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date: 01 April 2023

Saharan Peoples and Societiesfree

Saharan Peoples and Societiesfree

  • E. Ann McDougallE. Ann McDougallDepartment of History and Classics, University of Alberta


The Sahara: bridge or barrier? Today, most would answer that the desert was more a historical facilitator than hindrance in moving commodities, ideas, and people between North and sub-Saharan Africa. A recent publication even coined a new name for the region: “trans-Saharan Africa.”

However, the Sahara is also a place where people live. Complex societies, sophisticated polities, extensive economies—all flourished at various times, waxing and waning in response to much the same factors as societies elsewhere. It is just that in the Sahara the vagaries of climate and the availability of water always established the parameters of development. A long-term drying era led to the dispersal of the Late Stone Age Dhar-Tichitt agro-pastoral settlements in eastern Mauritania, but in the east, Lake “Mega-Chad” shrank, leaving rich, sandy soils that attracted new cultivators. The Garamantes people of the Libyan Fezzan overcame their lack of water by developing a sophisticated underground irrigation system that supported an urbanized, cosmopolitan civilization that outlasted the Roman Empire.

The introduction of the camel in the 4th century and the gradual growth of Islam from at least the 9th century added new possibilities for economic, cultural, and religious life. The Sahara benefited from the sequence of medieval empires emerging across its southern desert edge. Camel pastoralism, salt mining, oasis agriculture, and expansive trade networks shaped the region’s economy; those same networks facilitated cultural and scholarly exchanges. As Islam took root, growing its own understandings of North African and Middle Eastern schools of thought, a prodigious body of Saharan scholarship was created. It underpinned much of the jihad-led political upheaval and state-building in the 18th and 19th Sahel.

Saharan clerics also directed their religious fervor against the invasion of French imperialists; “pacification” took the colonialists decades to achieve. But the impact of this violence exacerbated traditional clan conflict and disrupted economic life. So too did policies aimed at sedentarizing pastoralists and reshaping their social relations in the interests of the colonial economy. Much talked-about but largely ineffective efforts to abolish slavery had far less real impact than taxation policies; these both suppressed traditional exactions such as those levied by “warriors” and introduced new ones, including those to be paid in forced labor. Life in the Sahara became increasingly untenable. The arrival of Independence did nothing to address colonial legacies; the years of drought that devastated herds and crops in the desert and along its edge less than a decade later further fueled both political instability and economic crisis. That today the region nurtures radicalized Islamic movements promising to return “true meaning” (not to mention material benefits) to that life is not surprising.


  • Archaeology
  • Colonial Conquest and Rule
  • Early States and State Formation in Africa
  • Economic History
  • Religious History
  • Slavery and Slave Trade

The Sahara was once “green and wet.” Communities like those scattered along escarpments in eastern Mauritania developed a complex agro-pastoral system by exploiting the vagaries of Sahara’s seasonality, which came to a relatively abrupt end somewhere in the mid-first millennium (c. 3/400 bce); peoples dispersed mostly to the south and east with a few going north and west. They are believed to be the progenitors of various desert-edge (sahel) peoples like haratine cultivators in the north and bafur herder/agriculturalists to the south.1 Yet it is the “brown and dry” Sahara that emerged between c. 500 bce and 1000 ce that had the most significant role in Africa’s history: people began to live here again.

One might well argue this was the true beginning of “Saharan” society. It seems many socioeconomic relations and cultural values trace their evolutions to this moment of installing in the midst of, and negotiating with, modern desertification. These new Saharans adapted to the resources they could access in ways no different from their ancestors or their contemporaneous northern and Sudanic African neighbors. “Negotiating” with desertification involved adjustments to social structures, concepts of identity (“ethnicity”), migratory movements, and, critically, ongoing relations that straddled the desert edges to the north and south.2 What was new were the options arising from the use of the camel from the 4th millennium bce. Its introduction altered local and regional economies, allowed for expanded exploitation of desert resources, and facilitated trans-Saharan trade. In that sense, it can be said that the ornery dromedary helped bring the Sahara into the expanding global economy and Muslim world.3

Early Saharan Civilizations

The Dhar-Tichitt Complex

In today’s eastern Mauritania the once greener Sahara of the late stone age (approximately 4000–2000 bce) gave rise to West Africa’s first “extensive village community system” based on seasonally-driven agro-pastoralism in the Dhar-Tichitt region.4 The apex of this civilization spanned the final two millennia (c. 2200–3/400 bce), giving way to an acute arid period that stretched well into the 1st millennium bce and saw the introduction of the camel into the desert. But this very early Saharan society remains important for what it tells us of how people came to not only survive but thrive, developing complex social, political, and economic systems in what was even in its wetter phase, a precarious environment.

The Sahara was not homogeneous; it was comprised of climatic and environmental niches that allowed for different kinds of development irrespective of larger climate trends. The “Tichitt complex” centered on an expansive escarpment. During the three-to-four wet months, people lived on the upper levels, making use of grasslands for herding (cattle, sheep, and goats), building permanent settlements, and (according to some), cultivating the first forms of domesticated grains. During the even longer, fairly predictable dry season, many activities moved to the lowlands around drying lakes and wadis (channels that flood during the rainy season), adding hunting, fishing, and the gathering of wild plants and grains. Over the long-durée, colonization occurred both across the dhar and into the lowlands. This process increased noticeably during the last “wet” millennium, with initial settlements expanding outward into villages and hamlets. Some scholars think that they comprised a recognizable political system, complete with a regional center and provincial capitals. It is also suggested, based on the physical layout of the upland settlements that have been excavated, that a fully hierarchical society may have emerged, directed by better-off families who attracted and controlled dependents.5 What is probably least controversial in the still-ongoing debates over what should be interpreted about societal formation is that the evidence highlights an economy in need of substantial labor. Workers, whether extended family members or other “dependents,” were employed/deployed differently according to gender (and probably age), place (domestic/public), season (upland, lowland), and occupation (cultivators, herders, hunters, gatherers, craftspeople).

The aridity that struck in mid-1st millennium bce probably did not seem so sudden to those living the experience—the dry seasons becoming longer, hotter, and dryer but still interspersed with normal years. What archaeologists have termed the “disaggregation” of the Tichitt complex occurred very gradually, with (it is believed) people moving both south and southeast. Some may have settled in the Niger Delta and Bend as early as the 4th/3rd centuries bce and, from there, established contact of some sort with peoples much further east.6 Contemporaneous evidence of what is called “the Tichitt culture,” the use of plant fibers twisted and braided in ornate fashion used to decorate pottery before it was fired, has been found in the southern Lake Chad Basin. Even as the drying conditions were dispersing people from Dhar-Tichitt, their shrinking effect on Lake “Mega-Chad” was creating a basin of rich, sandy cultivatable soils that was attracting new populations.7 Other Dhar-Tichitt migrants moving more to the south may have constituted the mobile herders known to have been early inhabitants of Awdaghust or, indeed, the Ancient Kingdom of Ghana itself, whose rise at that time was still at least a half-millennium in the future!8

The Garamantes

Even as the Dhar-Tichitt was seeing its communities disperse and the Sahara enter its driest era to date, far to the east in the Libyan desert a people called the Garamantes were establishing the origins of their own state. In the course of the next 1,000 years, they built a civilization (“classic” era, 100–400 ce) that, although at one point conquered by Roman North Africa, survived the decline of that empire by at least a century. Its legacies lived on in Muslim populations who built powerful states on its remnants; it is fair to say that the economic and political authority emanating from the region waxed and waned but remained a recognizable reality until the rise of the powerful Sahel-based Kanem Empire in the 13th century.

The Garamantes were indigenous Saharans, small-stock herders who, according to Herodotus, used horse-drawn chariots to conquer neighbors and capture slaves.9 But when these neighbors began to include Roman territories on a regular basis, the empire retaliated, forcing Garamantes recognition of Roman authority. In practice, however, becoming the empire’s desert province seems to have encouraged trade—Saharan products (including slaves) found profitable markets among the Romans and Mediterranean goods enlarged Garamantes consumerism. At one point the capital Jarma boasted a Roman bath!

It was the Garamantes towns and villages in the wadis of Libya’s southwestern Fezzan region that physically marked this civilization. Archaeologists have excavated extensively in and around Jarma, noting that it was comparable in size and complexity to several contemporaneous towns in North Africa. They have also identified and partially excavated about eight other sites, provisionally termed “towns,” as well as several villages. The latter were surrounded by grain fields that were watered by complex irrigation systems known as foggara. These were tunnels dug increasingly deeper into surrounding mountains in order to tap into underground fossil water; the concept was sophisticated, as was its execution.10 The Garamantes state would not have been possible without foggara; this system permitted population growth and extensive agriculture.11 The presence of sizable granaries confirms that crops produced surpluses capable of supporting external exchange.

The foggara also allowed for the production of evaporated salts (from mineral-rich ground water) on an industrial, commercialized scale. Remains of what was likely a state-controlled industry reveals a multi-stage process by which salt was extracted, dried, and “packaged” in some way. Scholars agree that its exchange with southern markets was a “driving dynamic” of the economy, in part for the gold it purchased (and which was then traded to Egypt and the Mediterranean) but, most importantly, for the impetus it gave to the slave trade and to domestic slavery.12Foggara were labor-intensive: digging the approximately 600 tunnels (many with tributaries), ranging from 100 ms to 4.5 kms in length, keeping them shored up and cleared of obstacles, and assuring the access-shafts sunk at regular intervals were stabilized was difficult, dangerous, and ongoing work. Nothing short of access to non-remunerated, forced labor could have created and sustained foggara.13 The intersection between foggara-sustained agriculture, salt production, and international trade was critical to the growth in slave labor.

There is no agreement as to why the Garamantes civilization, complete with its urban complexes, foggara, granaries, salt works, and herds—declined by the late 7th century ce. It may be because the water sources in the mountains were “tapped out” by the expanding population and agricultural expansion.14 It could have been because the slave labor needed to sustain all of the above could no longer be obtained; one theory postulates that as the Northern and Nile slave trades grew, it became more profitable to sell slaves than to use them, ultimately undermining the domestic economy.15 Or, as archaeologists most recently have suggested, as the trans-Saharan networks into which Jarma’s commerce fed shifted by the 6th century ce (tied in part to the fortunes of the Roman empire), the region became marginalized, eventually declining.16 It would seem that the interdependency of the Garamantes socioeconomic system, its local slave labor, foggara, grain and salt production, and its long-distance trade in salt, slaves, grain, and Mediterranean goods was simultaneously a strength and weakness: should one component cease to be accessible, the system could, would—and ultimately did—collapse.

Trans-Saharan Trade

Challenging Received Wisdom

The current focus on the possible role of shifting trans-Saharan trade routes on the decline of Garamantes civilization recalls a paradigm long associated with the broader history of the Sahara—namely, that the desert entered both African and global history in the wake of trans-Saharan commerce, which itself correlated closely with the “advent of Islam.” That rather simplistic view inadvertently tied the history of the West African Sahara and Sahel to the whims of North African Islam: as different Muslim groups competed for political power along the Mediterranean in the vacuum left by the Romans, control of the rich trans-Saharan trade was always a sought-after prize; routes then shifted accordingly, shaping sub-Saharan societies in the process—or so it was argued.17 This perspective implied a Sahara empty of people, other than peripatetic nomads who conveniently facilitated these shifts by serving as guides. In reality, this early trans-Saharan commerce, whether in famed Sudanese gold and slaves or lesser-known Saharan oryx (antelope) skins and ostrich feathers, depended on those who lived in the desert. It depended on the regional networks they operated (and into which the trans-Saharan trade fed), the camels they raised (with physical characteristics suited to the terrain to be crossed), the food they cultivated (grains but also oasis dates and vegetables), the animals and game they hunted (like antelope and ostrich), and the wells they dug and maintained along caravan routes (which sustained all Saharan trade).

Indeed, this is part of the importance of the “Garamantes discovery,” the clear evidence that this society initially emerged independently of traditionally understood trans-Saharan connections and centuries before the so-called “arrival” of Islam.18 As we have seen, Saharan trade was interregional and as much east-west as it was north-south oriented; its people produced for and invested in those networks that brought so much prosperity—these included the warriors Herodotus described as well as the enslaved who made so much of it possible. During its later centuries as a southern “outpost” of the Roman Empire, there is no doubt that the Garamantes state became more deeply involved in and more dependent on the trade that tied them to both the Mediterranean and the Sudan. But to assume that a shift in that international commerce would bring about an overall decline is to, perhaps unintentionally, buy into that earlier paradigm whose underlying assumptions are clearly untenable here. Moreover, research on the Fezzan subsequent to the 7th century specifically notes that its oases had “long formed a community irrespective of trade routes to the Sudan” and that until at least the mid-11th century it was their “ordinary” (local, regional) exchange networks that supported the luxury-based trans-Saharan trade—just as it had done so many centuries earlier.19

“White Gold”: Saharan Salt Industries

“Ordinary production” and “ordinary trade” had long relied in large part on the Sahara’s most readily exploitable mineral—salt (or, more precisely, salts). To our knowledge, the Dhar-Tichitt complex had not developed a commercial use for its amersal (“bitter, dirty”), the salt crust that formed naturally in pans at the base of the dhar; nevertheless, it is highly likely that local people had discovered its uses for the domestic (human and animal) economy. Its value was undoubtedly realized with the growth of the camel economy that emerged a millennium later, amersal being an excellent source of the salt cure camels need annually. In later centuries, it was collected (in pieces), bagged, and marketed into the Sahel. The Garamantes, on the other hand (as we have seen), were fully exploiting the commercial possibilities of salt produced by large-scale evaporation processes by the late 1st millennium bce.

