Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa
Shifting Away from the Sahara
The establishment of trade with Europeans along Africa’s Atlantic Coast in the late fifteenth century effectively bypassed the series of intermediaries that were essential to Saharan trade. Ships made possible the transport of more goods. Gold, ivory, and other Saharan trade staples remained important commodities, especially in the early days of coastal trade; however, the slave trade would soon dominate the Atlantic economy.
The creation of new trading centers along the West African coast slowed but did not end trans-Saharan trade. As the gold trade shifted southward, it contributed to the creation of the Asante Empire (in today’s nation of Ghana). There the legacy of the Saharan gold trading continued particularly in the systems of measure based on the mithqal (4.5 grams) that were used to weigh gold.
In 1992 a shipwreck was discovered of the coast of Devon, England. The ship sank in the mid-seventeenth century, and its cargo included more than four hundred gold coins, most of them minted in Morocco, as well as North African gold ingots and jewelry. Mostly worn and broken, these gold objects were on their way to be melted down and repurposed by the British Crown. Today, these rare items provide a glimpse into late medieval North African goldwork. The fragment of a clasp is among the earliest surviving examples of a form, the fibula, that has become an iconic symbol of Amazigh (Berber) jewelry.
This bowl was discovered in 1909 while dredging for gold along the banks of the Offin River in southern Ghana. Its formal similarity to the 14th- and 15th-century Mamluk brass bowls and basins manufactured thousands of miles away in Egypt provides compelling evidence that it was inspired by the northeastern African imports. Its profile and surface decoration are almost identical to Mamluk period Arabic-inscribed bowls, but details such as the use of “pseudo script”— an attempt by an artist unfamiliar with Arabic to capture the formal essence of Arabic calligraphy— and the representation of stylized crocodiles and mudfish, inhabitants of the Akan forest, in two of the eight medallions reveal that it is of local manufacture.
This ewer, which was made in England in the 14th century, was taken by the British from Kumase, the capital of the Asante Kingdom, during the Anglo-Asante War of 1896. It is embellished with heraldic motifs and Lombardic inscriptions. The royal arms of England on the front of the jug reference the reigns of both Edward III and Richard II, but the badges on the lid depicting a stag indicate that it was produced during Richard’s reign, specifically between 1390 and 1400. The ewer might have traveled across Saharan trade routes soon after it was made, or it might have been imported to Asante at a later time through trade along the Atlantic coast.
Left: 5 guinea of James II, struck at London, 1685. Gold, diameter 3.5 cm. American Numismatic Society, New York, 1957.172.19. Right: 1 guinea coin of James II, 1688, struck at London. Gold, diameter 2.5 cm. Photograph courtesy of the American Numismatic Society, New York, 0000.999.596
The Dutch and English vied for lucrative trade along Africa’s West Coast in the mid- seventeenth century. In this period the English produced guinea coins marked with an elephant-and-castle motif below a bust of the English king, James II. The motif was stamped only onto coins made from West African gold acquired by the newly established Royal Africa Company, which was granted monopoly on this trade by the British crown in 1672. This iconography illustrates the continuing importance of gold and ivory as commodities, even as trade shifted away from the Saharan routes.
Courtyard in either the royal mausoleum or in the palace of the King of Asante, where The Asante Jug (Richard II Ewer) can be seen, ca. 1887. The National Archives of the UK, ref. CO1069/31(7). Photographer unknown
Resting beneath a tree, two late fourteenth-century English jugs taken from Kumasi by the British at the end of the nineteenth century. We do not know when or how they arrived in the Asante capital. It is possible they traveled across Saharan trade routes as early as the fifteenth century; however, it is more probable that they were given as gifts to a local ruler by Europeans trading on the Gold Coast at a later period, witnesses to the shift from desert to coastal trade. The image was taken by an anonymous photographer around 1887, in a courtyard in either the royal mausoleum or in the palace of the King of Asante.