By the 1600’s it is known that caravans crossed the Sahara to Tripoli to Timbuktu. Annual caravans across the desert could be protected by thousands of armed men and carried with them paper, glass beads, textiles, and pewter. To the South, in Senegal, Nasir al-Din was launching a jihad which helped united large tracts of the Sahara to speak the Arabic derived Hasaniya language. While early European intervention set up the port town of St. Louise in Senegal and began the maritime time based gum arabic trade, these maritime concerns left the trans-Saharan routes largely unaffected at this time5.

In Morocco, the Sufi sect of Islam was creating another type of civil society that led to an increase in commerce and other trade relationships. Regarding the difficulties that traders faced, “In North Africa, individuals tried to overcome these challenges through social networks based on a common identity, such as trade diasporas, native-place organizations, kinship associations and, from the fifteenth century, sufi orders.6” These Sufi orders allowed for the dissemination of information, storage of goods, a system of credit, conflict resolution, and mutual security. Although these Sufis did not practice the Sunni based Maliki Doctrine, their own Nasiri particularisms filled largely the same role. One of the trade routes utilized by the Sufis of Morocco ran from Tamgrut to Timbuktu.

Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Western Africa

Later in the century, in 1689, the Sultan of Morocco, Mulay Isma’il did lead an expedition south to conquer territory down to the Senegal river. He saw the French presence in Senegal as potentially threatening to the trans-Saharan routes that kept his kingdom supplied in gum arabic. Morocco’s orientation shifted in later years towards the maritime interests of the Mediterranean Ocean as the Sultan Mulay Muhammad bin Adallah consolidated markets to run trans-Saharan goods to the European traders and the Sufi networks were pushed out of the market. Never again were the Sufi networks center of gravity for commerce in this region7.

From the mid-1600’s and into the 1700’s, European traders were establishing coastal outposts of their own in Tripoli, Saint Louise, and Mogador which over time, and with the rise of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, begin to reshape the trans-Saharan networks. While many had previously assumed that the maritime commerce introduced by the Europeans would undercut and diminish the trans-Saharan trade routes, in fact, “transcontinental caravan trade actually experiences a remarkable growth in the course of the nineteenth century.8” On theory holds that this was due to Libya falling under the Ottoman empire as a colony or protectorate. Just as the political stability created Kingdom of Mali in the 14th century helped facilitate trade, the Ottoman administration in Libya during the 1830’s, “promoted caravan trade by ensuring security and mildly taxing, but not constraining, the flow of traffic from the port of Tripoli and strategic Saharan outposts.9” Popular routes through the desert at this time included Kano to Ghadamis. The Ottoman facilitated routes increased in relevancy as the French colonized Algeria in 1830 which diverted trans-Saharan traffic around this country to Libya and Morocco as traders attempted to skirt around French tariffs and regulations.

Also during the 19th Century, Muslim leaders like Dan Fodio attempted to carve out desert empires for themselves. These warriors needed to engage in the trade of rifles, gun powder, horses, and other war material to include white cloth to bury their dead in as is the Islamic custom. Because of this, West African warlords courted the trans-Saharan merchants for use as logistical supply lines needed to wage their military campaigns. While war making disrupts commercial enterprise, the traders and the warlords came to have an interdependent relationship as both parties wanted something out of each other. Others, like Samori Ture enslaved Saharan dwellers for sale to help finance his war efforts. These slaves were sold internally to other Africans but also exported across trans-Saharan routes for sale to European slave traders.

Trans-Saharan Challenges: Smuggling, Terrorism, and the Struggle for a State (Part 4)

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The slave trade flourished in 19th Century West Africa. European settlement and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade made the capturing and imprisonment of indigenous people very lucrative for the slave raiders. While many would point fingers, history makes clear that there were few innocents in the slave trade aside from those actually sold into bondage. Christian Europeans, Muslim Africans, and Jews all had some involvement in the African slave trade10. Although the Europeans and Ottomans had banned the slave trade by the mid-1800’s, the institution of slavery persisted within the interior of Africa. War making became the primary driver for the slave trade and vice-versa in a cycle which saw warlords capturing slaves to finance their war, in the process of which more slaves were captured. These slaves were then trafficked along the trans-Saharan routes to markets in North Africa including Morocco, Libya, and Egypt which, “were the last markets on the continent to drive up the demand for slaves until the turn of the twentieth century.11” The French in Algeria supported slavery in a underhanded manner by taxing it and ignoring much of it as even enslaved children were labeled as orphans, however the slave trade did gradually decline as markets become over saturated and new markets were created for commercial goods and products such as textiles, green tea, and paper. By this time the Saharan trade grew, however the Sahara desert itself waned as the central aspect of life in inner Africa as North and West Africa were integrated into a global economy.

While Islam helped establish a type of civil society that allowed for increased cooperation and development of the trans-Saharan routes, slavery represents a counter argument in which subjugation led to increased commerce as opposed to Islam’s shared community. With the enslaving of non-Muslims permitted by Islam, slave traders moved across the desert in large groups of armed men, even going as far as to arm their slaves to defend against bandits and marauders that were frequently encountered in transit. Among the tribes that engaged in slavery, one would presume that this would also result in a type of civil society in which the tribes established a system for buying, selling, and transporting slaves as the Europeans did with the Trans-Atlantic trade, yet we find that, “as a number of routes and entrepots were in use, not all tribes would have benefited equally from an economically optimal situation in which all caravans took the shortest or preferred routes.12

For this reason, the tribes warred with each other as they tried to monopolize their own north-south running desert corridors. As previously mentioned, political constructs in Mali and Libya held these merchants in check at one time but many of these trade routes remained lawless. While Islam helped develop and stabilize desert trade, the abolishment of the slave trade and the rise of “illegitimate” trade resulted in a commercial enterprise that did promoted fragmented and dangerous treks. Prange argues that while large caravans were formed by independent cartels, the emergence of large scale corporations never came into existence because of a lack of trust and communication between the slave traders.



5 – Ibid., 94.

6 – David P.V. Gutelius, “The Path is Easy and the Benefits Large: the Nahsjiriyya, Social Networks and Economic Change in Morocco, 1640-1830,” Journal of African History 43, 2002: 28, accessed December 3rd, 2012,

7 – Ibid., 40.

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8 – Ghislaine Lydon, On Trans-Saharan Trails (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 110.

9 – Ibid.

10 – Ibid., 123.

11 – Ibid., 125.

12 – Sebastian R. Prange, “‘Trust in God, but tie your camel first.’ The economic organization of the trans-Saharan slave trade between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries,”Journal of Global History 02, 2006: 230, accessed December 3rd, 2012,