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The Trade in Gum Arabic: Prelude to French Conquest in Senegal

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2009

James L. A. Webb JR.
Johns Hopkins University


From the late seventeenth century until the 1870s gum arabic from the southwestern corner of the Sahara was the most important trade good exported to Europe from Mauritania and Senegal. This article discusses the dynamics of the gum trading system based in Saint Louis du Senegal, and details the commercial crisis in which the French colony was mired in the late 1830s and 1840s. Pressure from French capital and from Faidherbe's military forces secured the dominance of the import-export houses, as African river traders and desert gum merchants lost the advantages of their market positions. By the 1870s the importance of the gum trade had been eclipsed by the rapid expansion of peanut cultivation.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1983

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1 Bellouard, P., ‘La gomme arabique en A.O.F.’, Bois et forêts destropiques ix (1947), 318Google Scholar; Curtin, Philip D., Economic Change in Precolonial Africa. Senegambia in the Era of the Slave Trade, 1 (Madison, 1975), 215–6;Google ScholarGolberry, S. M. X., Travels in Africa, I (London, 1802), 144Google Scholar; Demanet, L'Abbe, Nouvelle histoire de VAfrique francaise (Paris, 1767). 54.Google Scholar

2 There were wide annual fluctuations in gum exports at all periods. This periodization of growth in Mauritanian gum exports is based primarily upon Curtin, Senegambia, 1, 216–7, but differs with regard to the timing of the first doubling of gum exports. Curtin locates the first doubling in the 1820s, based upon export figures from Saint Louis, compiled in Senegambia, II, 64–5. The period before 1820 is problematical in any case because data are scarce, but the earlier doubling of exports (in the 1780s) is supported directly by document no. 70, Traite de la gomme. Rivière du Sénégal, March 1783. M. Eyries in the Archives nationales françhises. Section outre-mer. Dépôt de fortifications des colonies (henceforth, ANFSOM D.F.C.) Sénégal 82, which includes an estimate of the annual gum trade at twelve hundred tons, and indirectly by two estimates c. 1803 of annual European gum consumption at one thousand tons in ANFSOM D.F.C. Sénègal 83, no. 105, Des peuples qui habitent les côtes du Sénégal et les bords de ce fleuve. Des royaumes sur la côte de Gorée, Cayor, Baol, Sin, et Salum. 1803. [unsigned] and de Halle, P. Herbin, Statistique générate et particulière de la France et de ses colonies vii (Paris, 18031804), 98.Google Scholar

During the French occupation of Saint Louis (1800–1808), exports from the mouth of the Senegal averaged 894 tons per year (excluding trade from the coastal ports) but dropped off considerably during the British occupation from 1809 to 1816. (ANFSOM D.F.C. Sénégal 83. no. 115, Rapport sur les établissements franços d'Afrique, 8 July 1817. M. Schmaltz.) An estimate of 1000 tons annual production is found in the Public Record Office, London, Colonial Office (henceforth, CO) 267/29. Answers to the Questions proposed to Lieutenant Colonel Maxwell, Lieutenant Governor of Senegal and Gorée, by His Majesty's Commissioners for investigating the Forts and Settlements in Africa, 1 January 1811.

3 ANFSOM. Sénégal XIII, dossier 33. M. le Ministre de la marine et des colonies à M. l'Amiral, 3 December 1839. This correspondence summarizes a letter concerning dextrine and gum arabic written by the Comité consultatif des arts et manufactures.

4 See Beshai, Adel Amin, Export Performance and Economic Development in Sudan, 1900–67 (London, 1976), 99102Google Scholar; de Cordemoy, Jacob, Les plantes à gommes et à résines, (Paris, 1911), 87.Google Scholar

5 Archives nationales du Sénégal (henceforth, ANS) 2 B 15, Gouverneur au Ministre, 26 July 1832; also Marty, Paul, ‘Tentatives commerciales anglaises à Portendick et en Mauritanie (18101826)’, Revue de I'histoire des colonies françaises, 2éme trimestre, x (1922), 278.Google Scholar I have been unable to trace the path of this sale of gum with exactness.

