World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Ralph A. Austen, Trans-Saharan Africa in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. 176.  $19.95 (paper).


     This book focuses on the role played by trans-Sahara (which consists of North Africa, West Africa, and northern East Africa) in world history. Rather than considering the Sahara Desert as a barrier between regions, the narrative views it as a restrictive/protective barrier that allowed considerable autonomy and originality to the communities surrounding the desert. Various regions used the Sahara as a highway for commercial, cultural and religious exchange. As with any trading block, it was not just goods that changed hands, but ideas were exchanged, and religious doctrine influenced the belief and practice of the various faiths found in the trans-Sahara.

     The book's main focus is from the eighth century until the triumph of European colonialism in the nineteenth century. However, even before the eighth century, the regions around the Sahara were linked with established trade routes that connected the areas to the north of the Sahara (along the Mediterranean) with those to the south of it. The primary commodities moving north were gold and slaves, while manufactured goods moved south.

     In less than two hundred pages, the author summarizes the trans-Saharan trade in six well-organized chapters. The first chapter introduces the Sahara as a global highway, comparing and contrasting not only the physical geography among the regions around the Sahara, but also the religions and cultures found in these regions. These twenty-two pages alone would serve as an excellent introduction to any course focusing on regions around the Sahara.

     The second and third chapters focus on commerce and governance. While statecraft, urbanization, and literacy remained limited by world standards of the medieval era to some regions surrounding the Sahara, a society and culture nevertheless emerged that reflected a creative dialogue between the more global regions and the more isolated regions around the Sahara. Linkages to the Atlantic world during the first era of European expansion intensified rather than diminished this process. Eventually, formal colonial rule marginalized the Sahara and the Sudan.

     Austen's description of the caravan trade highlights the risky undertaking of long-distance trade. The caravans faced not only natural hardships such as deadly sandstorms and unforgiving heat, but also hardships from human activity such as the ongoing threats of pillage or murder, or political instability and sometimes armed hostilities among (and even within) communities. The skills required for successful trade encompassed not only specialized scientific knowledge—such as astronomical expertise for night navigation, and knowledge of grazing fields to select varied seasonal routes across the desert—but also the ability to handle diverse languages and various currencies–from salt bars to cotton and cowry shells, to coins and paper money. This was especially crucial within an economic context devoid of standardized weights and measures.

     The success of such international and inter-regional ventures required leadership, labor force, resources, and complex logistics, as well as a strong "home base." More broadly, the narrative examines the extent to which cross-cultural exchange and business ventures were facilitated by institutional frameworks inspired by literacy and a primarily Muslim legal culture. The fact that a number of Muslim legal scholars were themselves active merchants helped ensure that jurisprudence was informed by references to religious codes while taking into account the complex realities of the caravan trade.

     The fourth and fifth chapters focus on Islam and its impact on culture. This faith played various roles throughout the region: as a legal system for regulating trade, an inspiration for reformist religious-political movements, and a vehicle of literacy and cosmopolitan knowledge that inspired creativity—often of a very unorthodox kind—within the various ethno-linguistic communities of the region. The text seems to suggest that conditions in which Muslims lived influenced and shaped their understanding of Islam more than Islam itself did, as a sort of free-standing agent coloring their interpretation of Islam.

     The sixth and final chapter explores the impact of colonialism on the region. From the mid-1400s, European voyages to the coast of West and Central Africa provided an alternative international trade route that marginalized trans-Saharan trade in global terms but stimulated, and for some communities, accelerated local growth. Later, European inland territorial conquest in the 1800s and early 1900s brought about deeper structural and cultural changes. Trans-Saharan culture, however, not only adapted to these colonial and postcolonial changes but also often thrived upon them to remain a living force.

     In essence, with its focus on regions bordering the Sahara, this book serves as an excellent primer for understanding not only the mental landscape and social stratification, but also the political and economic order within the region. Its accessible style helps readers appreciate the region's influence on global history, and provides a welcome reminder of the interconnectedness of our world not only in terms of goods, techniques, and skills exchanged, but also in terms of the dissemination of shared vocabulary, cultural practices, ideas, beliefs, and migratory patterns. It showcases the Sahara and its surrounding regions as a dynamic space with a deep history, and serves as an excellent introduction to those interested in the region.

Muhammed Hassanali is an independent scholar of Muslim cultures and civilizations. He can be reached at


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use