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Myth and Metrology: The Early Trans-Saharan Gold Trade

  • Timothy F. Garrard (a1)


Coins and weights provide evidence which can throw light on the origins of the trans-Saharan gold trade. Such a trade does not seem to have existed before the end of the third century a.d., but from 296 to 311 an irregular gold coinage was issued at Carthage, and by the end of the fourth century there were significant changes in the North African tax system to enable more gold to be collected. The solidus, a coin first issued in 312, provided the standard used for weighing gold-dust in the trans-Saharan trade, while copper, a major item of merchandise in that trade, was being imported to Jenne-Jeno by a.d. 400. This strongly suggests that the gold trade first assumed significance in the fourth century. The trade was evidently flourishing before the Arab conquest, for the Byzantine mint of Carthage produced a copious output of gold between 534 and 695. For weighing gold-dust, the standard based on the Roman ounce and the solidus was retained by the Arabs, and survived until the nineteenth century in the Western Sudan. It was also adopted by the Akan of Ghana and Ivory Coast, who made it the basis of their weight-system from about 1400 to 1900.



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1 D., and Robert, S. and Devisse, J., Tegdaoust I: Recherches sur Aoudaghost (Paris, 1970), 139.

2 G., and Charles-Picard, C., Daily Life in Carthage (London, 1961), 217.

3 See for instance Law, R. C. C., ‘The Garamantes and trans-Saharan enterprise in classical times’, J. Afr. Hist. VIII (1967), 188.

4 Müller, C., Geographi Graeci Minores, I (Paris, 18551861), 93–4.

5 Law, , ‘The Garamantes’, 188.

6 Germain, G., ‘Qu'est-ce le périple d'Hannon?’, Hesperis, XLIV (1957), 247–8.

7 Mauny, R., ‘La navigation sur les côtes du Sahara pendant l'antiquité’, Revue des études anciennes, LVII (1965), 99101.

8 Herodotus, iv. 195.

9 Accounts of a silent gold trade have now been largely discredited: de Moraes Farias, P. F., ‘Silent trade: myth and historical evidence’, History in Africa I (1974), 924.

10 Herodotus, iv. 196.

11 For instance by Law, , ‘The Garamantes’, 188 (stating that the Carthaginians ‘certainly’ imported West African gold by sea); by Swanson, J. T., ‘The myth of trans-Saharan trade during the Roman eraInt. J. Afr. Hist. Stud., VIII (1975), 595 (‘silent barter between Carthaginians and a people located somewhere on the West African coast’); and by Thurstan Shaw, in Ajayi, J. F. A. and Crowder, M., eds, History of West Africa, I (2nd ed., London, 1976), 62 (‘Herodotus's account of the Carthaginians’ “silent trade” for West African gold is almost certainly based on fact’).

12 Herodotus., 32.

13 Jenkins, G. K. and Lewis, R. B., Carthaginian Gold and Electrum Coins (Royal Numismatic Society, London 1963), 5.

14 Ibid. 20–4, 41.

15 Ibid. 37–41.

16 Ibid. 26 and footnote.

17 Seltman, C., Greek Coins (London, 1933), 241; Carson, R. A. G., Coins Ancient, Medieval and Modern (London, 1962), 88.

18 Rostovtzeff, M. I., The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World, I (Oxford, 1941), 381–2, 402.

19 Robinson, E. S. G., Catalogue of the Greek Coins of Cyrenaica (London, 1927).

20 Other gold coins formerly attributed to the region are now known to be Spanish and Sicilian: Mazard, J., Corpus Nummorum Numidiae Mauretaniaeque (Paris, 1955), 46; Carson, R. A. G. and Sutherland, C. H. V. (eds.), Essays in Roman Coinage presented to Harold Mattingly (Oxford, 1956), 35; Jenkins, and Lewis, , Carthaginian Gold and Electrum Coins, 49.

21 Mattingly, H., Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum, I (London, 1923), xxiii.

22 Mazard, J., ‘Le monnayage d'or des rois de Numidie et de Maurétanie’, Revue Numismatique, XIV (1952), 2, 18.

23 Swanson, , ‘The myth of trans-Saharan trade’, 594.

24 Haywood, R. M., ‘Roman Africa’, in Frank, Tenney (ed.), An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome, IV (Baltimore, 1938), 23; Pliny, xxxiii. 15.

