Caribbean Studies changing african responses to european contact.doc
CAPE HISTORY – UNIT 2
THE ATLANTIC WORLD AND GLOBAL
Module 1: Atlantic World: Interactions
Changing African Responses to European Contact:
i. Trade in gold and other commodities
ii. Trade in African captives
Pre-Atlantic Trade Period - What they traded?
West Africa was in contact with other continents (socially /economically) during and after classical
Long distance trading was evident and many items were traded between continents. These included
millet, beans, wheat, rice, palm oil and yams were spread all over West Africa for over three
centuries before the Portuguese arrived.
About 5000 BCE, cattle rearing was introduced into West Africa via Asia and Egypt. By the 10th century
the Fulani of Northern Nigeria was popular for mixed farming – i.e. cattle and plants.
From as far back as 500 BCE, Metal mining / trade in metal goods was present in N/Nigeria – e.g. Nok.
NB. By the 4th century CE iron technology / trade in iron goods was all over W/Africa.
Centres of Iron Trade included Oume – S/Ivory Coast and Oyo – SW/Nigeria
Two groups of people (ironsmiths) were the Awka and Nkwerri people. They travelled and traded
between the South Ivory Coast, South Western Nigeria and the entire Igbo country.
Gold mining was present from the 1st millennium in West Africa. W/Africans traded exclusively in gold
throughout the Sahara and the Arab World. By the 10th century the demand for gold by the Arabs
stimulated the industry and the production of gold products in West Africa.
NB West Africa was Western Europe’s main supplier of gold by the 14th century. The trade in
gold opened West Africa to International markets as she traded with Asia, the Mediterranean
and Europe. The industry however was controlled / dominated by the West African kings and
Gold coins were also being issued by the Romans in North Africa who got this gold from Senegal by CE
According to Michael Crowder, the supplies of gold were mainly concentrated on the Gold Coast.
He argues that the reason for trading gold was because gold and silver formed the basis of European
currency and this was mainly being supplied by the Muslim world at the time. Gold was also used to
decorate royal palaces and costumes.
Gold was bought with salt, textiles and copper by the rulers of Ghana and sold to Arabs.
By the 12th century West Africa was the leading supplier of gold to the economy of Europe when the
main currency was gold (replacing silver).
Places included: Genoa, Florence, and Venice (European Cities).
NB Ghana was known as the ‘land of gold’ – this was mined outside the political boundaries of
Ghana in Wangara and Bambuk. African rulers were able to influence areas of contact
because of their wealth in gold.
Salt was another major export of West African Countries to Europe and the Mediterranean. A popular
international trade centre was Songhai (10th century).
The textile industry also thrived (as early as the 8th century) e.g. Cotton, silks, woollens and raffia
NB The spread of Islam into the savannah influenced the growth in production of these textiles.
Textiles were also exported to European markets due to contracts with Islamic merchants in the 9th and
10th centuries. At the end of the 1500’s (16th century), Timbuktu – Mali was known for its textiles
technology, grain, cattle and vegetables.
NB By the 1300’s Mali traders were in contact with E/African traders who linked them to Indian,
Chinese and Persian markets. Also West Africa had in circulation cowry shells that was used
as money for well over 200 years.
West Africa was an important participant in international trade prior to the arrival of the Portuguese and
prior to the transatlantic trade in humans.
What commodities apart from gold and slaves were traded?
Who traded these?
When and where?
Atlantic Trade Period
Ghana, Mali and Songhai were powerful states in Africa before the arrival of the Europeans and contact
in the 15th century. All had prosperous economies and trading contact with Europe via the
Mediterranean. The economic development of West Africa prior to the advent of the transatlantic slave
trade was not very different from Europe’s. The trade in enslaved persons was a minor activity in the
empires and was not a significant source of wealth for rulers of Ghana e.g. The Soninke.