But by the mid-11th-century chronological marker referred to above, it was no longer the Garamantes’ salt production that was playing such a crucial role anchoring ordinary and luxury trans-Saharan trade. Another community of date-producing oases to the southeast, Kawar, had replaced it. A 12th-century source tells us that the trade between the western Maghreb and Kawar (in today’s Niger desert) was already “extensive.”20 Kawar’s salt, like that of the Garamantes, was the product of evaporation—in this case, hundreds of pits in which natural sun evaporation produced a salt crust that was repeatedly broken, allowing re-formations that increased its thickness. The extensive industry lay at the heart of relations between different Saharan groups, all of whom profited from it: those who owned the pits, those who controlled their distribution, and those who taxed their salt. The ability to tax the trans-Saharan trade in this salt was a function of political power: Kawar was fought over for this privilege both by successor states to the Garamantes and new polities emerging to the east and south: first Kanem (at its peak between the 13th and 14th centuries), then Kanem-Bornu (16th to 17th centuries), and lastly Borno (18th to 19th centuries). Throughout, Kawar remained a critical regional market and production center (the Bilma pits being the largest), epitomizing the intersection between “trans-Saharan” and “Saharan” political economies.21

Borno’s history as it evolved in the wake of a major 18th-century drought and the creation of the revolutionary Islamic caliphate of Sokoto (northern Nigeria) at the turn of the 19th century provides a vital window into that intersection.22 Prior to the drought, this Sahelian-based empire not only exercised at least nominal suzerainty over Kawar, but in conjunction with Saharan (Agades) Tuareg, it controlled the salt ponds (where salt replenished itself annually through evaporation) at Teguidda n’tesemt. The drought facilitated a political shift in power with Kawar coming under Tuareg control and Borno’s role in regional salt commercialization declining. A century later, that “decline” became a precipitous drop: the Sokoto caliphate consolidated itself as the new regional “desert-edge” power, took full control of lucrative Sahelian salt marketing and redistributed political rights to salt production within the caliphate. While Saharan Tuareg retained their influence over the major desert mines, Bornu lost control of two major Niger River salines and was subsequently restricted to minor sources west of Lake Chad. This basic political division of the regional salt industry between Borno, the Tuareg, and the Sokoto caliphate—epitomizing the centuries-old role of the “desert-edge dynamic”—lasted until the European conquest.23 This continued as southern Bornu became a British Nigerian state and the rest (the majority) the French desert colony of Chad.24

The salts playing comparable roles in both regional and international trade further to the west were mostly of different origins and compositions; consequently, they were exploited differently.25 Where the Mauritanian Sahara meets the Atlantic Ocean, there were many areas where seawater evaporated in depressions deep enough to form layers that could be removed from the surface in blocks. One of these, “Awlil,” was known as early as the 11th to 12th centuries and gave rise to extensive trade into and across the desert; it was reputedly a source of both revenue and conflict among the early Sanhaja clans that would later form the Almoravid movement. Also in Mauritania’s desert, in the upland region of the Adrar, was a rock salt mine identified by a famous 11th-century Arab writer as “Tatintal”; it may have been the mine known since the 15th century as “Ijil.” Either way, it was certainly the source of the salt that was so important to Awdaghust’s relations with the Sudan. Its formation had nothing to do with evaporation; it was part of an ancient salt lake buried over the millennia by the desert itself. However, it could be dug from the surface in trenches about a meter deep.

If today one speaks of subterranean oil as the Sahara’s “black gold,” at least from medieval times, Saharan rock salt was its “white gold”—one of the few commodities considered valuable enough to be traded directly for Sudanic gold. The best-known source of rock salt was the Taoudeni basin to the northwest of Timbuktu. Mined in bars like Ijil, the layers were deeper; while some could be dug from surface trenches, the best-quality salt could only be reached through lateral, underground tunnels. Mining here was very labor-intensive. The famous 14th-century Muslim world traveler Ibn Battuta visited the first mine we know to have been exploited here, Tegaza. As part of his travels to the medieval empire of Mali, he wrote that Tegaza was critical to trans-Saharan trade. It was Tegaza salt marketed in Timbuktu that purchased the sought-after gold and slaves from the Sudan.26 It was not a coincidence that Mali’s successor state, Songhay, extended its authority far into the Sahara, becoming the first Sahelian Empire to claim ownership of Tegaza. Its askia (ruler) understood that it was controlling Tegaza’s salt rather than trying to intervene in local marketing controls over Sudan’s gold that would ensure the profitability of the trans-Saharan trade.

This fact did not go unnoticed north of the Sahara. From what is today Morocco, Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur’s (in)famous conquest of Songhay in 1591 is well known; less known are the repeated exchanges between the sultan and the askia over who had “rights” to taxes on Tegaza’s production and trade. The nature of the argument involved an aspect of “Saharan Islam,” but ultimately the Sultan’s claim, which he justified from his position as caliph, was enforced through conquest—the heart of which was not Songhay or its slaves, as is often postulated, but control of Tegaza. Subsequently Mulay Ismail, the first sultan whose dynasty was fully desert-based, despaired of his son’s poor management of Tegaza. He ordered his useless son to supply the envoy he sent with enough camels for the trans-desert trip that was to ensure all overdue taxes were collected. Tegaza salt taxes remained a disputed issue until Moroccan forces finally destroyed the mine’s settlement around 1800. By then, new mines at nearby Tawdenni had been exploited for some time. The histories of these mines—who worked them, traded their salt, taxed their production and trade—is not clear. What is clear is that just as had occurred in the Central Sahara (first around the Garamantes and the Roman Empire, later around Kawar, Kanem, and Bornu), Saharan salt industries of the central basin—Tegaza and Tawdenni—generated workers, camel raisers, and taxes that became increasingly important to the political economy of people and polities both to the north and to the south of the desert.27

The Advent of Islam

As noted above, the second aspect of received wisdom regarding Saharan history is that its trans-Saharan trade is coincident with the “arrival” of Islam. While conceptualizing the early Sahara in terms of trade meant either seeing it as an obstacle or a space to be bridged, seeing it from the perspective of the advent of Islam was to see it as a “gateway” from North Africa to sub-Saharan West Africa. Once again, the memory of peoples who lived in the desert was erased, as was any idea that they may have interacted along this “gateway” in shaping the Islam that gradually rooted itself in West Africa.28

The Almoravids

The most controversial of these “conveyors of Islam” were the Almoravids. Known to mainstream history for their conquest of decadent Umayyad Spain in the 11th century, in Africa their fame derives from their military success in creating a Saharan confederation of Berber clans in Mauritania’s desert, which subsequently conquered the northern trans-Saharan trading town of Sijilmassa and established a powerful empire throughout the western Maghreb. This Saharan-based polity was also an Islamic polity; its conquests were self-defined as jihad (“holy war”). However the Almoravids’ war was in the name of a particular school of Islamic thought, Malikism. The Almoravids, for the most part, did not conquer infidels but rather “misguided” (or “bad”) Muslims.” This was a new kind of jihad and a new era for the Sahara.29

The controversy, however, lies not in the Almoravids’ Saharan birth per se but in their purported “bringing of Islam” to the southern Sahara-Sahel. Much ink has been spilled over whether or not the Almoravids conquered and destroyed the vibrant southern trans-Saharan terminus of Awdaghust and, subsequently, the Sahelian Kingdom of Ghana itself.30 Archaeological evidence makes clear that the Almoravids did not establish their influence over Awdaghust by destroying the town (which, their own agenda notwithstanding, would have been totally contrary to their economic interests). They did leave a religious legacy, although notably in a city already populated by learned Muslims, and the decline did happen—just much more gradually, with the physical changes occurring three to four centuries later. Recent analyses argue that this 13th- to 14th-century decline was more about falling water tables and the consequent inability of the city to support its population and intensive agriculture than it was about jihad.31 Among these alternative views is even one that posits a relation to slavery, bringing the collection of explanations for “decline” remarkably close to that being proffered in the Garamantes context.

As for what has famously been dubbed “the conquest that never was”—the purported Islamization of Ghana, also by Almoravid jihad—it is unlikely that the controversy will ever be silenced. Disagreement continues to swirl around several genres of evidence (archaeological, numismatic, climatic, textual, oral tradition), as well as different ways of interpreting them. That said, to date the argument that the Almoravid force brought Islam to Ghana and deprived its king of his traditional animist power base remains largely unsupported except in a few lines of medieval texts that are themselves questionable.32

The nature of Almoravid religious and political presence in the Sahara may still be debated; the movement’s economic impact is not. Its empire was rooted in and sustained by Saharan resources, production, and trade: varied seasonal pastures, sweet-water wells, and salt cures (especially amersal) were all essential to the good health of the camels on whose backs the Almoravid warriors fought and the trade goods they needed (not just gold but grain and leather goods) were carried. These same camels also provided local transport (including moving camps), hair from which tent cloth was woven, milk, and milk products. Even as the Maghreb and Andalusia captured the limelight in the empire’s later days, the Saharan provinces remained essential. They protected the trans-Saharan commerce that provided the Sudanic gold from which the Almoravids struck their internationally famous dinars. They raised not only camels but other essential livestock, sheep and goats in particular, whose value was measured in products like wool and milk as well as in slaughtered meat and skins (goat skins were highly valued as portable water containers). They hunted the oryx, whose dried and cured skins were crafted into the large shields warriors carried into war.33 And they sent not only their own young men into Maghreb armies but, increasingly, African slaves—slaves who then occupied increasingly important positions.34

Case Study: Awdaghust

These black Africans whose profile in the Almoravid regime grew so rapidly were often purchased in Awdaghust. Undated evidence—most likely from the town’s 10th- to 12th-century heyday—shows the large North African merchant community sending inquiries about how to resolve local business and inheritance disputes to North African jurists. The merchants were Muslims who came to Awdaghust temporarily, intending to return home at some point, but who meanwhile took local wives and had families. There was already a recognized Muslim mediator who worked with the local African authorities, representing the ruler of Ghana.35 Much of Awdaghust’s population was Muslim by the time the 11th-century controversial account of conquest was composed. One of the issues historians have with the oft-used al-Bakri text as “proof” that Almoravid attacks were truly jihad is its clear reference to the residence of recognized Muslim scholars, which in turn testifies to some level of local “Islamization.” It also speaks to an important interiorizing of Islam by a mixed Saharan population; North Africans and locals of different ethnicities and social statuses in turn reinforced the roles of education and law. At this early moment, interpretations of how to be a “good Muslim” in this southern Saharan frontier region were imported and had to come from the “legitimate” northern scholarly community.36 This would later change.

But another window into Islamization in Awdaghust lies in a local traditional legend. According to this memory, Awdaghust’s destruction was the result of a massive slave rebellion that spared only one set of twins among the masters: “this because of their mother, who was a slave-concubine.” At the time, Muslim masters were permitted by Islamic law to take their own female slaves as sexual partners, concubines. If they became pregnant, their children were born free, sharing status and legal familial ties with their masters. The tradition goes on to recount that sometime later, neighboring tribes sought vengeance against “the people of Awdaghust.” Of the latter, the people who could, fled. When they resettled, these same twins were regarded as “founders of the (new) town”; although born of a slave mother, they were “free and noble.” What is significant is not the historical credibility of this oral tradition but that its explanation of the reconstitution of Awdaghust’s population was through the use of a metaphor involving a slave concubine and her twin children. When looked at through the prism of Islam, it underscores the extent to which Saharan society in this part of the desert had fully integrated northern, Islamic culture alongside its merchant visitors.37 It also, albeit indirectly, brings to the forefront the issue of “slavery,” no longer only in military and economic terms but now as part of socio-religious evolution.38

Interiorizing Islam

This particular Saharan form of interiorizing Islam had a lasting influence on Saharan societies, as is evidenced in the famous “replies” of jurists Al-Maghili (15th century) and Ahmad Baba (16th century).39 By then, the Sahara was ably producing its own legal scholars: Al-Maghili was born in a northern desert-edge city in today’s Algeria that looked to Saharan trade for its wealth, and Ahmad Baba hailed from the other side of the desert, near Timbuktu. The former became known for his Machiavellian role as “advisor to princes,” in this instance to the new askia of Mali’s successor state Songhay; the second as an authority on “all things Saharan”—ironically this reputation was made while he was under “house arrest” in Marrakech in the wake of Sultan Moulay Ismail’s 1591 Saharan conquest.

