centre for goods from the North and South had long ceased.
KATSINA (Hausaland) was the main commercial centre at the beginning of the 19th century, but was badly affected by the Fulani Jihad of Shehu Usman dan Fodio.
KANO became the main commercial, educational and industrial town of Hausa land as from 1815AD. The Market in Kano was reported to be crowded from morning to evening. Kano was also described by European explorer, Barth as a commercial as well as industrial centre whereby commerce and manufacturing go on hand in hand. Its main products were the famous Kano textile, women on looms from locally grown cotton and usually dyed blue, sandals and tanned hides. Kano products, especially cotton goods, were exported as far north as Ghat, Fezzan, Tripoli and Morocco, also as far West as Timbuktu and the shores of the Atlantic, as far as South Kumasi and Lagos.
KUKAWA was a town built by Shehu El-Kanemi in 1841. By the middle of the 19th century, it became the main commercial and trading centre which supplied states of Bagirmi, Bauchi and Adamawa with goods brought from North Africa.
Effects of trans-Saharan Trade
The trans-Saharan trade had been well-established by the 11th Century and had equally made meaningful impact on the people of Western Sudan because of its major role as a great link between North Africa and West Africa.
Many people of Western Sudan made great wealth from the trans-Saharan trade. A lot of them acted as middlemen and agents; Western Sudanese traders exchanged salt, pepper, ornaments, dates and textiles from the North for gold, slaves, ivory, kola nuts and ebony from the South. The wealth derived from the trans-Saharan trade was of great importance to the rise and growth of states like Ghana, Mali and Songhai.
Secondly, through the trans-Saharan trade route, exotic articles like perfumes, leather work and clothes were introduced to the Western Sudan.
Thirdly, the trans-Saharan trade route also contributed to the growth and development of great centres of civilisation like Gao, Timbuktu and Jenne in the Western Sudan.
The trans-Saharan trade route was also a vehicle through which Islam was introduced to Western Sudan. The Berbers and the Arabs moved with their religion as they went round and spread it among the people of Western Sudan. The religion of Islam was also accompanied by political and socio-cultural development among the people. Rulers like Mansa Musa of Mali. Askia Mohammed Toure of Songhai made use of Muslim advisers, clerics and judges in their administration. Also, the adoption of Muslim code popularly referred to as Sharia became a common characteristics in the administrative set-up of the Western Sudanese states.
It must also be pointed out that the trans-Saharan trade route played a great role in the introduction of Islam, which also, in turn, introduced literacy in Arabic. The Muslim scholars became a force to be reckoned with in cities like Timbuktu, Jennne and the likes. This also resulted in the establishment of Muslim communities, building of mosques and founding of Koranic schools in Western Sudan. Most of these Islamic scholars were historians who handed down accounts and other documentary evidences of the past to the people of West Africa.
It is also worthy of note that the trans-Saharan trade route provided beneficial links between the Western Sudan and the people of the forest zone on one hand, and the Maghreb. It was this route that made the wealth of the region known to the people of the outside world like Moroccans who later launched an attack and conquered Western Sudan.
Factors/Reasons for the fall of trans-Saharan trade route
- Political condition of the area: Effective trading activities depended on the political condition of the area. The more unstable and unsafe an area was politically, the less the trading transactions in the area. Shortly after the attack and collapse of the famous Songhai empire by the Moroccans around 16th century, rivalry for political control of the area began among the Moroccans, the Songhai, the Tuareg and the Fulani. This rivalry resulted in unhealthy competition which led to chaos, insecurity of lives and property in the region throughout the 17th & 18th centuries. The result of this was that trade was badly affected especially in the Western route.
- Abolition of trans-Saharan and trans-Atlantic slave trade: The abolition of the trans-Saharan and trans-Atlantic slave trade was another factor which dealt a great blow on the trans-Saharan trade. With the abolition of slave trade by the European powers between 1807-1820, there were attacks on the slave trade across the Sahara and the Mediterranean. This made the trade to suffer a great setback.
- Role of anti-slave trade of the British: The role of the anti-slave trade of the British from 1840, greatly reduced the trade in slaves, and helped to end the traffic on the Tripoli-Ghat-Hausa and the Tropoli-Murzuk routes during the last forty years of the 19th century.
- European adventure into the western Sudan: The European adventure into the Western Sudan from the coast also contributed in large measure to the decline of the trans-Saharan trade. The European advancement into the interior and their goods began to reach the market of Hausa land in large quantities and at cheaper prices. This made the Caravan trade to decline. Increase in the supply of European manufactured goods in the interior from the late 1850s onward and the occupation of Western Sudan as well as the Sahara by the French and the British finally brought an end to the Sahara trade route that had been used for over 2,000 years.