25 Haywood, , ‘Roman Africa’, 80–1.

26 Strabo, xvii. 3. 7.

27 Lucan, , Pharsalia, IX 425–5.

28 Pliny, v. 34, xxxiii. 21; Strabo, iii. 2. 8–10.

29 Thompson, L. and Ferguson, J. (eds.), Africa in Classical Antiquity (Ibadan, 1969), 16 (citing no authority).

30 Davidson, B., Africa: History of a Continent (New York, 1966), 66.

31 Hallett, R., Africa to 1875: A Modern History (Ann Arbor, 1970), 124.

32 Haywood, , ‘Roman Africa’, 62.

33 Swanson, , ‘The myth of trans-Saharan trade’, 594.

34 Bovill, E. W., The Golden Trade of the Moors (2nd ed., London, 1968), 40–1; Levtzion, N., Ancient Ghana and Mali (London, 1973), 9.

35 Ammianus Marcellinus, xxviii. 6. 5, xxix. 5. 55; MacKendrick, P., The North African Stones Speak (University of North Carolina, 1980), 175.

36 Sutherland, C. H. V. and Carson, R. A. G., The Roman Imperial Coinage, VI (London, 1967). 645–81, 411–33.

37 Theodosian Code, 12. 7. 1 (Emperor Constantine to Euphrasius, 19 July 325: De ponderatoribus et auri illatione), in Pharr, C. (trans.), The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions (Princeton, N.J., 1952). The Code was published on 15 February 438.

38 Ibid. 10. 19. 4 (Valentinian and Valens to Germanianus, 8 Jan. 367).

39 Law, , ‘The Garamantes’, 197–8. For details see Gautier, E. F. and Reygasse, M., ‘Le monument de Tin-Hinan’, Annates de l'Académie des Sciences Coloniales, vii (1934), and Reygasse, M., Monuments funéraires préislamiques de l'Afrique du Nord (Paris, 1950), 97–8.

40 Theodosian Code, 13. 1.8. Between 334 and 374 various exemptions were granted to architects, gravediggers, shipmasters, peasants on the imperial estates and free-born professors of painting: Ibid. 13. 1. 1, 13. 1. 8, 13. 4. 1 (posted at Carthage), 13. 4. 4, 13. 5. 10.

41 Ibid. 13. 1. 17–18, 12. 6. 39, 13. 1. 19.

42 Ibid. 11. 1. 32, 11. 7. 20–1, 11. 1. 34.

43 Novels of Valentinian Augustus 13, in Pharr, , The Theodosian Code, 527.

44 Jones, A. H. M., ‘Inflation under the Roman Empire’, Econ. Hist. Rev., 2nd series, v, 3 (1953). 314.

45 The Portuguese were obtaining ten times as much (about 14,000 ounces a year) on the Gold Coast in the early sixteenth century.

46 Wroth, W., Catalogue of the Coins of the Vandals, Ostrogoths and Lombards (London, 1911), xv–xvi, xxi; Tomasini, W. J., The Barbaric Tremissis in Spain and Southern France: Anastasius to Leovigild (American Numismatic Society, New York, 1964), 2544.

47 Courtois, C. and others, Tablettes Albertini (Paris, 1952), 302.

48 MacKendrick, , The North African Stones Speak, 258.

49 Sear, D. R., Byzantine Coins and Their Values (London, 1974), 70, 90, 103, 117, 136, 140, 164–5, 188–90, 202.

50 Whitting, P. D., Byzantine Coins (London, 1973), 69; Wroth, W., Imperial Byzantine Coins in the British Museum, I (London, 1908), ci.

51 Grierson, P., ‘Dated solidi of Maurice, Phocas, and Heraclius’, The Numismatic Chronicle, 6th series, x (1950), 60–1, 69.

52 Grierson, P., ‘A barbarous North African solidus of the late seventh century’, The Numismatic Chronicle, 6th series, x (1950), 301; Carson, , Coins Ancient, Medieval and Modern, 205.

53 Grierson, , ‘Dated solidi’,60; Whitting, P. D., ‘A seventh-century hoard at Carthage’, The Numismatic Chronicle, 7th series, vi (1966), 226.

54 Rynearson, P. F., Byzantine Coin Values, a Guide (San Diego, California, 1967), 39, 4551.

55 Grierson, , ‘Dated solidi’, 301–5, has suggested that certain copies of solidi of Constantine IV were struck by the Arabs at Kairouan as early as 669–70. His arguments are not very convincing.

56 Ibid. 49–51; Whitting, , Byzantine Coins, 226.

57 Grierson, , ‘Dated solidi’, 54–5.

58 Sear, , Byzantine Coins, 119–20.

59 al-Hakam, Ibn ʿAbd, Conquête de l'Afrique du Nord et de l'Espagne, trans. Gateau, A. (2nd ed., Algiers, 1948), 35.

60 Levi-Provençal, E., ‘Un nouveau récit de la Conquêe de l'Afrique du Nord par les Arabes’, Arabica, i (1954), 36–7 (an account by al-Halim).

