Trans-Saharan Trade Research Paper

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Although the Sahara is the largest hot-weather desert in the world, it is not entirely barren, and thus held economic attractions for the populated regions of Africa that surrounded it. Trans- Saharan trade in the global economy flourished in gold and slaves, and camel caravans were ubiquitous until railways and roads diverted most export to the oceans.

From about 800 CE to 1900 the Sahara served as one of the major highways of international trade. For the first seven hundred years of this era, Saharan camel caravans provided the only links between the world economy and major sources of gold and slaves in West and Central Africa. Even after European navigation to the Atlantic coast of Africa broke this monopoly, trans-Saharan trade continued to flourish and even increase, although its global significance shrank. Only in the twentieth century, when colonial railways and roads diverted almost all export commerce to the ocean, did the Saharan trade fall back into its earliest form as a purely local affair.

Early Saharan Trade

At some 5 million square kilometers, the Sahara forms the largest hot-weather desert in the world. It is, nevertheless, not an entirely barren place and held economic attractions very early on for communities in the more populated regions of Africa that surround it—the Mediterranean coast to the north, the Nile Valley to the east, and the western and central Sudanic grasslands to the south. (Note that for the purposes of this research paper Sudan refers to these zones rather than to the eastern and Nilotic region containing the present-day nation of Sudan.) But the ancient trade in Saharan salt, copper, dates, and some slaves functioned only over short trajectories in and out of the desert, never across its entire north-south expanse. The major barrier was technological: horses, oxen, and donkeys, to say nothing of human porters, could not move efficiently across the great distances between oases, the only sources of water within the Sahara.

When camels were introduced into Egypt and North Africa around the first century BCE, the technological problem of desert transport was solved. Camels can travel for as many as ten days without water while also carrying heavy loads of trade goods as well as provisions for the other members of a Saharan caravan—people and often horses (a major import into the Sudan). Political and cultural problems, however, delayed for many centuries the utilization of this new transport system for regular trans-Saharan trade. When the Berber peoples of the northern Sahara first took up camels, they became more difficult for the Roman colonizers of the Mediterranean coast to control and thus made desert trade between Rome and the African interior more difficult. In the ensuing centuries Roman rule also suffered from internal revolts, invasions by Germanic Vandal trades from Spain, conquest by the Byzantine Empire, and finally, in the seventh century, conquest by Arab armies carrying the banner of Islam. The Arabs were themselves a camel-using desert people, and under their regime the Sahara finally became a route rather than an obstacle to international commerce.

True Trans-Saharan Trade

Even with Islamic rule in North Africa, trans-Saharan trade began somewhat precariously as the enterprise of a dissident Muslim sect, the Ibadis, who exiled themselves to the northern edge of the desert in the ninth and tenth centuries. For more orthodox Sunnis, commerce in the lands of pagan black Africans (Sudan is the Arabic word for “black”) was not entirely acceptable. This situation changed in the eleventh century when, under the impetus of the desert-based Almoravid Empire, the Berbers of the western Sahara converted to very strict Sunni Islam and the rulers of adjoining Sudanic states such as medieval Ghana also become Muslims. Indeed, the Sahara then became not only a commercial highway but also a route of Islamic pilgrimage and advanced religious education for devout Sudanis. Along with Muslims, Jewish merchants also played an important role in trans-Saharan trade, although very few of them actually crossed the desert. Instead they formed a chain of settlements linking the northern Sahara to both the African and European sides of the Mediterranean.


Along with horses, the goods taken by caravans into western and central Sudan included such items as cloth, glassware, weapons, ceramic and metal housewares, paper, and books. As exports, these cargoes played little role in the international economy, since they were similar to commodities already circulating within the Mediterranean and the volume of items traded was not large enough to make much impact upon Mediterranean commerce or its production base. It was, however, highly significant that for such a low barter price (but at high risk for those who actually crossed the desert) the Mediterranean world could obtain what were then considered quite large amounts of gold (a little more than one ton per annum). Gold not only had value in the Muslim and Christian Mediterranean lands for coinage, jewelry, and storing wealth, but it was also needed to purchase luxury goods from India, Southeast Asia, and China, regions that had little interest in Middle Eastern or European exports.

Gold crossed the Sahara by western caravan routes whose southern termini were towns located in present- day Mauritania or along the northern bend of the Niger river. The actual sources of gold lay considerably to the south of these desert-edge entrepots around the Senegal river, the southwestern Niger Valley, and the Volta River basin. Camel caravans could not travel into such climates, and Sudanic rulers even discouraged their exploration by North Africans, claiming that the inhabitants were exotic and dangerous savages. In reality there were few cultural differences between the gold-bearing zones and those just south of the Sahara. However, commerce between them became the monopoly of Sudanic merchants who themselves became Muslims.


The other major trans-Saharan export of this era, slaves, came mainly from central rather than western Sudan. The Islamic Middle East and adjoining Christian societies had a great need for slaves to perform household chores, carry out agricultural labor (although never on a scale comparable to European New World plantations), and to serve as military forces. Immediately after the Arab conquest of North Africa many Berbers were forced into slavery, and later a brisk trade in captives supplied the Mediterranean from the Caucasus, eastern Europe, and central Asia. However, sub-Saharan Africa soon became the largest supplier of such human commodities, not only on trans-Saharan routes but also along the Nile Valley and via the coasts of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

The total number of slaves who crossed the Sahara between 800 and 1900 is about 4 million. When the numbers transported to Islamic lands by other routes is added, the total comes close to the 11 to 12 million estimated for the Atlantic slave trade, mainly between 1650 and 1850. However, the Muslim trade was not only spread out over a much longer period, it also brought Africans into situations where they were much less segregated from the indigenous population. Almost all African slaves in the Muslim world converted to Islam, and very frequently they were assimilated into local society through either manumission or intermarriage. Descendants of black slaves form a large portion of the present-day North African population and are much less marked than in the New World as a separate social, cultural, or racial group.