Figures for gum imports into the United Kingdom in the eighteenth century were graciously supplied by Mrs Marion Johnson of the Centre for West African Studies, University of Birmingham. They suggest that this diffuse demand was also characteristic of the eighteenth century.

6 Bouët-Willaumez, E., Commerce et traite des noirs (Paris, 1846), 42.Google Scholar

7 For some suggestions about the analysis of the behaviour of commodity and other moneys in West Africa, see Webb, James L. A. Jr., ‘Toward the comparative study of money: a reconsideration of West African currencies and neoclassical monetary concepts’, International Journal of African Historical Studies xv (1982), 455–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

For a sketch of gum arabic's ‘peculiar history’ in the mercantile system of Great Britain, see Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (New York, Modern Library Edition, 1965), 622.Google Scholar

8 Delcourt, André, La France et les établissements français au Sénégal entre 1713 et 1736 (Dakar, 1952).Google Scholar

9 Golberry, , Travels in Africa, 11, 25Google Scholar; Brasseur, J. A. Le, ‘Détails historiques et politiques, mémoire inédit (1778) de J. A. Le Brasseur’, presented and brought to publication by Charles Becker and Victor Martin, in Bulletin de I'Institut fondamental de I'Afrique noire, sér. B xxxix (1977), 89.Google Scholar

10 Hardy, Georges, La mise en valeur du Sénégal de 1817 à 1854 (Paris, 1921)Google Scholar; Barry, Boubacar, Le royaume du Waalo (Paris, 1972), especially 237–58.Google Scholar

11 Webb, James L. A. Jr, ‘Shifting sands: an economic history of the Mauritanian Sahara, 1500–1850’ (Ph.D. thesis, Johns Hopkins University, 1983), chapter 1.Google Scholar

12 Louvet, Alberic, ‘Sur le mode de production de la gomme arabique dans les forêts des gommiers’, Journal de pharmacie et de chimie xxiv (1876), 447–76Google Scholar; Raffenel, Anne, ‘De la colonie du Sénégal. Etudes historiques et commerciales’, Revue coloniale, 2ème sér. iv (1850), 229Google Scholar; Capt. Vincent, M., ‘Voyage d'exploration dans l'Adrar’, Revue algérienne et coloniale, 10 1860, 447.Google Scholar

13 Gaden, Henri, ‘La gomme en Mauritanie’, Annales de I'académie des sciences coloniales iv (1929), 219–27.Google Scholar

For further technical details about gum exudation and harvesting see Webb, ‘Shifting Sands’, 232–6.

14 Aug. Chevalier, , ‘Sur la production de la gomme arabique en Afrique occidentale française’, Revue de botanique appliquée et d'agriculture coloniale xxxii (30 04 1932), 261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15 On Bidan society in the Mauritanian Sahara, see Webb, ‘ Shifting sands’, chapter 1; de Chassey, Francis, L'étrier, la houe, et le livre (Paris, 1977).Google Scholar

On slavery, see also Webb, Alison Jones, ‘Nineteenth century slavery in the Mauritanian Sahara’ (M.A. thesis, Johns Hopkins University, 1984)Google Scholar. Our work on Mauritanian slavery suggests that it does not fit the broad patterns of African slave systems described by Paul Lovejoy in his Transformations in Slavery (Cambridge, 1983). Slaves were rarely incorporated into Bidan society. The harsh realities of desert slavery meant that newly introduced slaves had short life-expectancies: in sum, that Bidan society was a slave-consuming one.

On other desert economic activities, see Webb, ‘Shifting sands’, chapters 4 (‘Economic zones and production constraints’) and 5 (‘Caravan trade from the plateau regions, c. 1600–1900’).

