When Salt Was Traded for Gold: The Salt Trade of West Africa that Built Kingdoms and Spread Culture
In West Africa during the Medieval period, salt was traded for gold. This may seem astonishing as salt is a cheap commodity in today’s society. It may be added that salt is easily available today which was not the case in ancient times. In the past, salt was difficult to obtain in certain parts of the world. This means that areas producing salt had a valuable trade item, one that they could exchange for gold. In Medieval West Africa, salt led to the development of trade routes, and brought great wealth to the cities and states which they passed through.
Salt Trade for Preservation
Salt has many uses, though it is primarily associated with food. Today, salt is most commonly used to make food salty. In the past, salt had another important culinary function – the preservation of food. Prior to the advent of refrigeration, meat and vegetables were salted so that they could be eaten at a later date.
The importance of salt may be seen during the Roman period, when soldiers were paid in salarium argentum, or ‘salt money’, from which the English word ‘salary’ is derived.
The salt trade was valuable to food preservation. (WildDago / Adobe)
Around the 5th century AD, the use of camels allowed Berber-speaking peoples to cross the Sahara Desert. By the 8th century AD, trade was flowing between the Saharan and sub-Saharan regions of West Africa, as caravans traveled between the two on an annual basis. In sub-Saharan West Africa, gold was abundant, and this was exchanged for salt brought by caravans arriving from the north.
The Logistics of the Salt Trade
The salt transported by these caravans was obtained from salt mines in the Sahara Desert. In certain areas, such as Taghaza and Taoudenni, salt deposits can be found not far beneath the surface of the desert. Mining operations were set up in such areas and slaves brought in work there.
The salt, which was in the form of blocks, would then be loaded onto the backs of camels, and be transported to the south, where they were traded for gold.
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Camel caravan with blocks of salt, headed for the salt trade route. Source: Marisha_SL / Adobe.
Trading was carried out using a process called ‘silent barter’, during which neither party spoke to each other and often did not even meet each other.
At the designated trade location, the salt traders would display the salt they brought, beat their drums to announce their intention to trade, and return to their camp.
The gold traders, hearing the drums, would show up, have a look at the salt, and place an amount of gold that they believe would be a fair trade. They would then beat their drums and retreat to their camp.
The salt traders would return, have a look at the gold, and if they were satisfied would take the gold, leave the salt, beat their drums, and depart.
On the other hand, if they wanted more gold, they would leave everything behind, beat their drums, return to camp, and wait for a better offer.
The Importance of the Salt Trade Routes
Some have suggested that the salt trade has been overemphasized by historians. For instance, salt was not the only commodity brought by merchants from the north.
Other goods that traveled into western sub-Saharan Africa with the caravans included glass, precious stones, and North African ceramics. In addition, the peoples of West Africa could obtain salt from plants and the soil, which would have been sufficient for local consumption. Moreover, it has been pointed out that salt from the Sahara was regarded as a luxury object that only the rich and powerful could afford.
Still, the impact of the salt trade in the region is undeniable. For the most part, it was not the salt or its mines that the West African powers sought to control, but rather the trade routes. Gaining control of these routes meant that tariffs could be levied on the caravans that traveled along them. This brought much wealth and led to the establishment of great empires including the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai Empires. Moreover, important cities were established along the routes.
One such city was Timbuktu, which not only served as an important trade post, but also gained fame as a center of Islamic culture. Incidentally, it was also thanks to the trade routes that Islam made its way into sub-Saharan West Africa.
Saharan salt trade routes circa 1400 with the modern territory of Niger highlighted. (T L Miles / Public Domain)
Lastly, it may be said that although salt has long lost its status as a highly prized trade commodity, salt mining is still carried out in the Sahara and continues to be a way of life for some of the desert’s inhabitants. Like their Medieval forebears, the salt miners of today rely on camels to transport the harvested salt, though in much smaller quantities, and certainly not traded for gold.
Top image: Production of salt for the salt trade. (homocosmicos / Adobe)
By Wu Mingren
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