West Africa was among the world"s best producers of gold in the middle Ages. Profession in the steel went ago to antiquity but as soon as the camel caravans that the Sahara connected North Africa come the savannah interior, the trade really take it off. A sequence of an excellent African realms rose off the back of the gold trade as salt, ivory, and slaves were simply some the the assets exchanged because that the precious metal that eventually discovered its way into many of southern Europe"s yellow coinage. Yellow attracted undesirable attention and competition, too, with the Portuguese the first to make use of West Africa"s coastal resources from the 15th century CE, and also in your wake complied with others. The discovery of the Americas and the gold of the Aztecs and Incas only gave West Africa a short-lived respite as European colonial powers then returned to the continent as their chief source of slaves to work on the plantations the the new World.


West African yellow in Antiquity

The profession of yellow in West Africa goes ago to classical times with one of the earliest examples being the trip of the Carthaginian traveler Hanno in the fifth century BCE. The celebrated mariner cruised out of the Mediterranean and, turning south, stopped off at the mouth the the Senegal River prior to sailing on and perhaps also reaching as much the only of Guinea. Hanno was followed by various other countrymen, and commercial relationships were created with the locals. Thus, West african gold uncovered its means from the commerce post/island the Cerne (unidentified yet on the Atlantic coast) northwards to the old Mediterranean societies for the an initial time.

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The 5th-century BCE Greek historian Herodotus describes in his Histories the gold to be traded on the West African coast using a silent and also cautious technique of barter - maybe understandable offered the language barrier and mutual fear in between unfamiliar peoples:

The Carthaginians phone call of a place in Libya outside the Pillars that Hercules occupied by people to who they lug their cargoes. The Carthaginians unload their wares and arrange castle on the beach; climate they reboard your boats and also light a smoky fire. Once the aboriginal inhabitants watch the smoke, they involved the coast and, after setup out gold in exchange because that the goods, castle withdraw. The Carthaginians disembark and also examine what the natives have actually left there, and if the gold appears to castle a worthy price for their wares, they take it and also depart; if not, lock get back on their boats and sit down to wait while the natives approach again and collection out much more gold, till they fulfill the Carthaginians the the quantity is sufficient. (Book 4. 197)


The Romans were additionally interested in what Africa"s interior had to offer and also they to work cross-Saharan traders to exchange olive oil, well pottery and luxury products for commodities such together gold, ivory, ebony and also exotic pets for mirrors in the amphitheatres and circuses. Roman Tripolitania in modern Libya, came to be a specifically successful trade city on this basis. However, it would not be until the 8 hours century CE and the pair arrival the the phibìc African Islam caliphates and also the hardy camel that trans-Saharan profession really took off and also with the the boom in the yellow trade.

Medieval West Africa

The Islamic north African empires of the medieval period had an insatiable need for gold because it was necessary not only for making valuable manufactured goods (e.g. Jewellery, vessels, embroidered clothing and illuminated manuscripts) but additionally to mint coinage to salary armies. Classic Islamic teachings can have forbidden males to wear gold however a couple of coins in one"s pocket to be especially helpful for soldiers of no resolved abode. The Islamic sensitivity to the steel is also evidenced by the fact that jewellery work-related was most often done through Jewish craftsmen once it got to the north African cities. In addition, gold was necessary to pay the growing variety of Spanish, Italian, and also other European vendors who traded in the southern Mediterranean. Much of the gold then ended up as coinage in such places as Castille, Genoa, Florence, and also Venice from the so late 13th century CE.

The an excellent problem for the north African states was that to obtain the gold of West Africa they had actually to an initial cross the Sahara desert and also then attend to the african rulers that monopolised the yellow trade. Consequently, camel caravans managed by Sanhaja Berbers and the Tuareg came right into their own as a way to overcome the dangerous and inhospitable Sahara and also acquire the precious steel from Africa"s interior and also bring it back to such urban as Marrakesh, Fez, Tunis, and Cairo. This they go with great success and, at the trade"s peak, two-thirds of the gold moving around the middle ages Mediterranean come from West Africa.

