The Sahara (الصحراء الكبرى, Aṣ-Ṣaḥrā´ al-Kubrā), the Great Desert in Arabic is the world's largest hot desert. It covers most of North Africa and creates a barrier between tge Arab-Berber peoples of Noth Africa and the Black African peoples to the south. The Sahara began to form about 2000 BC, driving some of the population of this formerly verdent area into the Nile Valley. Sesertification is believed to be the result of shifts in the Earth's axis which increased temperatures and decreased precipitation. As a result of the climate chnge, the well watered savannah changed into the dry and very hot sandy desert know today. The same phenomenon affected the Fertile Cressent. The transition was not gradual, but occurred in two specific and abrupt episodes. The first milder event (about 4000 BC) and a second, brutal, event (about 2000 BC). [Claussen] The African slave trade developed subsequently. It began during the early phase of Mediterranean society. Caravans across the Sahara The Sahara was one route by which cative Africans were marketed in the ancient world world and subsequently the Muslim world. The two most important trading centers were Egypt and Carthage and was continued by Rome which destroyed Carthafge and conquered Egypt. Trade across the Sahra would have been limited had it not been for the Cammel, The dromedary, or one-humped camels, is native to the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. They were introduced to the Sahara as part of trade caravans from the Arabian Peninsula (about 200 AD). Unlike the horses it replaced, the camel was perfectly suited to the harsh Sahara climate. Its soft feet also allowed it to easily move over sand. With the collapse of the Western Empire (5th century AD), Arab armies conquered Noth Africa and eventually Islamicized the Berbers. The Ghana Empire was the first great African empire to participare in the Saharan slave trade. Subsequent empires were Muslim empires. The Sahara slave trade thus became dominated by Muslims. The cammel caravans that crossed the desert laded with valuables and slaves were tantalizing targets for maurading desert tribes, especially the Taurag. The wealth involved in a successful raid was almost unimaginable to these people. The rulers of North Africa built desert fortresses in oasises that provided secure restuing places for the caravans. Many Muslim polities throughout the Sahara had economies in which African slaves played a major role. This extended into sub-Saharan areas such as northern Nigeria. The Hausna/Kano Kingdom-Kano Emirate had a major slave economy. The Kano Emorate had a population of about half slaves even after the British had ended the Atlahtic Slave Trade. They lived in slave villages.
The Sahara (الصحراء الكبرى, Aṣ-Ṣaḥrā´ al-Kubrā), the Great Desert in Arabic, is the world's largest hot desert, covering about a third of the African contient. It is the best known desert because it is so close to Europe. The legendary Sahara is not, however, the dryest. That acolade goes to South America's Atacama Desert. The Sahara is one of the hottest places on Earth with temperatures reaching 136° F (57.7° C), but it can get quite cold at night. The Sahara covers most of North Africa and creates a formidable barrier between the Arab-Berber peoples of Noth Africa and the Black African peoples to the south. The Sahara began to form about 4000 BC, and began driving much of the population of this formerly verdent area into the Nile Valley. Desertification is believed to be the result of shifts in the Earth's axis which increased temperatures and decreased precipitation. As a result of the climate chnge, the well watered savannah changed into the dry and very hot sandy desert know today. The same phenomenon affected the Fertile Cressent. The transition was not gradual, but occurred in two specific and abrupt episodes. The first milder event (about 4000 BC) and a second, brutal, event (about 2000 BC). [Claussen] Satellite imagery has enabled geologists to study the Sahara as never before. And one of their findings is that the Sahara is constantly changing. The Sahara regularly shrinks and expands. The Sahara's southern edge expanded into the Sahel, a dry band that separates the desert from the southern, but some reports suggest tghat some of these areas are green and well-watered again. The Sahara receives less than 3 inches of rain annually and some areas receive almost no rain. Some areas of the Sahara do not get any measurable rain for years at a time. There are oases in the Sahara, but cammel caravans may have to travel for days to reach one. Only these oases and cammels allow traders to cross the Sahara. Crossing the desert was a major problem for traders, including slave traders, until the introduction of the cammel.