61 Al-Hakam, , Conquête de l'Afrique du Nord, 45, 47.

62 Ibid. 59, 63–5. See also 154 n. 43 for the correct date of this campaign.

63 Al-Halim in Levi-Provençal, , ‘Un nouveau récit’, 40.

64 Whitting, , ‘A seventh-century hoard’, 225–6.

65 Al-Hakam, , Conquête de l'Afrique du Nord, 121–3.

66 Beaumier, A. (trans.), ‘Roudh el-Kartas’, Histoire des Souverains du Maghreb (Espagne et Maroc) et annates de la Ville de Fes (Paris, 1860), 55.

67 Both gold dinars and silver dirhems were struck to pay the tribute: de Candia, J. Farrugia, ‘Monnaies aghlabides du Museé du Bardo’, Les Cahiers de Tunisie, iv (1956), 95–6, 99. See also Talbi, M., L'émirat aghlabide (Paris, 1966), 109 n. i and sources therein cited.

68 Baladhuri, Futuh el-Buldan, and Maqrizi, Sudur el-‘uqud fi dikr en nuqud, trans, in Eustache, D., ‘Etudes de numismatique et de métrologie musulmanes’, Hespéris-Tamuda, ix, i (1968), 76, 78 and x, 1–2 (1969), 98.

69 Walker, J., A Catalogue of the Arab-Byzantine and Post-Reform Umaiyad Coins (British Museum, London, 1956), xli.

70 Mitchiner, M., Oriental Coins and their Values: the World of Islam (London, 1977), 55.

71 Walker, , Catalogue of the Arab-Byzantine and Post-Reform Umaiyad Coins, lviii–lix.

72 Vire, F., ‘Dénéraux, estampilles et poids musulmans en verre de Tunisie’, Les Cahiers de Tunisie, iv (1956), 35 (no. 19) and 37 (no. 22).

73 Some Abbasid dinars from Egypt also bear the name ‘El Maghrib’: Lane-Poole, S., Catalogue of the Collection of Arabic Coins Preserved in the Khedivial Library at Cairo (London, 1897), 6970.

74 Devisse, in Robert, and Devisse, , Tegdaoust, 134–6, 139.

75 Ibid. 140 n. i. A notable omission is Walker's standard catalogue of Umayyad coins: see note 69 supra.

76 Levtzion, , Ancient Ghana, 127; Messier, R. A., ‘Muslim exploitation of West African gold during the period of the Fatimid Caliphate’ (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1972), 32.

77 Jenkins, and Lewis, , Carthaginian Gold and Electrum Coins, 13.

78 The weight of the libra is often stated to be 327 45 grams, but this conveys a false sense of precision, and is now recognised as slightly too high: see Grierson, P., ‘The monetary reforms of ʿAbd al-Malik’, J. Econ. & Soc. Hist. of the Orient, iii (1960), 252.

79 Ferron, J. and Pinard, M., ‘Les fouilles de Byrsa’, Cahiers de Byrsa, ix (19601961), 163 (no. 518).

80 Sutherland, and Carson, , Roman Imperial Coinage, 40, 100.

81 Encyclopaedia of Islam, i (Leyden, 1936), 975, citing Koran iii. 68; Baladhuri in Eustache, , ‘Etudes de numismatique’, Pt i, 76–8; Maqrizi, Ibid. Pt 2, 98.

82 Walker, , Catalogue of the Arab–Byzantine, Post-Reform Umaiyad Coins, 1718, 42–3 (giving specimens of 4.50, 4.48, 4.46, 4.46 and 4.41 grams).

83 Hazard, H. W., The Numismatic History of Late Medieval North Africa (New York, 1952), 61, 325.

84 Ibid. 325.

85 Balog, P., The Coinage of the Mamluk Sultans of Egypt and Syria (New York, 1964) 3947. See also Poole, S. Lane, The Coinage of Egypt (British Museum, 1879), and The Coins of the Turks in the British Museum (London, 1883).

86 Encyclopaedia of Islam, iii, 528.

87 See for instance Johnson, M., ‘The nineteenth-century gold mithqal in West and North Africa’, J. Afr. Hist. ix (1968), 547–69, where the confusion is extreme.

88 For instance Khaldun, Ibn, The Muqaddimah (trans. Rosenthal, F., New York, 1958), 5960.

89 The Arabs were slow to interfere with the weight systems of the lands they occupied: Grierson, , ‘The monetary reforms of 'Abd al-Malik’, 241. In some cases they validated Byzantine weights of Roman standard for continued use: Miles, G. C., A Byzantine weight validated by al-Walid (A.N.S., New York, 1939) and ‘A Byzantine bronze weight in the name of Bisr b. Marwan’, Arabica ix (1962), 113–8.