Sixty years after the arrival of the Europeans on the coast of Ghana, the trading of slaves began to
surpass gold as West Africa’s most important export to European traders. In the Gold Coast, gold
continued to compete with humans as a means of foreign exchange for African traders buying European
goods. In the Trans-Saharan Caravan trade, the buying and selling of gold went hand-in-hand with the
buying and selling of enslaved people.
NB The expansion of slavery and slave trading was as a result of the attack upon Ghana by the
Almoravid Muslims in 1042, the fall of the capital at Kumbi Saheh (1076 – 77) and the final
collapse of the empire in 1203.
In Mali, slave trading was not a major source of wealth for the Mali rulers, whose focus was on the
expansion of their territory. This was also similar in Songhai where the sale of slaves was not an
Reason for the change from the trade in gold to slaves
In traditional slavery, slaves moved in homes and became a part of the family. They had rights, cultural
identity and freedom and this position was temporary. Slaves were also used to form large slave armies
to protect empires (Islamic kings Mali and Songhai) or to form gold mining gangs (Benin). Enslaved
labour was used in all areas where agriculture grew and long-distance trade was encouraged.
The tradition of the trade in African labour was changed in the early 1400’s when Arabs and Europeans
bought widely in slave markets. Political rulers (elites) in West Africa redirected their attention / interest
to the transatlantic slave trade because of their desire to acquire exotic goods (luxury items), although
historians have argued that the items traded between West Africans and Europeans were not considered
to be vital goods that the Africans themselves were unable to produce. The need to exchange Africans
for European goods was rather about greed than meeting basic needs. Especially since many parts of
West Africa were iron and textile producers and traders. e.g. Senegambia local iron and copper industry.
Additionally, the spread of Islam in Africa influenced the growth of the trade in humans.
NB These goods (African) were of a better quality than those being traded with the Europeans.
The disintegration of large nation states e.g. Ghana, Mali and Songhai and the expansion of small states
in Africa contributed to the expansion of slavery as a system / mode to accumulate wealth during the
15th and 16th centuries. In other words, this new system to accumulate wealth via the slave trade was
due to the breakdown of large nation states and the expansion of small states in Africa.
The demand for slave labour by Europeans was supplied / met by the African elites who provided captives
as long as the prices were attractive. The sale of humans (Africans) was merely seen as the sale of a
commodity rather than an act of hatred by African rulers. High prices guaranteed availability. Muslim
merchants negotiated the sale of prisoners that they captured in their raiding missions. They were reliable
suppliers. Central Africa e.g. Angola region was also a main source for slaves by the mid 1400’s. This
was due to non-stop political and military conflict. Large number of captives were taken and sold in the
trade. By the end of the 1500’s, the Portuguese had a major slave-trading network in Angola.
NB The course and nature of slavery in Africa was being changed by new economic forces.
At the arrival of the Portuguese in the 1440’s the process of extensive slave trading was already in full
operation. From as early as 1456, treaties of peace and commerce were being negotiated with African
rulers on the coast. The cooperation of African rulers allowed the Portuguese and other European groups
to take advantage of the already well-established commercial economy in Africa. The Transatlantic trade
merely “created a wider context” for the trade in Africa.
Groups / Traders
Horses for slaves
Early 16th century
Middle Niger and the River
Atlantic Islands of Madeira,
Canaries, Cape Verde,
Salt, hides, copper, cotton,
Horses, silk, silver, salt
Cloth, Blanquets, Wheat
North Africa, Sudan
The Goods in the Triangular Trade
Capitalism and Slavery
Mettalurgic items e.g
chains, fetters, padlocks
Brass, copper and lead
Indian, cloth, beads
East /West Africa
Crowder, Michael. Colonial West Africa: Collected Essays. ‘West Africa and the Europeans:
Five hundred years of Direct Contact (1971).
Hart, Richard. From Occupation to Independence.
Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
Williams, Eric. Capitalism & Slavery (1994). London: University of NC Press.
Shepherd, Verene & Hilary Beckles. Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World.
I. C. H. S.
Handout # 2