Both the askia and trans-Saharan traders were concerned about who could legally be enslaved and marketed, and under what conditions. The askia wanted to be a good Muslim ruler, managing his Timbuktu slave market according to religious law; the merchants to be “good Muslim” buyers, purchasing “legitimate” slaves. Why this became problematic was the growing adherence of desert-edge and Sudanic societies to Islam and a lack of clear understanding of how to “measure” being Muslim. According to Islamic law as understood at that time, Muslims could only legally enslave non-Muslims; Ahmed Baba was asked: “How did one know whether the societies from which slaves came, were Muslim? How were societies in transition and regions where some adopted Islam and others resisted, to be evaluated? Could one use race, ‘blackness,’ to make this determination?” This latter point elicited Ahmed Baba’s famous reply that “no,” race had nothing to do with the legality of enslavement, it was all about belief: when in doubt, a “good Muslim should not buy.” But it is a hugely important historical moment, the one in which the question of how race should—or should not—relate to who could legally be made a slave.40

A second aspect of this problem related specifically to female slaves: Under what circumstances could they be purchased? Al-Maghili underscored the importance of proving that the slave was not already pregnant by her master. This meant more than a ruling on a market concern over who should “own” the not-yet-born child. Read in the contemporary concern over “being a good Muslim,” his point was that such a pregnancy and birth rendered the woman umm al-walad (“mother of the child”) and thus non-salable. The child was to be born free—therefore, equally non-salable.41

What these seemingly archaic legal opinions reveal are the real-life problems of the 15th- to 16th-century southern Sahara. They shed considerable light on the nature of society as it negotiated the challenges of ongoing North African political upheavals (which reverberated into and across the desert regularly), regional and local climate/environment shifts, changes in desert resource exploitation, and the absorption of (at times, different) Islamic beliefs governing even the most intimate of relations, such as that between a master and his female slave.

Saharan Scholarship and Islamic Heritage

Recent research has illuminated much about the Sahara’s Islamic heritage from this era. Ahmed Baba was not the only learned scholar in famed Timbuktu. The city housed multiple libraries containing texts on law, fatwa (scholarly opinions), poetry, rhetoric, grammar, and Qur’anic exegesis (textual analysis). Ironically, it was contemporary (2011–2012) fundamentalist threats to northern Mali and its physical legacies of this early era that made protecting these libraries and texts a fully international concern.42 And Timbuktu (and the Niger Bend) was not the only region generating learned texts and fatwa. In 2015, a compendium of scholarly biographies and works composed in the more westerly areas of Mauritania and the Western Sahara revealed an even greater breadth and depth of Islamic learning than the Timbuktu tradition.43 And an eleven-volume set of fatwa from the 15th to early 20th centuries shone the spotlight on both the chronological and geographical significance of this particular facet of Saharan intellectual tradition.44 These “scholarly opinions” are responses to questions far exceeding anything we might think of as “legal” or “religious.” In one example from the 17th century, questions about personally experienced problems were sent from throughout the Sahara-Sahel and even southern Morocco to a well-known cleric in Mauritania’s Shinqit; his “replies” (like Ahmad Baba’s and al-Maghili’s before him) dealt not only with religious issues like prayer ablutions but also marriage, inheritance, slavery, and, above all, commerce.45

What we know from these (and other) manuscripts preserved in Saharan libraries argues strongly for an active engagement with the larger Muslim world. This was “Africanized Islam”—not syncretism but rather an Islam digested and debated by Saharan scholars in the context of their own historical developments and cultural challenges. This process reflects the earlier moment in (mainstream) Islamic history when, in the post-Prophet era, “laws” and “hadith” were being remembered, transcribed, and interpreted; ultimately they emerged in the 11th and 12th centuries as recognized schools of law both responding to and subsequently influencing the expanding Muslim world itself.46

Negotiating Islamic Authority

How Islam interacted with Saharan societies across the western and central regions appears to have shifted significantly with the arrival of the 18th century, in large part because of changes in the way Islam was being practiced elsewhere in the Islamic world.47 But just as earlier development was not a simple matter of “North African stimulus and trade,” this was not merely a question of “importing revolution” from reformist movements arising in the Middle East. While some of those ideas entered into Saharan politics, they did so through existing networks and alliances. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Sahara became an arena in which power defined by secular interests was openly challenged by religious authority. The complication was that both clans who self-identified as “secular” (warriors) and “religious” (clerics) were Muslim: they usually formed alliances such that renowned clerics, who controlled sedentary economic activities, were protected by warriors. When actual conflict broke out, it was often between the latter (and their clients) representing the interests of the former (and their clients). For the most part, these differences were articulated in debates for which we have copious (Arabic) manuscript evidence. While the warriors implicitly argued the essence of “might makes right,” the clerics developed important counterpoints as they (and then their students), were highly educated in Islamic law and rhetoric.48

Case Study: The Kunta

One such “clerical clan,” the Kunta, grew out of the medieval trade–and–religion environment discussed above. It spread throughout what is now southern Morocco, Algeria, central Mali (including the Azawad and Niger Bend/Delta), and into all of Northern, Central, and Eastern Mauritania between the 16th and 18th centuries. It did so by combining the resources recognized as defining Saharan authority and taking a major role in how this was understood.49

The Kunta built their religious authority on their educated clerics (shaykhs), who were also sufi (Islamic mystics) who performed miracles and had prophetic dreams; they are associated with introducing the famous Qadiriyya religious order (tariq), founded in 12th-century Baghdad. The shaykhs’ authority (and with it the Qadiriyya tariq itself) was built through the adherence of clients and students, many of whom attached themselves and their families—sometimes even rights to their properties and herds—to a particular shaykh. In addition, Kunta were able to develop an extensive salt commerce around Tegaza-Tawdenni. Their late 18th-century interest in these salt mines brought them into conflict with the powerful Moroccan Sultan Mulay Ismail (referenced above). Significantly, there were exchanges between the sultan and the Kunta shaykh, Sidi al-Muktar al-Kunti; evidently the latter’s religious authority was sufficiently elevated to be communicating directly with the caliph. However, as Sidi al-Muktar saw it, he, as a religious spokesperson for Islam, could not be subservient to a “secular power,” even if that power happened to be a Muslim sultan. The Kunta shaykh was openly challenging the nature of Saharan power and claiming one in particular for himself. He then went on to argue that the Kunta represented Islamic authority in the Sahara and that they should therefore not pay taxes to the sultan. Moreover, he questioned the legitimacy of these particular taxes; at issue (again) were the Tegezza-Tawdenni salt industries. Sidi al-Mukhtar asserted that the mines belonged to what could not be taxed: “salt was like water, fire and pasture”—free to everyone. He was fighting an unquestionably important economic and political battle drawing on Islamic law and culture, itself testimony to his scholarly authority.50

This vignette illustrates how understanding Saharans’ negotiating of religion and politics allows us to see that the Sahara was not merely some “gateway” through which intact, imported tariqa reached sub-Saharan regions. Rather, it played crucial roles in shaping these belief systems, here the Qadiriyya, that then became integral to religious practice in West Africa.51 Though this sometimes occurred through jihad-based state building as in the Sahel wars of the 19th century, more often it was through the long-term, pacific proselytizing activities of clerics and merchants alike. Islam in its many forms reached the peoples and polities of the Sahel and Sudan as a part of their larger social and economic interrelationships with the Sahara. The writings of clerical leaders like Sidi al-Mukhtar, which are multiplied many times over in the context of larger “Saharan scholarship,” reveal the less visible but no less essential elements comprising the Saharan society that would soon face French intrusion and colonialism.

Conquest and Colonialism: The Sahara Reconsidered and Reshaped

The Imperial Project

The intrusion of the French into this Saharan space during the 19th century of New Imperialism was a moment of illusion, disillusion, and disaster, not that French explorers and politicians or Saharan warriors and clerics would necessarily have seen their interaction in such terms. The Sahara was part of the French “Imperial Project.” As such, it simultaneously challenged the “Mission Civilatrice” (civilizing mission) as home to fanatic “Mohammedens” and represented an opportunity to display the modernity of French industry in the form of the trans-Saharan railroad (TSR).

A generation-long unsuccessful struggle against a Berber jihad in Algeria (c. 1830–1880s) created in the French psyche the idea of racialized Islam. Saharans practiced a “white Islam” (Islam maure) that was dangerous and should be closely watched; moderates were to be supported, non-moderates to be dealt with proactively.52 The Islam practiced south of the Sahara was “black Islam” (Islam noir); as an “Africanized” version of the volatile religion, it was seen as less threatening to French interests.53 This understanding of West African Islam, bifurcated by race and geography, erased the realities of Saharan–Sahel relations and the integral—indeed, at times intimate—associations formed through recent centuries of religious, social, and political integration.

The projected trans-Saharan railroad, however, reflected another vision of the desert—a “void,” empty of people, inviting French development.54 In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the project was tied to the obsessions that the desert was the gateway to “Timbuktu the Mysterious” and the inestimable wealth hidden beyond; it was argued to be the answer to protecting French colonies to the north and south. This illusion persisted in spite of the massacre of the Flatters Expedition (1880–1881), sent out to evaluate the viability of the railway, by Algerian “fanatical” Saharans. The project, dropped in the wake of Flatters, then postponed because of World War I, was reprieved in the late 1920s. Serious plans were then rejected as too expensive during the onset of the Great Depression. The TSR saw its last gasp as a kind of national resurrection during the “dark years” of Vichy France during World War II. About 300 kilometers of desert rail were constructed south from Oujda to Bouarfa in eastern Morocco before financial shortages brought a halt to the project, which was then definitively abandoned in 1945.55

In the infamous “Scramble for Africa”, France succeeded in acquiring most of the Sahara, which it then divided between its North African and Sudan (French West African, or AOF) territories; the Sahara was transformed into the southern and northern margins, respectively, of each. It was then also subdivided between those colonies in a north-south direction. But it rapidly became apparent that a line drawn on a European map was not actually a line drawn in the sand: Saharan exchange networks, families, and access to resources (“fire, water, pasture, and salt”) were not relinquished to colonial cartographers. That said, it remains true that this moment of 19th-century European chess-playing on the board called Africa was critical in shaping the Sahara’s role in the continent’s 20th-century future.

Desert Resistance

The Sahara generated some of the fiercest long-term resistance to colonial rule of any African region. While the 1916–1917 Tuareg Rebellion timed to take advantage of French vulnerability in World War I makes it onto occasional maps of African resistance, the pressures exerted by Saharans of Berber, Arab, Tuareg, and “Moorish” ethnicity throughout the colonial experience are rarely acknowledged.56 Some of this resistance claimed a religious basis, like that of Shaykh Ma al-Maynin. He straddled Mauritania and Morocco in his clan movements and religious influence. He declared jihad against the French from his base in the now Western Sahara in 1904; his son submitted only in 1921. Resisters included the Hamallists, who were active along the Mauritanian–French Soudan desert edge from the 1930s. Their activities were sufficiently disruptive to result in a much-debated redrawing of the territorial boundaries between the AOF and Mauritania in 1944, the intent being to isolate the movement from its “dangerous” Saharan followers. Then there was the Sanusiyya brotherhood, straddling the Lybian-Chad frontier.57

Other resistance had as its rationale the defense of a Saharan way of life, which by definition could not accept colonial boundaries that cross-cut nomadic movement, interregional exchange, tribal cultural relations, access to resources, and trans-Saharan trade interests. French administrative reports from the 1920s through the mid-1930s annually recounted multiple raids, attacks, and battles with Saharan “resistors” from regions in the north and east. The Reguibat and Awlad Bou Sba (“grands nomads”)—camel herders and slave traders who annually traversed thousands of kilometers of the desert from Morocco through Mauritania and as far as Senegal and the (French) Soudan—engaged in raids for humans and herds with impunity into the 1930s. Special desert camel corps (meharistes) that the French drew from Saharan traditional “enemies” of these clans were sent to confront this resistance. But military action most often replicated the traditional raid/retaliation dynamic embedded in nomadic society: the “booty” was recovered for now; the “game,” however, went on. The impact of Reguibat and other Saharan raids on the still-functioning Tawdenni salt industry, on the other hand, was devastating; they caused periodic starvation in the 1920s and early 1930s because of their attacks on supply caravans as well as occasional slave raids on the mine itself.58 Ironically, the defeat of these romanticized “desert warriors” ultimately came not from French arms but from Saharan drought—an extended one that forced the Reguibat into submission in 1934 to avoid starvation and the destruction of the clan forever.

Case Study: Sanusiyya-Chad

The eastern Saharan region that was to become Chad—a region long tied into northern, especially Libyan trade networks, was also part of the Ottoman Empire’s far-flung sphere of influence; it experienced perhaps the most dramatic collective impact of early colonialism. It had been developed by a religious brotherhood not unlike the Kunta. In the second half of the 19th century, the Sanusiyya tariq (founded in the late 18th century) established zawaya (sedentary religious centers) that supported agricultural production and trade along trans-Saharan and regional commercial networks. Using client and slave labor, they actively controlled the regional trade in dates, grain, salt, and, increasingly, slaves. Originally opposed to “foreign” Ottoman control (sufficiently so as to be considered a threat), the Sanusiyya grew in power and numbers through its fierce resistance to the French who were both foreign and Christian.59 Conquest was especially brutal in this area; stories of retaliatory atrocities abound. In one infamous case, the destruction of a major Sanusiyya center in 1915, shrines and tombs were blown up and prisoners were chained to walls, burned to death, and left unburied. Drought subsequently played a role in weakening the defenses of people left without livestock. Unfortunately, that lack also affected the French, who regularly commandeered transport animals and supplies; their frustration at what they read as local refusal (rather than inability) to fulfill their demands also escalated the violence.60

The French military became a permanent presence in the Chadian Sahara, as it did elsewhere in the Niger Bend (Timbuktu) and central Mauritania (Atar), for example. But here, the zawaya of their former Sanusiyya enemy were transformed into zariba (military camps) like the town of Faya. And they soon needed the same Sanusiyya networks they had formerly attacked to supply camel mounts, pack animals, meat, grain, and even men to replenish auxiliaries and guides. This dependence on local societies, also experienced in other Saharan outposts, had deep and long-lasting impacts. In Chad, it literally made and unmade regional towns, as the presence of soldiers and administrators created job and social opportunities that suddenly appeared and disappeared according to changing colonial policies.61 Put simply, the era of “conquest” across West Africa was intricately connected to French interests to the north and south of the Sahara. And therefore the Sahara itself suddenly acquired new and, ultimately, enduring centrality to French colonial policy.