90 They were, however, not completely unknown. Specimens from Kumbi, Jenne, Air and Gao have been noted: Garrard, T. F., Akan Weights and the Gold Trade (London, 1980), 216.

91 The Voyages of Alvise da Cadamosto, ed. and trans. Crone, G. R. (London, 1937), 26.

92 Martin, A. G. P., Quatre siècles d'histoire marocaine (Paris, 1923), 13.

93 Ibid. 15.

94 Monteil, C., Monographie de Djénné (Tulle, 1903), 251–3.

95 Binger, L. G., Du Niger au Golfe de Guinée (Paris, 1892), 166.

96 Garrard, T. F., ‘Notes on Begho’ (Dept. of Archaeology, Univ. of Ghana, 1976), 8, 17, 20–1 (interviews at Namasa, Debibi and Bonduku, 1975).

97 Garrard, Akan Weights, chapter 7.

98 Garrard, T. F., ‘Pottery and stone goldweights from Ghana’, Sankofa, i (Legon Archaeological Society, University of Ghana, 1975), 5361.

99 Mauny, R., Tableau geographique de l'ouest africain au moyen âge, (IFAN, Dakar, 1961), 416; Garrard, , Akan weights, 219. See also Martin, , Quatre Siecles, 15.

100 Africanus, Leo, in Ramusio, G. B., Delle Navigatione e Viaggi, i (Venice, 1588) 78 D.

101 Hacquard, A. and Dupuis, A., Manuel de la langue Songay parlée de Tombouctou à Say dans la boucle du Niger (Paris, 1897), 45; Hacquard, A., Monographie de Tombouctou (Paris, 1900), 57–8.

102 Monteil, , Monographie de Djenne, 251–3; Mauny, , Tableau géographique, 418.

103 Garrard, , ‘Pottery and stone goldweights’ 5361.

104 S. K., and McIntosh, R. J., Prehistoric Investigations at Jenne, Mali (Cambridge, 1980), 161–2.

105 Miles, , A Byzantine weight, 6, citing Sir Flinders Petrie; Garrard, , Akan Weights, 237.

106 The Roman standard also survived in many towns of southern Europe until the nineteenth century.

107 Garrard, , Akan Weights, 236.

108 Balog, P., ‘Islamic bronze weights from Egypt’, J. Econ. & Soc. Hist. of the Orient, xiii (1970), plates i–ii; Photothèque IFAN, Dakar, No. B. 55. 541 (Jenne weights); Garrard, , Akan Weights, 278–83 and plates.

109 Hacquard, and Dupuis, , Manuel de la langue Songay, 45; Binger, , Du Niger au Golfe de Guinée, ii, 166; Garrard, , Akan Weights, 240.

110 N. Levtzion, in Ajayi and Crowder, History of West Africa, i, 115.

111 McIntosh, and McIntosh, , Prehistoric Investigations, ii, 444.

112 In the 1780s an African trader from the Gambia located Bitu on a branch of the Niger, upstream from Jenne and close to Bambara: Report of the Lords of the Committee of Council… Concerning the Present State of the Trade to Africa, and Particularly the Trade in Slaves (London, 1789), part vi (information from Captain Blankett). Bitu is not to be confused with Begho, an entirely different town which lay north of the Akan forest.

113 The important Akan goldfields further to the south do not appear to have been exploited until about the fourteenth century.

114 Barker, H., ‘Examination of the Ife bronze heads’, Man, lxv, (1965), 23–4.

115 McIntosh, and McIntosh, , Prehistoric Investigations, ii, 445.

116 Messier, R. A., ‘The Almoravids: West African gold and the gold currency of the Mediterranean basin’, J. Econ. & Soc. Hist. of the Orient, xvii, i (1974), 3147.

117 Miles, G. C., ‘The year 400 a.h.1009–1010 a.d. at the mint of Cordoba’, Numisma, xvii (1967), 925; a.s. Ehrenkreutz, , ‘Numismato-statistical reflections on the annual gold coinage production of the Tulunid mint in Egypt’, J. Econ. & Soc. Hist. of the Orient, xx (1977), 267–77.

118 For discussion of some of the issues and problems involved, see the inquiry by a seminar, ‘Early Islamic mint output’, J. Econ. & Soc. Hist. of the Orient, ix (1966), 212–41, and Grierson, P., ‘The volume of Anglo-Saxon Coinage’, Econ. Hist. Rev. xx (1967), 153–60.

Myth and Metrology: The Early Trans-Saharan Gold Trade

  • Timothy F. Garrard (a1)


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