In need of salt — Sierra Leone and West Africa before the 1500s

I often used to wonder, ‘what happened in the area that is now Sierra Leone before the Europeans arrived?’ Before the Portuguese sailed down the coast in 1462, and saw a range of mountains that looked like lions…

After a little searching, I can only find a few fragments of information sourced before the late 15th century. There are some tools, discovered in a cave in Yengema (in Kono District), that may be more than 4,500 years old (Alie, 1990). There are a number of iron smelting sites that have been identified in Kuranko Country (an area that straddles Guinea and Sierra Leone). Based on better researched sites elsewhere in West Africa it is thought that this process spread throughout the region from about 500 BCE, and one account suggests that iron was in use here by 800 CE, but their source is not clear. And there are some broken pieces of pottery found in a cave near Makeni, that are said to be pre-historic. Exactly when, however, appears unknown.

Other than this, it seems the light is out. The next information I could find specifically about people in this present area is from the end of the 15th century, both in the form of oral histories recorded much later and contemporary Portuguese descriptions of their travels. What happened in between remains a mystery.

What if we settle for looking a little wider (looking beyond Sierra Leone)? What was going on in West Africa before the Europeans arrived? And does it tell us anything about what was happening here?

This turns out to be a much better documented story (or set of stories). It touches on the spread of Islam, trade, war, the rise and fall of empires. There are contemporary accounts of the customs between Kings and their people, why Egyptian coins found in Alexandria were made from West African gold and why Ghana took this name. Not to mention a story of someone who may have been richest man in history...

Part 1:

Ghana is a title given to their Kings” begins one of the oldest sources of written information we have about ancient West Africa.

As the story goes, a small trading state was established by Soninke people. Some groups of modern day Senegalese people can trace their roots to these people. They referred to their state as Wagadu. Berker traders from across North Africa would cross the Sahara Desert to exchange salt for gold (as well as some slaves and ivory), bringing back the gold to sell in Egypt or maybe Europe. By the 8th century CE the area just south of the Western Sahara was known to North African and Arabic writers as “the land of gold[1] (Davidson, 1998)

The meeting point grew, connecting caravan routes that came up from the south and down from the North. Ghana was one of the King’s titles, meaning ‘war chief’. As succeeding Kings took this title, so the state developed its new name.

Intrigued by this mysterious place of gold, North African and Arabic scholars started to write about it. Abu Ubaydallah al-Bakri (d. 1094), a Cordovan scholar (Cordova was then a part of Muslim al-Andalus), started interviewing merchants who had crossed the desert. He is reported to have never travelled in Africa, and may never have even left his home state. But he combined these interviews with previous Arabic literature to write The Book of the Routes and Realms (1067/1068 CE) — a contemporary account of Ancient Ghana.

For context, 1067 is 435 years after the death of the Prophet Mohammed and subsequent spread of Islam throughout Arabia. It is one year after the Norman invasion of England and 100 years before the birth of the infamous Genghis Khan (whose family went on to forge the largest contiguous land empire in history).

Back in Ancient Ghana, Tunka Manin had just inherited the throne from his uncle Basi. It was custom that a king’s sister’s son inherit the throne as a king “has no doubt that his successor is a son of his sister, while he is not certain that his son is in fact his own, and he is not convinced of the genuineness of his relationship to him” (all quotes in this section taken from al-Bakri’s Book of the Routes and Realms).

Based on al-Bakri’s description, the King and many of the people followed their own religion, but Islam was already well established and respected (at least by the King). He writes that “The city of Ghana consists of two towns situated on a plain”, one of which was mainly Muslim, the other non-Muslim.

One of these towns, which is inhabited by Muslims, is large and possesses twelve mosques, in one of which they assemble for the Friday prayer. There are salaried imams and muezzins, as well as jurists and scholars”.

Moreover, “The king’s interpreters, the official in charge of his treasury and the majority of his ministers are Muslims … In the king’s town, and not far from his court of justice, is a mosque where the Muslims who arrive at his court pray.

Of those who followed the King’s religion Al-Bakri tells us that “only he [the King] and his heir apparent … may wear sewn clothes. All other people wear robes of cotton, silk, or brocade, according to their means. All of them shave their beards, and women shave their heads.

In the environs of the Muslim town were “wells with sweet water, from which they drink and with which they grow vegetables.” The King’s town was close (six miles through residential land), and called Al-Ghaba. “The houses of the inhabitants are of stone and acacia wood. The king has a palace and a number of domed dwellings all surrounded with an enclosure like a city wall… Around the king’s town are domed buildings and groves and thickets where the sorcerers of these people, men in charge of the religious cult, live. In them too are their idols and the tombs of their kings. These woods are guarded and none may enter them and know what is there. In them also are the king’s prisons. If somebody is imprisoned there no news of him is ever heard.