The caravans that brought slaves and trade goods across the desert, especially from north to south, were often very large, amounting to as many as five thousand camels and hundreds of people. They traveled mainly during the cooler seasons of the year, from October to March, and even then moved mainly at night to avoid the intense Saharan heat. Caravans usually assembled at entrepot towns of the northern Sahara such as Sijilmasa in Morocco, Ouargla in Algeria, or Murzuq in Libya. The journey to Sudanic end points such as Timbuktu (Tombouctou) or Kano took as many as seventy days, traveling at a speed of 24 to 40 kilometers per day. Over the many centuries of the caravan trade, few if any technical improvements were made in this transport system, which was better adapted to conditions in the desert than the wheeled vehicles and instrument-aided navigation that changed land and sea transport in other regions during this time. Nonetheless, movement across such lengthy desert stretches always remained dangerous due to the uncontrollable menaces of sandstorms, attacks by brigands, and the possibility that oasis wells might have dried up or been poisoned since the last visit.

A major trans-Saharan caravan was not a single business enterprise but rather a temporary association of several North African merchants under the leadership of a paid guide. Although the camels were technically owned by the merchants, in effect they were rented from desert communities, which also supplied the skilled labor to care for them. On arrival in the Sudan, the camels would be sold. When the time came for a return journey a new, usually much smaller, number of beasts was purchased.

Despite their limited scale and lack of control over their main transport capital, trans-Saharan merchants did make use of quite sophisticated commercial instruments. Thus much of their business was carried on by means of credit, recorded in written documents that accompanied caravans in lieu of currency or any goods that could not to be sold in local markets. As religious learning became more widespread in the Sahara and Sudan, merchants could also extend their range of partnerships beyond individuals with whom they had close personal ties, confident that agreements would be guaranteed by appeal to the extensive commercial stipulations of Islamic law.

The Impact of Atlantic Trade Routes

The European voyages of discovery of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries opened up a new system of maritime traffic between Europe, Asia, and the Americas that reduced the global significance of all the world’s long-distance caravan transport, including the Saharan routes. However, from the perspective of northern and Sudanic Africa, new markets on the Atlantic coast and a general expansion of international trade provided opportunities for economic growth. It is easy to understand why Sudanic societies and the neighboring gold-bearing regions would benefit from sending some of their exports south, but not so obvious why such commerce should also continue across the desert, given the far greater efficiency of water over land transport in this preindustrial era. The answer lies in the natural protection afforded by the forest zone separating the Sudan from the Atlantic. Travel across that landscape was even more costly than travel in the Sahara, since pack or draft animals could not withstand the disease ecology there and trade goods thus required human portage.

One of the first commodities that Europeans sought on the West African coast was gold. By the fifteenth century the most productive source of this metal within the region did lie near the ocean, in present-day Ghana, which thus acquired its colonial name of “Gold Coast.” Europeans managed to divert much of the gold trade away from the Sahara, provoking the sultan of Morocco to launch an invasion of the Sahara and, in 1591, to take over the Timbuktu entrepot. The Moroccan effort and the still-expanding Sudanic merchant networks within the forest zone assured some continuation of trans-Saharan gold trade. But by the 1800s this commerce had become much reduced and irregular, often constituting no more than a few feather quills filled with gold dust, carried as supplements to other commodities.

In any case, the large amounts of bullion exported from the New World from the sixteenth century onward ended the major role of West African gold in the world economy. For Europeans, the most important export from this region was slaves, who were shipped from the entire Atlantic coast of the continent in huge numbers. However, the demand for labor and military manpower in the Islamic world also increased during the centuries after 1600. Even in its last three hundred years the trans-Saharan slave trade is not nearly as well documented as its Atlantic counterpart, but as far as we can tell, it increased despite the competition. This complementarity may be explained by the general growth of African populations due to the nutritional impact of New Word crops such as maize, cassava, and peanuts. Also, in contrast to the New World slave trade, which generally imported two males for every female slave, Islamic markets for slave labor somewhat favored women over men. European efforts to end the trans-Saharan slave trade provide us with some of our best information on its extent, but they did not become effective until shortly before 1900.

Innovation and Termination

During its last important era (c. 1700–1900), the trans-Saharan trade came to include large quantities of items that had previously formed only a very small percentage of caravan cargoes, such as the hides and skins of goats and cattle, ivory, and, for a brief but very flourishing period in the latter 1800s, ostrich feathers. During this time cities in the western and central Sudan developed their own handicraft industries, which provided Saharan populations with their characteristic blue cotton garments and also produced tanned “Moroccan” leather for export overseas.

This final flowering of trans-Saharan commerce depended upon increased world demand for various consumer goods and the intermediate commodities used in producing them (such as gum arabic, obtained from several species of acacia trees native to the Sudanic region and used in finishing cloth). The driving force of this expanding market was the industrializing economy of Europe and North America. Once Europeans, for reasons having little or nothing to do with trans-Saharan trade, took formal colonial possession of western and west central African territories, new industrial technologies broke through the forest barrier that had protected desert routes. Railways and later roads now provided the Sudan with direct access to the Atlantic. Despite occasional French fantasies, no rail or road arteries were ever built across the Sahara, where camel caravans still carry salt from desert quarries to the lands of the south.


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