Trans-Saharan Trade Enriches Akan Kingdoms Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Akan goldfields were the greatest of West African deposits, and the last to be mined. They were developed by Wangara traders who channeled the gold into a trans-Saharan trading system that was already centuries old. The outflow of gold brought wealth and resources to a region that was just beginning to organize itself into political states.

Summary of Event

By the time the Akan mines became the major producer of West African gold in the mid- to late fifteenth century, the trans-Saharan trading system was well established. The earliest of the major West African mines, that of Bambuk in the upper Senegal basin, was sending gold north by at least the eighth century and perhaps as early as the fourth. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a larger source was opened at Bure on the upper Niger River. A class of Muslim Soninke merchants, who became known as the Wangara Wangara (also Dyula), organized the prospecting, mining, collecting, and transporting of gold. They established trade routes laterally across West Africa that connected into the trans-Saharan system in several cities along the southern border of the desert, chief of which was Timbuktu. Trade;gold Akan kingdoms Trade;trans-Saharan[transSaharan]

The demand for gold was so great that Wangara traders pushed south and east into the last and greatest of the West African goldfields, which lay between the Comoe and Volta Rivers in the modern Republic of Ghana. Contemporary traders referred to the region as Toom. Today, the people there constitute an ethnic group known as the Akan, a term also applied to the rich goldfields that were once scattered over the region. The Wangara traders who developed the mines probably came from the riverain port city of Djenné, which lay on a tributary of the Niger, 250 miles (402 kilometers) upriver of Timbuktu, since the trade routes that took the gold north ran to Djenné. The mines may have been opened for production as early as the eleventh century but became a major supplier only in the fifteenth.

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Most Akan gold came in the form of tiny grains, referred to as tibr, or gold dust, and the most common means of finding it was through panning the sand and gravel of streams and rivers. Following heavy rainfalls, gold could be gathered by women using calabashes to pan standing water in fields. Nuggets were sometimes found by divers at the bottoms of riverbeds. In other places, vertical shafts were dug wide enough for a person to descend. At the bottom, the miner would gather soil, which was then sent to the top for processing. Strip mining was also used, although this process was laborious. Gold mining was hard work that usually produced little return, at least for the miners themselves.

Gold was exchanged for a variety of products ranging from basic necessities consumed by the miners to luxuries enjoyed by the rulers. From the beginning of Akan production, gold was traded for copper and its alloy, brass, which was more sought after for decoration and ritual purposes than gold itself. One early report has miners buying copper for two-thirds of its weight in gold. A second product in great demand was textiles. Among the Akan, striped cloth from North Africa was much in vogue for making the burnoose-style robes known in Morocco as jalabayas, which were often the official vestments of chiefs. For a while, at least, the Akan also exchanged gold for slaves. Their economy was booming and their society expanding faster than natural population growth could keep pace. A severe labor shortage developed that was partially filled by captives from the north, who were imported and sold as workers by the Wangara. Slave trade;Africa

Over the long run, however, cloth, copper, slaves, and all other products paled in comparison to salt, since no major deposits of rock salt existed in tropical West Africa. Camel caravans transported tons of salt from mines in the central Sahara to cities like Timbuktu, where it was transshipped often numerous times, by donkey, boat, and head porterage, to forestlands including those of the Akan. In the bargaining that accompanied this trade, scales and cast brass weights were used to measure the gold. These weights, based on standards common in the Islamic world, were introduced to the region by the Wangara. Among the Akan, they became a highly developed art form.

To facilitate the gold trade, the Wangara developed cities on the northern edge of the goldfields, the foremost of which was Begho (often referred to in contemporary reports as Bitu). At the same time, the Akan were in the process of forming organized political states. The basis of the Akan economy was changing from hunting and gathering to agriculture just as the impact of the gold trade began to be felt. The growing need for labor to clear forests, plant crops, and gather and mine gold led to the division of Akan society into three classes: organizers of labor, who became the rulers; free settlers; and slaves, who did the hardest work. A system of large estates evolved into a group of small states from which, through warfare and alliance, larger states emerged. According to tradition, five great towns became the centers of five states, each ruled by a king.