It was acceptable for these two religious groups to follow different rules around the King. “When people who profess the same religion as the king approach him they fall on their knees and sprinkle dust on their heads, for this is their way of greeting him. As for the Muslims, they greet him only by clapping their hands.

And, of course, he mentions the gold.

“The king adorns himself like a woman, wearing necklaces round his neck and bracelets on his forearms, and he puts on a high cap decorated with gold and wrapped in a turban of fine cotton. He sits in audience or to hear grievances against officials in a domed pavilion around which stand ten horses covered with gold-embroidered materials. Behind the king stand ten pages holding shields and swords decorated with gold, and on his right are the sons of the vassal kings of his country wearing splendid garments and their hair plaited with gold. The King owned all the nuggets of gold discovered throughout the country. It was even rumored that he owned one “as large as a big stone” — however big that is. The gold dust, however, was left for the people. “But for this [they] would accumulate gold until it lost its value”.

There is a certain amount of ‘writing for his audience’ that we must recognize. Al-Bakri’s readers were Muslim (so he may have exaggerated the status of Islam in West Africa), and they wanted gold (so, again, he may have exaggerated the spectacle of this glamour).

To give a sense of the empire’s size, the best gold came from a town 18 day’s travel from the king, through continuous dwellings of tribes. When the King called his army, he could put “200,000 men into the field, more than 40,000 of them archers”. At its largest, Ancient Ghana is said to have spanned areas of modern day Mali and Mauritania. It is was the first major trading empire that we know of in West Africa.

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A history book written in Timbuktu in 1650 CE says that overall there were 22 kings of Ghana before the Muslim era (before the Prophet Mohamed), and another 22 after. Over the two or three hundred years that followed al-Bakri’s account it is thought that war brought from the north by Almoravid warriors destabilized the state as a trading center and that over-farming together with excessive grazing lead to environmental crisis and an exodus. It is also thought that the monarchs converted to Islam, but that the majority of the population did not, and that it became hard to hold the empire together. It gradually fell apart. But the period left its mark. In 1957, nearly 900 years after Tunka Manin held the throne, modern day Ghana took this name in recognition of the ancient state as it led Sub Saharan Africa to independence from European colonialism.

Part 2:


The Malian Empire achieved what Ghana had before but on a much grander scale. At its largest, it is thought to have reached as far East as the borders of Hausaland (in modern day Niger), and as far west as Takrur (on the Atlantic coast of modern day Senegal and The Gambia). Again, Mali was a trading empire, and that trade was based largely on gold, salt, slaves and ivory, with a few kola nuts now added to the mix.

It started as a small state of Malinke people who acted as middle men, taking the gold of Wangara (in modern day Guinea) to the market centers of Ancient Ghana. It grew in strength as Ghana fell.

For a short period the Sosso filled the void left by Ghana. But in 1235 the Malinka overthrew them, taking control of the trans-Saharan trade routes. The Malian empire grew to be hugely wealthy, with control over a vast array of gold mines in the south and salt mines in the north.

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Mansa Musa is probably the Malian Empire’s most famous king. He came to power after the previous king disappeared while out searching for the limits of the Atlantic Ocean (there’s an interesting hypothetical to think about…), at a period of exceptional international demand for gold. Europe was running low and the Atlantic was yet to be crossed.

In one incredible story, around 1324 or 1325, Mansa Musa made a pilgrimage to Mecca that left him famous throughout North Africa and the Middle East, with ripples travelling north into Europe. He took a procession of 60,000 men (12,000 of which were slaves each carrying 1.8kg of gold bars) and 80 camels, each carrying up to 130kg of gold dust. The group is said to have been travelling with around two tons of gold, slowing moving through North Africa.

Along the way, Mansa Musa gave this gold out to the poor, traded excessively and, astoundingly, built a Mosque on every Friday! A. J. H. Goodwin, writing in the 1950s, compiled an account of the aftermath of Musa’s pilgrimage from contemporary chroniclers. “With all this gold, his gifts and his trading, King Mansa Musa had upset the greatest gold market of the medieval world. As he left Cairo, Mecca and Medina, prices rocketed as everyone tried to pay in depreciated gold. However, Musa had not made ample provision for his return journey. On reaching Cairo once again, he borrowed back all the gold he could get. The money lenders were entranced: they lent at a high rate of interest. The value of gold mounted to unprecedented heights; prices dropped accordingly. All went well until Musa got back to Melle [Mali]. He immediately repaid the vast loans as well as interest in one single astounding payment. The money lenders were ruined as the price of gold fell through the floor. For the first and last time one man had played ducks and drakes with the world price of gold.” Even now, if you google Mansa Musa, you will see various articles asking ‘was he the richest man in history?’

