Until the sixteenth century, caravans routinely plied the sands of the Sahara, moving goods, especially gold, from distant West Africa to centers of trade in North Africa and Egypt. Towns in West Africa became cosmopolitan stopping points, and as merchants, rulers, and caravan leaders converted to Islam for both spiritual and financial reasons, Islam flourished alongside the caravan business. In the thirteenth century, Sundiata Keita gained dominance over the Malinke and Soninke people, establishing the Malian Empire. Mali’s control of the Bure goldfields enabled it to prosper, and cities such as Timbuktu and Djenné became centers of Islamic scholarship. The empire grew weaker following the death of Mansa Musa. It was unable to withstand raids by the Mossi and Tuareg nomads or revolts by some of its subject cities. Although the rulers of Mali were able to negotiate peace terms with Portuguese slave traders in the mid-fifteenth century, they were unable to retain such vital trade centers as Gao, Timbuktu, and Djenné.
The basis of the Songhai Empire’s wealth was much the same as for the kingdoms that preceded it: salt, cloth, and gold. Sunni Ali’s program of annexation greatly expanded Songhai. Growth continued under his successors, especially Askia the Great, who used Islam to further his control and brought Songhai into its golden age. Not only did its rulers consolidate state control over trans-Saharan trade, but they also made the empire an unparalleled center of Islamic learning and study in West Africa. The great cities of Timbuktu and Djenné drew merchants and traders engaged in the caravan trade from across Africa, while their grand mosques and schools made them magnets for pilgrims and scholars from across the Islamic world. Askia the Great’s successors could not maintain control of the empire, however, and in the sixteenth century, Songhai was defeated by Saadi forces from Morocco seeking to gain control of the trans-Saharan caravan routes.
City-states on the east coast of Africa grew in size and prosperity as they took advantage of wind patterns to participate in Indian Ocean trade. Their people were united by a shared religion, Islam, and a shared language, Swahili. Products from the interior of the African continent were sold by the Swahili traders to merchants from Arabia, Persia, and India. In exchange, they purchased goods from India, Southeast Asia, and China. Enslaved Africans were also sold in the Swahili city-states.
The most powerful of the states was Kilwa, which had grown wealthy through its control of the gold-rich city of Sofala. When the Portuguese arrived in the late fifteenth century, they attempted to leverage the cities’ discontent with Kilwa’s dominance to gain control of the region’s trade, but a Somali-Ottoman alliance and the Omani Sultanate ultimately drove them from all the city-states except Mozambique.
Kanem-Bornu, which dominated Central Sudan and maintained an active caravan trade with the states of North Africa in the thirteenth century, was destabilized by revolts and rebellions in the fourteenth century. Although it regained preeminence in the sixteenth century, by the end of that century, its power was at an end. The collapse of both Songhai and Kanem-Bornu allowed emergent polities like Dahomey, Oyo, and Segou to flourish, but tensions soon arose among them as competition for trade escalated. As warfare became commonplace, trans-Saharan trade was severely disrupted.
At the same time, European powers such as Portugal began making steady inroads into African trade, establishing trading posts along the coasts in regions like Whydah. By the eighteenth century, the European demand for enslaved captives and the desire of African chiefs to exploit opportunities for financial gain reoriented trans-Saharan trade away from traditional markets, such as those along the Mediterranean coast, to coastal West Africa, with new emphasis on the acquisition and transport of captives. Many of the coastal states became little more than arteries through which passed the caravans of captives destined for the markets of European slavers.