The trans-Saharan component of the Akan gold trade never constituted a monopoly, and it faced increasing challenges over time. The Portuguese arrived on the coast south of the Akan region in 1471 and soon built a large trading castle christened São Jorge da Mina. This and other European posts diverted much gold from the trans-Saharan system. Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, gold began arriving in the Old World from the Americas in amounts far surpassing West African production. Political changes also had an impact. The fall of the empire of Songhai in 1591 led to problems with security in the West African interior in the following centuries. In Begho, a dispute between Wangara merchants and the local king led to a civil war, after which the Wangara departed and Begho went into decline.

Significance

The Akan gold industry had important consequences for West African history. It contributed to both the impetus and the capacity of the region to develop more centralized political structures. Agricultural estates grew into political states as a result of labor divisions fueled by the mining industry. The initial five states competed and eventually engaged in warfare with each other to control the gold trade. By the 1650’, a single state, Denkyira, would defeat its nearest rival, Adanse, and emerge as the paramount power in Akan, controlling much of the region’s trade as well as some of the goldfields. The King of Denkyira is said to have ruled from a solid gold stool, by then the symbol of royal power.

In 1701, Denkyira was overwhelmed in turn by a new power, the Asante. The Asante dominated all of Akan in the eighteenth century, and with the help of the wealth wrested from the region’s goldfields, the Kingdom of Asante became a modern, rich, and powerful state. Although most of the significant gold deposits were mined out by the nineteenth century, Asante remained a viable kingdom through the late nineteenth century, defeating the British in 1824 and successfully resisting colonial occupation until 1896.

Akan’s gold also had significant effects upon the larger world economy. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the Akan mines were the largest single supplier of gold to the Mediterranean basin, Europe, and the Middle East. European economies had switched to gold-based currencies beginning in the mid-thirteenth century, but the demand quickly outran the supply. This culminated in the fifteenth century with a precious metal deficit crisis known as the Great Bullion Famine, followed in the succeeding century by a period of chronic inflation, the Great Price Revolution, during which the supply of precious metals could not keep up with the rise in prices. All of this reflected profound demographic and economic changes, culminating in the Atlantic commercial revolution that laid the basis for much of the international trade system of today. Akan gold helped to power this transformation, at least in the decades before the loot of the Americas began to pour in.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Austen, Ralph A. “Marginalization, Stagnation, and Growth: The Trans-Saharan Caravan Trade in the Era of European Expansion, 1500-1900.” In The Rise of Merchant Empires: Long Distance Trade in the Early Modern World, 1350-1750, edited by James D. Tracy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. A good analysis of the transformation of trans-Saharan trade and the importance of gold in it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bovill, E.W. The Golden Trade of the Moors. 2d rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Weiner, 1999. A seminal and widely used text, although now dated in important respects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fischer, David Hackett. The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Examines the impact of West African gold on early modern Europe and the emerging world economy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garrard, Timothy F. Gold of Africa: Jewelry and Ornaments from Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal in the Collection of the Barbier-Mueller Museum. Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1989. Despite its ponderous subtitle, this work contains an excellent text by a foremost authority with an emphasis on Akan production.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Richard L. “The Money of Old Timbuktu.” The Numismatist 115, no. 9 (2002): 1023-1029, 1113-1114. Much Akan gold passed through Djenné and Timbuktu on its way into the trans-Saharan system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilks, Ivor. Forests of Gold: Essays on the Akan and the Kingdom of Asante. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993. This work, by a scholar who is highly regarded as an expert on the Wangara, Akan, Asante, and the impact of the gold trade, brings together ten of his essays, some of which have been extensively reworked.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilks, Ivor. “Wangara, Akan, and Portuguese in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.” In Mines of Silver and Gold in the Americas, edited by Peter Bakewell. Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1997. An analysis of the Akan gold trade as a precursor to the influx of precious metals from the New World. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.

1460-1600: Rise of the Akan Kingdoms

c. 1464-1591: Songhai Empire Dominates the Western Sudan

Late 15th cent.: Mombasa, Malindi, and Kilwa Reach Their Height

1481-1482: Founding of Elmina

c. 1485: Portuguese Establish a Foothold in Africa

16th century: Worldwide Inflation

1510-1578: Saՙdī Sharifs Come to Power in Morocco

1545-1548: Silver Is Discovered in Spanish America

1591: Fall of the Songhai Empire

Categories: History Content