Gum Arabic Research Paper

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Ancient Egyptians used gum arabic, a sap-like product from acacia trees grown near the Saharan and Arabian deserts, in mummification; successive societies valued it as a drink thickener, a wall glaze, and a hairdressing product. Its use in manufacturing silk and cotton cloth caused a boom in its trade in the early 1800s. Today gum arabic can be found in cosmetics, confections, and beverages.

Gum arabic is one of the oldest and the most versatile of the Afro-Eurasian regional trade goods. A tasteless, viscous, light-colored, sap-like product of several varieties of acacia trees that grow along the edges of the Saharan and Arabian deserts, gum arabic exudes naturally when the acacia bark splits under the force of desiccating desert winds. Harvesters can also artificially induce the exudation by making knife cuts in the bark.

In ancient Egypt artisans used gum arabic in making inks and in the process of mummification. In the desert societies of the Sahara and Arabia, it was used as a foodstuff, a thickener for drinks and glue, a glaze for mud-walled construction, a cosmetic hair treatment, a base for painting on wood, and a medicine for diarrhea. It found many additional uses in neighboring societies, including in papermaking and in cloth finishing.

Until the middle of the second millennium ce, gum arabic reached Mediterranean and southwest Asian markets principally from Arabia and northern Africa. After the fifteenth-century maritime revolution, European mariners discovered an abundant source of gum arabic along the southern coast of the western Sahara. Gum arabic exports from this region, however, remained modest until the eighteenth century, when manufacturers extended techniques for the use of gum arabic in the production of silk cloth to the manufacture of cotton cloth. Thereafter, the importance of gum arabic increased, and the “gum coast” became an arena of international contestation.

The principal markets for the seasonal purchase of gum arabic were located along the Saharan coast of Mauritania and at river ports along the lower Senegal River. The Arabo-Berber tribes who controlled the gum harvest sent their slaves to do the arduous work of scrapping the gum into leather sacks that later would be loaded on to draft oxen and carried to market. European merchants along the Saharan coast bought the gum from desert caravanners and took it on board their ships. Afro-European merchants bought the larger volume of gum arabic at the river markets from desert merchants and bulked it in warehouses in Saint-Louis du Senegal at the mouth of the Senegal River before it was transferred to oceangoing ships.

During the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), Thomas Cumming, a U.S.-born gum arabic trader based in London, led a small expedition of British naval vessels in a successful attack upon the French colony of Saint- Louis du Senegal. The British seizure of Saint-Louis in 1758 marked the beginning of the first of two periods of British colonial rule in northern Senegambia (1758–1779). The British also briefly gained control of Saint-Louis during the Napoleonic Wars.

During the 1820s and 1830s the volume of gum arabic exports doubled. The gum arabic trade became the overwhelming focus of European, Euro-African, and Arabo-Berber merchants and the Arabo-Berber warrior groups along the southern shore of the Sahara who participated in the Atlantic sector. Terms of trade moved heavily in favor of the Arabo-Berbers, and large volumes of the principal import, an indigo-impregnated cloth known as the “guinee,” flooded into the region. The desert merchants, adept at exploiting their market position, created intensely competitive conditions among the European and Euro-African gum arabic traders at Saint-Louis who sought their trade. The desert warriors exploited their ability to extort tax payments from the gum arabic traders. During the 1830s and 1840s many of these Euro- African traders fell into ruinous debt. This crisis in the gum arabic trade provoked the French conquest of the lower Senegal River valley during the early 1850s; it was in part an effort to break the power of desert warrior groups and to reorganize the gum arabic trade. This conquest was the first inland territorial conquest by the French in sub-Saharan Africa.

Thereafter, import-export commercial firms at Saint-Louis imposed their control over trade in gum arabic, and gum arabic remained the principal export from the Senegal River valley throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. The value of gum arabic declined sharply, however, as new industrial products and processes reduced the importance of the natural exudate. New sources were developed in the Sudan, and these managed groves of acacia emerged during the twentieth century as the principal source of the world’s supply of gum arabic.

Thus, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, gum arabic returned to its earlier role as a natural product with only an exceedingly modest importance in world trade. Today gum arabic continues to find a wide variety of uses in lithography and in the production of cosmetics, confections, and beverages.


  1. Curtin, P. D. (1975). Economic change in pre-colonial Africa: Senegambia in the era of the slave trade. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  2. McLane, M. O. (1986). Commercial rivalries and French policy on the Senegal River, 1831–1848. African Economic History, 15, 39–67.
  3. Roberts, R. (1992). Guinee cloth: Linked transformations in production within France’s empire in the nineteenth century. Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines (Notes on African Studies), 32, 597–627.
  4. Webb, J. L. A., Jr. (1995). Desert frontier: Ecological and economic change along the western Sahel, 1600–1850. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  5. Webb, J. L. A., Jr. (1997). The mid-eighteenth century gum arabic trade and the British conquest of Saint-Louis du Senegal, 1758. Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 25(1), 37–58.

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