16 Carrére, Frederic and Holle, Paul, De la Sénégambie française (Paris, 1855), 329Google Scholar; interview with Shaikh Brahim wuld Biddah, 26 February 1981, at Kaedi, Mauritania; Caillé, René, Voyage à Tombouctou, I (Paris, 1979), 132.Google Scholar

17 Donnet, Gaston, Une mission au Sahara occidental. Du Sénégal au Tiris (Paris, 1896), 46.Google Scholar

18 Dubie, Paul, ‘La vie matérielle des maures’, in Mélanges ethnographiques (Dakar, 1953). 222.Google Scholar

19 Interviews with Mokhtar wuld Hamidoun, 17 December 1980, at Nouakchott, Mauritania, and with Shaikh Brahim wuld Biddah, 26 February 1981, at Kaedi, Mauritania.

There was also an internal demand for gum within the desert and savanna. Gum was used to glaze the interior of mud-walled construction, to thicken milk, to treat diarrhoea, and to substitute for nutritive foodstuffs during food shortages. See also Hamidoun, Mokhtar wuld, Précis sur la Mauritanie (Saint Louis du Sénégal, 1952), 15.Google Scholar

20 Bouët-Willaumez, , Commerce et traite, 1213.Google Scholar

21 The new commercial opportunities of the 1830s attracted Frenchmen with capital: the number of French traders increased from four or five in 1818 to thirty by 1837. The number of Afro-European métis or habitants who took part directly in the gum trade also increased sharply in the same period from forty to one hundred and fifty. And in a burst of commercial activity between 1833 and 1839 the number of river boats working the gum trade doubled to one hundred and sixty. The lure of commercial opportunities extended far beyond those who had any capital to invest. The glimmer of a more easily-won subsistence drew farmers away from their fields and artisans away from their crafts. See Bouët-Willaumez, , Commerce et traite, 1213Google Scholar; ANFSOM. Sénégal XIII, dossier 25. ‘Etat des bâtiments en traite de gomme aux trois escales de 1829 à 1839 inclusivement’; ANS 2 B 17, Gouverneur au Ministre, 12 August 1839; Dezert, ‘Du commerce de la gomme au Sénégal, en 1841’, Annales maritimes et coloniales, 2è4me sér. LXV, i (partie non-officielle), 944.

22 Other sailors were the slaves of the traitants or, between 1823 and 1848, individuals bought under a system of forced labour called engagement à temps. During the off season some of the free sailors moved in and out of a larger pool of Africans who conducted a petty trade in the river side-channels in skiffs and canoes when not occupied by farming or fishing.

For a general social history of Saint Louis, see Marcson, Michael David, ‘European-African interaction in the precolonial period: Saint Louis, Senegal, 1758–1854’ (Ph.D. thesis, Princeton University, 1976)Google Scholar; see also Curtin, , Senegambia, 1, 112–21, 195–6Google Scholar. For a discussion of the problems which resulted from the abolition of slavery in Senegal, see Renault, François, L'abolition de l'esclavage au Sénégal (Paris, 1972).Google Scholar

23 For example, if the import-export houses received the cloth f.o.b. at twenty francs per piece and if the current price of gum at Saint Louis was two francs per kilogram, the merchants could sell their pièce de guinée to the river traders at the price of fifteen kilograms of gum, thus assuring themselves a gross profit margin of 50 per cent to cover costs and to afford themselves a reasonable net profit.

Traders' profits came from the differential between the Saint Louis price of guinée and the higher prices up river. Traders often spent months at the river markets waiting for caravans to arrive, and they ran up expenses feeding their crews, paying their crews' salaries, paying taxes, maintaining their boats, and entertaining the desert caravaners whose gum they wanted to buy. These costs ran about one-fourth to one-third of the Saint Louis price of guinée, and thus, if a pièce de guinée cost them fifteen kilograms of gum in Saint Louis, the river traders needed to sell the cloth at the river markets for twenty to twenty-two and a half kilograms in order to cover the costs of doing business. See Raffenel, Anne, Nouveau voyage dans les pays des nègres, ii (Paris, 1856), 173.Google Scholar

24 For more information about the interrelations between the gum trade and the regional trade in grain and artisanal goods, see Webb, , ‘Shifting sands’, 223–6.Google Scholar

25 For a history of this transnational grouping, see Webb, ‘Shifting sands’, chapter 2.

26 Gum was traded upriver as well as on the lower Senegal. But the quantities traded along the upper river were small and irregular, and the gum there was friable and thus less valuable. The Idaw Aish were the warrior group with the most influence on the upper Senegal.