News of this journey travelled far and wide. Some of you may know of The Catalan Atlas. Currently held in the national library in Paris, it is one of the rare surviving examples of medieval European cartography. Dated around 1375, it covers the known world at the time — from the Atlantic to China, from Scandinavia to West Africa. Sure enough, there in West Africa, sits Mansa Musa with his gold.

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While in Mecca, Mansa Musa met the Spanish poet and architect Abu Isak (later known as Es Saheli). Musa persuaded Isak to return with and work for him. When back in Timbuktu, which had to be recaptured from the Sultan of Mossi who had sacked the city in Musa’s absence, Isak set to work on The Great Mosque (also known as the Djinguereber Mosque), which still stands today. Musa also invested in the University of Timbuktu. It was re-staffed with jurists, astronomers and mathematicians from Fez. It went on to become a center for teaching of Islamic Law.

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Over the next 200 years the Malian empire gradually fell from its great heights. The Songhai, Wolof, Mossi and Tukulers became stronger and then, in 1594, the King of Morocco invaded.

Back to Sierra Leone:

So, with a bit more understanding of what was going on in West Africa, can we say anything about the area that is now Sierra Leone before the late 15th century?

To be honest, probably not.

I did not know that people from across the Maghreb and Muslim southern Europe had been coming to West Africa and trading for hundreds of years before Christian Europeans arrived, nor did I understand that Islam has been a part of West Africa for so long. I did not know about the vast quantities of gold that came out of the region long before the British coined ‘the Gold Coast’. The international implications of all of this must have been significant. Goodwin creates a narrative where the Mediterranean was split between the Crescent and the Cross and, mainly through West Africa, the Crescent had access to the gold. It was also a time when Islamic scholarship took the lead over the so called medieval European dark ages, and the University of Timbuktu appears to have been a big player in this. West Africa was a major source of finance and knowledge during this period. But what did it mean for those not yet converted to Islam (that is reported to have come with the Fula in the 1700s), all the way on the Atlantic coast, south west of the main trade routes? I am not sure. Maybe nothing.

The contemporary written accounts are mainly about the trade routes, gold, the spread of Islam and the ruling kings — presumably because this is what those reading were interested in. We hear very little about the lives of the average people, especially non-muslims. There is some observational information, but, as far as I have seen, not in any great detail. The landmarks that remain, such as The Great Mosque, are also expressions of a powerful elite rather than reflections of normal life. Even within Ancient Ghana and Mali, then, maybe we cannot say much about what normal life was like.

Something we apparently do know about the area that is now Sierra Leone is that when the Portuguese traders arrived they were met by various established groups. The Baga, Bullom, Krim and Vai were settled along the coast (the Portuguese referred to them all as Sapes). Moving slightly inland, the Temne and the Loko had their place in the north-west, and the Limba were further north. The Banta lived in the south-west, and the Kissi and Kono were to the east.

These groups have oral traditions and histories. The Temne, for instance, claim to have come from Futa Jallon (in modern day Guinea) and established a commercial empire along the coast before the 15th century. The Limba claim to have always been here. The Krim are thought to be an off shoot of the Bullom, split after invasion from neighbouring Mane forces. The Loko may be offshoots of that Mane expedition. The Kissi say they came from the upper Niger before the 15th century. In one story the Vai and the Kono are said to be a related people, with an original home somewhere in modern day Guinea. Following a shortage salt, they set out in search of new supplies. Along the way the group split. Some were tired, and established a new home. The remainder continued, calling out as they departed ‘O maa kono, kanii na’, meaning ‘you wait for us, we will return’. In the end they found their salt along the coast, but they never returned. The group that stopped half way named their land Kono (those that waited), the other Kanina (those that were to return).


It is impossible to capture everything in one short piece, and this attempt definitely rushes, well, everything. However, I hope it kindles an interest. On a personal note, I have been working in the aid sector in West Africa for the past six years, and I never knew any of this until I went searching for it (in comparison to some places where you almost can’t avoid an account of local history). That is partly why I decided to try and summarize it — to make it a bit more accessible. The history of West Africa appears absent in the ‘development dialogue’, which focuses heavily on economic analysis of the world today as the tool for policy design and recommendation. But this will never capture the path that development takes. Timbuktu, Islam in West Africa, tribal lineages in Sierra Leone are all what they are, not only because of this year’s economy and the last, but because of thousands of years of one event after another, developing its own pathway that needs narratives as well as numbers to be understood. As far as I can tell (and I need to keep searching), very little is known about what was going on before the late 15th century in the area that is now Sierra Leone. Whatever it was, I wonder if it is still shaping the country today?

[1] A quote from al-Farazi, written soon after 770 CE.

Offline sources:

Alie, J. (1990). A new history of Sierra Leone. Freetown: Macmillan.

Davidson, B. (1998). West Africa before the Colonial Era. Abingdon: Taylor and Francis.

Further online sources (additional to those hyperlinked in the text):

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