Pacification, Taxation, and Social Change

The Sahara was still seen more in terms of a potential threat to these interests than as an intrinsically valuable colonial addition; the first post-conquest challenge was to “pacify” this space. In addition to directly confronting Muslim-led resistors like the Sanusiyya, French meharistes also engaged desert warriors regularly, usually in response to raids on camps, animals, and military patrols. These warriors were also Muslims but did not have the religious credentials of those who claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad (as noted above). Their role in Saharan society had evolved over time into that of “paid protectors” for other clans’ herds, oases, slaves, and caravans. In exchange for hefty taxes, they policed the desert. The French saw them not only as a military challenge but as an exploitative sector—producing nothing, preying on others, superfluous in the context of pacification.

New taxes now levied by the French to ensure “peace” were meant to eliminate the need for any other paid protection. Local administrators pointed out repeatedly that this policy was creating an impoverished class with no access to land or other resources that remained (traditionally) in the hands of clerical clans. Moreover, warriors’ ability to attract followers and clients was predicated on their skills as protectors, retaliators, and “re-possessors” of raided animals and women/children taken as slaves, a profession now rendered redundant. The balance that had been Saharan society was one in which instability was the norm, conflict essential, and social flexibility the key to survival.62 Pacification all but eliminated the economic and social viability of these “warrior” clans and their clients, shifting additional power of many kinds into the hands of the “clerics.” This in turn undermined any remaining political legitimacy of embryonic states such as the emirates that had emerged in Mauritania or the Tuareg confederations in northern Mali and Niger. The immediate consequences of this process may have frustrated local administrators—but longer-term legacies challenged the very viability of post-colonial states.63

Underlying the goal of pacification was another pillar of colonialism, namely effective taxation. But the very nature of Saharan societies, irrespective of their political position vis-à-vis French policy, worked against it. Across the full west-east spectrum of the desert, all clans encompassed varying degrees of nomadism: “full,” which could embrace thousands of kilometers in several directions according to camel needs, raiding opportunities, and/or commercial interests; “transhumant,” annual movements within a limited regional or interregional sphere, depending on herd (often mixed camels, sheep, goats) requirements or exchange opportunities, sometimes combined with agriculture; and “sporadic,” a variant on “transhumant” but determined more by annual climate changes, which might necessitate a large cycle one year, a moderate one another, or a division of animals among clan members traveling in different patterns at different moments of the year. While most French administrators on the ground understood the pastoralist adaptations they observed, they still had to answer to Dakar and, ultimately, to Paris. They were required to define “tribes” (tribus) and families (fractions), identify relations between them, and fix their territorial boundaries in order to tax them. Not only was this process complicated and unrealistic, it had a hugely detrimental impact on the Saharan societal flexibility that buffered the vagaries of desert living.

Saharan Slavery in Transition

These two processes—pacification and taxation—together shaped a third ostensible goal of colonialism, namely the abolition of slavery. The undisputed continuation of the institution well beyond the colonial era and arguably in practice (if not in law) even into the early 21st century in Saharan regions has drawn much contemporary media and academic attention; “Sahara” and “slavery,” especially in Mauritania but also in Mali and Niger, are often presented as synonymous.64

The French readily accepted local explanations of Islamic slavery. They used them to turn a blind eye to what they called “domestic slavery,” slaves born into the family who had various opportunities to be freed (or free themselves, known among Moors as haratine, among Tuareg as ikalen). What was prohibited was enslavement and slave-trading. There was enough ambiguity between legal definitions to frustrate local administrators attempting to implement these laws, the more so because they openly permitted local Saharans to continue “business as usual.” Masters willingly freed male slaves to accommodate colonial demands for labor because Islamic law advocated a kinship-like relationship, wala, that kept former master and former slave “tied.” Intended to protect freed slaves from being left destitute by their masters, wala in the colonial context also assured that masters and their families retained an ongoing economic and moral authority.65

Those same masters resisted freeing female slaves; female slaves produced children. When the father was also the master, the child was born free, belonging to and enlarging the master’s family. The female acquired a special status alleviating labor demands, prohibiting her sale, and assuring her eventual manumission. When he was another slave or hratani, the child was born a slave, belonging to the mother’s master. Haratine families (including those with slave wives) were increasingly settled in semi-autonomous agricultural villages, adwaba, as part of French policy to expand grain cultivation and “sedentarize” Saharans.66

While it is true that slavery as an institution was not really abolished, it was being transformed. The emergence of the colonial economy—towns housing soldiers and administrators, needs for food supplies, services and recruits, and provisions of schools and health clinics, alongside the growth of adwaba—offered new opportunities for those previously limited in choices. This included poorer families who had been clients to wealthier pastoralists, so-called inferior classes like musicians and blacksmiths who were “casted” in traditional society, and slaves and haratine who renegotiated relationships with masters or, in some cases, simply left.

It also included women from all of these social groups whose traditional limitations had been doubly enforced by status and patriarchy. Their options offered dubious improvement—prostitution and other “street life” or domestic service much like that they had left. Some returned home voluntarily, preferring the security of “family”; some were forced home by fathers, brothers, and/or former masters (with or without the assistance of colonial justice). But many remained in urban neighborhoods that came to be known as “liberty villages,” where there was protection and support from others seeking to similarly transform their lives.67

World War II and Decolonization

The Saharan War Effort

The Sahara bordering the North African colonies of Cyrenaica (Libya) and Egypt acquired international fame in the context of World War II’s wily “Desert Fox,” German General Erwin Rommel, and his effective evasions of Allied forces using the terrain for which he was named. The 1992 novel The English Patient delivered literary immortality to it as the setting for a story of romance and intrigue drawn from the engagement of British (and British allies), Germans, and Italians in the war’s North African campaigns. But the Sahara of concern here, the one loosely associated with West Africa, also played a role in World War II—or, rather, a variety of roles, all of which further reshaped its societies.

In the east, Chad was one of the first African colonies (followed by all of French Equatorial Africa) to support Charles de Gaulle’s “Free France” after France fell so unexpectedly to Germany in June 1940. The north, only a generation before destroyed by the French conquest, now facilitated the movement of a military column (Colonne Leclerc) against Italy’s southern Libya. This war effort brought a short-lived but long-remembered moment of prosperity to the region, especially the capital Faya, one that locals, including the French military still posted there, attempted to build upon.68

The French West Africa colonies of Mauritania, Soudan (now Mali), and Niger fell in line with North Africa in becoming part of Vichy France. Mauritania’s desert airport at Atar posed a critical problem for the Allies’ “Operation Torch” in North Africa in 1942: supply planes from America wanting to use the North/West African air route over Mauritania would be vulnerable to attack; consequently, a much longer route via Accra and Kano had to be entertained. Following the fall of the Vichy regime, the US Air Force quickly took control of Atar, upgraded the airport, and used it as a stopover on its Cairo-Dakar route for cargo, transiting aircraft and personnel. People’s memories of this moment in their history are mixed. Unlike Chadians, Mauritanian Saharans saw little prosperity from the war or even from the presence of the Americans (apart from some short-term employment opportunities as domestics and chauffeurs). They remember it mostly as a time of famine and extreme poverty; imports of grain, cloth, and other manufactured goods needed for “the war effort” were prohibited. But whereas the boom in Chad was short-lived, Atar largely retained the importance it garnered during the war. It later became the location of independent Mauritania’s first military training college as well as the administrative capital of a large region soon to be enriched by mineral exploration.69

New Future for the Sahara?

The 1950s, the decade of decolonization, were characterized by intense politicization and widespread conflict throughout Africa—the Sahara included. Saharans had been treated mostly as those to be contained, controlled, and pacified throughout French colonial presence, and in the immediate post-war era it was still true to say that the French saw the Sahara as little more than a vast expanse of expensive sand.70 While it may have played episodic roles of importance during the war, the (now) mythic trans-Saharan railroad was permanently stalled and the sands had yet to deliver up anything of modern economic value. This, however, was soon to change.

As early as the 1920s, geological exploration had suggested rich underground Saharan oil deposits, but it was only in the post-war years when concerns for rebuilding France were paramount that the reports were acted upon and explorations undertaken. By 1956, oil and gas had been located in the Algerian Sahara; suspicions were that this was just the beginning. Figures were projected suggesting that the Sahara could be the answer to France’s critical need for oil (“Black Gold”)—ironically, so symbolically opposed to the Sahara’s long-held economic role as provider of desert salts. During the late 1950s, it was being argued not only among politicians but to the general public that unifying the Saharan regions of Mauritania, Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Chad was the key to France’s industrial future.

The Common Organization of Saharan Regions

The 1957 law that finally created the Common Organization of Saharan Regions (OCRS in its French acronym) had known previous unsuccessful attempts.71 The difference in 1957 was the Algerian War. The idea that Algeria might be lost to France suddenly underscored the need to protect the resource-rich part of the colony.72 It was promoted at home and abroad as an elision of colonial/post-colonial discourse: the ORCS was about development (mise en valeur), economic expansion of the Saharan regions of the French Republic, the purpose of which was “the social promotion of Saharan populations.” To some Tuareg in northern Mali and Niger, this rhetoric resonated with a promise of autonomy vis-à-vis the post-colonial states whose power centers of Bamako and Niamey, respectively, were far to the south, among “black” cattle herders and cultivators.

But the OCRS had never had Tuareg separatist interests in mind; far from it. It was seen by most for what it was: a strategy by which France could decolonize while simultaneously retaining influence. Morocco openly labeled it an “ultra-colonialistic institution,” albeit not without a large dose of self-interest.73 Its own political claim to the Sahara dating from the 16th century remained alive and well, now re-invigorated by decolonization. The “Greater Morocco” lobby had Mauritania in its sights—or at least the Saharan part where iron ore had been discovered in 1952; production was set to begin in 1958.74 This reclamation also encompassed the Spanish Sahara, where rich deposits of phosphates gave additional promise of wealth. Mauritania’s soon-to-be Saharan rulers had similar suspicions about the OCRS’s political designs disguised as economic development; however, they were also aware of the Greater Morocco threat. By refusing to be part of the French project but simultaneously rejecting Moroccan overtures, they played the competing neo-imperialists off against each other, temporarily retaining their own autonomy. Ironically, it was their subsequent attempt to divide up the Spanish Sahara with Morocco that most jeopardized this achievement. The costs of the war and its unpopularity with the several northern clans who traditionally nomadized in the region ended post-independence democracy with a military coup and simultaneously terminated Mauritania’s claims in the area. Morocco’s “occupation” of the Western Sahara has become semi-permanent; as of 2018, it remains a United Nations political issue largely independent of the Sahara itself.75

As for the OCRS, it was quickly decried in the famous Accra Resolution on Imperialism and Colonialism in December 1958, along with NATO and the European Common Market, as one of the “military and economic pacts intended to strengthen Imperialist activities in Africa.”76 The OCRS had never been meant to serve any but French interests. Algeria’s independence and reclamation of “its” Sahara in 1960 put an end to the project; a short-lived attempt to keep it alive as a technical initiative was an abysmal failure. In 1963, the original idea and its adaptations were all abandoned.

Legacies of Decolonization

Disillusion and Dissent

For those Tuareg who had invested hopes in a Saharan state, this disappointment added to other more localized grievances against the Malian government; the first of their repeated rebellions broke out in the north between 1962 and 1964.77 The immediate and harsh retaliation of the new independent state served to reinforce northern fears of a life of marginalization and poverty; even those who had not initially supported the idea of a Saharan state (including non-Tuareg) began to move into this political camp. There is no direct thread between subsequent rebellions (including those between 1990 and 1995 and 2007 and 2009) because interest groups shifted and the Malian state changed not only leadership but ideological direction and therefore “global allies.” Moreover, in the course of the disastrous 1968–1972 drought that devastated herds and crops across the West African Sahara-Sahel, thousands of Saharan pastoralists, including Mali’s and Niger’s Tuareg, were forced out of the desert and into Sahel towns. The latter were themselves hard-hit by food shortages and the collapsing economy; Saharans looking for non-existent employment opportunities with equally non-existent skills and education exacerbated the already volatile situation. It did not improve perceptions of differences between “north and south,” Sahara and Sahel, “white and black” (overlaid in Niger and Chad by “Islam and Christianity”), which continued to write themselves onto political tensions and social conflicts.78

In Mauritania, a similar phenomenon unfolded but with a marked “social” character: former slave masters (pastoralists, owners of oases and date palms) lost herds and agricultural produce and thus the means to care for their servile dependents. Slaves and haratine flooded into urban centers including the new cities of Nouakchott and Nouadhibou. Unlike their former masters, however, they were accustomed to physical and domestic labor and were able to make the transition not only more quickly but more successfully. These drought years are said to have marked the most important watershed in the evolution of the country’s history of slavery, having impact more far-reaching than either colonial or independent Mauritanian government legal policies. But exacerbating economic with social struggles here too had political consequences: Mauritania moved rapidly to fulfill its new identity of the “Islamic” Republic, jealously guarding power in the hands of the “white,” clerical Saharans and becoming increasingly conservative in religious terms. These moves also produced political conflict; between 1989 and 1992 over 80,000 “blacks” from the south were forced into exile, not counting the untold numbers who disappeared permanently into prisons or were killed without accountability.79

The Sahara in Modern Politics

There is no doubt that differing visions of the Sahara during the critical moments of decolonization and early independence had enduring legacies for each nation in which the Sahara constituted a substantial territory and in which Saharans, however demographically few and however identified—by skin color, ethnicity, and/or religion—were declared citizens. In all but one case, the French transferred power to their “sub-Saharan” partners, those who had complied with colonial laws, accepted colonial rule, and digested colonial culture and education, leaving Saharans feeling further marginalized or, as in Mali, outright betrayed. That much of the international aid during the drought intended to help both the Sahel and Saharans remained in the hands of businessmen and politicians living in Bamako, Niamey, and Ndjamena did not help.80 In Mauritania, the exception where power was given to the “white” Saharans, the rapid marginalization of and discrimination against blacks, combined with the government’s refusal to acknowledge the very real social changes colonial and climate influences had wrought with respect to former “warriors,” clients, slaves, and haratine meant inevitable political instability. It also ensured reactive attempts by Saharan elites to protect their privileged positions.81 Consequently, the history of post-colonial Sahara writ large was one of political authoritarianism (if not dictatorship, as occurred in Mauritania), civil war (as in Chad), growing social conflicts (racial, class, urban-rural, religious), and declining economic sustainability.82

The Sahara into the 21st Century

Using and Abusing the Past

Today we are experiencing a cruel irony. Once again, the Sahara has a role in Africa that affects Africa’s global position significantly. It has become infamous for its “trans-Saharan trade” and its “Islamic practices.” But they are not what they once were.

