The Salt For Gold Trade & The Empires of West Africa

Essential Question

What was the salt for gold trade and how did it contribute to the emergence of the empires West Africa?

Salt For Gold Trade

Once cultures began relying on grain, vegetable, or boiled meat diets instead of mainly hunting and eating roasted meat, adding salt to food became an absolute necessity for maintaining life. West Africans had few natural resources for salt and always needed to trade for it. Gold, however, was much easier to come by.

However, North Africans who lived in the desert could easily mine salt, but not gold. These mutual needs led to the establishment of long-distance trade routes that connected very different cultures. Camel caravans from North Africa carried bars of salt as well as cloth, tobacco, and metal tools across the Sahara to trading centers like Djenne and Timbuktu on the Niger River. Some items for which the salt was traded include gold, ivory, slaves, skins, kola nuts, pepper, and sugar.

The Salt for Gold trade was essential to West African civilizations. The power of empires could all be traced to their control of the salt for gold trade. Empires rose when they took control of the salt for gold trade and empires fell when they lost control of the salt for gold trade.

Empires of African & the Salt -Gold Trade


Today, there is a country named Ghana in western Africa. It is named after the ancient kingdom of Ghana. But the ancient kingdom of Ghana was in a different place. The ancient kingdom of Ghana is located within today's borders of Mauritania, Mali and Senegal in western Africa. Back then, this land had an abundance of resources and Ghana literally sat on a gold mine.

Ancient Ghana was called Wagadugu, Wagadou or Awkar. Ghana" was actually the title given to Wagadugu kings and was used by the Islamic writers to describe the rich and mysterious place they observed.

Evidence of Ghana's occupation dates back to the 4th century. By 1000 B.C., the nation had undergone an important expansion. Its rulers had taken control of the land between the upper Niger and Senegal Rivers, which was rich in gold. Having control of this land meant that Ghana would become a leading force in the trans-Saharan trade network. This was a trade route the went across the Sahara Desert.

The leader with the most power was the king, who was also known as the ghana, or war chief, and his word was law. Its leaders' actions and the country's great location led to Ghana becoming very wealthy. The king of Ghana also used his power to spread international trade. At its peak, Ghana was chiefly bartering gold, ivory and slaves for salt from Arabs and horses, cloth, swords and books from North Africans and Europeans.

Back then, salt was worth its weight in gold. Because gold was so abundant in the kingdom, Ghana achieved much of its wealth through trade with the Arabs. Islamic merchants traveled over two months through the desert to reach Ghana to trade. They were taxed for both what they brought in and what they took out. With this system, it is no wonder that Ghana got rich quickly. Between the 9th and 11th centuries A.D., the kingdom of Ghana was rich. So rich, in fact, that its dogs wore golden collars and its horses wore silken rope halters and slept on plush carpets. Based on animal luxuries alone, it is no wonder that foreigners touted Ghana's kings as the richest men in the world. The wealth that the kingdom acquired did not, however, serve in its favor forever. Competition from other states in the gold trade eventually took its toll.

Jealousy, fear and anger of Ghana's power prompted its neighbors to stand up against the kingdom. Their efforts were at first weak and insignificant. But, by the mid-11th century, a Muslim empire led by a dynasty known as the Almoravids invaded Ghana's capital city of Koumbi Saleh. The Almoravids controlled North Africa and had their base in the area now called Morocco. Some of Ghana's territories were seized and the government had to pay taxes to the Almoravids. But, Ghana eventually recovered and forced the invaders to withdraw.

A little less than 200 years later, however, Ghana was not so lucky. The kingdom was weakened by attacks and cut off from international trade, making it vulnerable and unable to prevent defeat. In A.D. 1240, Ghana was absorbed into the growing nation of Mali, which would soon become the next great empire.


After years of fighting in the lands west of the upper Niger River, in the 13th century A.D., a group known as the Soso emerged as victors. The Soso's new lands had once belonged to the kingdom of Ghana. They were like giant pots of gold. However, before the Soso could settle in and enjoy the wealth, the great "sorcerer-king" Sundiata moved in to take over.

Sundiata claimed that Mali belonged to him by right of inheritance. In 1230 A.D. he defeated the Soso and took back the land. Legend says that Sundiata's rival, King Sumanguru, was also a sorcerer. Sundiata defeated the Sumanguru and, declared himself ruler, or mansa, of the region. He set up a capital in the city of Niani.

For a short time, power landed in the hands of a former slave. The disruptive rule of the ex-slave, known as Sakura, paved the way for Sundiata's nephew, Mansa Kankan Musa, to regain the throne. Known for his wealth, generosity and dedication to the religion of Islam, Mansa Musa took the kingdom to new heights. Mansa Musa led Mali to great riches. The kingdom was involved in the gold trade that swept through Africa and reached all the way to Europe. The region's wealth was nothing new. However, based on Egyptian records, Mansa Musa's display of the riches, and the way he distributed Mali's wealth, had not been seen before.

At its peak, from 1200 to 1300, the Mali Empire extended across West Africa to the Atlantic Ocean. It included parts of present-day Mali and southern and western Mauritania and Senegal. The Malian kingdom ruled over an estimated 40 to 50 million people. The pioneering spirit and groundbreaking accomplishments of Mali's kingdom make its rise and fall an important chapter of African history.

Then, in 1430, a group of Berbers, a North African ethnic group, seized much of Mali's territory, including Timbuktu. Though the wealth and power of Mali were swept up by the next great empire, its history stands proudly.


The Songhai Empire replaced the Mali Empire as the most important state in West Africa (covering modern southern Mauritania and Mali). Originating as a smaller kingdom along the eastern bend of the Niger River c. 1000, the Songhai would expand their territory quickly.

With its capital at Gao and managing to control trans-Saharan trade through such centers as Timbuktu and Djenne, the Songhai empire prospered throughout the 16th century. By 1469 the Songhai had control of the important trade 'port' of Timbuktu on the Niger River. and by 1473 the other major trade center of the region, Djenne, also on the Niger, had been conquered.

Songhai was able to gain access to the gold supply and monopolise the Saharan caravan trade which brought rock salt and luxury goods like fine cloth, glassware, sugar, and horses to the Sudan region in exchange for gold, ivory, spices, kola nuts, hides, and slaves. Timbuktu, with a population of around 100,000 in the mid-15th century, continued to thrive as a trade 'port' and as a center of learning into the 16th and 17th centuries when the city boasted many mosques and 150-180 schools.

Trade centers, in particular, became sophisticated urban centers with housing built in stone and many having a large public square for regular markets and at least one mosque. Rural communities, meanwhile, continued to be wholly dependent on agriculture, but the presence of rural markets indicates there was usually a food surplus. Certainly, famine was a rare event during the first half of the Songhai Empire's reign, and there are no records of any peasant revolts.

Discussion Questions

  • How did the salt for gold trade contribute to the emergence of the empires of Ghana and Mali?

Activity 4: What were the empires of West Africa like (Ghana, Mali, and Songhai)?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the question in a thinking map. You must highlight or underline the importance of the salt gold trade to each empire. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Activity

The Ghanan Empire: Complexity and West Africa’s First Major State

A Day In The Life: West African Empires

World's Toughest Jobs: Salt Miner National Geographic