NSM

The third Nordic conference on Middle Eastern Studies:
Ethnic encounter and culture change
Joensuu, Finland, 19-22 June 1995


Trans-Saharan Trade and the West African Discovery of the Mediterranean World


Pekka Masonen
University of Tampere

NB *This is the unedited paper as given at the Joensuu conference. An updated and edited version has been published in Sabour and Vikør, Ethnic encounter and culture change, Bergen/London 1997, 116-42. Please quote or refer only to the published article.*

In spite of her vast geographical dimensions and natural extremes, the Sahara has never been a barrier which had completely isolated Black Africa from other civilisations, in the same sense as the Atlantic Ocean separated the New World from the Old. Yet it was not a long time ago when European historians were willing to explain that the apparent backwardness of African cultures was a consequence of their lack of contacts with the outside world. Contrary to this opinion was the more widespread tendency to claim that all progress in African past had been initiated by invasions of more advanced peoples arriving from the Mediterranean. This idea was propagated especially by colonial writers who were eager to find traces of Egyptian, Jewish, Phoenician, Roman and Arab cultural influence everywhere in Africa, including the southernmost tip of Cape Province. Today this arrogant attitude is often replaced by a more neutral concept of cultural diffusion, although the fundamental idea is still intact: the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa were not able to develope any innovations like metallurgy, urbanism, or state-formation themselves, but already since the distant past they have needed the help of foreign advisors.

However, the notion that Africans have always been nothing but passive objects in their encounter with other civilisations, "having no interests to explore the world outside their own home village," is both oversimplified and ahistorical. The establisment and success of regular trans-Saharan trade, for example, was not possible without the active participation of West Africans who understood perfectly well, how to utilize the new opportunities offered by the commercial contacts to the Islamic world. Yet, in the authorized African historiography, this point is usually passed over with few words only.

The trans-Saharan trade was not merely an economic phenomenon, but it connected Western Africa to the Mediterranean world on the intellectual level, too. Listening the tales of traders, the medieval Arab geographers learnt to know the sub-Saharan Africa which they called Bilad al-Sudan, "The Land of the Blacks", although their knowledge covered only the areas lying close to the desert edge, Sahil, or "the shore". In Christian Europe, the gradual accumulation of rumours concerning the treasures of Western Africa encouraged the Portuguese to seek their way to the fabulous Guinea where gold was said to grow in earth like carrots. The Arab and European discovery of sub-Saharan Africa is documented and discussed in numerous works - much less attention has been paid on the West African discovery of the world behind the Sahara. A reason for this silence is certainly the lack of evidence: it is extremely difficult to reconstruct the West African idea of the world, contemporary to that of the medieval European and Arab, because those West Africans who crossed the Sahara left no documents, and all that is known about them is based on accounts written by others. Yet there are some pieces of information both in the contemporary and in the later Arabic and European sources which allow us to make speculations - or at least questions - concerning the West African knowledge of outside world during the age when the caravans of Sahara were the only link between the African, the Islamic, and the European cultures.

Origins of the Trans-Saharan contacts

The regular commercial and cultural exchange between Western Africa and the Mediterranean world did not start properly until the 8th century AD. Yet the beginning of trans-Saharan trade was not such a sudden and dramatic event like the coming of Europeans to America, but it had a long history of sporadic encounters for more than 1000 years. When and how the very first contacts took place is still obscure, although their origins can be traced already to the prehistoric times. Archaeologists have, for example, found in southern Mauritania some copper objects of Hispano-Moroccan style, which are dated to the 11th century BC. The reciprocal action between Moroccan and Mauritanian prehistoric inhabitants was possible, for the northern and southern 50 mm isohyets are close together in western Sahara, forming there a kind of natural corridor along which the desert can be crossed.

Establishment of the early trans-Saharan contacts is customarily attributed to the Libyan tribe of Garamantes. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, they hunted with their chariots the Ethiopian Troglodytes, or "cave-dwellers", who lived in the desert. This account has been associated with the rock paintings depicting horse-pulled chariots, the first of which were found in Fezzan in the early 1930s. Afterwards more paintings were discovered in Tassili and southern Morocco, and they seem to form two tracks leading to the direction of the Niger Bend. Subsequently, a theory was created, according to which the Garamantes (or alternatively some other Saharan people) had carried West African gold and ivory to the markets of Carthage and Rome.

