World History 1 147 - 9.4.2 North African and Trans-Saharan Trade

Trans-Saharan trade—the movement of goods between oases and larger settlements in North and West Africa—has existed in one form or another since at least the ninth century BCE. Over time, this system grew from the relatively localized trade in agricultural products and iron goods centered on the Phoenician city of Carthage. It became a continent-wide system of exchange that moved commodities such as copper, salt, ivory, enslaved people, textiles, and gold between what is now Senegal in West Africa and Egypt in the east, reaching as far south as Niger and as far east as Somalia in the Horn of Africa (Figure 9.24). At its height, the trans-Saharan exchange of goods influenced commerce and finance across the whole of North Africa, as well as the economies of Europe and the Near East. This system of trade was made possible by the nomadic peoples of North and West Africa.

A map of northwestern Africa is shown with the Atlantic Ocean labeled at the bottom of the map. Four small areas in the southwestern part of the area are highlighted gold representing “Gold fields.” They are labeled Bambuk, Boure, and Lobi. The fourth one close to the coast is not labeled. A red dashed line is shown connecting cities all throughout the map in a criss-cross pattern. The connected cities, from north to south, are: Tunis, Kairouan, Tahert, Tlemcen, Fes, Ouargla, Marrakech, Sijilmasa, Ghadames, Nul, Tamdoult, Tuat, Tamentit, Tanghaza, Ghat, Idjil, Ouadane, Araouane, Tadmekka, Aoudaghost, Oualata, Timbuktu, Takedda, Gao, and Koumbi Saleh. The city of Djenne is listed but not connected. The red dashed lines also run to the gold fields at Bambuk and Boure from Koumbi Saleh.
Figure 9.24 This map shows the historical trans-Saharan trade routes that crisscrossed ancient North Africa, linking cities on both sides of the Sahara in a network that grew and expanded over several hundred years. (credit: modification of work “Trade routes of the Western Sahara c. 1000-1500” by “Aa77zz”/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

In the ninth century BCE, African farmers supplied the Phoenician towns of North Africa with food. In exchange, the Phoenicians introduced these peoples to innovative technologies such as ironworking. Over centuries of interaction, the two groups intermarried and became an integral part of North African society. From around the seventh century BCE, Phoenician merchants relied on the herders of the Atlas Mountains (in present-day Morocco) and the stretch of the northern Sahara to the south.

Indigenous peoples of North Africa had long maintained contact across the Sahara, but it could be tenuous due to the inherent risks of desert travel, including attacks on trading caravans and slave raids by the Garamantes desert people of Libya. Helping facilitate contact in the desert extremes were small settlements of seminomadic peoples at a fragile line of oases forging a point-to-point trading system. Thus, early trade in the Sahara was a matter not of transporting goods across the vast desert expanse but rather of passing them from oasis to oasis. A principal commodity exchanged during this early stage of trade was salt, which was carried to the south and acted as a sort of currency. Salt was highly prized in the agricultural communities south of the Sahara where the mineral is scarce. This is because humans require salt to maintain healthy bodily functions and must regularly consume salt to replace its loss through sweat and urination. The Saharan traders knew where the salt was located, accessed it for themselves, and traded in the substance for goods they could otherwise obtain. Only gradually were highly valuable trading goods introduced, such as gold and copper, which were then brought across the desert from tropical West Africa to the far reaches of the North African coast.

During the period of Carthaginian dominance in Tunisia, goods were carried by pack animals such as mules, horses, and donkeys between the Phoenician imperial capital and the independent African kingdoms in the mountainous and coastal regions to its west. These kingdoms, known to the Romans as Mauretania and Numidia, had extended their control of much of North Africa by the second century BCE as Carthage declined and Rome ascended. For a time, the Romans and the North African kingdoms enjoyed a relatively peaceful and prosperous alliance, but gradual Roman interference in the domestic political affairs of the Numidian state caused their relations to sour, and eventually Rome conquered both Numidia and Mauretania.

