From Wagadu to Guangzhou

Wealth, ideas and human capital still flow along the ancient routes that linked us to Asia and Europe.

Wriiten by Michael Schmidt

Illustrationsby AmICollective

Today, as countries such as Mauritius and Kenya position themselves as hyper-tech service and creative hubs, intra-African trade and the continent’s trade abroad has moved rapidly to embrace Fifth-Wave innovation.

The most ancient trade routes hugged the Mediterranean coast or followed the course of Africa’s great waterways, in particular the Great Lakes and the Nile, Congo, Niger, Zambezi and Limpopo rivers.

It is commonly held that the Amazigh, the Berbers who are a Maghreb people of mixed Arab, African, Phoenician and Gothic descent, were the first to take camel trains southwards across the wastes of the Sahara, to trade with West African miners for their much-prized gold, copper and salt – though the ancient Egyptians and Nubians probably secured these materials via a more southerly route, abandoned by the 9th Century, that ran from Khargato, west of the Nile to Takedda (today Azelik in Niger, an important uranium-mining centre) to what is today Gao on the Niger River, and beyond.

Arab sea-traders in their dhows did not venture past the Moroccan coast, but an intrepid Libyan named Hanno the Navigator – after whom a lunar crater is named – was the first to map the west coast of Africa on a remarkable 5th or 6th Century sea voyage with a fleet of 60 ships in attempts to control the “Guinean” gold trade that certainly took him as far as Senegal.

According to some modern historians this might have been much further, to within sight of the volcano of Mount Cameroon (Hanno likely fudged the details to protect his route from Greek and Roman competitors).

In the ancient souks and oases, barter was dominant well into the Medieval period. Exchange currency was gradually introduced, from the cowrie shells that remained legal tender into the 19th Century in kingdoms as diverse as Mali and Kongo to the wearable manila bronze and copper bracelet money of West Africa, and finally the minted gold coins of the Axumite Empire, which once controlled both coasts of the Red Sea, its currency circulating as far as Asia and Europe from 270 CE until the empire’s decline in the 7th Century CE. (“CE” stands for Common Era, an alternative name for the Christian “Anno Domini”.)

Axum traded spices, ivory, ebony and animal shells with Egypt, Greece, Rome and as far away as Persia and India, and imported textiles, precious metal objects, wine and olive oil. Far to the south, the Karanga of Great Zimbabwe, who were traders, sailors and builders of granite cities from 1000 to 1600, traded the gold they fashioned for glass and porcelain from as far away as China.

The smelting of iron – which not only provided superior Iron Age tools but formed the basis of the rise of Medieval African kingdoms using iron and later steel weaponry – may date as early as 3000 BCE (Before Common Era) in Central Africa. If true, that would be centuries ahead of iron-working anywhere else in the world.

In addition, north-western Tanzania boasts a site with evidence of the first carbon-steel smelting, dating back 2000 years, while the Xhosa of the Eastern Cape were smelting iron at least a century before the Japanese.


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