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Kingdoms of West Africa

Chapter 11 Section 2


Trading centers like that of the city of Gao developed over time throughout Africa as trade extended beyond village borders. Some of these medieval cities became wealthy international commercial centers. Between 800 and 1600, several powerful kingdoms won control of these prosperous cities and their trade.


Trade in the Sahara

Salt was rare in many regions of Africa. It was, however, important to human health. This combination made it highly prized as a trade item. The earliest development of trade in the region, however, was tied to another important development—agriculture.

Surplus Leads to Trade

As the Sahara dried out, some Neolithic people migrated southward into the savanna, an area of grasslands that was good for farming. By A.D. 100, settled agricultural villages were expanding, especially along the Senegal and Niger rivers and around Lake Chad. This expansion from farming villages to towns was due, in part, to the development of trade.

Farming villages began to produce a surplus, that is, more than they needed. They began to trade their surplus food for products from other villages. Gradually, a trade network linked the savanna to forest lands in the south and then funneled goods across the Sahara to civilizations along the Mediterranean and in Southwest Asia. From West Africa, caravans crossed the Sahara carrying leather goods, kola nuts, cotton cloth, and enslaved people. From North Africa, Arab and Berber merchants brought silk, metal, beads, and horses.

Trading Gold for Salt

Two products, gold and salt, dominated the Sahara trade. Gold was widely available in the area of present-day Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal. It was found in the soil along rivers in various forms, including gold nuggets and dust. Experts today estimate that between A.D. 500–1600 about eight tons of gold were exported annually from West Africa.

In exchange, West Africans traded for an equally important commodity, or valuable product—salt. People need salt in their diet, especially in hot, tropical areas, to replace salt lost in perspiration. Salt was also important for its use in food preservation. The Sahara had an abundance of salt. At Taghaza, in the central Sahara, people even built homes out of blocks of salt. But in the savanna, several hundred miles south, salt was scarce. In fact, when caravans reached the kingdom of Ghana, merchants would pay one pound of gold for one pound of salt.

As farming and trade prospered, cities developed on the northern edges of the savanna. Soon strong monarchs arose, gained control of the most profitable trade routes, and built powerful kingdoms.


Ghana: The Land of Gold

By A.D. 800, the rulers of the Soninke people were able to unite many farming villages and create the kingdom of Ghana. (The present-day country of Ghana is not the same as this ancient kingdom. Modern Ghana chose the name to celebrate Africa’s rich heritage.) The ancient kingdom of Ghana was located in the fertile, broad “V” made by the Niger and Senegal rivers in present-day Mali. From there, the king controlled gold-salt trade routes across West Africa. The two streams of trade met in the marketplaces of Ghana, where the king collected tolls on all goods entering or leaving his land. So great was the flow of gold that Arab writers called Ghana “the land of gold.”

Weights of GoldIn the 1400s, a system of using standardized weights in the form of brass figures, such as the one above, to weigh the gold dust currency was developed in West Africa. The brass figures also served a cultural purpose by representing local proverbs or truisms. The gold dust currency was used to purchase items such as spices similar to those below. Why do you think having standardized weights was important in trade?

Weights of GoldIn the 1400s, a system of using standardized weights in the form of brass figures, such as the one above, to weigh the gold dust currency was developed in West Africa. The brass figures also served a cultural purpose by representing local proverbs or truisms. The gold dust currency was used to purchase items such as spices similar to those below. Why do you think having standardized weights was important in trade?

Cities of Splendor

The capital of Ghana was Kumbi Saleh, which was made up of two separate walled towns some six miles apart. The first town was dominated by the royal palace, which was surrounded by a complex of domed buildings. Here, in a court noted for its wealth and splendor, the king of Ghana presided over elaborate ceremonies. To his people, he was a godlike figure who administered justice and kept order. In the second town of Kumbi Saleh, prosperous Muslim merchants from north of the Sahara lived in luxurious stone buildings. Lured by the gold wealth of Ghana, these merchants helped make Kumbi Saleh a bustling center of trade.

Vocabulary Builder
administer—(ad min is tur) vt. to manage or direct

Influence of Islam

Muslim merchants brought their Islamic faith with them to the kingdom of Ghana. The king employed Muslims as counselors and officials, gradually incorporating some of their military technology and ideas about government. Muslims also introduced their written language, coinage, and business methods. Although Islam spread slowly at first, in time, a few city dwellers adopted the religion. However, most of the Soninke people continued to follow their own traditional beliefs.

About 1050, the Almoravids (al muh rah vuds), pious Muslims of North Africa, launched a campaign to take control of Ghana’s trade routes. They eventually overwhelmed Ghana, but were unable to maintain control over their extended empire for long. In time, Ghana was swallowed up by a rising new power, the West African kingdom of Mali.


The Kingdom of Mali

Amid the turmoil of Ghana’s collapse, the Mandinka people on the upper Niger suffered a bitter defeat by a rival leader. Their king and all but one of his sons were executed. According to tradition, the survivor was Sundiata, a sickly boy regarded as too weak to be a threat. By 1235, however, Sundiata had crushed his enemies, won control of the gold trade routes, and founded the empire of Mali.

Mansa Musa Rules Mali

Mali is an Arab version of the Mandinka word that means “where the king dwells.” The mansas, or kings of Mali, expanded their influence over the gold-mining regions to the south and the salt supplies of Taghaza. Where caravan routes crossed, towns like Timbuktu mushroomed into great trading cities.

The greatest ruler of the kingdom of Mali was Mansa Musa (mahn sah moo sah), who came to the throne in about 1312. He expanded Mali’s borders westward to the Atlantic Ocean and pushed northward to conquer many cities. During his 25-year reign, Mansa Musa worked to ensure peace and order in his empire. He converted to Islam and based his system of justice on the Quran. However, in order to ensure prosperity and peace in his kingdom, he did not impose Islam on the people, but promoted religious freedom and tolerance.


Soon after defeating Sumanguru, the ruler who had spared him from execution, Sundiata (?–1255) gained control of Kumbi Saleh, the capital of Ghana. Over the next two decades, Sundiata then proceeded to expand his power and the Mali empire. In addition to his military leadership, he was renowned for his administrative and lawmaking skills. Even now his leadership is still felt as elements of his legal system still govern the Malinke people today.

Sundiata, whose achievements are legendary, is celebrated as a great hero in West African oral traditions. In fact, West African griots, or storytellers, have passed down the epic of Sundiata from memory for hundred of years. Why do you think Sundiata’s accomplishments are still celebrated today?

Equestrian figure from Mali

Vocabulary Builder
tolerance—(tahl ur uns) n. a fair and objective attitude toward opinions and practices which differ from one’s own

The Hajj of Mansa Musa

In 1324, Mansa Musa fulfilled one of the Five Pillars of Islam by making the hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. Through his pilgrimage, Mansa Musa showed his devotion to Islam. He also forged new diplomatic and economic ties with other Muslim states. In addition, he brought back scholars, architects, and teachers who helped promote Islamic education in Mali. In fact, an Islamic university was built in Timbuktu, which attracted students from far and wide. This movement of wealth, people, and ideas increased Mali’s renown.

Trans-Saharan Trade Graphic

© Pearson Successnet


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