The trans-Saharan trade that once was rooted in Saharan resources and aided in developing a healthy economy is now based on externally produced commodities: drugs from South America, cigarettes, and arms from Europe and the Middle East. Saharans are using traditional transport networks, but they are now traversed by trucks, not camels, and they have established their own systems of controls and taxes that lie well outside the laws of any recognized state.83 And while not the base of this increasingly humanitarian problem, these networks also support the desperate attempts of West Africans to find economic security in Europe. The Sahara has become “the gateway to the North”, a perverted inversion of its once-perceived and celebrated role. The migrants are not Saharans per se, but they trust Saharan networks to get them “out of Africa” and into Europe.

The Sahara as a center of Islamic learning and development has not only been largely erased by historiography, contemporary fundamentalist Islam has done its best to destroy any physical (manuscript, monument) evidence of its earlier history. It is important to understand that it is precisely because the Sahara has been for so long an intellectual incubator that evolving Islamic ideas gravitate here. Also, modern Islamic movements have tended to build on a very early premise of Islam—that it is a religion that helps the poor and the discriminated-against and reminds them that they are equal in the eyes of Allah. Saharan former French colonial states in West Africa, ranked among the world’s poorest, have long been seen by traditionalist Islamic movements like the Wahhabi (active in parts of West Africa from the 1940s) as areas in which investment in education and health, in particular, will have an impact.

Globalizing the Sahara in an Age of Islamization

In today’s global climate, however, more radical strains initially imported from the Middle East are taking root among the Sahara’s fertile-fold, especially its unemployed, uneducated young. Just as traditional clerics managed the desert economy, they too have successfully piggybacked onto and often taken control over profitable trans-Saharan commerce to support their activities. Since 2012, Mali’s north has borne the brunt of the ongoing instability generated by the activities of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an offshoot of Algerian problems associated with Osama bin Laden. It has spread attacks and kidnappings into Mauritania and Niger, alternately allied with or fighting against locally grown movements like Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (splintered from AQIM, led by a Mauritanian, having a heavy hand in Malian drug-trading), and the Islamic Movement for the Azawad (the most independence-oriented of the groups, announcing by their name the geographical focus of a future state). That said, it was—and remains—the National Army for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) that advocates establishing an autonomous Tuareg nation. Although AQIM claimed as one of its goals the “ultimate” liberation of Mali from France, and the MNLA to “right the wrongs” of the legacies of colonialism (the post-colonial Malian state), the result of their escalated conflicts drew the French military back into their former colony with “boots on the ground” and fighter jets in the air in Operation Serval (2013–2014). Although officially an international effort requested by Mali and supported with Malian troops, it opened the door for regional and international accusations of the launch of a new “post-colonial imperialism.” Neither the conflicts nor their political and religious fallout has ceased either in Mali or in neighboring Mauritania, Niger, or Chad (or in the Algerian Sahara, for that matter) as of 2018.84

Media comparisons of contemporary drug trading and human trafficking, as well as religious “fanaticism” with the Sahara’s history of trans-Saharan trade, Islamic networks, and jihads, may resonate with a sensationalist-seeking general public, but they distort our understanding of what has made the Sahara a viable place for sustainable societies over the centuries—and most importantly, what could ultimately destroy it. Looking even superficially at the history of Saharans is to underscore the dynamic elements in their societies, which were as much economic and social as they were religious, and the extent to which their embedded flexibility and adaptive nature shaped long-term evolution. Their challenges have been both “internal,” generated by climate change, local warfare, and political instability, and “external,” sometimes welcomed, sometimes resisted, usually in some way negotiated. The latter included colonial interests from the Romans through the Ottomans to the Europeans; neo-colonialism from seemingly everywhere but especially America and the Middle East; and capitalism in general, bringing opportunities and exploitation and, most recently, “global culture”—perhaps the largest challenge of all. But something called “Saharan life” continued to be identified and lived albeit in rapidly transforming ways.85Will the conjuncture of extremist politics and religious movements characterizing the early 21st century become, in hindsight, the beginning of the end or merely another dramatic phase in Saharan adaptation and sustainability? Neither outcome is self-evident.

Primary Sources

There are few accessible collections of Saharan documents outside of family collections in “protected” Mauritanian centers like Shinquit, Wadan, Tishit, and Walata or in internationally funded libraries like Mali’s Ahmed Baba Institute and Haidara Commemorative Library in Timbuktu. Prior to 2012, these largely Arabic texts (some in Sahelian languages like Songhai and Pulaar) numbered in the hundreds of thousands and included scholarly books, poems, financial ledgers, religious interpretations/opinions (nawazil, fatwa), and letters that could run to several pages as a mixture of rhetoric and politics. While some covered many pages, others were literally scraps of paper, reflecting the historical value of this imported good in the Sahara.86 Most of them become accessible to a larger public when scholars use/cite them extensively and translate them in the context of their published research.87 However, the still-flourishing South African–directed “Tombouctou Manuscripts Project” (founded 2002) has digitized and translated into English a small sampling of the materials.88

A handful of these 16th- and 17th-century manuscripts are also available in annotated translations, thanks largely to the dedicated efforts of the late John O Hunwick.89 Nor should the broader Sahara known by the name of Mauritania’s ancient oasis town of “Shinqit” be forgotten as Charles Stewart’s recently completed compilation of Mauritanian and Western Saharan scholarly biographies and manuscript listings of Arabic literature reveals.90

The Sahara also yields up its history through its famous rock art, dating to Neolithic times and especially prevalent in the central massifs and through “rock writing.” The progenitor of the contemporary Tifinagh alphabet, used to write tamazight or “Berber” and attributed to Garamantes development, has been found across the full breadth of the Sahara, often appearing next to pictorial art.91 Archaeology too has excavated the desert’s ancient history through multi-year, multi-disciplinary projects like those carried out on Tegdagoust/Awdagust, Dhar-Tichitt, or more recently, as led by David Mattingly, on Jarma.92 But the nature of the “documents” produced by such efforts renders them difficult to access except through published photographs and analyses.93

African historians are comfortable drawing on other disciplines (anthropology, ethnography, folklore) to work with oral histories; both “formal tradition” and “life history” play large roles in recent Saharan research. They are invariably conducted in one of several Saharan dialects (e.g., Mauritanian hassaniyya, Tuareg tamashek, or Berber tamazight) and/or desert-edge languages (Pulaar, Songhay, and Hausa), meaning they are accessible to a larger community only when transcribed and translated. They tend to appear in excerpts included in French and English publications.94

These are Saharan-generated sources. External sources are another story. We are fortunate to have both French and English collections of medieval Arabic documents, covering roughly the 9th to 15th centuries. While using them suffers from all the issues associated with the problems inherent in using translated materials, the sudden access for non-Arabists to this evidence (in French in 1975, in English in 1981), materials that remain difficult to track down even in Arabic, was one of those “watershed” moments in Saharan historiography.95

Most regions in Africa by nature of the continent’s history then become “known” through European and/or Middle Eastern (Ottoman/Turkish) accounts. The first that were relevant for the Sahara were Portuguese, told from the vantage point of the coast but incorporating information given by Saharans.96 Thereafter, most “traveler’s accounts” (commonly consulted as primary documentation) were in French or, in the central Sahara, German (and, to a lesser extent, English). While there are many excellent French annotated publications of Saharan travelers, including those who traveled involuntarily having been enslaved following shipwrecks along the coast, few have been translated into English.97 For the Central Sahara, on the other hand, works by the German travelers Heinrich Barth and Gustaf Nachtigal are available in English, the latter thanks to the seminal four-volume translation by Allan Fisher and Humphrey Fisher, and compilations of the English accounts of Majors Alexander Gordon Laing and Dixon Denham and Capt. Hugh Clapperton have been published through the Hakluyt Society with valuable additions of English-translated Arabic letters.98

Twentieth-century colonial accounts tend to be accessible only in French National Archives (Aix en Provence) or, at best, published in whole or in part, in French. An important exception to this is “exceptional” in more ways than one: the account of a woman who was also scholar, writer, and journalist and who made several Saharan trips (in the 1930s) with her female, artist partner. One of these accounts has recently been translated into English.99 There are, of course many more contemporary first-hand travelers’ accounts of the Saharan experience, but they tend to be either romanticized or dramatized—or both.100

Lastly I include a perhaps questionable “documentary” source, namely video. Many films have been made about the Sahara. Two I consider “documents” because of the extensive use they make of oral interviews.101 These interviews, conducted in the local language and translated into English via subtitles, are the equivalent of earlier interviews that (prior to people being accustomed to recording devices) would have been written down “as remembered” and then later recorded (on tape or, more recently, various digitized formats). They are of course problematic in that they were conducted to illustrate a particular story, but nevertheless, some contemporary films were done with sensitivity to the Saharan voice. These will be, in a very few years, the only living evidence we will have of the Sahara at the turn of the 21st century.

Discussion of the Literature

The Sahara appears and disappears from African history more or less at whim. Or so it seems. When early so-called medieval Africa was a topic of interest, the Sahara was central; the evidence came from Arab merchants and travelers, and their experience of “Africa” was essentially the desert they crossed. They wrote about its geography, resources, oases, camel-herders, trade, and anything they regarded as “exotic” culture. Many wrote about Islam—where it was, and was not, practiced. These writings shaped how the Sahara entered African historiography and the place it occupied therein for a very long time.102

That place was challenged (figuratively and literally) by studies of the Atlantic slave trade. One of the field’s most influential historians asserted that “[s]trictly speaking, the Sahara did not really become a desert until Atlantic fleets supplanted its camel caravans [in the 15th century].”103 Once this vision took hold, there was little reason to (re)visit the Sahara other than to debate the nature and timing of its demise vis-à-vis trans-Saharan commerce.104

African history’s focus on the scramble for and subsequent conquest of the continent brought the Sahara back into the picture, albeit in contradictory ways. The French seemed to want this vast expanse of sand as a conduit for a trans-Saharan railroad that would unite their interests in northern and sub-Saharan colonies in spite of the initial expedition sent to evaluate its viability being massacred by Algerian Saharans. Writing about this era, therefore, meant dealing with these issues: French political competition with the British, commercial challenges (and possibilities), the impact on “pre-colonial” trade, imperial debates about railroad funding railroads, and, most of all, French interaction with Saharans—especially those violently resisting French occupation in the name of Islam. But even this attention tended to focus more on what this meant for the colonies to the north and south than on the Sahara itself.105

Historiographic focus on conquest naturally moved on to colonial rule itself. By definition, this meant working within the boundaries imposed (at least on paper) by “the Scramble.” At this point, the Sahara per se disappeared again. To the extent that it was addressed, it was as a marginal territory of a newly formed colony. Whether from the perspective of North or West Africa, the Sahara was the resource-poor, marginal, ungovernable home to “fanatical” Muslim nomads and refugees who would not recognize colonial boundaries or pay colonial taxes.106

Decolonization opened many new doors for historians, but national boundaries largely traced their colonial precedents, little changed with respect to writing about the Sahara. It was the devastating 1968–1972 Sahara-Sahelian drought that finally brought discussion of “the Sahara” as something transnational back to the fore. Its massive human exodus and the dead and dying herds in its wake did not recognize artificial lines in the sand as “boundaries.” Unfortunately, this discussion included few historians. Anthropologists, sociologists, and development economists rediscovered “the Sahara” and its societies. Their literature focused not on the past but on the future and on the unlikely possibility that there was one. The Sahara came to be studied as much among refugees located in camps, desert-edge towns, and national capitals as among those still living in the desert.107

Historians came back to the Sahara circuitously. One route was via the sub-discipline of “slavery” that took root in the 1970s. An outgrowth of a then-more-prominent economic history field, it reflected the historical reality that in Africa, pre-colonial work was usually performed by some form of dependent and/or forced labor; this implied a regularized system of supply. “Slavery studies” flourished in the interdisciplinary environment that subsequently developed.

