What Is Trans-Saharan Trade?
North Africa developed a significant trade network that connected it to other Eurasian civilizations.
The Trans-Saharan trade network is a network of trade routes that connect North Africa with sub-Saharan Africa across the Saharan deserts. Historically, this was the most active land-based trade network in Africa. While trade across the Sahara existed before recorded history, peak trade on the routes was between the 8th and 17th centuries.
Causes of Trans-Saharan Trade
Like the expansion of other major global trade routes in history, merchant activity along the trans-Saharan trade routes increased as new commercial practices and technology helped people in the region trade for items they could not produce themselves.
Trans-Saharan trade began for the same reason as other global exchange networks– the desire for goods unavailable in buyers’ home regions. As time went on, improvements in commercial practices and technological innovation allowed the amount of trade to increase.
The Earliest Trade Across the Sahara Was in Gold and Salt
One of the earliest causes of the trade was the exchange of gold and salt. West Africa had large quantities of gold but lacked access to salt. In contrast, North Africa had abundant supplies of salt but scarce supplies of gold. Rulers in North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East wanted gold. And because salt is essential in sustaining human life, West Africans could not live without salt. This scarcity created an incentive to trade across the harsh desert environment. Over time, traders began moving wider varieties of goods across the routes.
New Commercial Practices and Technology Increased Trade
The Sahara’s environmental conditions made trade across the desert risky—water is scarce, temperatures are commonly above 100 °F, violent windstorms blow sand, making visibility difficult, and shifting sand means the landscape is constantly changing. Crossing the vast desert could easily result in death. Innovations in commercial practices and technology made the journey quicker and safer.
The Effects of Trans-Sharan Trade
Trans-Saharan trade resulted in economic expansion across Northern and Western Africa. Large Islamic trading empires developed that controlled West African trade. These trading empires converted to Islam and supported the development of Islamic culture in the region.
The expansion of the Trans-Saharan reshaped Northern and Western Africa. The region’s economy expanded as increased trade brought new goods to new places. However, the most significant impacts were in West Africa, where large trading empires arose. Interactions with Islamic merchants led the elite of these trading empires to adopt the Islamic religion, changing the region’s culture.
The rise of African trading powers
West Africa developed several wealthy and powerful trading empires—Mali (c. 1230–1672) and Songhai (c. 1464–1591) were the two largest. The wealth and power of these kingdoms came from trade across the trans-Saharan trade routes. For this reason, these kingdoms’ leaders encouraged trade and supported merchant activity.
Islam spread into West Africa
Islam spread to West Africa with Muslim merchants who traded in the region. By 1300 Mali’s kings had converted to Islam. Mansa Musa (c. 1312 – 1337) made it the state religion in 1324. All the Songhai kings were Islamic. With the conversion of their kings, Mali and Songhai set up Islamic governing and legal systems. Initially, only the elite converted to Islam. Not until the 19th century did many ordinary West Africans begin identifying as Muslim.
Islamic culture spread into West Africa
Islamic culture spread into West Africa with the Islamic religion. In the rural areas where most of the population lived, traditional African religious practices remained the most common form of worship until the 19th century. Rulers made little effort to impose Islamic rules onto most of their populations.
Language: The Arabic language became the governing and legal language. Education at one of the regional learning centers (see below) was in Arabic. Wealthy merchants and traders also commonly spoke and conducted business in Arabic. Non-elites continued to speak their native languages.
Learning: Cities such as Timbuktu and Djenne became centers of Islamic knowledge. Schools and universities opened dedicated to studying the Quran. Science and mathematics knowledge from Islamic learning centers in North Africa and the Middle East also found their way into these schools’ libraries.
The growth of cities and towns
Increased trade brought more wealth to West Africa. Entire towns and cities grew to service the needs of merchants moving along the trans-Saharan trade network, while others turned into market towns where merchants would gather and sell their goods. After the conversion of Mali and Songhai to Islam, people came from West Africa to study in towns and cities with learning centers like Timbuktu and Djenne.
More wealth increased competition in West Africa. Control over the gold fields and trade routes could make or break the fortunes of a ruler or kingdom. However, conflict over wealth and power often weakened societies from the inside. The once mighty and wealthy Mali weakened and began to collapse following a civil war. Songhai rose to replace it as the dominant power in the region, but by the end of the 16th century, it too was weakened by civil war. Morocco seized on the internal weakness of both empires and invaded West Africa to take control of the region’s resources and trade.
Increased trade in enslaved people
North and West African slavery increased as wealthy rulers in West Africa increased the number of enslaved people they bought, and merchants exported more enslaved people to North Africa. Scholars estimate that slave traders moved as many as nine million enslaved people along the trans-Saharan trade routes. Enslaved people found themselves in a variety of systems of servitude. Rulers in West Africa and Egypt used enslaved people in their militaries as highly trained soldiers. Wealthy families also used enslaved people as domestic servants or concubines. Others mined gold in West Africa or salt in North Africa.