Skip to main content

Wheeled transport in pre-colonial West Africa*

  • Robin Law

One of the most important differences in technology between Africa south of the Sahara during the pre-colonial period and many other areas of the world, it is frequently suggested, was the almost complete absence in the former of any form of wheeled transport. The transport of goods overland in pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa was normally done by pack animals, where these were available, or more generally by human porterage. This lack of wheeled transport, it might be argued, had crucial implications for the history of sub-Saharan Africa, since the high cost of transport by pack animals and human porterage has often been presented as one of the principal constraints upon the expansion of trade, and hence of economic growth generally, in pre-colonial times. The lack of wheels in sub-Saharan Africa, it is clear, cannot have been due simply to ignorance, since many areas of the continent had been in contact with wheel-using civilizations outside Africa for several centuries before the colonial conquest at the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, as this article will show, there is abundant evidence that, in West Africa at least, the technology of wheeled transport was quite widely known, though put to only very limited use, in the pre-colonial period. The reasons why this technology, although readily available, was nevertheless not generally adopted are, however, very far from being clear.

Hide All
Akinjogbin, I. A. 1967 Dahomey and its neighbours 1708-1818. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Allen, W., & Thomson, T. R. H. 1848 Narrative of the expedition sent by Her Majesty's Government to the River Niger in 1841. 2 vols. Reprinted London: Frank Cass, 1968.
Astley, Thomas 1746 A new and general collection of voyages and travels. 4 vols. Reprinted London, Frank Cass, 1968.
Barbot, John 1732 A description of the coasts of North and South Guinea. London.
Bauer, P.T. 1966 Economic analysis and policy in underdeveloped countries. 2nd impression. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Bohner, Theodor, 1934 Der eroberte Erdteil: Deutsches Schidfal in Afrika um Gustav Nachtigal. Berlin: Büchergilde Gutenberg.
Breasted, J. H. 1906-1907 Ancient records of Egypt. 5 vols. Chicago.
Bulliett, Richard W. 1975 The camel and the wheel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Burton, Richard 1966 A mission to Gelele, king of Dahome. Edited by Newbury, C. W.. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Cruickshank, Brodie 1853 Eighteen years on the Gold Coast of Africa. Reprinted London: Frank Cass, 1966.
Cuoq, Joseph M. 1975 Recueil des sources arabes concernant l'Afrique occidentale du VIIIe au XVIe siècle. Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose.
Dalzel, Archibald 1793 The history of Dahomy. Reprinted London: Frank Cass, 1967.
Dapper, Olfert 1668 Naukeurige beschrijvinge der Afrikaensche gewesten. Amsterdam.
Denham, D., & Clapperton, H. 1826 Narrative of travels and discoveries in Northern and Central Africa. London.
Dickson, K. B. 1971 A historicalgeography of Ghana. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Siculus, DiodorusLibrary of history. Edited and with an English translation by Oldfather, C. H. et al. 12 vols. London: Heinemann, 1933-1967.
Duncan, John 1847 Travels in Western Africa. Reprinted London: Frank Cass, 1968.
Dunglas, E. 1957 ‘Contribution à l'histoire du Moyen-Dahomey,’ tome I, Etudes dahoméennes, XIX.
, d'Elbée 1671 ‘Journal du voyage du Sieur d'Elbée,’ in J. de Clodoré, Relation de ce qui s'est passé dans les isles et terre-ferme de l'Amérique pendant la demière guerre avec l'Angleterre (Paris, 1671), II, pp. 347494.
Fage, J. D. 1978 A history of Africa. London: Hutchinson.
Forbes, F. E. 1851 Dahomey and the Dahomans. 2 vols. Reprinted London: Frank Cass, 1966.
Freeman, T. B. 1844 Journal of various visits to the kingdoms of Ashanti, Aku and Dahomi. Reprinted London: Frank Cass, 1968.
Fyfe, Christopher 1962 A history of Sierra Leone. London: Oxford University Press.
Garlan, Yvon 1975 War in the ancient world. London: Chatto &. Windus.
Goody, Jack 1971 Technology, tradition and the state of Africa. London: Oxford University Press, for International African Institute.
, Herodotus, Histories. Edited by Hude, C.. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908.
Hopkins, A. G. 1973 An economic history of West Africa. London: Longman.
Hutchinson, T. J. 1858 Impressions of Western Africa. Reprinted London: Frank Cass, 1970.
