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The Gold-Salt Trade in Ghana (3)

3. The Gold-Salt Trade in Ghana

Although many items were traded between North Africa and West Africa, the two goods that were most in demand were gold and salt. The North Africans wanted gold, which came from the forest region south of Ghana. The people in the forests wanted salt, which came from the Sahara. Ghana made most of its money from the taxes it enforced on the gold-salt trade that passed through its lands.

Wangara: The Secret Source of Gold

Gold has long been a source of wealth in much of the world. In the time of Ghana's empire, people in Muslim lands and in Italy created coins from gold. Muslims also needed gold to purchase silk and porcelain from China, which would accept only gold in exchange.

In an area known as Wangara, gold was plentiful. Wangara was located near the forests south of Ghana, but no one except the people of Wangara knew its exact location. The Wangarans kept the locations of their gold mines secret. According to ancient stories, merchants occasionally captured a gold miner and tried to force him to reveal the location of Wangara. The miners would sacrifice their lives rather than reveal the secret.

In one tale, after the capture of a miner, the Wangarans stopped trading for three years in order to ensure no one had discovered Wangara's location. To this day, no one knows for certain exactly where Wangara's mines were located.

Taghaza: A Village Built with Salt

To West Africans, salt was more precious than gold. Their culture had little use for gold, except as an item for trade. However, they craved salt, and for good reason. Salt is an important aspect of a person's diet because when people and animals perspire, or sweat, they lose salt in their perspiration. People who reside in hot climates, like West Africa, perspire a lot and must replace the salt they lose. West Africans also needed salt to prevent their food from spoiling and to give to their cattle. In addition, people enjoyed the taste.

West Africans had no local source of salt. Instead, they had to obtain it from Taghaza and other places in the Sahara.

Salt was produced in two ways in the Sahara. One method was through evaporation.Water was poured into holes in the salty earth. The water slowly drew out the salt and then evaporated in the sun. The salt that remained was collected and packed into blocks. The second way to acquire salt was through mining. At Taghaza, salt deposits were found about three feet below the surface of the earth. Miners, enslaved by Arab merchants, reached the salt by digging trenches and tunnels. Then they cut it out in large blocks.

Since it was a dismal place lacking crops or vegetation, Taghaza would not have existed without salt. People lived there for one purpose only: to mine and sell salt. Even the houses and mosques were built of salt blocks. Trade caravans passed through Taghaza on their way through the Sahara. There, they obtained salt to sell in Ghana and the southern forests. Because no food was produced in Taghaza, the miners had to rely on caravans to bring food, such as camel meat, dates, and a type of grain called millet. If the caravans did not arrive, the miners starved.

Ghana's System of Taxes

Traders paid taxes to Ghana on all the goods they carried through the empire. Goods were taxed both when traders entered and left Ghana. Ghana charged one-sixth of an ounce of gold for each load of salt that came into the kingdom from the north. It then charged one-third of an ounce of gold for each load the traders exported out of the kingdom to the south. The traders also paid taxes for carrying other types of goods. For every load of copper, they were charged five-eighths of an ounce of gold. They paid slightly more than one ounce of gold per load of general merchandise.

The taxes enriched Ghana's treasury and helped finance armies that protected the kingdom, which allowed the king to conquer other territories. Additionally, traders benefited, because Ghana secured the trade routes against bandits who might rob the caravans.

DMU Timestamp: May 11, 2020 21:16

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