Slaves were an important factor in ancient trade. This varied widely from society to society. Slaves were not particularly common in Mesopotamia and Egypt. They were very important in Greece and Rome. Africa, however, was not a major source of slaves. While ancient references demonstrate that this trade existed, information about it and particulsrly the dimensions of the trade is very limited. Egypt and and Cathage emerged as important terminals for trade with Africa. Blacks were commonly called Nubians so we assume that the major source was Nubia which were tansported up the Nile. Very little is known about transport across the Sahara, The Sahara as latee as Roman times was not as large as it is today. North Africa was better watered and in fact an important source of grain for the Roman Empire. We know little about the African slave trade in the ancient world. Carthage was a major Mediterranean trading power. We do not know about the extent to which the Cathiginians obtained and traded African slaves. We have little information on Trans-Saharan trade routes. We know that Carthage opened aaritime trade with West Africa. [Herodotus] The dimensions of that trade are not known and African slaves may not have been involved in the maritime trade. We know the Cathigiinians extensively traded slaves along with other goods in the Meditwrranran. The Carhaginians are credited with inventing auctions. So the first slave auctions probably occurred in Carthage. The primary commodities desired in the north were gold, ivory, and slaves. In return they sent salt, cloth, beads, and metal goods south back across the Sahara.
Trade continued into Roman times as Rome first destroyed Carthage and then conquered Egypt.
Rome had an economy highly depdent on slave labor. Africans comprised a very small pat of the Roman slave population. We note that blacks were oftn reffered to as Nubians suggesting they primarily came from Egypt up the Nile. We are not sure how many came over the Saharan caravan routes. There are Classical references to direct travel by sea from the Mediterranean to West Africa. [Daniels, p. 22ff.] Most of the trade between the Sahel and West Africa appears to have been conducted through Saharan caravan routes. This trade was conducted by midddlemen familiar with local conditions which became steadily more difficult as the Sahara continued to dry out. This might have closed the Sahara to trade except for the introduction of the camel (4th century AD). It took some time, however, for the camel to be extesively used and for effective pack saddels to be developed.
The Camel first appeared in North America. From North America they spread west across the Bearing Sea land bridge to East Asia and south into South America. The South Amerian caneloids became llamas and their more exotic related species, alpacas, and vicuñas. It is the western migration that developed into modern camels. The camels in East Asia gradually spread further west to Central Asia and Iran and Arabia. (and also south to South America where they became llamas and vicunas and alpacas). The camels in North Americawent extincr, probably during the Ice Age. They survived in Asia and were eventually brought to North Africa as domesticated animal. It was people in Central Asia who first domesticate camels. Camels had the ability to carry goods over long distances with little water. They proved very useful in crossing the Gobi Desert of Central Asia and it was here that they were first domesticated. This occured long after other livestock animals (cows, sheep, and pigs) were domsticated. Archeologists believe that this occurred about the same time horses from Central Asia were domesticated (3000 BC). Camels are not as tame as the earlier domesticated livestock animals. Camels were introduced to North Africa by Arab traders gradually moving west. Camels were so valuable that eventually wild camels weretracked down and caotured. As aesult domesticated camels were being used from China west to Morocco. They were critical in the fabeled Silk Road which crossed Central Asia as well as the trabhs-Sagaran trade routes connecting Sub-Saharan Africa with the Mediterranean World. Trade across the Sahara was at first conducted by horses and donkey, but this became increasingly difficult as the North Africa interior got dryer and the desert began to form and grow in area. This significantly limited trans-Saharamn commerce. The horse and donkey were not suited for long distance treks over such arrid teraine. Trahns-Saharan trade would have been limited had it not been for the Camel, The dromedary, or one-humped camel, is native to the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. They were introduced to the Sahara as part of trade caravans from the Arabian Peninsula (about 200 AD). Unlike the horses it replaced, the camel was perfectly suited to the harsh Sahara climate. Its soft feet also allowed it to easily move over sand. The camels of course did not carry the slaves, but the caravans with which they moved could not have crossed the Sahara without the camels. Even when the cammel first appeared in North Africa, its use was limited by the lack of a pack saddle accomodating heavy loads. As a result, ancient civilizations (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persians, Greeks, and Romans) made little use of the camel. The donkey was the most common pack animal in the ancient world, but they could not carry large loads or cross arid rerraine without water. An unknown individual in Central Asia finally invented an effective pack saddle (500 AD). This was the final piece in making the cammel an indespensable animal for people living in or near large deserts. Soon after this the Arab outburst from Arabia occured and the Caliphate was founded. The camel with its uniquiqe capabilities became strongly associated with the Arabs, especilly Arab traders. Trade routes developed between North Africa and the Sahel in ancient times. The Ghana Empire was the first great trading Empire (4th century AD). We are unsure to what extent they used camels, but subsequent empires did. One source believes that the cammel was being widely used in Sagaran trade routes (1000 AD). It could have been earlier. It is at this time that Muslim invaders brought camels into the Subcimtinet as the began the invasion of India.
