African History 3: West Africa and the Niger River

Back in the day in West Africa, you could trade salt for gold. Yes, you read that right. Gold. Where's a time machine when you need one?

LanguageEnglish Language
World HistoryAfrican History

Transcript

00:19

By following these rivers, caravans were guaranteed enough water for their animals.

00:23

Even better, riverboats traveled up and down the Niger. [Riverboat travelling up the Niger]

00:25

So merchants only had to get to any port on the Niger, trade with the boat captains, rest

00:30

up, and then go home.

00:32

Bam.

00:33

Easy money.

00:34

Of course, making easy money meant several weeks of riding through a windy, hilly desert. [Man riding a camel through windy desert]

00:37

We’d rather take our chances with the slot machines....

00:41

So why were merchants and traders willing to trek through the Sahara to get to the Niger? [Traders and Merchants walking through Sahara]

00:47

Because the river linked up with West Africa's totally loaded gold mines.

00:52

West Africa had a stupid amount of gold… until European adventurers showed up one day [European adventurers in balaclavas carrying gold]

00:57

and stole it all.

00:58

Oh, Europe…you never disappoint.

01:00

Before those dark days, West Africa was livin' it up, and everyone wanted a piece of the

01:05

golden pie. [Men eating golden pie]

01:06

Which… might sound tough to eat, but it doesn’t matter if you lose a tooth…

01:09

You can just pop in a gold one…

01:10

But even though West Africa had plenty of gold, the one thing it didn’t have was salt. [African family eating dinner]

01:14

Salt is not only important; it’s essential to human life.

01:17

And North Africa was saltier than a bowl of Ramen noodles.

01:20

Any North African merchant who showed up in a Niger River community with a few bags of

01:24

salt could come back loaded down with gold. [Merchants carrying salt]

01:27

Naturally, the Niger and all its nearby waterways became valuable territory.

01:31

And where there's gold and salt, there are bandits. [Bandit steals gold and salt]

01:34

And not principled, Robin Hood-style bandits.

01:36

We’re talking… robbers who beat up old ladies..

01:41

Everybody knew that merchants used the Niger River.

01:43

So greedy bandits knew exactly where to lie in wait to rob folks. [Bandit waiting beside Niger River]

01:47

As a result, any leader who could guarantee protection of the whole Niger River system

01:52

would become rich and powerful. [Man wearing crown on throne]

01:54

Because of this, about four major empires sprouted up in West Africa over the years.

01:58

Ghana, Gao, Mali, and Songhai.

02:02

These four empires overlapped in time, and one was usually busy dominating the others. [Empires in boxing ring]

02:07

All four had the same structure: a powerful king, a swagged-out capital city, an army

02:12

of warriors, and fleets of river ships.

02:15

Except for Ghana, these empires' kings were also known for being big into Islam.

02:20

Several kings of both Gao and Songhai made pilgrimages to Mecca, carrying big bags of [King makes pilgrimage to Mecca]

02:26

gold.

02:27

One king even spread so much gold around Mecca that he actually lowered the price of gold [King throwing gold around Mecca]

02:31

in the region.

02:32

The kings paid for all of this with taxes collected from markets, using a large bureaucracy

02:37

of tax collectors and administrators.

02:40

The problem with having a large bureaucracy is that your bureaucrats have to be well educated. [Bureaucrats graduating]

02:45

Because nobody wants a tax collector who sucks at math.

02:48

Except maybe the taxpayers.

02:50

The Kingdoms of Gao and Songhai poured loads of cash into building the Muslim university of Sankore [Man pours cash into university building]

02:57

in the city of Timbuktu.

02:58

Yes, Timbuktu is totally a real place.

03:01

Sankore University beat out similar universities in Egypt and Morocco to become the largest [Sankore University beating up other universities]

03:06

institution of learning in Africa.

03:09

The most popular subject?

03:11

Religious studies. [People studying religious studies]

03:12

Yeah, Sankore was not a party school.

03:15

So there you have it.

03:16

There’s no doubt the kingdoms of West Africa’s Niger River were forces to be reckoned with.

03:21

Even if the rulers of these empires could get a little excessive with their wealth…