West African Trading Empires

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Learning Objective 2I

Explain how the expansion of empires influenced trade and communication over time.

Historical Development 1

The expansion of empires—including Mali in West Africa–facilitated Afro-Eurasian trade and communication as new people were drawn into the economies and trade networks.

Mali and Songhai used the power of their government to increase trade in West Africa and across the trans-Saharan trade routes.

The economic success of Mali and Songhai resulted in new groups interacting with the West African economy. This led to further economic growth in the region.


West African Trading Empires Increased Trans-Saharan Trade

Main idea

Mali and Songhai used the power of their government to increase trade in West Africa and across the trans-Saharan trade routes.

West Africa developed several prominent and wealthy trading empires. The wealth and power of these kingdoms derived mainly from trade across the trans-Saharan trade routes. Because these kingdoms’ survival was closely tied to trade, leaders encouraged trade and supported merchant activity. 

Mali and Songhai were the two largest trading empires in West Africa

Mali: The Mali empire emerged in 1235. Because of the plentiful reserves of gold within their territory, Mali became one of the world’s largest gold exporters. Mali’s largest import was salt, which they lacked in large enough quantities. They consumed the salt in their diets and used it to preserve perishable foods and human corpses. Mali also imported glass, ceramics, and precious stones from North Africa.

Songhai: As Mali declined, Songhai gained power along Mali’s eastern borders in the 15th and 16th centuries. They captured the trade routes that had been under the control of Mali. Songhai exported gold, ivory, spices, kola nuts, hides, and enslaved people. However, unlike Mali’s rulers, the largest coastal goldfields were not under their control, limiting their ability to enrich themselves from the gold trade. Major imports included salt and luxury goods like fine cloth, glassware, sugar, and horses. The Songhai empire collapsed in the late 16th century, weakened from civil war, and invaded by its northern neighbor Morocco.

Mali and Songhai's leaders supported the expansion of trade

The growth of Mali and Songhai further developed trans-Saharan trade by providing stability and systems in West Africa that allowed merchants and commerce to prosper. Leaders provided this stability by creating centralized and bureaucratic governments.

Government policies that supported trade included: 

Building powerful militaries

Mali and Songhai built strong armies that could protect trade within their territories. Their armies consisted of full-time professional soldiers numbered in the tens of thousands—potentially between 50,000 and 100,000 at their strongest.

Creating common currencies

Mali’s and Songhai’s leaders established common currencies with standardized values. Gold dust, copper, silver, salt, and cowrie shells were all currencies in Mali. Cowrie shells and gold coins were the most common currencies in Songhai.

Building relationships with  influential groups

Mali’s founding king Sundiata used his Muslim faith to establish trading relationships with Muslim merchants from North Africa and Arabia. King Sundiata’s grandson Mansa Musa took an extravagant journey to the Islamic holy city of Mecca. He handed out so much gold along the way that Mali’s stories of prosperous West African kingdoms spread. These stories encouraged rulers to establish new trade and diplomatic relationships with the West African empires.  

Increased Trade Brought New Groups Into West Africa's Economy and Trade

Main idea

The economic success of Mali and Songhai resulted in new groups interacting with the West African economy. This led to further economic growth in the region.

The success of the West African empires in promoting trade brought new people into the region and its economy. 

Increased numbers of Muslims traveled to West Africa

Increasing numbers of Muslims traveled to Mali and Songhai along the trans-Saharan network. While many of these were merchants, many were not. One group was students and scholars who went to study at Islamic universities and libraries in Timbuktu and Djenne. Others were long-distance travelers and explorers, such as Ibn Battuta (1304 to 1369), who visited Mali in 1351. Batutta, a Muslim, traveled across Afro-Eurasia from West Africa to China.

Surrounding kingdoms increased their trade

As Mali and Songhai expanded regional commerce, neighboring civilizations increased their roles in trans-Saharan exchange. The Hausa city-state kingdoms were one such group. Like the rulers of Mali and Songhai, the various Hausa kings had converted to Islam. By the 14th century, Kano had become the most powerful of the Hausa city-states. It achieved this by becoming the base for the trans-Saharan trade in salt, cloth, leather, and grain.

The number of enslaved people increased

Unfortunately, as trade prospered across the Saharan, slave traders forced increased numbers of people into slavery. Enslaved people found themselves in a variety of systems of servitude. Rulers in West Africa and Egypt used enslaved people in their militaries as highly trained soldiers. Wealthy families also used enslaved people as domestic servants or concubines. Others mined gold in West Africa or salt in North Africa. Estimates of the total number of enslaved Africans moved across the trans-Saharan trade routes to the Muslim world range from 11-17 million

The expansion of trading cities

As commerce on the trans-Saharan trade routes increased, new trading towns were established while many preexisting cities grew bigger. New cities served as stopover points for merchant caravans to rest and refuel. Other cities became small regional markets where merchants sold goods. Already flourishing trade cities like Timbuktu and Djenne became wealthier and opened Islamic universities, libraries, and mosques. 

Timbuktu: Merchants established Timbuktu in the 12th century. The city flourished through trade in gold, salt, ivory, and enslaved people in both the Mali and Songhai empires. Timbuktu also became a center of Islamic learning. Between the 10th and 15th centuries, Islamic Imams (preachers) and scholars established three mosques and schools in the city (Sankore Madrasah, Djinugereber, and Sidi Yahya). The town also became a center of Islamic learning. People across West Africa visited the city to study the Quran and Islamic teachings.

Djenne: Merchants founded Djenne around 800 CE, and it quickly became a hub for merchant activity on the trans-Saharan trade network. Merchants would stop in Djenne on their way into or out of the larger trading city of Timbuktu. Like Timbuktu, Djenne became a center of Islam in West Africa. The Great Mosque of Djenne is one of the most recognizable Mosques in the world and was constructed between the 13th and 14th centuries.