The Kingdoms of West Africa

The Saharan desert is certainly a harsh environment, but nomadic peoples have made a living here since the earliest times. In some ways, the desert served more like a bridge that connected different parts of Africa than as a wall that separated them. This is why the division commonly made between “North Africa” and “Sub-Saharan Africa” should be questioned. The Berbers were one of the peoples who traded across the Sahara. Their partners on the other side were often located in the empire of Mali. Since much of Mali then as now consists of sand, agriculture should really have been impossible here and we would not expect to find many settled communities. Yet the presence of the river Niger changes that calculation. Much of the rain that falls in the highlands of today’s Guinea, a country on Africa’s Atlantic coast, flows not westward into the Atlantic, but instead north and eastward, straight into the Sahara. Here the water runs through today’s Mali and Niger, and eventually into the Atlantic in Nigeria, where it forms a vast delta. Yet, the Niger River forms another delta too — an inland delta, right in the deserts of Mali. Here there has been enough water to make settled agriculture possible.

This is where we find cities like Timbuktu, Gao, and Djenné. It was more than anything with these cities that the Berbers conducted their trade. Two commodities — gold and salt — were more important than all others, although ivory, copper, and slaves were traded too. Salt was used for preserving food and it was almost as valuable as gold. Much of it was hacked out of the rocks at Targhaza, a desolate salt mine in the middle of the Saharan desert. As far as gold was concerned, it was traded by a rather mysterious guild of merchants known as the Wangarans. Although the Wangarans were reluctant to reveal the exact source of their supply, it is clear that it originated in the south, in the region of today’s Ghana. This was the gold which, thanks to the trans-Saharan trade, eventually ended up in the Middle East and Europe. During this time, in the late Middle Ages, something like half of all gold in the world came from Africa.

As one would expect, the rulers of Mali were quick to take their cut of this lucrative trade. Indeed, in the first part of the thirteenth century, a powerful empire was established here, funded above all by taxes on trade. The Mali Empire had a well-trained army, comprising some 100,000 soldiers staffed and supplied by the emperor’s subjects. Before long the rulers of Mali had conquered a large area stretching from the Niger River westward to the Atlantic Ocean. The founder of the empire, Sundiata Keita, was not only a ruthless military leader but also by all accounts a wise politician. In 1235, at a meeting of notables, a constitution was adopted, known as the Kouroukan fouga, which gave the empire a legal system and a decentralized, federal political structure. Guilds of craftsmen were granted monopolies on crafts such as the smelting of metals, woodworking, and tanning; women were protected by law and given a role in politics.

The trade in gold and salt made the emperors of Mali enormously wealthy. The most famous of them was Mansa Musa. After having conquered some twenty-four cities and expanded the empire to three times its original size, the story has it, Mansa Musa went on a hajj to Mecca in 1324. People in the Arab world were astonished to see his procession which included camels, elephants, and no fewer than 60,000 men and some 12,000 slaves carrying gold bars. Along the way, gold nuggets were handed out to local dignitaries and gold dust to beggars. In Cairo, Mansa Musa’s lavish gifts were sufficient to cause an inflation which was said to have lasted for twelve years. When he returned to Mali, Mansa Musa rebuilt Timbuktu and established the city as a center of Muslim scholarship and learning. It was more than anything as a result of his largess, and his subsequent building program, that Timbuktu became known as a city of exotic wonders.

The other delta of the Niger river, the one where the water runs into the Atlantic Ocean, is today the center of the Nigerian petroleum industry. This is where the Yoruba people live, which together with the Igbo and the Hausa is the largest of Nigeria’s more than 500 ethnic groups. It was here, some 900 years ago, that a number of flourishing city-states came to be established. There were at least sixteen large such cities — including Ife, Ijebu, Katunga and Ibadan — and many smaller ones besides. Between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries, this was one of the most highly urbanized parts of the world. The largest cities among them may have had some 100,000 inhabitants. The Yoruba city-states were all organized in much the same fashion. They were built like fortresses, with high walls surrounded by moats and gates that could be closed to visitors or to approaching armies. In the case of the larger city-states, these walls could become very extensive indeed, reaching several thousands of kilometers in length. All Yoruba city-states had an elaborate structure of professional guilds and there were many social clubs, religious sects, and secret societies. Each city-state had a leader, the oba, who lived in a large palace in the center of the city with a marketplace in front of it. The obas were elected from the often quite extensive pool of royal princes. Some of the obas ended up as autocratic rulers, but others were restrained by the power of their councilors. Some city-states were in effect more like republics.

In the fifteenth century, the obas of Benin grew particularly rich and powerful. During Ewuare the Great, 1440-1473, Benin expanded to a full-fledged empire. Ewuare taxed trade and established a military force that included a navy made up of canoes. The Benin army was also skilled in the art of siege warfare which was crucial in this world of fortified cities. The enemies captured in these wars were turned into slaves who were employed in various construction projects, of which the very extensive system of moats and walls was the most remarkable. The court of the Oba of Benin is vividly depicted in a series of plaques and statues, known as the “Benin bronzes.”

Further west, in what today is Ghana and the Ivory Coast, we find the Akan people. The Akans lived in the rainforest which they, through painstaking labor, managed to control. In order to cut down the enormous trees, they relied on slave labor and the slaves were bought in gold. Akan territory was gold country, and thereby the ultimate source of much of the wealth of all of West Africa. Yet gold did not only pay for slaves, but also for soldiers, and in the year 1701, the Akan established an empire of their own, known as the Asante. The Asante was a confederacy of assorted rivaling groups skillfully unified by Osei Tutu, 1675-1717. The Asante confederacy had Kumasi, in today’s Ghana, as its capital. Yet the alliance was more than anything held together by symbolic means. Osei Tutu took a stool made of gold as a symbol of the unity of the confederation. The occupant of the golden stool was to be the ruler of them all. In general the Asante kings surrounded themselves with much pomp and circumstance and they were often carried around in public procession wearing their gilded paraphernalia. A bit less symbolically, the empire was held together by drums. Although drums are common all over Africa, the drumming of the Asante is particularly famous. Asante drums were talking drums. They were not only beating out a rhythm but conveying entire messages which, with their help, quickly were transmitted from one part of the empire to the other. In the rainforest, where mobility is blocked and visibility is limited, nothing travels as quickly as sound.

As we have seen, both Benin and the Asante confederacy owned and traded in slaves. Indeed slaves, together with gold, were the main sources of wealth for both empires. Land, by contrast, was not considered as a form of private property. Land had little value since there quite simply was too much of it. Instead, it was what the land produced, and those who could be forced to work on it, which were valuable. Thus a man would count his wealth in the number of slaves he owned, and throughout West Africa taxes were levied on slaves and paid in terms of slaves. Slaves were also given as tributary gifts by a subordinate state or by a neighboring state which sought to avoid occupation. In general, there was a strong connection between warfare and slavery, and prisoners of war were usually enslaved. The revenue derived from the transcontinental slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean, which began in the sixteenth century, was more than anything that helped make both Benin and the Asante rich and powerful.

Read more about the kingdoms of West Africa

Golden stool of the Asante

Dancing kings and female warriors of Dahomey

Walls and bronzes of Benin