Monday, January 27, 2014

Salt Through the Desert: Tuareg Salt Caravan

Timbuktu (1858)
Salt is an important seasoning in our daily food. It gives saltiness to match our own taste. From the Americas to Asia, every culture use salt in their cuisine. For many, it becomes a life saver as it can preserve food, from meat to vegetable. Mostly came from sea, salt is taken for granted today. But back then it was a source of livelihood and wealth to a group of people from northern Africa, the Tuaregs. They became merchants giving taste to the food in the past.

Salt before was a precious commodity, especially in Africa. It was considered white gold.  For the people living in desert, it was a preserver of meat and other products. Besides giving taste to their food, it was a good that would give them livelihood, especially the Tuaregs.

The Tuaregs are northern African desert people. They occupy the vast Saharan desert. They were used to nomadic life, moving from one location to another. Because of the desert sands, they were not interested in agriculture. Because of their nomadic life they learned to survive in the desert by fighting, trading, and moving fast. They’re most favorite transportation was not the horse, but the camel.

Because of their mobility and skills, the Tuaregs were able to become the middle man for the salt trade in the massive trans-Saharan trade.

As stated, the salt trade was one part among the large trans-Saharan trade centering on salt and gold. The trade began even during the time of the Ancient Greeks and the Carthaginians. But what brought it into organized routes and upsurge of trade was during the 8th to 9th century when Islam arrived in Northern Africa and Muslim traders began to dominate the Saharan trade. Major centers rose because of the trade. Cities like Timbuktu, Gao, and Agadez flourished. Besides cities, mine centers also flourished. For gold, the mines of Boure and Banduk flourished. Then for salt, the mines of Taghaza dominated the industry in the 15th century but then in 16th century the mine of Taodeni took the place.

There were several trade routes used during the height of the trade. One particular trade route used for the salt trade was from the salt mine of Taghaza or Taodeni to Timbuktu. Tuaregs would only transverse the route twice a year. In order to gain much in one trip, they formed huge caravans called Azalay composed of 2,000 to 4,000 or even more camels. Tuaregs would go to the salt mines. In the mines, they took slabs of salt and cover it with mud that would serve as protection from the elements and to keep it intact. After loading the cargo into their camels, the journey would begin. The caravans would cross the desert and pass different oases up until Timbuktu. During each stop in the oases, the Tuaregs would trade their salt slabs for local perishable goods such as water, dairy, and meat. After passing numbers of oases, as the caravan arrived in Timbuktu, the Tuaregs traded their last slabs for other goods. In Timbuktu, they trade salt for gold and bought goods including glass bracelets, textile, dried herbs, and many more. As the transactions ended, the caravan then took the same route back to the salt mines. Even during the return trip, they would trade with the oases with goods that they bought from Timbuktu. As they returned to the salt mines, they trades gold and what is left of goods from Timbuktu for slabs of salt. After that, the journey began once again. Some Tuaregs took the long journey and brought goods and gold towards the coastline of northern Africa such as Morocco. After having traded goods from Timbuktu, they returned to the mines and went again to another journey.

Many became rich from the salt, as well as gold trade in Sahara. First of all, the centers of trade became wealthy, such as Timbuktu. They build great mosque and monuments to display wealth. Following the monuments, culture and intellect developed. Intellectuals flocked the centers of trade. One such display of moving of intellectuals was the visit of the famous Muslim traveler, Ibn Battuta, to Timbuktu in 1352 where noted the splendors of the city generated from salt.  Another effect, empires grew to wealth because of taxes generated by the trade. For example. The salt trade in Timbuktu and Gao was dominated by the Mali Empire. From the 14th to the 15th century, the empire covered the city of Timbuktu and Gao thus controlling the trade. Later on, as the empire fell into decay, the Tuaregs, under Akil al Malwal, moved in to take the city in 1443. However, the lack of efficient rule caused the Tuareg hold of Timbuktu to diminish. In 1468, the new powerful Songhai Empire took control of the two major cities, henceforth, the salt trade as well.

The salt trade, however, began to decline as slave became more coveted goods. Another factor was the increase of trade by sea that made transport of salt by desert less. As European colonies in Africa surged, borders were drawn and moving from the once free area became divided by different borders of different European powers, the salt trade further weakens. Today, the salt trade still existed. However, modern trucks and roads brought the tradition of salt trade caravans into the brink of extinction. The Tuaregs also continued to struggle to live every day and to survive, just like their salt trade, struggling to survive as well.

See also:
Beelitz, P. “Nomads of Desert.” Faces, no. 27 (2010): 36 – 37. Ilahiane, H. Historical Dictionary of the Berbers (Imazighen). Maryland: Scarecrow Press Inc., 2006. 

Ring, T. ed. et. al. International Dictionary of Historic Places: Middle East and Africa. Illinois: Fitzroy Dearborn Publisher, 1996. 

Shillington, K. ed. Encyclopedia of African History. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn & Francis Group, 2005.