The Ghana empire - "Land the Gold"

One that the very first sub-Saharan says in West Africa to obtain attention in the wider medieval human being was the Ghana realm (6-13th century CE), situated in modern southern Mauritania and also Mali. The empire came to be famous for its gold, earning itself the nickname the "land that gold." The steel came native goldfields in Ghiyaru, Galam, and Bure on the upper Niger river (modern Guinea), and also via traders who lugged it indigenous the goldfields the Bambuk in ~ the meeting of the Falem and Senegal Rivers. Gold to be largely uncovered in alluvial deposits where it was quickly panned to uncover gold dust and grains or in veins in fairly shallow mines. Mine shafts were generally only a couple of metres deep and produced a mere 2.5 come 5 grammes the gold every so countless shafts to be dug in a single gold-bearing area. Most gold was not sleek - although its purity to be high still - yet was melted down to cast it right into convenient bars for transportation.


The most typical commodity that gold was used to purchase was salt, a mineral the was constantly in good demand in stimulate to better preserve dried meat and to give added taste come food. The Savannah an ar south of the western Sahara desert (known as the Sudan region) and also the woodlands of southern West Africa were negative in salt. Camel caravans brought good slabs of absent salt come the south throughout the Sahara from such herbal deposits as found at Idjil, Awlil, and Taghaza, and took gold back in the other direction and also other beneficial goods favor ivory and slaves. Particular towns prospered rich on the gold-salt trade. In the 11th century CE, a 90-kilo block the salt, transported by flow from Timbuktu come Djenne (aka Jenne) in the south could double its value and be worth about 450 grams of gold. By the moment the salt was passed on under to the southern forests of lower West Africa, the mineral can be literally precious its weight in gold.

Any nugget i beg your pardon weighed between 25 grammes & fifty percent a kilo (1 oz to 1 lb) became the residential property of the Ghana kings.

Although there is no proof that, uneven salt and also copper, the trade or passage of yellow was taxed in the Kingdom of Ghana, the commodity was very carefully regulated by the Ghana kings. Any type of nugget i beg your pardon weighed between 25 grammes and half a kilo (1 oz to 1 lb) came to be the residential or commercial property of the king who kept a great stockpile in his palace complex. Rather than an instance of slim avarice, this strategy was most likely employed in order no to flood the market and so maintain the value of gold dust. Considerably chunks that the metal had an association with magic which was one more reason for the king to keep them as he was related to as the supreme magician of the indigenous African religion prior to Islam come along (and sometimes also after it). One Arab writer, Muhammad al-Idrisi (1100-1165 CE), detailed that one king had amongst his collection a single block of gold weighing over 13.5 kilos (30 pounds).

This royal monopoly of nuggets supposed that the vast bulk of yellow which exchanged hands in between traders and also ordinary human being in the Ghana kingdom was in the type of yellow dust. This golden powder was carefully measured out, typically using tiny scales and also glass weights. Gold dust and sometimes wire were provided as a money in part states yet only rarely, and there is no historical evidence that sub-Saharan states ever before minted their very own gold coinage. Rather, the most common purpose that gold to be for barter for imported goods. The various other use was for decoration and could be viewed in every manner the objects, especially, the course, those supplied by nobility such as regalia, shields, swords, jewellery, clothing, and also even dog chains and collars.

The Mali realm - The wide range of Mansa Musa

The Mali realm (1240-1645 CE) gained access to brand-new goldfields on the black Volta (modern-day Burkina Faso) and in the Akan forest (modern-day Ghana), and its kings became even wealthier than their regional predecessors in the Ghana Empire. Mali most likely did not directly control the southerly gold-bearing regions but, rather, extracted from castle the precious steel as tribute.

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Map the the Mali Empire, c. 1337 CE
Gabriel Moss (CC BY-SA)

Mali"s most renowned ruler to be Mansa Musa i (1312-1337 CE). Having actually converted come Islam, Mansa Musa duly went turn off on a expedition to Mecca in 1324 CE. When he quit off in ~ Cairo en path in July of the year, the king"s riches in gold caused an pure sensation. In some accounts, Mansa Musa"s caravan had 100 camels which lugged 135 kilos (300 pounds) of yellow dust while 500 servants each brandished a 2.7 kilo (6 pounds) gold staff. After straight away providing 50,000 yellow dinars come the sultan of Egypt just as a gesture that goodwill between two an excellent rulers, Mansa Musa would certainly subsequently give away so lot gold and his entourage invest so much of it shopping in the sectors of the city the the value of the yellow dinar in Cairo crashed by 20% (in relationship to the silver dirham); it would certainly take 12 years for the flooded gold industry to recover.