Jones, A. T. 1861 ‘Report on the Egba army,’ in Ajayi, J. F. A. & Smith, R. S., Yoruba warfare in the nineteenth century (2nd edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), pp. 129140.
Labat, J. -B. 1730 Voyage du Chevalier des Marchais. 4 vols. Paris.
Laird, M. & Oldfield, R. A. K. 1837 Narrative of an expedition into the interior of Africa, 2 vols. Reprinted London: Frank Cass, 1971.
Law, R. 1967The Garamantes and trans-Saharan enterprises in Classical times,’ Journal of African History, VIII, 181200.
Lhote, Henri 1953Le cheval et le chameau dans les peintures et gravures rupestres du Sahara,’ Bulletin de l'I.F.A.N., XV, pp. 11381228.
Lhote, Henri 1957Les gravures rupestres d'Aouineght (Sahara occidental): nouvelle contribution à l'étude des chars rupestres du Sahara,’ Bulletin de l'I.F.A.N., XIX, pp. 617658.
Lhote, Henri 1970Découverte de chars de guerre en Air,’ Notes africaines, 127, pp. 8385.
Manning, Patrick 1969a ‘An economic history of Dahomey, 1880-1914,’ Ph.D. thesis, University of Wisconsin.
Manning, Patrick 1969b ‘Slaves, palm oil and political power on the West African coast,’ African Historical Studies, II, 279288.
Mauny, Raymond 1947Une route préhistorique à travers le Sahara occidental,’ Bulletin de l'I.F.A.N., IX, 341357.
Mauny, Raymond 1978 ‘Trans-Saharan contacts and the Iron Age in West Africa,’ in The Cambridge History of Africa, II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 272341.
McPhee, Allan 1926 The economic revolution in British West Africa. Reprinted London: Frank Cass, 1971.
Munson, P., & Munson, C. A. 1969Nouveaux chars à boeuf rupestres du Dhar Tichitt (Mauritanie),’ Notes africaines, 122, 6263.
Nachtigal, Gustav 1979 Sahara and Sudan, translated by Fisher, A. G. B. & Fisher, H. J., vol. II. London: C. Hurst.
Norris, Robert 1789 Memoirs of the reign of Bossa Ahadee, king of Dahomy. Reprinted London: Frank Cass, 1968.
Parliamentary Papers 1849 (399), vol.XXXIV, Missions to the King of Ashanti and Dohomey [sic].
Parliamentary Papers 1852 (1455), vol.LIV, Papers relative to the Reduction of Lagos.
Parliamentary Papers 1865 (412), vol.V, Report from the Select Committee on the State of the British Settlements on the Western Coast of Africa.
Parliamentary Papers 1883 (c.3687), vol.XLVIII, Further correspondence regarding the affairs of the Gold Coast.
Parliamentary Papers 1893-1894 (c.7225), vol.LX, Despatch from Governor Sir W. Brandford Griffith forwarding a Memorial from Merchants, Agents, and Traders of the Gold Coast Colony.
Patterson, K. David 1975 The northern Gabon coast to 1875. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
, Pliny, Naturalis historia. Edited and with an English translation by R. Rackham et al. 10 vols. London: Heinemann, 1938-1963
, Polybius, Histories. Edited and with an English translation by W. R. Paton. 6 vols. London: Heinemann, 1922-1927.
Reindorf, C. C. 1951 The history of the Gold Coast and Asante. Second edition. Reprinted Accra: Ghana Universities Press, 1966.
Reynolds, Edward 1974 Trade and economic change on the Gold Coast 1807-1874. London: Longman.
Rodney, Walter 1972 How Europe underdeveloped Africa. London: Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications.
Rouch, Jean 1949Gravures rupestres de Kourki (Niger),’ Bulletin de l'I.F.A.N., XI, 340347.
Schön, J. F., & Crowther, S. 1842 Journals of the Reverend James Frederick Schön and Mr Samuel Crowther, who … accompanied the expedition up the River Niger in 1841. Reprinted London: Frank Cass, 1970.
Skertchly, J. A. 1875 Dahomey as it is. London.
Smaldone, J. P. 1977 Warfare in the Sokoto Caliphate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Smith, Robert S. 1976 Warfare and diplomacy in pre-colonial West Africa. London: Methuen.
, Strabo, Geography. Edited and with an English translation by H. L. Jones. 8 vols. London: Heinemann, 1917-1932.
Tarr, László 1969 The history of the carriage. London: Vision Press.
, Tilho 1910-1914 Documents scientifiques de la Mission Tilho. 3 vols. Paris.
Verger, Pierre 1976 Trade relations between the Bight of Benin and Bahia from the 17th to the 19th century. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press.
Waddell, Hope Masterton 1863 Twenty-nine years in the West Indies and Central Africa. Reprinted London: Frank Cass, 1970.
White, Lynn 1962 Medieval technology and social change. London: Oxford University Press.
Wilks, Ivor 1975 Asante in the nineteenth century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
  • URL: /core/journals/africa
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed