Africa: Trade Empires
This is a short history of West Africa, beginning around 500 AD. West Africa from 500 – 1600
AD was rules by a series of 3 great empires based in roughly the same area of West Africa who became
wealthy off of trade: the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires. Read the passage and then answer the
questions on the following page. This article should go in the Notes section of your notebook:
Geography and the Camel
The single most important development in the history of northwestern Africa was the use of the
camel as a transport vehicle. In ancient times, the Egyptians engaged in just a trickle of commercial trade
with West Africa, even though West Africa was rich in gold, precious metals, ivory, and other resources.
The reason for this was the imposing barrier of the Sahara, which in Arabic simply means "The Desert."
The Sahara, which dominates the geography of North Africa, spreads across more than 3 million square
miles. It was not ideal terrain to move a large amount of goods across for trade. Traditional means of
transporting goods, such as horse-drawn carts, were ineffective in the Sahara, since most animals could not
survive in the extreme climate.
Around 750 AD, northern and western Africans began to use the camel to transport goods across
this forbidding terrain. Camels do several things exceptionally well: they can carry unbelievably heavy
loads for impossibly long distances. They’re like animal versions of Mr. Nguyen – really strong. And
while other animals will often slip on sand, camel feet are adapted to keep their footing on sandy terrain.
Camels can also drink a large amount of water at once and store it in their humps, allowing them to travel
for several days in the desert without stopping for water. It was as if someone had invented sand ships and
its effect on western African culture was just as profound as if they were sand ships. Camels were gathered
together into trade caravans and used to transport goods across the vast desert.
The Ghana Empire
Ghana was the first empire to arise out of this increased trade in Africa. Although it originated in
the late fourth century, Ghana only became a major regional power around 1000AD when African trade was
well-underway. The state was ruled by a hereditary king called the Ghana (this is why we now call the
kingdom, Ghana). Ghana was located between two areas that wanted to trade: North Africa and the
southern part of West Africa. Because it was between these two areas, Ghana became immensely wealthy
by taxing the traders going North or South. Each time a trader passed through, he had to pay Ghana a fee
based on the amount of goods in his caravan. With this wealth, Ghana built up large armies that it used to
conquer neighboring lands.
The Gold-Salt Trade
So, why were so many traders going back and forth and willing to pay Ghana these taxes? The
main trade that made Ghana wealthy was the gold-salt trade. The southern part of West Africa had
immense gold mines. They mainly used this gold for trade purposes. North Africa would trade them salt
for their gold. While that seems like an unfair trade today (Say Jack, I’ll give you 3 magic beans for your
cow.), in ancient times salt was worth its weight in gold. Imagine that! Salt had the same value as gold!
Since there were no refrigerators, salt was needed to preserve meat and to make old meat taste better. In
fact, the word “salary” comes from Roman times – when soldiers were paid their wages in salt. Also, if
you’ve ever tasted your own sweat, it tastes salty. That’s because your body releases large amounts of salt
through sweat. So people in hot climates, such as West Africa, need to eat more salt to replace the amount
they lose. To the West Africans, salt was more valuable than their gold. So they would trade their gold
away to the North, in exchange for salt. Because Ghana was between the 2 regions, traders would have to
travel through Ghana to reach their destination and pay taxes on all of their goods.
Around 1100 AD, Ghana declined and was eventually overthrown by a neighboring kingdom.
The Mali Empire
The Mali were the 2nd great West African trade empire to arise. Mali was formed around 1240 AD
by a group of Africans who had converted to Islam. As with Ghana, Mali was built off of the
monopolization of the trade routes between southern and northern Africa. Mali was located just a bit farther
south than Ghana; along the upper Niger River. The bulk of the gold trade proceeded up the Niger River, so
this gave Mali a firm grip on this lucrative monopoly. Just like Ghana, Mali became rich by taxing traders
passing through its borders.
The most significant of the Mali kings was Mansa Musa (1312-1337 AD) who expanded Mali
influence over the large Niger city-states. Mansa Musa was a devout Muslim who built magnificent
mosques all throughout the Mali area.
It was under Mansa Musa that Timbuctu became one of the major cultural centers not only of
Africa but of the entire world. Under Mansa Musa's patronage, vast libraries were built and Islamic
universities called madrasas were created. Timbuctu became a meeting-place of the finest poets, scholars,
and artists of Africa and the Middle East. Even after the power of Mali declined, Timbuctu remained the
major Islamic center of sub-Saharan Africa.
After the death of Mansa Musa, the power of Mali began to decline. Mali had never been an
empire proper, and the people subject to Mali power began to break off from the Mali sphere of influence.
The Songhai Empire
In the latter 1400’s AD, the Songhai empire became the most powerful empire in African history.
The Songhai quickly conquered the former territory of the Mali and more with an army based on a cavalry
and a highly mobile fleet of ships. Like the Ghana and Mali, Songhai’s wealth was based off of taxing
African trade. The Songhai’s primary importance was in spreading Islam across North Africa. Songhai
rulers brought in Arab administrators to run the government under Islamic principles. Also, Muslim judges
ran the legal system according to Islamic practices.
Songhai eventually got too large; it encompassed too much territory to control its people
effectively and its subjects began to rebel. They were overthrown in 1612.
Answer the following questions on your own sheet of paper to be able to use it on the quiz:
1. Why did the Sahara originally limit trade in Africa?
2. What advantages did the camel have that allowed it to expand trade?
3. How did the 3 trade empires amass most of their wealth?
4. Why did the people of West Africa trade their gold for salt?
5. What geographic feature helped the Mali control the African trade routes and why?
6. Why accomplishments did Mansa Musa make?
7. What significance did Timbuctu have?
8. What was the primary significance of the Songhai empire?