The theory of chariot routes became soon widely accepted, and it is still found in numerous general histories of Africa, although severe criticism against its historicity began in the early 1970s. Opposers of the theory have correctly pointed out that the existence of paintings depicting chariots is not sufficient proof that the desert was ever crossed with such vehicles. Furthermore, all paintings depict light, two-wheeled chariots. According to the experimental tests made by French researchers, these tiny vehicles, which have hardly room enough even for the driver, cannot be used for transporting heavy material for long distances. It is also interesting that no skeletal remains of horses, contemporary to the paintings which were created during a long period reaching from 1000 BC till 500 AD, has been found in southern Mauritania or in the vicinity of Niger Bend. Thus it is likely that the rock paintings represent nothing but the diffusion of a form of art from the Mediterranean coast to the southern Sahara.

On the other hand, there are few mentions in classical Graeco-Roman literature, which suggest that some occasional contacts did really take place. Herodotus, for example, has another interesting account, according to which some youths belonging to the Libyan tribe of Nasamones travelled to the south until the arrived in a swampy area. There they met small-sized black men who took them into their town. This story has been associated both with the "little people", a common element in West African oral tradition referring to the original inhabitants of the area, and with the geographical conditions of the Niger inland delta. On these grounds, it has been suggested that the young Nasamones had reached the Niger valley. According to another Greek writer, Marinus of Tyre, a Roman merchant called Julianus Maternus had travelled with the King of the Garamantes to a land called Agisymba where he had seen a lot of rhinoceros. Since no rhinoceros lived in Northern Africa in the classical Antiquity, it is widely assumed that Julianus Maternus probably visited the areas of northern Chad.

There is also some archaeological evidence of the early contacts of West Africans with the classical world. Some Roman objects, dated to the 3rd century AD, has been found in Abalessa, in Ahaggar, in the so called tomb of queen Tin Hinan. Beyond Ahaggar, Roman objects are, however, extremely rare: only two coins has been found in southern Mauritania, although they are not necessarily ended up there during the Antiquity, for Roman coins were circulating in Northern Africa still in the Islamic period. Yet some new and interesting objects have recently came into daylight. In Jenne-Jenó, "the old Jenne", archaeologists have found foreign beads which are dated to the second century AD. Furthermore, a Hellenistic statuette depicting a feminine Janus, which was made in Cyrenaica in the second century AD, was found in 1976 in the Republic of Niger. It is quite probable that more such discoveries will appear in the future, since the excavations in the Niger valley are only at the beginning: the large man-made tumuli around the Niger bend, for example, are still untouched.

The discovery of Graeco-Roman objects does not, of course, prove that any Greek or Roman merchant had ever visited Jenne-Jenó or any other urban settlement in the Niger valley. Contrariwise, it is most likely that these objects had ended up to the south of Sahara through many intermediators the last of whom have hardly had any idea of the origins of the objects. But who were these intermediators?

In spite of the fearless Garamantes with their galloping horses, the real initiators of trans-Saharan trade were the Berber nomads who frequently crossed the desert with their camel flocks. The nomads, who resided at southern edge of Sahara, left to the north in the beginning of the rainy season, returning back by the eve of the dry season. While staying in their pastures in southern Morocco and the Atlas mountains, these nomads have certainly met people who, in their turn, had contacts beyond the Roman limes. As the nomads learned to know the great value of gold in Roman world, they perhaps started bartering it from the peoples of West Africa for salt and copper. The gold was carried to the north, where it was probably used for payment of dates, corn and such handycrafts which the nomads could not produce themselves. The nomads may have bought also some luxury objects made in the Roman world, which they bartered for gold in the south. This trade could have started only after the adoption of dromedary by the Saharan peoples, for horses do not survive in the harsh conditions of the desert. The camels were important not so much as mounts than beasts of burden, for they enabled to transport efficiently both the merchandizes and the food and water which were needed during the crossing of the desert; the traders usually walked all the way. Customarily the adoption of the dromedary in Northern Africa is dated to the beginning of our era, and on the grounds of classical literature its introduction is attributed to the Romans. However, some camel bones have been found recently in the Senegal valley, and they are dated to the third century AD, suggesting that the dromedary was domesticated by Saharan inhabitants at least by that time, since there never lived any wild camels in Africa.

What were the consequences of these sporadic contacts? First, it seems that they did not increase at all the knowledge of sub-Saharan African among the Mediterranean peoples. According to the survived classical sources, ancient geographers believed that after the fertile North African littoral began nothing but a vast, arid, hot and uninhabited desert. The same can be said of West Africans who were presumably not aware of the existence of Mediterranean peoples either. Secondly, the volume of the trade must have been humble, for the Roman empire made no effective efforts to expand her political dominance beyond the limes. Neither had the Romans any economic reason to develope closer commercial contacts with the unknown lands in the south, because they obtained all the merchandize the West Africans could offer them, namely gold, ivory, exotic beasts and slaves, more easily within her own borders or from the nearby frontier areas in Europe and the Middle East. Similarly, the Roman world had very few products which could have encouraged the West Africans to increase the volume of trade.

Finally, no significant cultural influences did spread through these early contacts, but urbanisation and state-formation started in Western Africa independently without any impulses from the Mediterranean civilisations. There was a radical interruption in the pottery used in the Niger valley during the third century AD, correlating thus with the adoption of dromedary, which suggests that fundamental changes in social organisation took place by that time. However, there are no signs of any alien conquest of the area and it was certainly the accumulation of wealth produced by the internal trade, rather than the vague extenal trade, which gave birth to the first West African states.

West African encounter with the Arabs

The conditions of trans-Saharan trade changed remarkably after Northern Africa became a part of the Islamic world in the late 7th century AD. The vast Umayyid caliphate, reaching from the slopes of Pyrenees to the banks of Indus, formed a solid market area the monetary system of which was based on gold. In practice, it meant that this precious metal had a great demand throughout the Islamic world. In the eastern parts of the caliphate, gold could obtained sufficiently from local mines or by recycling the ancient hoards. In the western parts, the situation was more difficult, for there are no gold mines in Northern Africa. However, the Muslim rulers in the west struck their own golden dinars. Since there is no evidence that they had imported gold from Egypt or the Middle East, they must have obtained it from other sources. Plausible alternatives are the mines of Sicily and southern Spain, which were known already in ancient times, and the existing Roman and Byzantine treasures. Yet part of the metal was inevitably brought from Western Africa.

In fact, it seems that regular and intensive trade across the desert was organized quite soon after the Arabs had consolided their power in Northern Africa: both the major northern terminals of the trans-Saharan routes, Sijilmasa and Tahert, were founded in mid-8th century AD. However, the trade could succeed only because it managed to join up with the internal West African commercial network. By the arrival of first North African traders, perhaps in the early 8th century, the peoples of the savanna had already established large states, like Ghana and Gao, and cities, like Jenne which had some twenty thousand inhabitants. But new cities were also born at the desert edge, like Awdaghust, Kumbi Saleh and Tadamakka, and their destiny was tied closely with the continuity of the long distance trade: when the caravan routes later changed and the volume of trade declined, these towns, too, were soon abandoned. There were three basic routes across the Sahara: the "western", leading from Sijilmasa to Awdaghust; the "central", and the most important, leading from Ifriqiya to the Niger bend; and the "Egyptian", leading from Egypt to the Niger bend via Siwa and Kufra, which was, however, abandoned in the 10th century as it was too dangerous.

Very little is known about the volume of the trans-Saharan trade during the first Islamic centuries. According to the contemporary Arabic sources, the caravans brought to the north annually huge amounts of gold, but modern estimates range from 2,000 to 3,000 kg per year. Nevertheless, a real boom in the trade began in the 10th century, with the establishment of the Fatimid caliphate in Northern Africa in 910. The reason was that the Fatimids, who were in rivalry both with the Umayyads of Spain and the Abbasids of Baghdad, needed constantly lots of gold to finance their continuous wars and extensive religious propaganda. The rise of Fatimids also meant that the western route became the most important, since their access to the central route was blocked by the Ibadites who still held Wargla. Yet the transfer of the Fatimid capital from Ifriqiya to Egypt in 971 caused a brief period of stagnation in the trade. Residing in Cairo, the Fatimid caliphs were no more interested in North African affairs, since they could obtain gold more easily from Nubian mines.