Western scholars have primarily focused on the Atlantic slave trade and the European role in it. Mush less attention has been give to African slavery in the Muslim world. Many authors have contended that the numbers of captive ASfricans were small and they were porimarily used as houshold servants. An important source tells us, generally to serve as domestic servants or slave concubines. [Ibn Battuta, pp. 1351-53.]
We are gradually learning more about slavery in ghe Muslim world. We arec finding records also show that thousands of slaves were used in gangs for both agriculture and mining. Both landowners and rulers used slaves for such purposes. And the slaves were often treaty brutally and not well cared for. The Sahara was one of the routes for moving captive Aftricans from West Africa to slave markets along the Mediterraen coast of North Africa. But it was more than trade routes. Slaves were also employed in the Sahara. One of thge important products produced in the Sahara was salt. That will not sound very important to modern readers, but salt was an incrediblt valuable commodity in the ancient world. The modern word salary comes from the Latin 'salarium'--thesalt allounance paid the Roman legioners. Some even believe that the world soldier derives from the Latin world for salt--sal. The Romans could produce salt, but it was a lengthy, coistly process. Very pure deposits of salt existed in the Sahara. Taghaza was an especially important salt mine. It is a now abandoned salt-mining center located in a salt pan in the desert region of northern Mali. It was an important source of salt for West Africa and North Africa (through the 16th century). One gistorians describes conditions there, "of the Saharan salt mines it is said that no slave lived there for more than five years." [Lewis] West African countries like Wangara had gold but needed salt. The West African states also imported highly trained slave soldiers.
Several Sahran trade routes routes became well established by traders. This varied over time, in part the result of the rise and fall of important African kingdoms.
Ghana Empire centered on what is now Mali, Senegal, and southern Mauritania (c830 until c1235), The Ghana Empire was not a Muslim empire, but they traded extensivedly with the Muslim polities that emerged in te Sahel (North Africa) and the gradually Islamicized Berber people. As a result, the rise of Ghana paralleled the increase in trans-Saharan trade and the consolidatiin of Muslim rule in the Sahel. One of the most important was the eastern routes terminating in the north at Sijilmasa and Ifriqiya (modern Morocco). Throughout the Sahel Berber traders had increased contact with Islam abd convrsions followed over time, both by force and commercial contact. This opened a vast new marker for slaves. The Berbers could not sell in numbers to the Christian states, they could throughout the Caliphate.
The Mali Empire was a Muslim kingdom, unlike the Ghana Empire which it followed (1230-1600 AD). It was also called te Mandingo Empire or Manden Kurufaba. The gold-salt trade continued. Other commodities traded incuded slaves, kola nuts from the south and slave beads and cowry shells from the north. The nuts/beads/shells might be used as cuurrency). The great cities of the Niger bend (Gao and Djenné) prospered. Timbuktu became the most important city on thetrans-Saharan caravan routes. Unlike most of the trading cities, Timbuktu became known in Europe fot its great wealth, even entering the English vernacular. Important but smaller and less kown trading centers developed in southern West Africa at the transitional zone between the tropical forest and the savanna. This included Begho and Bono Manso (modern Ghana) and Bondoukou (modern Côte d'Ivoire). The expansive Mali Empire seized control of important trade routes to the west and east. Therewere several important western trading centers, inclusing Quadane, Oualata and Chinguetti (modern Mauritania). To the east, the Tuareg towns of Assodé and subsequently Agadez (modern Niger) grew in importance.
