Golden Age of West Africa

While Europe was declining into the Middle Ages, West Africa was coming into a time of great prosperity. With the help of large amounts of salt and gold, the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires became rich and powerful. As these Empires flourished, Islam spread, as did the Arabic language. Although the geography of West Africa did not promote travel, goods were traded all across Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The Region of West Africa (CC)
The Region of West Africa (CC)

The geography of Africa made it difficult for the rise of civilizations. To the north is the Sahara desert. Its deadly heat covers hundreds of miles. To the west, there are large mountains. Although traveling was difficult, there were numerous things brought to the civilizations of the area. The Sahara desert provided the salt from the salt flats, and gold was mined in the south. Through all these troubles, such as the rainforest to the south, the mountains in the west, and the desert to the north, many nations managed to prosper in western Africa.

The Three Empires
Three different empires rose and fell in the same region of Western Africa. First, there was the Ghana Empire. They established a monarchy and a strong army by using trade to become more powerful. As their trade increased with other Africans and Muslims, their power and money increased. They also put taxes on travelers and traders. They used a system of a silent barter, trading without talking, to eliminate conflict. If someone disagreed with the amount of gold or salt traded; they would just stop trading. With the money from trade they were able to make a strong army. They used the army to conquer and control many smaller villages and cities, which increased the size of the empire. Then, Amoravids (Muslims from North Africa) invaded and cut off trade. This weakened the empire. The Amoravids also brought animals that grazed all the land and made farming impossible. With the empire weakened an internal rebellion took over. They couldn’t control Ghana, though. This was the end of the Ghana Empire.

The next empire to come to power was the Mali Empire. Under a ruler named Sundiata they improved agriculture by adding new farmlands. He also introduced a new crop, cotton. People could then make clothing more comfortable, as well as trading and selling the cotton. Their famous ruler, Mansa Musa, spread Islam and the Arabic language through his sacred journey to Mecca, called a Hajj(diigo). This journey spread the knowledge of Mali to the Islamic
Great Mosque of Djenné (CC)
Great Mosque of Djenné (CC)

world and Europe. On the trip, it is said that Musa handed out over two tons of Mali gold to people he encountered. Mansa Musa ruled between 1312 and 1337. During this time, he established a city that became one of the biggest centers of trade and culture, Timbuktu (Diigo--See these important notes). He also established schools, universities, and sent scholars to Morocco to learn from experts in Islam and Arabic. When Mansa Musa died, his son, Maghan, took over. Maghan couldn’t stop invaders, though. This caused the civilization to crumble.

The last empire to rule this area was the Songhai Empire. Like both other civilizations, the Songhai Empire was a monarchy. Mali had conquered Songhai for a while, but they regained freedom. Their first ruler, Sunni Ali, unified and enlarged the kingdom. The fact that he was Muslim made Berbers want to trade with them. This helped strengthen the empire. The next ruler, Sunni Baru, was not Muslim. People feared that some valuable trading would be lost, so they overtook him. The next ruler, and most important, was Askia The Great. During his rule, the empire grew in size by taking over much of the countryside. Askia the Great was also a supporter of education, libraries, universities, and mosques. People came from all areas to study math, science, medicine, grammar, and law at the University of Sankore. In 1591, Morocco sent soldiers with arquebus (early guns--That had been traded over the silk road from China) and they destroyed Timbuktu. At the same time, European explorers found sea trade routes that cut off the Songhai.
An arquebus (CC)
This was the end of the Golden Age of West Africa.

The original religion of the West Africa was first and foremost an oral, not scriptural, religion. It was based on a supreme being and belief in spirits, divinities and respect for ancestors. It was the belief that bodies of water, animals, trees, and other natural objects have spirits and humans should harmonize with nature. Another West African belief was that their ancestors' spirits stayed nearby. To honor the family spirits, families marked places as sacred by putting specially carved statues there. Islam was the main religion of The Mali and Songhai Empires, not to mention modern day Western Africa. As empires thrived and grew, so did Islam. Islam first spread to western Africa through trade; a good example of cultural diffusion. Cultural diffusion is the spread of ideas and beliefs from one society to another. As people traded between Africa and the Middle East, other things such as language (Arabic), food, and clothes spread to Africa. The spread of Islam was encouraged in the two later empires. Mansa Musa, the famous Mali king, spread Islam all throughout Africa. It is said that on his pilgrimage to Mecca he would build a mosque on every Friday. 420 years after the fall of the last great empire, Islam still thrives within western Africa.

When Ghana came to power, most people still practiced traditional African religions. However, once the other nations turned Muslim, many of the Ghanians started to adopt Islam. Later, when the Europeans began taking over, Christianity spread throughout the region. Today, Christianity and Islam are the two dominant religions in Ghana and all of Africa (see map to right).
African Religion Today

Trade for during the Golden Age
Gold and salt were the major natural resources that were traded, bought, and sold. Gold and salt were traded all over Africa and Europe. This is how many cities, such as Timbuktu, became very wealthy. The silent barter was developed for the trade of gold and salt. This way, gold and salt locations would stay private and there would be peace in all trade. Gold and salt were also traded in Asia. The trade of salt was important because salt helped Europeans discover how to preserve food. The preservation of food allowed people to travel for longer periods of time without getting sick. This allowed a triangle of trade to occur. This new travel led to new trade routes and more discoveries of the world around them.

Triangular Trade--Europeans take control
(Click Here for the Song About the Triangle Trade) (Click Here for Lyrics)

A Triangle of Trade between Africa, The Americas, and Europe. (CC)

As all this was going on, the Middle Ages were ending and Europe began to flourish. Africa and Eurasia started to clash as travel, religion, and trade spread all over the world. Although Africa had experienced a golden age, Europe’s knowledge and power grew to a point where they were able to overcome the great African civilizations and take control of the land and people. After Africa fell and the Europeans took over, a new resource was traded. Once Europeans had taken all the gold from the Africans, they began taking slaves. The European military was more advanced, and they could easily take the Africans.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the "New World" was just beginning to thrive and needed labor. "Americans" began to grow crops on the land. In Europe, they had desired a taste for the New World's foods and goods: beans, pineapples, squash, sweet potatoes, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, sugar, cotton, and most of all, tobacco. So, a trade system began, sometimes called the Columbian exchange: often considered the greatest cultural diffusion the world has ever seen. The Europeans would send rum and manufactured goods to Africa for slaves, then send the slaves to America. The slaves would be put to work on the farms. The goods from the farms, like sugar and cotton, would be sent to Europe. This system was called triangular trade (interactive map). Throughout this system, one region gained all the money. The Europeans, who manufactured all the goods, were the ones that were being payed. So although all three were trading, only one region was really making any profit, the other two were just working to stay alive.

Burstein, Stanley M., and Richard Shek. World History. United States of America: Holt, 2006

Published June 2, 2009
Revised by Susan June 3, 2010
Revised by Reid and Bagatur May 10, 2011
Links added by Maddie May 27, 2011
Video and Links added by Swathi May 16, 2012
Edited by Jing, May 16, 2014