1743 French Map of Northwest Africa, depicting the areas covered in this curriculum unit.
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
Trade has played an important role in the economy of West Africa since very early times. As early as 300 AD, camel caravans carried salt from mines in the Sahara Desert to trading centers along the Niger River in present-day Mali. Their mission was to exchange the salt for the gold that was mined in forests near the headwaters of the Niger. West Africa’s first kingdom, Ghana, became wealthy and powerful because it controlled the trade routes and commercial activities in its region.
The spread of Islam across North Africa in the 7th century dramatically increased trans-Saharan trade. As the market expanded, strategically sited towns became major centers of commerce, welcoming merchants from distant lands.
The main stopping point of caravans moving south across the desert was the salt mines of Targhaza. In this activity, students will find out how the salt was obtained and why it was so important in the West African trade networks.
The salt that was brought down from the Sahara was usually traded for gold. The gold was mined in the forests of Guinea, near the source of the Niger, and carried downstream to the markets along the Niger in dugout canoes. Many local merchants became quite wealthy. Ghana, West Africa’s first kingdom, depended upon income from trade. It became so rich it was known as the Land of Gold.
As king of the Land of Gold, Ghana’s ruler made certain that he looked the part.
The expansion of Islam across North Africa in the 7th century led to a great increase in West African commercial activities, as Muslim merchants became actively involved in the trans-Saharan trade routes.
Pretend you are standing are in a bustling trading center in Ghana. What products are being traded? (Remember the “silent trade” of gold.) What are the merchants quibbling about? What are the smells in the air? The sounds? Write a poem or an essay about your “virtual” experience.
1 class periods