McGraw-Hill SocialStudies 2003 Return to Unit List
West African Empires
Grade 6
Lesson Summary Lesson Summary
Unit 3: New Forces in the World
Chapter 10: African Civilizations
Lesson 3: West African Empires
Trade in Salt and Gold

In the A. D. 700s, Muslim traders traveled from North Africa across the Sahara to West Africa in order to trade for gold. At the time, most of the world's gold came from this area. West Africans needed salt to preserve food in the hot climate. Muslim traders brought salt in exchange for gold.

The Empire of Ghana

By the 700s, the empire of Ghana was powerful and its kings were wealthy because of its location along the major trade routes in North Africa. Ghana's kings controlled the gold-for-salt trade and were the sole keepers of the gold. By keeping the gold supply scarce, the demand for it was high and the value increased. Muslim traders settled in Ghana and became advisors to its kings. The wealth of Ghana created envy among neighbors and led to fighting. Around the middle of the 1000s, North Africans began to attack Ghana. By 1230, Ghana had disappeared.

The Wealth of Mali

Mali arose in about 1250 and became powerful because of Prince Sunjata. He was a talented ruler who we up an organized government and spread his power in Ghana and over a wide region. He made the gold-for-salt trade even more successful and set up the capital of Niani and the cultural center of Timbuktu. Like earlier leaders, Sunjata accepted Islam and supported Muslims including Mansa Musa, who worked to convert his kingdom. After Mansa Musa's death, rulers became weak and Mali was replaced by the Songhai Empire.

The Songhai Empire

Songhai was a small state at the head of the Niger River. While Mansa Musa was ruling in Mali, Songhai was gaining power. One very strong leader of the empire was Sunni Ali who expanded the kingdom to include Mali and parts of present-day Benin, Niger, and Nigeria. Songhai kings had assistants called griots who kept their history alive by telling stories about historical events and traditions. Eventually, Songhai became too large and did not have effective weapons. The empire was defeated by Morocco in 1591.