27 ANS Q 22. ‘Rapport à M. le Gouverneur du Sénégal et dépendances. Sur la traite de la gomme à l'escale du Coq en 1851’; ANS Q 2. ‘Copie des titres constitutifs des avances de coutumes anterieurs a la promulgation de l'ordonnance royale du 15 Novembre 1842’, folios 1–6.

28 ANS Q 2. ‘Traité conclu entre Chems [Shems], chef des Darmancours et…le Gouverneur du Sénégal’, 1 March 1847.

29 ANS Q 2. Copie des titres constitutifs…

30 The interpretation of gum prices at the river markets presents problems for several reasons. The price of gum at a given market fluctuated considerably in the course of a gum season – at times up to 100 per cent – and no series of figures were kept indicating the quantity of gum sold at a given price. In addition, the very nature of the gum trade, with its hidden expenses and gifts, makes the estimation of prices a tricky business. For these reasons the figures assembled by M. Marcson in his doctoral dissertation ('A social history…’, Table 1. Gum-guinée exchange rates and volume in metric tons, 159–60) cannot be accepted as anything other than suggestive of prices at the river markets and may contain substantial errors. For example, Marcson assumes erroneously that the traitants' transportation and maintenance costs were negligible.

31 ANS 2 B 15. Gouverneur au Ministre, 3 September 1832. The Governor reported in 1832 that a compromise was passed each year but that the traitants violated the agreement at the escales. A compromise was in effect for a good part of the gum season, although not necessarily at all three escales, in 1833, 1837, 1838, 1839, and 1841.

32 ANS Q 18. Traitants au Gouverneur, i Mai 1837, Escale du désert; ANS Q 18. ‘Rapport à M. le Gouverneur du Sénégal, par l'officier commandant de l'escale des Darmankours, sur le service des escales’, 19 Août 1841; ANS 2 B 22. Gouverneur au Ministre, 12 Août 1843.

33 ANS 2 B 4. ‘Note en réponse à deux dépeches ministerielles des 19 et 29 Septembre 1819 sur un article du journal Le Pilote concernant l'ouverture de communication par terre avec I'intérieur de l'Afrique…’, 5 January 1820; ANFSOM D.F.C. Sénégal 147. Rapport de M. Mackau sur les établissements du Sénégal, 16 March 1820; National Archives of the Gambia 1:4, Governor Randall to the Governor of Senegal and dependencies, 12 August 1834; Anonymous, ‘The Gum-trade renewed at Portendick, with the Moors of the Desert Sahaara’, The Royal Gazette; and Sierra Leone Advertiser III, CLV (19 May 1821) and III, CLVI (26 May 1821).

34 Gray, John M., A History of the Gambia (Cambridge, 1940), 406–10.Google Scholar

35 ANS 2 B 6. Gouverneur au Ministre, 8 August 1821.

36 Marty, ‘Tentatives commerciales’, 293. It is likely that the desert merchants were more concerned with the quality of the cloth and its dyeing than with its newness or lack of wear.

37 For early views of this crisis, see ANS Q 18. Traitants au Gouverneur, 1 May 1837; ANS 2 B 17. Gouverneur au Ministre, 20 March 1837.

38 ANS Q 18. ‘Du commerce de la gomme et de la traite…’ This September 1838 shipment was priced at six francs per cloth in France; this was a lower price than other shipments of this period. For comparison, see Table 4.

39 ANS 2 B 17. Gouverneur au Ministre, 26 August 1839.

40 Dezert, , ‘Du commerce de la gomme…’, 942; Anne Raffenel, Nouveau voyage, 11, 93.Google Scholar

41 ANS 2 B 18. Gouverneur au Ministre, 9 August 1840.

42 ANS Q 18. ‘Statuts d'une société projetée sous le titre de Sociétè commerciale de la traite de la gomme, 1840’; ANS 2 B 18. Gouverneur au Ministre, 11 September 1841; ANS 2 B 20. Gouverneur au Ministre, 15 June 1842.

