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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.

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