In typical fashion, the Romans established large estates as well as towns in the newly conquered territories. Their administration outside these enclaves reached only so far, however. Beyond them, the region remained under the dominance of the people native to the area, in both language and culture. But it was in the strategic interests of Rome to secure the southernmost frontiers of these new provinces. Doing so effectively required not only establishing a border but also patrolling it. This was impossible with horses, so the Romans used the dromedary camel (one-hump camel) (Figure 9.25). Biologically equipped to survive desert extremes, the camel was the ideal means to help secure Rome’s new southernmost frontier.

Three dromedary camels walk in a line on a sandy path. They are surrounded by rocky terrain with various clumps of bushes.
Figure 9.25 The widespread use of dromedary camels by the Romans in North Africa helped to popularize the animal's use in trans-Saharan trade. (credit: “Animals of Iran - Kavir National Park - Qom Province - Deir-e Gachin Caravansarai 20” by Mostafameraji/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

The introduction of the dromedary camel originally from Arabia into North Africa revolutionized the trans-Saharan trade, but its adoption across the region was slow. The first camels in North Africa may have reached Egypt by as early as the ninth century BCE, but it was not until the third and fourth centuries CE that its use spread to the African nomad groups of the northern Sahara, likely helped along by Roman use of the animal. By the fifth century, it had become a major form of transportation in the region. The camel had many advantages over other pack animals. It could maintain a steady pace over much longer distances than oxen, and it could carry upward of three hundred pounds of goods an average of fifteen to eighteen miles a day. Further, the camel’s capacity to store fat and water enabled it to travel up to ten days without stopping for fresh water, more than twice the time and distance of almost every other pack animal. Added to this was the camel’s unique splayed foot, which allowed it to walk easily in the soft, sandy conditions of the Saharan environment.

The camel enabled desert nomads to reach more distant oases than ever before and so open entirely new routes across the desert. Although desert travel remained precarious and filled with risk, it certainly became more reliable. For the first time, it was possible for desert travelers to consider dispatching large-scale and regular long-distance trading caravans across the Sahara. Despite this, desert transport remained largely in the hands of the nomadic peoples of the region, principally the Sanhaja in the west and the Tuareg of the central and southern Sahara. Although trans-Saharan trade was growing at this time, it was not yet full-time work, so these groups remained largely nomadic pastoralists, harvesting date palms and grazing their flocks and herds at oases.

In many cases, they tended goats and sheep, but they often also had camel and cattle and occasionally horses. These animals all had to graze, and when they were unable to do so at oases because of either distance or weather, the nomads were forced to find other grazing land. This was particularly the case during the hottest and driest seasons, when the nomads migrated their flocks and herds to the better grazing areas of the Maghreb in the north or the Sahel in the south. Inevitably, this brought them into contact with the more settled agricultural peoples of these areas, and often into conflict as they competed for precious resources in a hostile environment. Beyond these settlements, the nomadic pastoralists dominated the Sahara. Yet there were other peoples in the desert, including small groups such as the Haratin who also called the oases home. They harvested dates and dug salt to exchange for food but were often kept in a subordinate position by the nomads, who controlled the oases.

As the camel transformed desert transport, the products of sub-Saharan Africa became more readily available to the Mediterranean world. Trade in West African gold expanded, demand increased for such goods as ivory and ostrich feathers, and large animals were hunted to extinction in North Africa. As cross-desert traffic grew, several new settlements developed to aid the movement of goods north and south of the Sahara, including Sijilmasa, Ghat, Gao, Awdaghust, and Kano. At sites such as these, goods were exchanged, and camel caravans were unloaded and replenished to continue their journey across the desert. While the desert traffic in goods remained in the hands of nomads, the actual demand for and exchange of goods was largely the work of peoples of settled societies to the north and south of the Sahara.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax