Trans-Sahara Trade


Economic diplomacy is a very important aspect of international relations. The politics and international relations of any nation depend strongly on her economic relevance. Thus, pre-colonial African societies related strongly on economic bases. The Trans-Sahara Trade was a strong point of international relations among African nation during the process of evolvement of different African kingdom and Empire. This trade also played a significant role to the Emergence Of some very great Empire and city states in the region.

The People of Western Sudan were intensely interested in distant country beyongythe Sahara desert; manly for reasons of trade. They sent down trading expedition and went into partnership with the Sudanese people. Exploiting this partnership in trade leading Sudanese people to establish formed large state and Empire. The important point to note about this state is that, Western Sudanese people and their Guinea neighbors had many forms of wealth which were valuable in long distance trade. Second, communication across the Sahara improved with Asian camel began to be widely used. Thirdy, technical progress in West Africa led to expansion in production, and therefore in trade, after about the beginning of Christian Era. These factors, however, facilitated the Emergence and expansion of Trans-Sahara trade.

The Trans-Sahara Trade was an external trade among the early Empire of Western Sudan. It was dominated by Caravan routes across the Sahara which linked the Western Sudan with north Africa. Gold and ivory were products of old West Africa that were disired above all else by the traders of the north. Scholars posit that Trans-Saharan commerce in these items helped to build the comfort and splendor or large north African cities such as Carthage, Leptise, and Sabratha, back in times of Phoenician and Roman rule before about AD 400. But the expansion of the Trans-Saharan long distance trade came after Muslim conquest of North Africa in the eighth century A.D. It was from this time onward that the trade began to have important result for the Western and Central Sudan.

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It is however, important to note that this trade was to the advantage of everyone involved. Just as the people of North Africa desired gold from Western Sudan so also was salt important to the people of West Africa. It is said that salt at that period was not value by the people of West Africa than gold by the people who lived to the north of the desert. Thus, the basis of trade between the Sudan and the Berbers of the Sahara lay in exchange of salt for gold.

Another very important aspect of the trade was the intricacies of the trading routes. It was always hard and dangerous to conduct this trade. Scholars posit that with the introduction of Camel to North Africa around third century AD made the trade possible and from then right up until the beginning of twentieth century vast quantities of goods were transported in both directions across the Sahara. The Caravans, often numbering over a thousand camels, normally tool about three months to complete the perilous desert crossing.

The importance of the major trading routes varied from century to century, but for most of the period we can distinguish three major trade routes:

  • The Western route started at Sijilmasa in Morocco and processed through the salt oases of Taghrea and Taoden, to the Niger bend Region.
  • The Central route started at Tunis and continued through Ghat to Agades where one branch went west to the Niger bend and the other south to Hausa land.
  • The Eastern route ran from Tripoli through Murzute and Bilma to the Lake Chad area.
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The southern termini of these routes varied during the centuries. In the 10th and 11th centuries, the most important termini for western route were Awdaghost, Kumbi and Walata, but by fourteenth century the cities of the Niger bend – Timbuktu, Jenne and Gao – had their control over the route.


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