Given that the desert slave trade had long been recognized as playing into both domestic and external markets, it was inevitable that the Sahara itself re-emerged as a focus of inquiry. Yet it took time before scholars looked beyond slaves as commercial commodities crossing the Sahara and began exploring their role as members of Saharan societies.108 While it is this latter literature that largely dominates Saharan research today, it must also be noted that contemporary concern for what the media calls “modern slavery” has focused a particular kind of attention on the Saharan regions of Niger, Mali, and especially Mauritania.109 Anti-slavery non-governmental organizations and activists not only join academics in discussing the issues raised by the subject, they exercise considerable pressure to shape the parameters of both this research and these discussions.110

A second route was through the resurgence of interest in “Islam in Africa.”111 A growing desire to deepen and even challenge dated, albeit valuable studies developed as newly independent countries either chose Muslim identities or, most often, found themselves having to deal with significant Muslim communities.112 Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Upper Volta, Chad, and even Nigeria had substantial Saharan territories and/or ethnic groups who moved into and out of the Sahara regularly. All attracted researchers giving close attention to Islam and, by extension, to Saharans.113 The contemporary equivalent to the West’s “modern slavery” discourse is its “war-on-terror” approach to Islam. As the Sahara emerged as an incubator of fundamentalism and jihad in the early 2000s, what academics had to say about this purportedly “inherently dangerous religion” began to have some credibility.114

While the frameworks shaping these contemporary public conversations are overtly political (ironically reflecting both “left” and “right”), frequently in conflict with research objectivity and rarely in touch with the interests and realities of Saharans themselves, they have nevertheless already found their way into Saharan historiography. All indicators are that they will continue to shape many of our questions in the foreseeable future. In effect, the challenge for Saharan researchers is to reclaim the terrain for African history—geographically, conceptually, and methodologically—and thereby create a respected space in which Saharan voices can once again be heard.115

Further Reading

I have deliberately kept this list (and references in the text) to works in English—not always easy and certainly not always representative, given that the Sahara was colonized by France. Until recently, much of the most important research was published in French (and in France). Readers will find references to this Francophone literature in the English publications cited here.

  • Austen, Ralph A. Trans-Saharan Africa in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Baier, Stephen. “The Sahara in the Nineteenth-Century.” In UNESCO General History of Africa. Edited by J. F. Ade Ajayi, Vol. 6, 515–536. Berkeley: California-UNESCO, 1997.
  • Brachet, Julien, and Judith Scheele. The Value of Disorder: Autonomy as a Relation in Northern Chad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  • Brett, Michael. “The Maghrib.” In Cambridge History of Africa, Vol. 7, 267–328. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Cleveland, Timothy. Becoming Walata: A History of Saharan Social Formation and Transformation. Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Books, 2001.
  • De Moraes Farias, Paulo F. Arabic Medieval Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali. Epigraphy, Chronicles and Songhay-Tuareg History. The British Academy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Deubel, Tara F., Scott M. Youngstedt, and Hélène Tissières, eds. Saharan Crossroads: Exploring Historical, Cultural, and Artistic Linkages between North and West Africa. Newcastle-upon-tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2014.
  • Ganiange, Jean, and Yvonne Brett. “North Africa.” In Cambridge History of Africa, Vol. 6, 159–207. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • Gomez, Michael. African Domination: a New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.
  • Hall, Bruce. A History of Race in West Africa 1600–1960. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Hiribarren, Vincent. A History of Borno: Trans-Saharan African Empire to Failing Nigerian State. London: Hurst, 2018.
  • Jeppie, Shamil, and Soulayman Bachir Diagne, eds. The Meanings of Timbuktu. CODESRIA/HSRC, 2008.
  • Keenan, Jeremy. The Lesser Gods of the Sahara: Social Change and Contested Terrain Among the Tuareg of Algeria. London: Frank Cass, 2004.
  • Keenan, Jeremy, ed. The Sahara: Past, Present and Future. London: Routledge, 2007.
  • Krätli, Graziano, and Ghislaine Lydon, eds. The Trans-Saharan Book Trade: Manuscript Culture, Arabic Literacy and Intellectual History in Muslim Africa. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.
  • Lecocq, Baz. Disputed Desert: Decolonisation, Colonial Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.
  • Lovejoy, Paul E. Salt of the Desert Sun: A History of Salt Production and Trade in the Central Sudan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Lydon, Ghislaine. On Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks and Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth Century West Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Mattingly, D. J., and M. Sterry. “The First Towns in the Central Sahara.” Antiquity 87, no. 336 (2013): 503–518.
  • Mattingly, David. “The Garamantes and After: The Biography of a Central Saharan Oasis 400 BC–AD 1900.” In Not Only History: Proceedings of the Conference in Honor of Mario Liverani Held in Sapienza-Universita di Roma, Dipartimento di Scienze Dell’Antichita, 20–21 April 2009, 147–169. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2016.
  • McDougall, E. Ann. “The View from Awdaghust: War, Trade, and Social Change in the Southwestern Sahara, From the Eighth to the Fifteenth Century.” Journal of African History 26 (1985): 1–31.
  • McDougall, E. Ann. The War on Terror in the Sahara: Myth or Reality? Special issue of Journal of Contemporary African Studies 25, no. 1 (2007).
  • McDougall, James, and Judith Scheele. Saharan Frontiers. Space and Mobility in Northwest Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012.
  • Norris, H. T. The Arab Conquest of the Western Sahara. London: Longman, 1986.
  • Ould, Cheikh, and Abdel Weddoud. “Herders, Traders and Clerics: The Impact of Trade, Religion and Warfare on the Evolution of Moorish Society.” In Herders, Warriors and Traders: Pastoralism in Africa. Edited by John G. Galaty and Pierre Bonte, 199–218. Boulder: Westview Press, 1991.
  • Rossi, Benedetta. From Slavery to Aid: Politics, Labour and Ecology in the Nigerien Sahel, 1800–2000. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Savage, Elizabeth, ed. The Human Commodity: Perspectives on the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. London: Frank Cass, 1992.
  • Scheele, Judith. Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Wright, John L. Libya, Chad and the Central Sahara. NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1989.
  • Wright, John L. The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. London: Routledge, 2007.


  • 1. Augustin Holl, “Coping with Uncertainty: Neolithic Life in the Dhar-Tichitt-Walata, Mauritania (c. 4000–2300 BP),” Geoscience 341 (2009): 705–712.

  • 2. While relating to recent times (18th to early 20th centuries), a 1976 article on the nature of desert-edge society and economy in Niger-Nigeria, written in the wake of the disastrous Sahelian drought of 1968–1974, reflects the complexities of what we mean by “negotiation with desertification” (desert life and cyclical droughts) as well as any written since. See the seminal Stephen Baier and Paul Lovejoy, “The Desert Edge Economy of the Central Sudan,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 8, no. 4 (1975): 551–581.

  • 3. Chapter 1 of Ralph Austen, Trans-Saharan Africa in World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010): 1–22, provides an excellent and readable overview of these eras, including introductions to several of the topics discussed below (e.g., role of regional production and commerce especially in salt; the Garamantes; the introduction of the camel); Eric Ross, “A Historical Geography of the Trans-Saharan Trade,” The Trans-Saharan Book Trade: Manuscript Culture, Arabic Literacy and Intellectual History in Muslim Africa, ed. Graziano Krätli and Ghislaine Lydon (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 1–34, provides a similar overview of the early eras but also moves into more contemporary times and issues.

  • 4. Holl, “Coping with uncertainty,” 711.

  • 5. Holl, “Coping with uncertainty,” 704–711; see also A. Holl, “Background to the Ghana Empire: Archaeological Investigations on the Transition to Statehood in the Dhar-Tichitt Region (Mauritania),” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 4 (1985): 73–115.

  • 6. Holl, “Coping with uncertainty,” 704, 711.

  • 7. Scott MacEachern, “The Holocene History of the Southern Lake Chad Basin: Archaeological, Linguistic and Genetic Evidence,” African Archaeological Review 29 (2012): 253–271, 263.

  • 8. See also Holl, “Background to the Ghana Empire.”

  • 9. D. J. Mattingly and M. Sterry, “The First Towns in the Central Sahara,” Antiquity 87, no. 336 (2013): 503–518. Mattingly led the 1997–2001 joint British-Libyian project, which has produced many publications (including four volumes on the project itself) since 2002.

  • 10. “Garama: An Ancient Civilization in the Middle of the Sahara,” World Archaeology no. 9 (2005); and Andrew Wilson, “Foggara Irrigation and Early State Formation in the Libyian Sahara: The Garamantes of Fazzan”.

  • 11. Later the case in the northwestern Saharan development of Sijilmassa as well; Amir Bennison, The Almoravid and Almohad Empires (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), 184–186.

  • 12. Mario Liverani, “The Garamantes: A Fresh Approach,” Libyan Studies 31 (2000): 27.

  • 13. James Owen, “ ‘Lost’ Fortresses of the Sahara Revealed by Satellites,” National Geographic, November 2001. Mattingly’s team calculated that just the construction of the foggara (not including digging wells, maintaining the system) would have taken 77,000 man-years (amount of work one man could deliver in one year) of labor.

  • 14. Mario Liverani, “Rediscovering the Garamantes: Archaeology and History,” Libyan Studies 35 (2004):198; and Wilson, “Foggara Irrigation,” 230.

  • 15. Or, alternately, because a decline in the Saharan trade in the 4th and 5th centuries reduced the supply of slaves available; Wilson, “Foggara Irrigation,” 223.

  • 16. Mattingly and Sterry, “The First Towns,” 516.

  • 17. For a recent variation, see “Caravan Commerce and African Economies,” in Austen, Trans-Saharan Africa, 23–44. For overviews of early interpretations, see T. Lewicki, “The Role of the Sahara and Saharans in Relationships Between North and South,” in UNESCO General History of Africa, ed. M. El Fasi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 3: 276–313; and J. Devisse, “Trade and Trade Routes in West Africa,” in UNESCO General History of Africa (University of California Press, 1988), 3: 367–435.

  • 18. Austen develops these and related points in Trans-Saharan Africa, 1–18.

  • 19. “Saharan trade depended on markets both inside and outside of the desert, constituting the requisite demand to set in motion a fairly complicated commercial machine”; see Michael Brett, “Ifriqiya as a Market for the Sahara from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century AD,” Journal of African History 10, no. 3 (1969): 351, 358.

  • 20. Brett, “Ifriqiya,” 362; Liverani, “Rediscovering the Garamantes,” 199.

  • 21. Knut Vikor, “The Desert Side Salt Trade of Kawar,” African Economic History 11 (1982): 115–144; see also Paul E. Lovejoy, “The Borno Salt Industry,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 11, no. 4 (1978): 629–631.

  • 22. On Bornu’s 19th/20th-century history, see Vincent Hibarren, A History of Borno: Trans-Saharan African Empire to Failing Nigerian State (London: Hurst, 2018). Also see his maps showing changes in this era and bibliography.

  • 23. Paul E. Lovejoy, Salt of the Desert Sun (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 5, 6; see this volume also for map showing locations for all the salts discussed in this section and others and discussions of each of these Central Sudan salts; later chapters engage extensively with labor and trade networks.

  • 24. A recent study of Chad’s main natron mines at Borku reveals that the complexity of the “political economy of salt” is no less a factor in contemporary tax structures and national–local power struggles than it was in earlier historical eras under the mais (“rulers”) and shaykhs of Bornu; Julien Blanchet and Judith Scheele, “Fiscalité marginale sur mesure. L’économie politique du natron au Borkou, Tchad,” in Fiscalité en Afrique contemporaine: formalités et informalités, Politique africaine, ed. Olly Owen (2018).

  • 25. E. Ann McDougall, “Salts of the Western Sahara: Myths, Mysteries and Historical Significance,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 23, no. 2 (1990): 231–257, provides historical overview; and McDougall, “The Sahara Reconsidered: Pastoralism, Politics and Salt from the Ninth through the Twelfth Centuries,” African Economic History 12 (1983): 263–286.

  • 26. Ibn Battuta in J. F. P. Hopkins and Nehemia Levtzion, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 282.

  • 27. E. Ann McDougall, “The Question of Tegaza and the Conquest of Songhay: Some Saharan Considerations,” in Le Maroc et l’Afrique subsaharienne (Rabat, Morocco: Institut des Etudes Africaines, 1995); and Idem., “Snapshots from the Sahara: ‘Salt’, the Essence of Being,” in The Libyan Desert: Natural Resources and Cultural Heritage, ed. David Mattingly et al. (Society for Libyan Studies, 2006), 295–303.

