Religion and colonisation: Part Seven…the rise in gold and slave trade


THE north-south trade across the Sahara (known as the trans-Saharan trade) brought lasting economic and social change to Africa, facilitated the spread of Islam via Muslim Arab traders and affected the development of world commerce. 

The camel’s role on this trade was crucial and its impact comparable to that of the horse and oxen in European agriculture; camels can carry about 230kg for over 40km a day and can go for days without drinking water, living on water stored in their stomachs.

The development of a saddle for use on a camel by the north African Berbers afforded them maneuverability and also gave the Berbers a powerful political and military advantage.  

As a result, the Berbers came to dominate the desert and created lucrative routes between the Mediterranean coast and the Sudan.  

They determined who entered the desert while extracting large sums for protection for the merchant caravans in exchange for a safe passage across the sand dunes, especially from the Tuareg raiders who were nomadic Berbers who lived in the desert uplands and, as a way of life, preyed on the camel caravans crossing the desert.

 The caravan trade, controlled by the Berbers, carried dates, salt from the Saharan salt mines as well as manufactured goods, such as silk, skins, cotton cloth, beads and mirrors, to the Sudan.  These products were exchanged for the much-coveted commodities of the west African savanna, namely gold, ivory, gum, kola nuts and enslaved West Africans, who were sold to Muslim slave markets in Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli and Cairo. 

The steady growth of the trans-Saharan trade had important effect on West African society.  It stimulated gold mining from the rich veins of gold contained in parts of modern-day Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana.  

Some of this gold went to Egypt, from there it was transported down the Red Sea and eventually to India to pay for the spices and silks demanded by the Mediterranean markets.  This way, African gold linked the entire world, exclusive of the western hemisphere at that time.

 The trade in gold and other goods created a desire for slaves which, after gold, were West Africa’s second-most valuable export.  

There was a high demand for household slaves in Muslim north Africa, southern Europe and south-west Asia and slaves were needed to work in the gold and salt mines.  

Large numbers of slaves were also recruited for Muslim military service through the trans-Saharan trade.  

The demand for slaves remained high for centuries, mostly as a result of a high death rate from disease, the assimilation of some slaves into Muslim society and manumission.

The trans-Saharan trade also stimulated the development of urban centers in West Africa.  Those West African families that profitted from the trans-Saharan trade were inclined to congregate in border regions between the savanna and the Sahara, typically acting as middlemen between the miners to the south and the Muslim merchants to the north.  

Muslim traders settled predominantly in the trading depots from where they organised the trans-Saharan camel caravans.  

By the early 13th Century, many of these West African families had become powerful merchant dynasties.  The concentration of people stimulated agriculture and craft industries.  Cities of sizable populations emerged to become centres of the lucrative export-import trans-Saharan trade.

The key development of the 15th Century along the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts of Africa was the arrival of ships carrying traders and missionaries from Christian Europe.  

The strength of African societies and the biogenetic and physical dangers to those Europeans venturing into the interior meant that most of the trade between the African interior and Europeans on both coasts remained under the control of Africans for generations. 

The changes wrought by the burgeoning Atlantic Slave Trade along the coasts of West and Central Africa (1500-1800) are infamous.  

But there were other significant developments during those times that also had far-reaching consequences that impacted Africa as Africa’s gradual involvement in the emerging global economic system paved the way for European colonial domination along both sides of the North African coast.  

The European names for segments of the coastline (the Grain or Pepper) Coast, the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast and the Slave Coast) identified the main exports that could be extracted by ship. 

Senegambia, in West Africa, which derives its name from the Senegal and Gambia Rivers, was one of the earliest regions affected by European trade.  

Senegambia’s maritime trade with European powers, like the older overland trade from the interior, was primarily in gold and products such as salt, cotton goods, hides and copper. 

Senegambian States also provided slaves for European purchase for roughly a century; perhaps a third of all African slaves exported during the 16th Century came from Senegambia. Thereafter, however, the focus of the slave trade moved south and east along the coast.  

Over time, Portuguese-Africans and the British came to control the Gambia River trade, while the French won the Senegal River markets. 

In 1486, the Dominican Order became active among the Wolof people of Senegambia in West Africa culminating in the baptism of Wolof King Behemoi, Senegal, in 1489.  

The Gold Coast was another West African coastal region deeply affected by the arrival of international maritime trade.  As the name suggests, after 1500, the region served as the outlet for the gold mined on the gold fields in the forest land of Akan. 

Beginning with the Portuguese at Elmina in 1481, but more so after 1600, European States and companies built coastal forts to protect their trade and to serve as depots for inland goods.  

The trade in gold, kola nuts and other commodities encouraged the growth of larger States.

The intensive contact of the Gold Coast with Europeans also led to the importation and spread of American crops, notably maize and cassava; and Christianity, all of which profoundly changed many African societies.  

The most prominent feature of early West African society was their strong sense of community based on blood relationships and religion.  

Extended families made up villages that collectively formed small kingdoms.  

Thus, the success of the new crops in West and Central Africa contributed to substantial population growth in the 16th and 17th Centuries. 

The Gold Coast was an importer of slaves until long after 1500.  Slaves became major exports in the late 17th Century, especially in the Accra region.  

The economy was so disrupted by the slave trade that gold mining declined sharply.  Eventually more gold came into the Gold Coast from the sale of slaves than what was mined from its mines.

Before 1500, natural barriers, that include swamps in the north, coastal rain forests to the west, highlands to the east and deserts in the south, impeded international contact and trade with the vast interior of the continent. 

However, in tropical central Africa, there had long been regional interactions in movements of peoples and in trade and culture.

Political, economic and social units varied in size; by the 15th Century, peoples such as the Lunda and the Luba on the southern savannah below the Rain Forest had carved out sizeable kingdoms and expanded their control over neighbouring areas into the 18th Century.

The Portuguese came to the western coastal regions looking for gold and silver, but found none. Ultimately, their main export was slaves.  

At first, slaves were taken for gang labour to the Portuguese sugar plantations on Sao Tomé island in the Gulf of Guinea and then, in vast numbers, to perform similar plantation labour in Brazil.  

The Dutch briefly succeeded the Portuguese in the 1640s as the major suppliers of African slaves to English and French plantations in the Caribbean.

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant.  She is a published author in her field.  For comments e-mail:


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