A second boom took place in the late 11th century, as the Almoravids united western Sahara, Morocco and Islamic Spain into a single empire. Like the Fatimids, the Almoravids needed also lot of gold to finance their wars against the Christians in Spain and the rebelling Almohads in Maghrib. During the Almoravid period, gold seems to have flowed to the north with great amounts, for the Almoravid golden dinars became the most common and esteemed currency in the Mediterranean area, including the Christian world. A brief period of stagnation was followed after the downfall of Almoravids in 1147, but the trade continued steadily again from the mid-13th century until the Moroccan invasion in Timbuktu in 1591.

The encounter of Islamic and West African cultures was peaceful, and it can be termed "controlled relationship". This concept is usually applied to the European encounter with China, where foreign traders were forced to obey the rules set by the Chinese government which decided unilaterally on the location of trade, the number of traders, as well as type and character of the goods. If the Europeans were not willing to accept these rules, they were not permitted to continue their trade. Before the outbreak of First Opium War in 1839, the Chinese empire was powerful enough to reject all military threats from the part of European naval powers.

In Western Africa, the contact zone was limited to the desert edge cities, where North African traders were isolated for their own quarters, lying usually outside the local dwelling. Yet there was no racial discrimination. In fact, many of the traders took local concubines, as no women of their own society were available. This behaviour is understandable, for the traders had often to spend several years in the south, and there lived also permanent agents of North African trading companies. Afterwards twin cities, with separate quarters for the Muslim and non-Muslim population, became a common structure for urban settlements throughout Western Africa.

On the other hand, the isolation of North African traders was partly voluntary for two reasons. First, the West African interior was as unhealthy for Arabs as the coastal area was for Europeans, and thus the traders were not willing to leave the desert edge cities where the conditions were healthier. Secondly, by isolating themselves, the traders were able to maintain their own culture and practice their own religion. Otherwise the traders had to follow local laws and customs, regardless whether they were against the Quranic law. But the cultural difference was recognized, and the traders were not intentionally forced to do such things which they felt offending. In China, the Europeans were obliged to perform the kowtow in front of the high mandarins, which they regarded extremely humiliating; in Western Africa, the Arab traders were exempted from performing the common gesture of submission in front of the kings, which was to sprinkle dust over one's head.

The principal reason why the North African traders were willing to accommodate in the local conditions in Western Africa, was the same as in the case of Europeans in China: it was the only way to continue the profitable trade. Before the European discovery of America, West African mines were the most important single source of gold both for Northern Africa and Europe; it is estimated that two-thirds of all the gold circulating in the Mediterranean area in the Middle Ages was imported across the Sahara. This made the uninterrupted continuity of trade more important for North African rulers than their West African counterparts. The demand for salt, for which the Arabs bartered the gold in Western Africa, is usually overemphasized in the historiography. Contrariwise, the Saharan rock salt was an expensive luxury product and available to the wealthy people only. Furthermore, it could be quite easily substituted by locally produced salt from plants and soil, whereas the North African rulers could not obtain gold for their coins elsewhere.

However, the position of the powerful states of the West African savanna was not based on the possession of the gold reserves, but on the control over the principal trade routes leading from the desert edge terminals to the gold fields in the south. In this way, the rulers of northern savanna could monopolize the trade, and they strictly prevented the Arabs to establish any direct contacts with the actual producers of gold. Inside Western Africa, the trade was carried on by local brokers, or the Dyula.

The other reason was that the Arab traders were without the protection provided by their own civilization, while staying in sub-Saharan Africa. Before the wider introduction of firearms in the 16th century, the Arab rulers of Northern Africa had no real possibilities to threaten their West African counterparts with war, as there were no such differences between the military technology which guaranteed them any absolute superiority. Furthermore, the West African armies were very large, although the claims in Arabic sources, such as the ruler of Ghana having an army of 200,000 warriors, are certainly exaggerating. Yet, in any case, we can speak of tens of thousands. To send an army of an equal size across the Sahara was extremely hazardous, and the success of the Moroccan invasion in Timbuktu in 1591 is rather an exception which reinforces the general rule: the ruler of Songhay empire considered it unnecessary to poison the wells in the desert or to organize any effective counter-attack, because he was convinced that the Moroccans would perish in the desert anyway. In fact, Judar Pasha did lose a great deal of his men during the deathly march across the western Sahara. Besides the desert, another natural advantage which protected the West Africans, was the unhealthy environment. Most parts of the savanna are infected by trypanosomiasis, which is lethal especially for quadrupeds, thus preventing the large scale use of cavalry forces in this area.

An illustrative example of the military encounter between North and West African states is the dispute on the possession of the important salt mines of Taghaza in central Sahara. At first Taghaza had been controlled by the Saharan nomads, but in the early 14th century the rulers of Mali managed to maintain some control over the routes leading these mines from the south. By the end of the following century, the askias of Songhay, which had superceded superceded Mali as the dominant power in Western Africa, extended their rule even further in the desert and appointed a governor in Taghaza. However, in 1544, Sultan Muhammad al-Mahdi, the founder of Sa'did power in Morocco, demanded the ruler of Songhay, askia Ishaq I, to give him the mines. Askia Ishaq naturally refused to do it, and a war broke out. The Moroccans sent an army to occupy Taghaza, but the army was destroyed in the desert. As response to this, a Songhay army consisting of Tuaregs, attacked northwards and sacked the southern parts of Morocco, forcing Sultan Muhammad to flee from Marrakesh. Similarly, the rulers of Bornu, lying around Lake Chad, were able to expand their political dominance deep into Fezzan, occupying the oases until the 16th century.

With the increased volume of trans-Saharan trade in the Islamic period, new cultural influences began to spread in Western Africa. The most important of them was a new religion, Islam, which was adopted in the states belonging to the sphere of the caravan trade by the end of the eleventh century. The conversion was peaceful and it had been preceded by a long period of coexistence in the cities of the trade route terminues. Motives for the conversion were many: we should not underestimate the charm of novelty and human curiosity, nor the advantages the new religion could offer for individuals, like healing and social prestige. In Western Africa, Muslims are visibly distinguished from other people with their dressing and eating habits, and they do not hesitate to perform their religious ceremonies in public. For the rulers, the conversion offered several political advantages. First, they became, at least in theory but often in reality too, equals to North African rulers, which made the maintenance of diplomatic relations easier. Yet the conversion did not include any recognition of the political supremacy of North African rulers. Secondly, Islam provided them effective means to increase their power. Literacy enabled the goverment of large empires, and Islam could be used as unifying cult within the multiethnic and multireligious states.

In Western Africa, Islam remained for a long time as a cult of the courts and commercial centres: Mali, Songhay and Bornu were no Muslim states, although medieval Arabic writers depicted them as such. Actually, the rulers were not anxious to spread the new religion among their subjects, since it had endangered their position. Contrariwise, the West African rulers had to play all the time a double role: in relation to Arab traders and rulers they acted as pious Muslims, but in relation to their own subjects they carefully fulfilled their duties as divine kings. In this way, Islam caused an internal tension in West Africa societies which occasionally broke out as civil wars, if the ruler could not maintain the balancy between the Muslim and traditionalist cliques. However, the adoption of Islam had not only political consequences but it also linked Western Africa culturally to the Islamic world and gave West Africans a concrete reason to cross the Sahara for the first time in their history.

West Africans in the Mediterranean

There is no evidence that West Africans had crossed the Sahara during the classical Antiquity. Some individual adventurers may have done it, but their experiences remain unknown to us. Black people were not, of course, unfamiliar in the ancient Mediterranean. There were many black warriors, freemen and slaves in the Egyptian, Carthaginian and Roman societies. Nevertheless, they were mostly Nubians or the autochtonous black inhabitants of northern Sahara.

It was not until the Islamic period, when the West Africans began to arrive in the Mediterranean world. The great majority of them were slaves. There are no records concerning the volume of trans-Saharan slave trade, but it is estimated that during the thousand years, which followed its beginning in the 8th century AD, about 9.3 million black slaves were imported to the north, including those who died during the painful crossing of the desert. In fact, the total quantity of trans-Saharan slave trade was equal to the Atlantic trade, though its annual volume was much lower. However, no great black communities were born in Northern Africa in the same sense as those in the American colonies, for most of the slaves were women whose fertility in slavery was low. The offsprings of black concubines with their Arab masters were free and merged gradually into the North African population, although is some areas they were also killed. Therefore, mortality of slaves had to be replaced by importing new ones, and the overall amount of black slaves who were actually present in Northern Africa remained thus restrained.

The voluntary traffic of West Africans to the north began with the adoption of Islamic faith. Pilgrimage to Mecca is one the five pillars of Islam, and in principle an obligation for all Muslims. The first West African Muslims visited Mecca already in the early 12th century. They were mainly notables and rulers who had the economic possibilities to perform the long journey. Especially the rulers of Mali became famous of their sumptous pilgrimages, the first of which is said to have taken place in the 1260s. Yet the most famous was the magnificent pilgrimage of Mansa Musa in 1324, whose visit was remembered in Cairo for centuries afterwards. It was certainly witnessed by Italian traders, too: the picture of king Musse Melly appeared in European maps already in 1339. Another equally sensational event was the pilgrimage of askia Muhammad of Songhay. Pilgrimages by common people became general only later, from the 15th century onwards, as Islam gradually turned from the cult of courts to a popular belief.

The royal pilgrimages had also an important role in maintaining diplomatic relations with North African rulers. Yet official state visits were performed much earlier. Already in the first half of the 12th century, the Muslim ruler of a West African state called Diafunu visited Marrakesh where he met the reigning Almoravid amir Ali b. Yusuf (1106-43). Even before this visit, the Rustamid imam of Tahert had sent in early 9th century a delegation with precious gifts to the court of the "King of Blacks", referring most likely to the ruler of Gao, definitely pagan by that time. In the 14th century, delegations were exchanged regularly between the West and North African capitals. Diplomatic relations were looked after also by correspondence. Unfortunately, no letters have survived, and there are only some references to their contents in the Arabic sources, but presumably they dealt mostly with business affairs. In the early 13th century, the governor of Sijilmasa, which was the most important terminus of the trans-Saharan caravan routes in southern Morocco, sent a following letter to the king of Ghana who was by then the most powerful ruler in Western Africa:

We are neighbours in benevolence even if we differ in religion; we agree on right conduct and are one in leniency towards our subjects. It goes without saying that justice is an essential quality of kings in conducting sound policy; tyranny is the preoccupation of ignorant and evil minds. We have heard about the imprisonment of poor traders and their being prevented from going freely about their business. The coming to and fro of merchants to a country is of benefit to its inhabitants and a help to keeping it populous. If we wished we would imprison the people of that region who happen to be in our territory but we do not think it right to do that. We ought not to "forbid immorality while practising it ourselves". Peace be upon you.
Considering the contents of this letter, there is no doubt who had the actual control over the trade in the south.

The increased direct contacts to the north meant that the West Africans learnt to know the outside world. Already before the adoption of Islam, those West Africans who were dealing closely with the caravan trade had certainly some idea of the Mediterranean area, which was based on the news heard from the traders. Afterwards, the knowledge was increased by the news delivered by pilgrims. The most popular route to Mecca went through Cairo, which was the greatest and most important city in the eastern Mediterranean. However, some of the pilgrims presumably visited also other cities in the Middle East. At least in the early 19th century, European explorers met many West African pilgrims who had visited not only Cairo and Mecca but also Jerusalem, Baghdad, Damascus and even Istanbul. In these large cosmopolitan cities, the West Africans were able to meet people from many other countries, including Europeans who had obtained the right to establish their first permanent trading settlements, called the funduqs, in North African ports already in the mid-12th century. Neither should we forget the numerous West African mercenaries who fought in the North African and Spanish armies, and were able to meet representants many other cultures, like Europeans, Turks, and Slavic peoples of the Balkans.

The outside world became familiar to West Africans also through books. Alongside Islam, the West African Muslims learned Arabic language and writing, which gave them access to the entire Arabic scientific literature. In the Middle Ages, the Arab geography was far more developed compared to that of European, for the Arabs had close commercial contacts not only with sub-Saharan Africa, but also with India, China, Russia and Central Europe: the 12th-century Arab geographers knew even some Finnish toponyms. Books became an important item in the trans-Saharan trade, and eventually West Africans began to study in the famous Islamic universities. Already in the 12th century West African students arrived in Spain and Morocco. In the following century, a hostel for West African students was opened at the al-Azhar university in Cairo, and it was maintained by the rulers of Bornu. The first West African university, called Sankore, was established in Timbuktu by the Mansa Musa, the ruler of Mali, in the 1330s, and it was built by an Andalusian architect. It is said that the Sankore library had contained all the important works of Islamic learning until it was burnt in the 19th century. In any case, the wealth and fame of the West African rulers attracted also North African scholars to move into their capitals.

