Trans-Saharan and Saharan Trade: new approaches and new sources to a global economic system (800-1850)

Session présentée au XIX WEHC (World Economic History Congress), Campus Condorcet, 2022

Over the past two decades, the history of the Sahara has undergone a remarkable renewal. Old historiographical conceptions, making this vast desert area a barrier or a void to cross, have been abandoned in favor of a whole series of studies focusing on the Sahara as an inhabited, connected and connecting space.

About pre-colonial Africa, the 19th century was the subject of the most important economic and social history surveys due to a greater amount of documentation. Books of historians such as Judith Scheele and Ghislaine Lydon have shed light on the economic history of trans-Saharan trade through legal, anthropological and cultural perspectives.

With regard to the older centuries, a similar trend has recently been observed. However, it is still largely insufficient in view of the economic weight of trans-Saharan trade in the Mediterranean world system. This session thus offers to continue these reflections, by mobilizing both new European and African sources and new approaches developed in the history of trans-Saharan trade.

It will be a question of taking into account the Sahara itself and its populations in the activity of large-scale trade and multiplying the points of view, from the Mediterranean Sea and the Maghreb, the Sahel and the savannah, in order to highlight the extra-Saharan ramifications of the roads and networks of this trading system. Products and resources will be at the heart of our analysis. Indeed, this economic system could not have existed without the presence of significant quantities of gold south of the Sahara, a factor that caused this major trade to take off in the middle of the 8th century.

However, this trade cannot be reduced to a simple gold rush of caravans from north to south. It was infinitely more complex and became more and more structured over time. Since the Sahara and the Sahel were politically organized, it follows a logic of supply and demand, with mutual needs conditioning prices and roads. Beyond the classic trinity of gold, salt and slaves, this session will pay particular attention to other resources that may have been underestimated but are being reassessed in the light of new sources and reflections, such as copper, feathers, cowrie, handicrafts, fabrics etc.

Hadrien Collet – Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale Introduction of the session

The introduction will briefly present the relevance of focusing on the Sahara when one wants to understand the premodern economy of Africa. Some metaphores such as the Saharan desert as an ocean or as a barrier have led to overlook this space as a vital partner of the Mediterranean world-system. The great trans-Saharan trade was active from the 8th century until the colonization of the continent, even though with periods more prosperous than others. This session will offer many different perspectives, either geographical or chronological, on the African premodern economy with the Sahara as the central point of interest .

Ingrid Houssaye Michienzi – French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), Orient & Méditerranée (UMR 8167, Paris) – Cooper trade from Central Europe to the Niger basin around 1400: trade platforms, intermediaries and itineraries

The Datini collection in the archives of Prato in Tuscany, through its correspondence and account books, sheds light on the circulation of shipments of copper mined in the kingdom of Hungary, transported to Venice, and shipped to northern Africa via Mallorca, then to sub-Saharan Africa via the Touat, around 1400. The rich content of the correspondence exchanged between various subsidiaries of the Datini company fills an important gap in the documentation on African connections and routes. The purpose of this article is thus to unveil the stakes and modalities of such a trade, by highlighting the routes and the actors. It will offer a precise and detailed presentation of the copper shipments including important data : reference is made to the quality of the copper and its shapes (rods, ingots, plates, etc.), trade routes, intermediaries, etc. And it will describe the route of copper from the Hungarian kingdom to the Touat, a Saharan crossroads then in full expansion.

Hadrien Collet – Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale – The Saharan agency in the salt trade economy: an overlooked central link (12th-14th century)

Early on in Arabic medieval documents, salt has been established as gold’s twin product in a particular economic model based on barter. Chroniclers give very phantasmatic accounts of piles of salt that could be exchanged for equivalent piles of gold, a lucrative operation that compelled merchants to cross the Sahara in order to reach the market towns of the Sahel. The classic historiographical model that was developed in this field of studies depicted caravans departing from the North with goods and salt and coming back from the Sahel with mainly gold and slaves. In this model, both the agency of Saharan and Sahelian societies were mostly absent. Yet, the salt was extracted and purchased in the Desert, that is to say that it was not a product necessarily present in the freight of the caravans when they left their port in North Africa. This paper discusses the role of Saharan individuals, here the Massūfa Berbers controlling the caravan economy and the roads in the Saharan West, in the salt trade around a legal text, written between the 12th and the 14th centuries, that opens a window on a more complex approach to the trans-Saharan trade at the medieval period.

Cheikh Sene – Institut des Mondes Africains – The Senegambia between two economics: the trans-Saharan trade and the Atlantic trade (13th-16th)

This communication addresses the slave trade in Senegambia before and after the arrival of the first Portuguese navigators. The transition phase from a trans-Saharan to an Atlantic economy was not abrupt. The trans-Saharan trade adapted to the Atlantic trade. The products that came from Europe and were transported by the coast were reintroduced into the interior circuits and circulated as far as the heart of the Sahara (Godinho, 1969, pp. 191-208). Why did Senegambia gradually turn towards the Atlantic at the expense of the Sahara? Several factors can be highlighted: the low weight of Senegambia in trans-Saharan trade due to its geographical location, the absence of real trade networks and of trade products other than salt and gold. The opening to the Atlantic, the slave trade, particularly the high demand for slave labor, and the introduction of new European trade goods attracted the covetousness of local chiefs and contributed greatly to the decline of the old trans-Saharan trade. This paper revisits the place of Senegambia in the trans-Saharan trade. It attempts to analyze the juxtaposition of the trans-Saharan trade with the Atlantic trade and the economic and political reasons that pushed Senegambia towards the Atlantic economy.

Rémi Dewière – Northumbria University – Gift Exchanges and State Economies in trans-Saharan relations (16th-17th c.)

From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, the practice of gift-giving was omnipresent in trans-Saharan relations. Gifts were the material expression of the political dialogue between rulers. Their quality and quantity were a good barometer of relations between rulers, and were an integral part of the politico-commercial negotiations between the North and the South of the Sahara. A close analysis of the gifts sent or received by the Borno rulers (present-day Nigeria) between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reveals a system of norms and customs on the part of the Borno chancellery. Their material value also raises the question of their economic dimension. By focusing on the embassies between Tripoli and Borno in the early modern period, the aim of this paper is to demonstrate that the gifts were a part of a normalized practice of trans-Saharan diplomacy. Beyond the message carried by the gifts themselves, the Borno sultans mixed economic and political interests by integrating the exchanges of gifts into the wider trans-Saharan trade.

Agnès Charpentier – French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) – Orient & Méditerranée (UMR 8167, Paris) – Local and international trade in the Sahara in French archives from the beginning of the conquest

From the beginning of the French conquest, the Sahara trade and the benefits that the French establishments may win were present. Indeed, from 1832, reports or notes written by French staff officers mention the Sahara trade, its exotic products but also the gold arriving with caravans from “the interior of Africa” as well as the organisation of the trade before the conquest. However, it was not until 1844 and the installation of posts in south of the Tlemcen Mountains and on the “Hauts plateaux” that interest in the southern oases became more specific. The 1847 expeditions to the Ksours Mountains brought France into contact with this Saharan world. Daumas’ book, Le Sahara algérien in 1845, written on the basis of indirect testimonies, is the first of various notes or reports on the oases, trade roads, products traded or manufactured on the spot, as well as on the agricultural wealth of the Touat Gourara oases and the Saoura valley. Thus, the analysis of these texts provides an overview of the goods exchanged, the plants cultivated for rent or for local alimentation; it also allows us to study the commercial circuits on different scales, the great trade as well as exchanges between the “ksours” themselves or between two Saharan regions. A confrontation of those informations and those we can use for medieval and modern centuries should lead us to draw a more diachronic vision of trade and economy of these regions.

Citer ce billet
Ingrid Houssaye Michienzi (2022, 29 juillet). Trans-Saharan and Saharan Trade: new approaches and new sources to a global economic system (800-1850). Repenser le Sahara médiéval (XIIIe-XVIe siècles). Documents connus, lectures inédites. Consulté le 22 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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