Although Mansa Musa preserved the exact resource of his gold a closely-guarded secret, news spread much and wide that this exotic leader was perhaps the richest man in the world. Even in Spain, a mapmaker was motivated to develop Europe"s very first detailed map of West Africa c. 1375 CE, and on it, Mansa Musa is shown wearing a golden crown and holding a gold staff and nugget in each hand. The consequent story of a city led in yellow somewhere in the heart of Africa, the fabled Timbuktu, would tantalise many an explorer and also adventurer for the next 4 centuries.

The Songhai realm & that Rivals

The Mali Empire"s successor as the most powerful state in West Africa to be the Songhai empire (c. 1460 - c. 1591 CE). The Songhai, proceeding the tried-and-tested wide range accumulation technique of trade sub-Saharan commodities and extracting tribute from overcame tribes, created the largest and also richest realm yet watched in West Africa. However, points took a turn for the worse in 1471 CE when a Portuguese fleet, sponsored by the Lisbon merchant Fernão Gomes, sailed approximately the Atlantic shore of Africa and also established a trading presence close to the gold areas of southern West Africa. In addition, other kingdoms occurred to contend with the Songhai for a share of the gold trade, particularly to the west the Bornu empire (1396-1893 CE) near Lake Chad, Hausaland (c. 1400 - c. 1800 CE) in between the Niger River and also Lake Chad, and, in the south, the Kingdom of Benin (13-19th century CE) in contemporary Nigeria.

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Mansa Musa the the Mali Empire
Abraham Cresques (Public Domain)

The Portuguese in West Africa

The Portuguese pearl which currently regularly cruised down the Atlantic coastline of Africa readily available West African woodland peoples a middle-man-free different to the trans-Saharan caravan routes. The Portuguese were particularly keen to obtain gold due to the fact that they required it come pay vendors in Asia who were no so crawl on trading goods in kind. There was still, though, plenty of gold travelling northwards with the Songhai Empire and onto north Africa yet the African syndicate of the profession was currently at an end.

In the 15th century CE, West Africa was creating 10% the the world"s gold. ~ above average, some 400-550 kilos a year were being handled by the Portuguese alone in the 1500s CE. Not surprisingly, europe powers began to display an interest, such as England, France, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Fortifications to be built, not to protect the europeans from the aboriginal Africans however from each other. In short, it seemed that West Africa had exactly what anyone else most wanted: slaves and gold.

Later History

West afri gold continued to it is in exploited after ~ the medieval duration as europe powers completed for whatever they taken into consideration of worth in the continent. The yellow extracted from West Africa, though, was dwarfed by that extracted from the brand-new World, the Inca civilization and Aztec civilization, in particular. European strength were likewise now far an ext interested in getting slaves than gold, countless of castle destined to job-related in the plantations the the Americas.

West Africa was no finished v gold, though, and also kept developing it using much the same an easy methods together had always been employed. The modern state that Ghana, formerly known together the gold Coast, acquired independence native Britain in 1961 CE, and the arrival of brand-new mining modern technology meant that it once an ext played a significant role in the worldwide gold markets. Because that a while, Ghana ranked fifth in the human being in state of yearly gold production. Already in the mid-19th century CE, though, attention had turned in other places for brand-new sources that the valuable metal. Australia came to be a significant source of yellow from 1851 CE, and from 1898 CE southern Africa ended up being the world"s greatest producer that gold, a position only fairly recently challenged and also overtaken by China, Russia, the united States, Canada, and Peru.

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Mark is a background writer based in Italy. His special interests encompass pottery, architecture, civilization mythology and also discovering the principles that all worlds share in common. The holds an MA in political Philosophy and also is the publishing Director at WHE.