Summarizing all the effects of the intellectual contacts to the Islamic culture, we may claim that the 14th-century West Africans may have had considerable detailed knowledge of their contemporary world - perhaps more detailed than most of their contemporary Europeans who still regarded sub-Saharan Africa as a land of monsters and miracles.

The situation was perhaps similar to that in the early 19th century, when European explorers, who had penetrated the African interior in order to unveil her secrets, were amazed at how well the West Africans knew what was going on in the outside world. When Mungo Park arrived in Segu on the Niger in July 1796, being the first European in this city, he was told that the British and French were fighting in the Mediterranean. The news probably concerned the battles that took place after the treaty of Basle which was made in April 1795, when Park was in his way to Gambia. In 1824, Hugh Clapperton visited Kano, being again the first European in this city, and he was surprised by Muhammad Bello, the ruler of Sokoto caliphate, who asked him detailed questions concerning the British policy in India and the religious situation in Europe. In early 1871, Gustav Nachtigal, the famous German traveller who had left Tripoli in 1869 in order to explore Central Africa, was told in Bornu that a war had broke out between franse and nimse, meaning Frenchmen and Germans. Considering that the Franco-Prussian war began in July 1870, the news had reached Bornu very quickly.

Perhaps news of the great events in the medieval Mediterranean, like the fall of Acre in 1291 or the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, were heard in the capital of Mali as quickly. However, there are only few mentions in the contemporary Arabic sources concerning the transmission of news across the Sahara. We know, for example, that Mansa Musa of Mali sent a delagation to congratulate the Marinid Sultan Abu 'l-Hasan for the conquest of Tlemcen. Since Tlemcen had fallen to Marinids in April 1337, the news most probably arrived in Mali with the traders who had left Morocco in autumn, which was the usual season of departure for the caravans to the south. The Malian delegation was sent to Fez probably in the following summer, when the caravans returned to the north. Similarly, another Malian delegation was sent to congratulate Sultan Abu 'l-Hasan for the conquest of Constantine in 1349. The prompt action on part of the Malian rulers proves that they knew well the political geography of Northern Africa, being fully aware of the consequenses of the Marinid expansion to central Maghrib.

Yet we must undertand that the knowledge concerning the outside world among West Africans was restricted to a very narrow group only, consisting of few rulers, scholars, noblemen, and wealthy merchants. It is curious that there are hardly any remembrance of the medieval contacts in the local oral tradition: Mansa Musa, for example, whose deeds are so well documented in Arabic sources, is remembered mainly as a great magician who brought powerful fetishes from Mecca. On the other hand, the West African tradition has incorporated many elements from Arabic literature, which were certainly transmitted by the pilgrims who were listening the story-tellers and entertainers in North African and Middle Eastern cities.

The golden age of the trans-Saharan trade ended with the collapse of Songhay empire after the Moroccan attack in 1591. The disintegration of West African political structures, the contemporary economic decline of Northern Africa, and the European competition on the Guinea coast made the caravan trade less profitable. Neverthless, the trade continued, until the railroads gave it the final death blow in the beginning of our century. The shift in favour of the Atlantic trade began with the arrival of the first Portuguese ships on the Mauritanian coast in 1443. For West Africans, who had already had contacts with other peoples for centuries, the coming of Europeans was no cultural shock. Although the merchants and merchandizes were different, the fundamental pattern of economic and cultural exchange was the same in the Atlantic trade as it had been in the caravan trade. Similarly, it was another channel for West Africans to the outside world: in 1594 a Portuguese navigator reported that he had in Senegal met many blacks who were not only capable of speaking French but have even visited France. In was only during the age of imperialism that the encounter of West Africans with other civilisations turned definitely from controlled relationship to collision.


Pekka Masonen
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