  • 28. Nehemia Levtzion, A History of Islam in Africa (Ohio University Press, 2000); Austen, Trans-Saharan Africa, also sees Sahara as conduit for Islam. Most recently see engagement with questions and historiography in Michael Gomez, African Domination: A New History Of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018); Paulo de Moraes Farias engages with yet another aspect of this discussion in Arabic Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali (‘Discussion of Historical Literature, Ft. #14). The British Academy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

  • 29. For most recent work on Almoravids see Amir Bennison, The Almoravid and Almohad Empires (Edinburgh University Press, 2017). Saharan aspects are still best developed by H. T. Norris: Norris, “New Evidence on the Life of ‘Abd Allah b. Yasin and the Origins of the Almoravid Movement,” Journal of African History 12 (1971): 255–268; and Norris and Chalmeta, “al-Murābiṭūn,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, ed. P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs (First Published Online 2012). See also Ronald Messier, The Almoravids and the Meanings of Jihad (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), and “Rethinking the Almoravids, Re-thinking Ibn Khaldun,” in North Africa Islam and the Mediterranean World, ed. Julia Clancy-Smith (London: Frank Cass, 2001), 59–80.

  • 30. David Conrad and Humphrey Fisher, “The Conquest That Never Was: Ghana and the Almoravids, 1076, Pt I. The External Arabic Sources,” History in Africa 9 (1983): 21–59; and Conrad and Fisher, “The Local Oral Sources,” History in Africa 10 (1984): 53–78. Revisiting the debate, see Sheryl Berkhalter, “Listening for Silences in Almoravid History: Another Reading of ‘The Conquest That Never Was’,” History in Africa 19 (1992): 103–131.

  • 31. E. Ann McDougall, “The View from Awdaghust: War, Trade, and Social Change in the Southwestern Sahara, From the Eighth to the Fifteenth Century,” Journal of African History 26 (1985): 1–31.

  • 32. Conrad and Fisher, “Conquest.”

  • 33. McDougall, “Pastoralism, Politics and Salt.”

  • 34. Bennison, The Almoravid and Almohad Empires: 35, 52, 138.

  • 35. Michael Brett, “Islam and Trade in the Bilad al-Sudan, Tenth–Eleventh Century A.D,” Journal of African History 24 (1983): 431–440.

  • 36. Brett, “Islam and Trade”; and E. Ann McDougall, “From Muslim Community to Islamic Society: Law, Slavery and Concubinage in Bilad Al-Sudan,” Special Issue in Honour of Michael Brett, The Maghreb Review 40, no. 1 (2015): 28–50.

  • 37. McDougall, “View from Awdaghust,” 28–30, discusses work of Mauritanian historian “Mohammed al-Chennafi” (a pseudonym).

  • 38. Although the evolution of Islam in the Sahel must remain differentiated from (although not necessarily “different from”) the Sahara, Michael Gomez’s attention to this institution as critical to understanding Songhay is significant; see Gomez, “Of Clerics and Concubines,” in African Domination: A New History of Empire In Early and Medieval West Africa (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 258–312, especially 300–302.

  • 39. John O. Hunwick, Sharīʻa in Songhay: the replies of al-Maghīlī to the questions of Askia al-Ḥājj Muḥammad (The British Academy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985); and Hunwick Harrak and Fatima Harrak, Mi’raj al-Su’ud: Ahmad Baba’s Replies on Slavery (Rabat, Morocco: Institute of African Studies, University Mohammed V, 2000).

  • 40. Bruce Hall, “Race Along the Desert Edge 1600–1900, ”in A History of Race in West Africa 1600–1960 (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 27–104

  • 41. McDougall, “Law, Slavery and Concubinage.”

  • 42. The “Tombouctou Manuscript Project” led by South Africa from 2002 is the principal exception; its focus on preservation drew from concerns about climate and local library situations.

  • 43. Charles Stewart with Sidi Ahmed ould Ahmed Salem, The Arabic Literature of Africa, Vol. 5, The Writings of Mauritania and the Western Sahara (Brill, 2016).

  • 44. Yahya Ould al-Bara, Al-Majmūʿa al-kubrā al-shāmila li-fatāwā wa-nawāzil waaḥkām ahl gharb wa-junūb gharb al-Ṣaḥrāʾ [“The Great Collection of Legal Opinions, Case Studies, and Judgments from the People of the West and Southwest Sahara”], 12 vols. Nouakchott, R.I.M: Mūlāy al- asan b. al-Mukhtār b. al- asan, 2009.

  • 45. McDougall, “Snapshots.”

  • 46. See Bennison, The Almoravid and Almohad Empires, 227–275; on connections to “the larger Muslim World,” see From Istanbul to Timbuktu: Ink Routes (Cape Town, Tombouctou Manuscript Project, 2009).

  • 47. Nehemia Levtzion and John O Voll, eds., Eighteenth-Century Renewal and Reform in Islam (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1987).

  • 48. For early social, cultural, and scholarly dynamics, see H. T. Norris, The Arab Conquest of the Western Sahara (London: Longman, 1986).

  • 49. E. Ann McDougall, “The Economics of Islam in the Southern Sahara. The Rise of the Kunta Clan,” Asian and African Studies 20 (1989): 28–60; for Mauritania, see Charles C. Stewart, Islam and Social Order in Mauritania (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976).

  • 50. McDougall, “Snapshots.”

  • 51. For another example, see H. T. Norris, The Tuaregs: Their Islamic Legacy and Diffusion in the Sahel (Warminster, U.K.: Aris & Phillips, 1976).

  • 52. Saharans self-identified as bidan or “white”; hence maure = white.

  • 53. Jean-Louis Triaud, “Islam in Africa Under French Colonial Rule,” in The History of Islam in Africa, ed. Levtzion and Pouwels, esp. 170–179. The subject is ably revisited recently by Ghislaine Lydon, “Saharan Oceans and Bridges, Barriers and Divides in Africa’s Historical Landscape,” Journal of African History 56 (2015): 3–22. On Algerian resistance and “islam noir,” see Christopher Harrison, France and Islam in West Africa, 1860–1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988): 15, 6; Pt III “French Scholarship and the Definition of Islam Noir,” 93–117.

  • 54. Known as “le vide,” seen as a useful “buffer” between white north Africa and black Sudanic Africa; Ron Parker, “The Senegal-Mauritania Conflict of 1989: A Fragile Equilibrium,” The Journal of Modern African Studies 21, no. 1 (1991): 156.

  • 55. Natalia Starostina, “Ambiguous Modernity: Representations of French Colonial Railways in the Third Republic,” Proceedings of the Western Society for French History 38 (2010).

  • 56. Lina Brock, “History, Oral Tradition, and Resistance: The Revolt of 1917 Among the Kel Denneg,” Revue du Monde Musulman et de la Méditerrannée 57 (1990): 49–75 (in French). For its impact in the Air Massif region (on migration and desert economy; relation to drought), see Baier and Lovejoy, “The Desert Side Economy,” 576; and Michael Brett, “The Maghrib,” in Cambridge History of Africa, ed. A. D. Roberts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 7: 267–328.

  • 57. Charles Stewart, “Islam,” in Cambridge History of Africa, ed. A. D. Roberts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 7: 191–222; and Harrison, France and Islam, 110, 111.

  • 58. E. Ann McDougall, “Colonial Labour, Tawdenni and ‘L’enfer du sel’,” Labour History 58, no. 2 (2017).

  • 59. Dennis Cordell, “Eastern Libya, Wadai and the Sanusiyya: A Tariqa and Trade Route,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 19, no. 2 (1985).

  • 60. This information and what follows is from Julien Blachet and Judith Scheele, The Value of Disorder: Autonomy, Prosperity and Plunder in Northern Chad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

  • 61. Blachet and Scheele.

  • 62. Insight developed in Chad context by Blachet and Scheele is equally pertinent elsewhere in Sahara.

  • 63. Most material is McDougall’s, archival, not published. On the Tuareg see (Mali) Hall, A History of Race, 105–172; Baz Lecocq, Disputed Desert: Decolonisation, Colonial Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 87–133; and Susan Rasmussen, “The Slave Narrative in Life History and Myth, and Problems of Ethnographical Representation of the Tuareg Cultural Predicament,” Ethnohistory 46, no. 1 (1999): 72.

  • 64. Publications on these topics are abundant; readers might best begin by looking at websites of Amnesty International, and Anti-Slavery International

  • 65. E. Ann McDougall, “A Topsy-Turvy World: Slaves and Freed Slaves in the Mauritanian Adrar 1910–1950,” in The End of Slavery in Africa, ed. Richard Roberts and Suzanne Miers (Wisconsin : University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 262–288; on wala in this context, see Abdel Wedoud ould Cheikh, “Géographie de la liberté: Émancipation légale, émancipation foncière et appartenance tribale en Mauritanie” and Benjamin Acloque, “Les liens serviles en milieu rural: le statut des Ḥarāṭīn et leur attachement à l’agriculture et à l’élevage,” in The In, ed. E. Ann McDougall.

  • 66. McDougall, “Introduction,” The Invisible People.

  • 67. E. Ann McDougall, “Colonialism, Pastoralism and ‘le problem servile’: Case Study Mauritania,” paper presented in homage to the late Pierre Bonte (2015, unpublished).

  • 68. Blatchet and Scheele, The Value of Disorder.

  • 69. W. F. Craven and J. L. Gate, “The Army AirForces in World War II” Vol. VII ‘Services around the World,’ (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1948), 63–91 + footnotes 7: 63–76.

  • 70. Characterized as “this kingdom of sand, sun and wind”; Jean Ganiange and Yvonne Brett, “North Africa,” in Cambridge History of Africa, ed. Roland Oliver and R. N. Sanderson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 6: 206.

  • 71. Berny Sèbe, “In the Shadow of the Algerian War: the United States and the Common Organization of the Saharan Regions (OCRS) 1957–1962,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 38, no. 2 (2010): 303–322; and Bruce Whitehouse, “How did Mali get here? Pt 1 Echoes of Decolonization,” Bridges from Bamako, 2017.

  • 72. Relating to oil and gas discoveries in Algerian Sahara to French responses, see I. Hrbek, “North Africa and the Horn,” in UNESCO General History of Africa, ed. Ali A. Mazrui (Berkeley: University of California, 1993), vol. 8, 132–189.

  • 73. Sèbe, “In the Shadow,” 308.

  • 74. Parker, “Senegal-Mauritania Conflict,” 156.

  • 75. Western Sahara: Why a Referendum Is Implausible and Impossible,” The New Arab, April 15, 2016.

  • 76. All-African People’s Conference, Resolution on Imperialism and Colonialism, Accra, December 5–13, 1958, Article 8.

  • 77. Jean Pierre Oliver de Sardan, “The ‘Tuareg Question’ in Mali Today.”

  • 78. Lecocq, Disputed Desert, 135–294.

  • 79. Parker, “Senegal-Mauritania Conflict,” 159–165. This was a contemporary analysis (1991); later studies confirm even higher levels of violence, put numbers of blacks expelled upwards of 75,000; widely seen as genocide.

  • 80. Whitehouse, “How Did Mali Get Here?”

  • 81. Parker, “Senegal-Mauritania Conflict,” 155–171.

  • 82. Ruth Morgenthau and Lucy Behrman, “French Speaking Tropical Africa,” in Cambridge History of Africa, ed. Michael Crowder (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984), 8: 611–673, provides Saharan post-independence overview—title notwithstanding.

  • 83. Judith Scheele, Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

  • 84. Olivier de Sardan, “The ‘Tuareg Question.” As of July 2018, the war in Mali continues; Canada begins the process of replacing Germans, purportedly as “peace keepers.” There is no desire for “peace” among the combatants—only a desire for “power.” Even the interventionists are not agreed upon their ultimate goal. While this moment will pass relatively soon, it is an important one to “capture” as the Sahara begins to shape its 21st-century role in Africa. See “Canadians Head into Fight That May Be Unwinnable in Mali,” June 26, 2018.

  • 85. Also Ross’s reflections, “A Historical Geography of the Trade,” 24–34.

  • 86. Graziano Krätli and Ghislaine Lydon, eds., The Trans-Saharan Book Trade: Manuscript Culture, Arabic Literacy and Intellectual History in Muslim Africa (Boston: Brill, 2011); and Shamil Jeppie, “Travelling Timbuktu Books,” Timbuktu Script and Scholarship): A Catalogue of Selected Manuscripts from the Exhibition, ed. Lalou Meltzer, Lindsay Hooper, and Gerald Klinghardt, Capetown, S. A. (Capetown, 2008).

  • 87. For example, see Bruce Hall, “How Slaves Used Islam: The Letters of Enslaved Muslim Commercial Agents in the Nineteenth-Century Niger Bend and Central Sahara,” Journal of African History 52, no. 3 (2011): 279–297; Idem., with Yacine Daddi Addoun, “The Arabic Letters of the Ghadames Slaves in the Niger Bend, 1860–1900,” in African Slavery/African Voices, ed. Alice Bellagamba, Sandra Greene, Carolyn Brown, and Martin Klein (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 485–500; and Idem., Ghislaine Lydon, “Excavating Arabic Sources for the History of Slavery in Western Africa,” in African Slavery/African Voices, Vol. 2, Methodology, ed. Alice Bellagamba, Sandra Greene, Carolyn Brown, and Martin Klein (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 15–49.

  • 88. Site in English; some documents translated into English, others in Arabic. Beautifully illustrated catalogue including sample documents in Arabic and Ottoman Turkish (Arabic script): Timbuktu Script and Scholarship: A Catalogue of Selected Manuscripts from the Exhibition (of the same name), 2008 (as above). Valuable essays include: on Timbuktu manuscripts (types, contents, production), Jeppie, 13–20; on the “Life and Works of Ahmed Baba,” Mahmoud Zoubir (Engl. Trans.), 21–32; on the challenges of preserving the manuscripts, Mary Mlinika, 33–45; annotated presentation of Exhibition’s 40 manuscripts, 45–136.