The idea of the privileged gum association had been proposed earlier, in 1834. It was basically an effort to limit competition at the river markets while maintaining a price floor for guinée, thereby protecting the traders from the market power of the zawaya and ensuring the négociants' profits. Warfare between the French and the Trarza in 1834 prevented the idea from being implemented, but the following year a Société pour la traite de la gomme was established. The society was to trade collectively, using only twenty boats (ten to stay anchored at the river markets and ten to haul the gum to Saint Louis), and it was to be liquidated one month after the end of the gum season. Records are inadequate to trace whatever success (if any) this association enjoyed in 1835. It was not proposed again in 1836.

In 1841, the gum merchants were reluctant to sell their gum because of rumours that the price compromise would be repealed. When it became apparent that this would not happen, gum flowed to the river markets, but it was too late in the season to trade it all. ANS Q 18. ‘Rapport à M. le Gouverneur du Sénégal, par l'officier Commandant l'escale des Darmankours, sur le service des escales’, 19 August 1841.

43 Négotiants, patented merchants, and river traders bought shares at five thousand francs each (a number of individuals could purchase collectively a single share) and subscribed shares on behalf of debtor traders. Creditors were to have access to seventy-five per cent of any profits realized by the traitant debtors, and those who subscribed shares for debtors were to have the right of first claim upon up to fifty per cent of any profits realized. ANS Q 19. ‘Ministère de la marine et des colonies. Projet d'arrêt. Pour instituer à Saint Louis une société pour la traite de la gomme’.

44 ANS 2 B 26. Gouverneur au Ministre, 4 February 1847; ANFSOM. Sénégal XIII, dossier 26. V. Dep. au Gouverneur du Sénégal, no. 442, 22 November 1847.

45 ANFSOM. Sénégal XIII, dossier 28. ‘Marine et colonies. Commission syndicale. Traite des gommes au Sénégal pendant l'année 1848’; ‘Marine et colonies. Sénégal et dépendences. Résultat de la traite des gommes pour l'année 1847’.

46 ANS Q 1. Arrêt du 9 Mai 1849. Fait au palais de l'Elysée national.

47 ANS Q 22.‘Considérations générates sur le commerce du Sénégal’, 30 November 1850. Valantin, M.; ‘Rapport à M. le Gouverneur du Sénégal et dépendances sur la traite de la gomme à I'escale du Coq en 1851’. [unsigned]; Traitants au Gouverneur, no. 94, 24 January 1853.Google Scholar

48 ANS Q 1. Arrêt du 22 Janvier 1853. The effect of the order was to unleash the commercial houses for direct competition with the traitants.

49 Interview with Mokhtar wuld Hamidoun, 6 May 1982, at Nouakchott, Mauritania. ANS Q 22. Procès-verbal. Séance du 4 Juillet 1858; Anonymous, ‘Sénégal. Affaires politiques, militaires, et commerciales’, Revue coloniale, 2ème sér. xv (1856), 414, 424.

50 This tax was proposed in 1854. ANS Q 1. Arrêt du 27 Mai 1854. For more on the relations between the merchants and the colonial administration, see Barrows, Leland C., ‘The merchants and General Faidherbe: aspects of French expansion in Senegal in the 1850s’, Revue française d'histoire d'outre-mer LXI (1974), 247–9.Google Scholar

51 Désiré-Vuillemin, G., ’Un commerce qui meurt: la traite de la gomme dans les escales du Sénégal’, Cahiers d'outre-mèr xvii (1952), 90–4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

52 Brooks, George, ‘Peanuts and colonialism: consequences of the commercialization of peanuts in West Africa, 1830–1870’, Journal of African History xvi (1975), 2954.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

53 France. Ministère des colonies. Statistiques coloniales (1832–).

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