The Kanem-Bornu Empire ws asmaller, but particularly long-lived empite (c700-1376). It was centred on the Lake Chad. It came to dominate the eastern trans-Saharan trade route. The Empire consisted of Chad, Nigeria, easter Niger, and Libya. This trade route was somewhat less efficient than more easterly routes, primarily because of the large expanse of desert that had to be transversed. The length of the route in terms of slave trade affected the numbers of captives that survived the trek and thus profitability. As a result, the westerly routes varied in importance iver time. They became important when the easterly empires declined and were unable to protect the trade routes or during other periods of turmoillike the Almohad conquests (13th century). The Almohads were a Berber-Muslim dynasty that established a Berber state in Tinmel in the Atlas Mountains (modern Morocco).
The Songhai Empire was located more to the east, inclusing areas of Niger (c1375-1591). The Songhai Empire was the largest and last of the three major West African empires. The capital was Gao on the Niger River. Songhai expanded in all directions from Gao. It eventully extended from the Atlantic Ocean to what is now Northwest Nigeria and western Niger. The Empire became rich from the trade routes it controlled and slaves were one of the important commodities.
Gao tiday is a small Niger River trading center, but in its time was one of the most important trading centers in Africa. The Goa Mosque is one of the most notable in West Africa. The Tomb of Askia, the most important of the Songhai emperors, was also built there. The Songhai eventually seized control of Timbuktu and Djenne.
With the collapse of the Western Empire (5th century AD), Arab armies conquered Noth Africa (7th century AD)and eventually Islamicized the Berbers. The Ghana Empire was the first great African empire to participare in the Saharan slave trade. Subsequent empires were Muslim empires. The Sahara slave trade thus became dominated by Muslims. The cammel caravans that crossed the desert laded with valuables and slaves were tantalizing targets for maurading desert tribes, especially the Taurag. The wealth involved in a successful raid was almost unimaginable to these people. The rulers of North Africa built desert fortresses in oasises that provided secure restuing places for the caravans. Many Muslim polities throughout the Sahara had economies in which African slaves played a major role. This extended into sub-Saharan areas such as northern Nigeria. The Hausna/Kano Kingdom-Kano Emirate had a major slave economy. The Kano Emorate had a population of about half slaves even after the British had ended the Atlahtic Slave Trade. They lived in slave villages.
The number of captive Africans transported in the Saharan slave trade is not well documented, but several historians have addressed the topic. Some 6,000-7,000 slaves may have been transported north each year (10th-19th century). [Fage, p. 256.] The numbers transported annually are smaller than the numbers transpprted each year at the peak of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade (late-17th tgo early-19th century), but as the tras-Saharan slave trade was conducted over a much longer period, very large numbrs of slaves were involved. Estimates vary, but given the fact that the trade operated for centuries, the numbers were clearly very substantial. The total numbers may have been approached as many as 10 million captive Africans.
What is now modern Niger set as it is in the middle of the Sahara became important in the trahns-Saharan caravan trade. It was controlled in part or in whole by by both the Mali and Songhai Empires and other smaller African empires and kingdoms. This included the Dendi Kingdom, Gao, and Kanem-Bornu, as well as a several small Hausa states in what is now northern Nigeria. The nomadic Taureg became a major force in the Sahara, dominating trade routes. This made them aajor player in the trans-Saharan slave trade. In modern times, the Tuareg people formed confederations and pushed south, forming alliances with various Hausa states. They engaged in extended fighting with the Fulani Empire of Sokoto, which managed to seize control of large areas of Hausa territory (late-18th century). A metal anklet camne to be a tradition in Niger for thise enslaved by the Taureg. These anklets are worn only by the slave-classes of Nigerien society. There are believed to bemore than 43,000 slaves in Niger. They do not now where the shackles commonly associated with the historic slave trade, the anklets serve as a way of identifying the slave class and setting them apart from Niger society.
