Salt in West Africa

In West Africa, during the second millennium CE (1000-1500 in our course) some of the most important developments for the people living there were the growth of population, further urbanization, and increasing commercial connections (including trans-Saharan trade). Additionally, a number of territorial states--particularly large empires-- arose in the savanna grasslands and Sahel (the dry zone between the savanna and the Sahara). Many of the crops that produced the surplus that enabled these processes had grown up in this zone, particularly along the banks of the upper Niger River: African rice, sorghum, and millet (grains that were productive in relatively dry conditions). Another major economy included pastoralists in the drier parts. (To the south were wetter zones where cities were rare.)

Local trade between farmers and pastoralists typically meant that many West Africa farmers could get their salt needs, eating the blood, milk products, and sometimes meat of their neighbors’ herds. (Remember that farmers who get most of their calories from grains must acquire salt from somewhere.) Other sources of salt included lakes and ponds that evaporated during the dry season; salt could be scraped from the empty lake beds. People on the coast could harvest sea salt (giant saltworks existed at least from the seventh century CE [600s] in Benin), through a similar strategy: building “traps” for oceanic waves that would then evaporate, leaving salt behind. They also boiled seawater in pots, which, of course, took a lot of extra energy inputs (not just the sun’s). People who lived at the mouth of rivers like the Senegal and the Gambia also made salt from the Atlantic, and then shipped it up the nearby river to other people in the interior. In a few places, certain plants (mangrove trees) contained salt in their system (salt is poisonous to most plants); these could be burned and salt extracted from their ashes.

As the dromedary camel was introduced into North and West Africa around the third century CE (200s), trade across the Sahara became more viable. They could, of course, survive the rigors of the environment and carry over 300 pounds long distances (and almost 900 lbs on short trips). Journeys across the Sahara typically took a few months. North Africans (eventually Arabic-speakers and Berber-speakers from the seventh century) began to carry spices, textiles, and other manufactures from Outer Eurasia to West Africans in the Sahel. Small numbers of slaves became part of the trade, mostly exported from West Africa, but also imported as well. Other exports were typically high value natural products: the mineral of gold, the botanical export of the kola nut, and the animal product of ivory. This expansion of trade furthered urbanization and specialization, creating more people whose lives depended on commercial activity. In addition, the Sahara was realized as a source of salt itself; giant slabs could be mined in the desert and sold to West Africans for generous profits, i.e., exchanged for gold. The unfree laborers who extracted the salt slabs were fed by imported food.

Some of the profitability of the trade was retained in the cities of the savanna and the Sahel, partly because they served as middlemen between the Saharan merchants and tropical African producers. The leaders in these regions turned some of that wealth into state power, buying soldiers and other specialists, which allowed them to expand their realms and tax even more trade. Many, but not all, of these leaders, and other West Africans as well, began to adopt Islamic practices. These West African “Islams,” as always, were syncretic versions of the religion. Some of these new Muslims then acted as evangelists to other parts of West Africa.

(Salt processing continues today in West Africa, including non-edible salts for industrial uses.)


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