The Portuguese set out to establish a sea route to the East to bypass Ottomon and Arab domimination of the trade (mid-15th century). They moved south along the Atlantic coast, setting up trading posts as they moved south, but not moving inland. The first such post was established (1455). The Portuguese voyages were primarily aimed at establishing trade with the East (India, Indinesia, and China), but they opened up new opportunities for trade between Europe and West Africa. Slaves were one of the commodities trades, but at first only in small numbers. Columbus' discovery of the Americas opened up an entire new continent for exploitation. At first the Spanish and Portuhuese settlers attempted to use Native Americansas a source of forced labor (16th century). Thisproved unsucessful as native American populations collapsed, largely because of lack of resostance to European diseases. Africanswere imported to replace them. At first this involved only small numbers. The focus of the Spanish moved west and was concentrated on obtaining gold and silver. The Portuguese did not find great empires with gold and silver. They did, however, begin to grow sugar cane a crop of emense value--leading to the sugar boom. The Dutch who occupied northern Brazil, brought sugar technology to the Caribbean. They and other European mariy\tine powers also attacked the Portuguese monopoly on the slave trade. Soon large numbers of Africans were being transported to the new world. This substantially reduced (but did not end) the trans-Sagaran slave trade. The Europeans were willing to pay more for captive Africans than offered by traders in the far away Sahel. Even Arab slave traders in West Africa began dealing with the Eutopeans..
Other European countries, first the Dutch and then the English, French and Spanish, established trading posts at first along the coast of West Afrrica, especially the Gukf of Guina (early-16th century). Various products were traded, not only slaves, but gold, uivory, ahnd other commidities as well. As the sugar industry became established in Brazil and tge Caribbean, commerce becamne dominated by the slave trade. The resulting Sugar Boom created a massive demand for slaves and prices increased at the 'factories" established at the trading posts. Trade with the wealthier Europeans became of prime intereest to the Africas. Thus the slave trade moved from trans-Saharan routes to the much shorter trek south. Tgey only had to bring the caotives to the coastal trading posts. The Sahel (North Africa) had declined in both political and economic importance to the Africans. The Saharan crossing remained long and treacherous. The Taureg and other Bedouine tribes had to be either fought or paid off. The final blow to trahs-Sagaran trade came with the battle of Tondibi (1591-92). Morocco in an effort to seize cintrolof the dwindling trade disparched troops across the Sahara and attacked Timbuktu, Gao and other important Saharan trading centers. The Moroccans pillaged these trading centers. Prominent citizens including merchants were killed or exiled. This significantly disrupted trans-Saharan trade. These cities abnd trans-Saharan trade never recoverd. The animosity created with the Moroccans left the Saharans much less willing to deal with them and other Arab polities in the Sahel. Trans-Saharan trade never disappeared, it was, however, much reduced. Trade routes to the West African coast were much shorter and more reliable an traders did not have to contend ith the Taureg.
Here we want to survey the history of slavery in the territory of the modern countries of the Magreb and Sahara/Sahel. These countries are modern creations, at least the modern boundaries. The territories they now govern, however, have long and in some cases diverse histories. The modern boundaries mostly date to the the 19th century. Slavery in the region, however date back millenia and the nature of it has changed radically over time under different legal and cultural traditions. Still it is useful to look at the history of slavery in the various areas now encompasing modern states. Some like Egypt and Morocco have a substantial dergree of territorial continuity. Others have largely arbitrary borders created by Europeans, often the French. Egypt is a special case because if its long history dting back to the dawn of civilization and involvement in a combuination of Middle Eastern, Indian Ocean, and Trans-Saharan Slavery. Egypt did not participate in Barbary piracy. In other Saharan countries, slavery was almost totaly dependent on the Trans-Sharan slave trade and Barabry piracy. Slavery continues to esist into modern times, primarily associated with Islamic traditions.
Claussen, Martin, et. al.. "Sahara's Abrupt Desertification Started By Changes In Earth's Orbit, Accelerated By Atmospheric And Vegetation Feedbacks," Geophysical Research Letters (July 15, 1999).
Fage, J.D. A History of Africa (Routledge, 4th edition, 2001).
(El) Hamel, Chouki. Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge and New York, 2013).
Herodotus of Halicarnassus. About 430 BC. Herodotus describes the maritime trade of Carthage along the West African coast. It was a trade in goods conducted without dirct contact along the beach. Herodotus does not mention slave trading as part of his description of the Caraginian maritime trade off West Africa.
Ibn Battuta's Trip: Part Twelve - Journey to West Africa.
Lewis, Bernard. Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry Chapter 1 -- Slavery (Oxford Univ Press, 1994).
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