  • 89. John O. Hunwick: Sharīʻa in Songhay: The Replies of al-Maghīlī to the Questions of Askia al-ḤājjMuḥammad (The British Academy, 1985); Fatima Harrak, Mi’raj al-Su’ud: Ahmad Baba’s Replies on Slavery (Rabat, Morocco: Institute of African Studies, University Mohammed, 2000); and Hunwick, Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sa’Di’s Ta’Rikh Al-Sudan Down to 1613 and Other Contemporary Documents (Islamic History and Civilization) (Brill, 2003). Christopher Wise translated the early 20th-century French publication Ta’rikh al-Fattash as Timbuktu Chronicles 1493–1599 (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2011). Our traditional understanding of the ta’rikh is challenged by Mauro Nobili and Mohamed Shahid Mathee, “Towards a New Study on the So-Called Tārīkh al-fattāsh,” History in Africa 42 (2015): 37–73.

  • 90. Charles C. Stewart, ed., The Arabic Literature of Africa, Vol. 5, The Writings of Mauritania and the Western Sahara (Brill, 2015). Historical introduction and essay on the mahzara (nomadic Islamic schools) by Mohamed Nouhi are in English, as are synopses of significant manuscripts and short biographies of authors. More generally, see Stewart’s “West African Manuscript Project.

  • 91. Ross, “Historical Geography of Trans-Saharan Trade,” 5–9.

  • 92. McDougall, “The View from Awdaghust,” draws extensively on these projects, with full references; on Jarma, see David Mattingly, “The Garamantes and After: The Biography of a Central Saharan Oasis 400 BC–AD 1900,” in Not Only History: Proceedings of the Conference in Honor of Mario Liverani Held in Sapienza-Universita di Roma, Dipartimento di Scienze Dell’Antichita, 20–21 April 2009 (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2016), 147–169.

  • 93. That said, there is no shortage of beautifully produced photoessays on Saharan rock art and writing.

  • 94. Exceptions include H. T. Norris, Saharan Myth and Saga (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972); and Idem., The Tuaregs: Their Islamic Legacy and Its Diffusion in the Sahel (Warminster, U.K.: Aris and Phillips, 1976). See also traditional epic of Ancient Mali’s legendary founder in David C. Conrad, ed., Sonjata: A New Prose Version (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2016).

  • 95. J. F. P. Hopkins,trans., and Nehemia Levtzion, ed., Corpus of Early Arabic Sources; for French version of much the same literature, see J. Cuoq, Recueil des sources Arabes concernant l’Afrique occidentale du XIIIe au XVIe siècle (Paris: Éditions de Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1975).

  • 96. G. R. Crone, The Voyages of Cadamosto and Other Documents on Western Africa in the Second Half of the Fifteenth Century (London: Hakluyt Society, 2010).

  • 97. Important exceptions include Charles Cochelet, Narrative of the shipwreck of the Sophia: on the 30th of May, 1819, on the western coast of Africa, and of the captivity of a part of the crew in the desert of Sahara . .. (Nabu Press, 2011); René Caillié, Travels Through Central Africa to Timbuctoo:And Across the Great Desert, to Morocco, Performed in the Years 1824–28 (London, 1830). See also rare English account in Thomas Pellow, The history of the long captivity and adventures of Thomas Pellow, in South Barbary. .. (London: Printed for R. Goadby, sold by W. Owen, 1739).

  • 98. Heinrich Barth, Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa 1850–55, 5 vols. (London: 1857–58); and Allan J. B. Fisher and Humphrey Fisher, Sahara and Sudan, 4 vols. (London: C Hurst, 1971–1978). For British expeditions see Missions to the Niger, 4 vols. (Farnham, Surry: Ashgate, 2010).

  • 99. Odette du Puigaudeau, Barefoot Through Mauretania (Hardinge Simpole Ltd, 2010).

  • 100. For exceptions see Michael Benanav, Men of Salt: Crossing the Sahara in a Caravan of White Gold (Guilford, Conn: Lyons Press, 2006); and Jeremey Keenan, Sahara Man: Travelling with the Tuareg (London: John Murray, 2001). Keenan’s The Tuareg: People of the Ahaggar (London: Allen Lane, 1977) remains a classic.

  • 101. “The Last Salt Caravan “(Tawdeni, Mali; Journeyman.TV, 1999), and “Women of the Sands” (Mauritania; Journeyman.TV, 2008).

  • 102. J. F. P. Hopkins and Nehemia Levtzion, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources; See also Ghislaine Lydon, On Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks and Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth Century West Africa (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 1–7, 59–63, 73–86; “Saharan Oceans and Bridges, Barriers and Divides in West Africa’s Historiographical Landscape,” Journal of African History 56 (2015): 3–11; and recently Ariela Marcus-Sells, “The Kunta of the Sahara,” Oxford Bibliographies (January 2018) (references to Arabic, French/English-translated Arabic materials extensive—broader than just “Kunta”).

  • 103. Boubacar Barry, La Senegambie du xve au xixième siècle: traite negriere, Islam et conquête coloniale (Paris: Edition l’Harmattan, 1988), 15; also 36, 37.

  • 104. For example, A. G. Hopkins engaged in this discussion in his seminal An Economic History of West Africa (London: Longman, 1975), esp. 78–112; Lydon revisits the issues and the literature (broadly) in “Nineteenth-Century Developments,” 106–157, in On Saharan Trails. Although dated, Stephen Baier’s detailed exploration of “Desert Trade and the Nomads” remains the most thorough (see “The Sahara in the Nineteenth-Century” in UNESCO General History of Africa, Ed. J. F. Ade Ajayi Berkeley: California-UNESCO, 1989: 515–536; on trade 524–536).

  • 105. For example, the chapters by M. H. Cherif, A. Laroui, and N. Ivanov on the Maghreb (generally) and Morocco (specifically) in UNESCO General History, VI focus on the mountains, plains, and coastal areas, with scant attention to their Saharan regions which are seen as marginal in spite of their physical significance. From the multi-volume edited history of Africa, the esteemed Cambridge History of Africa, see the following: in Vol. 5 (“From c.1790–1870”), on the 19th century, the Sahara was entirely absent. It appeared only in cameo with reference to trans-Saharan trade with the Maghreb (103, 124), in total decline (221), and as a source of influence for Sudanic jihads (130, 131). In Vol. 6, “From 1870 to 1905,” the chapter “North Africa” devotes three pages to “The Saharan Regions,” where the emphasis is on the role of pacification to protect Algerian possessions (204); the nomads as enslavers of sedentary oases populations (205); Saharans in general as being chronically undernourished and subject to seasonal famine (205); and “this kingdom of sand, sun and wind” as being of no economic value, not even as facilitating access to the Sudan—“Of what use was it to evoke once more the dream of a Saharan Railway” at the turn of the century (206)? In this volume the Sahara “belongs” to the margins of North Africa; it is not evoked at all in the two chapters on Western Africa. The important exception to all of these observations is Baier, “The Sahara”; his chapter takes the Sahara and its nomads as the focal point, evaluating the various interactions of the “imperial powers”—not only the French but the Ottomans and, to some extent, the Moroccan sultanate, with desert clans, as well as the effects these interactions had on intra-Saharan politics and economics.

  • 106. For example, in the Cambridge History of Africa Vol. 7: “From 1905 to 1940” (1986), the Sahara is treated as part of the Maghreb; Michael Brett’s chapter of the same name addresses it in the context of each colony and/or protectorate he discusses (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya) before, during, and after World War I (267–328). The chapter encompassing West Africa is pointedly entitled “French Black Africa” (emphasis mine). Similarly, in the more recent UNESCO General History of Africa Vol. VII: “Africa Under Colonial Domination 1880–1935,” the Sahara is treated as part of the Maghreb—but it includes Mauritania and the desert regions of Mali and Niger. The introductory maps in A. Laroui’s “African Initiatives and Resistance in North Africa and the Sahara” (87–113) do not name these colonies/countries; in one map, the whole region, with a few scattered exceptions, is simply marked “Sahara” (88), in the other the area it is simply portrayed in terms of different eras of French conquest, tellingly titled “European Campaigns in the Maghrib” (91). As the title (in keeping with how each geographical region was approached in Vol. VII) suggests, the focus was European conquest and “African” resistance to it. Returning to the Cambridge History, in Vol. 8: “From 1940 to 1975,” the desert-edge colonies/countries of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad are again located in West Africa by means of inclusion in Ruth Morgenthau and Lucy Behrman’s chapter on “French Speaking Tropical Africa” (my emphasis). The rest of the Sahara disappears into Henry Clement Moore’s “The Maghrib” (564–610), where its principal significance is as the (former) “Spanish Sahara” and the battle first between Morocco and Mauritania against colonial Spain to divide the territory; finally the longer-running war involving Morocco on the one side and the Algerian-backed POLISARIO on the other.

  • 107. I am not attempting to cite the wide range of literature that addressed the economic, scientific, sociological, climate, and scientific aspects of drought and desertification following the drought; a useful beginning is Michael H Glantz, The Politics of Natural Disaster: The Case of the Sahel Drought (New York: Praeger, 1976). It was not accidental that a conference held in Niamey, Niger, in 1972 took “Pastoralism in Tropical Africa” as its theme, published as Theodore Monod, ed., Pastoralism in Tropical Africa (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), or that a subsession of the 9th International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences chose to look at the viability of nomadism in African (and Asian) steppe regions as a focus; it was the basis of W. Weissleder, ed., The Nomadic Alternative (The Hague: Mouton, 1978). Important exceptions to “lack of interest by historians” are: Stephen Baier and Paul Lovejoy, “The Desert Edge Economy of the Central Sudan,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 8, no. 4 (1975): 551–581; and Stephen Baier, “Economic History and Development: Drought and the Sahelian Economies of Niger,” African Economic History 1 (1976): 1–16. On the role of refugees both in recovering from drought and political disaster and of value to researchers as sources of information, see Gabriele Volpato and Patricia Howard, “The Material and Cultural Recovery of Camels and Camel Husbandry Among Sahrawi Refugees of the Western Sahara,” Pastoralism: Research, Policy and Practice 4, no. 7 (2014): 1–23.

  • 108. For example, see Ralph Austen, “The Trans-Saharan Trade: A Tentative Census,” in Essays in the History of the Economic History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, ed. Henry Gemery and Jan Hogendorn (New York: Academic Press, 1979), 23–76; Dennis Cordell, Dar al-Kuti and the Last Years of the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985); Elizabeth Savage, The Human Commodity: Perspectives on the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade (London: F. Cass, 1992); and Sebastian Prange, “Trust in God—But Tie Your Camel First: The Economic Organization Between the 14th and the 19th Centuries,” Economic History Working Papers, 2005.

  • 109. For example, see Benedetta Rossi, ed., Reconfiguring Slavery: West African Trajectories (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009); Rossi, “African Post-Slavery: A History of the Future,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 48, no. 2 (2015), esp. 307–318; and Rossi, From Slavery to Aid: Politics, Labour and Ecology in the Nigerien Sahel, 1800–2000 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015). See also Baz Lecocq, “The Bellah Question: Slave Emancipation, Race and Social Categories in Late 20th Century Northern Mali,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 39, no. 1 (2005): 42–68; Bruce Hall, “Bellah Histories of Decolonization, Iklan Paths to Freedom: The Meanings of Race and Slavery in the Late-Colonial Niger Bend, Mali, 1944–1960,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 44, no. 1 (2011): 61–87; Susan Rasmussen, “The Slave Narrative in Life History and Myth, and Problems of Ethnographical Representation of the Tuareg Cultural Predicament,” Ethnohistory 46, no. 1 (1999): 67–108; Rasmussen, “Disputed Boundaries: Tuareg Discourse on Class and Ethnicity,” Ethnology 31, no. 4 (1992): 351–365; and E. Ann McDougall, “ ‘To Marry One’s Slave Is as Easy as Eating a Meal’: The Dynamics of Carnal Relations in Saharan Slavery,” in Sex, Power and Slavery, ed. Gwyn Campbell and Elizabeth Elbourne (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2014), 200–238.

  • 110. In Mauritania SOS Esclaves, Initiative for the Resurgence Movement of Abolition (IRA); in Mali, Temedt; in Niger, Timedria. Members of the Timedria participated in an international academic conference on Slavery in Africa (Nairobi, 2014), for example, rejecting dismissively research findings presented on one panel and delivering an anti-slavery polemic in its place. There is no doubt that the Saharan situation for those of slave descent was exacerbated by the events in northern Mali beginning in 2012; the problem arises when the politics of aid (this is an NGO looking for needed financial support) “trumps” the findings of research rather than opening up discussion.

  • 111. As best articulated in the seminal edited volume by Nehemia Levtzion and Randall Pouwels, eds., A History of Islam in Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000); there is no section on the Sahara, however. It is subsumed as “gateway” (to sub-Saharan West Africa) and desert “margin” to Islam in the Bilad al-Sudan (“land of the Blacks”).

  • 112. Specifically, J. Spencer Trimingham, Islam in West Africa (Oxford University Press, 1959); Trimingham, A History of Islam in West Africa (London: Oxford University Press, 1962, 1970); Peter Clarke, West Africa and Islam: A Study of Religious Development from the 8th to the 20th Century (London: Edward Arnold, 1982)—an attempt to “update” the field from the Trimingham era, with mixed results; M. Hiskett, The Development of Islam in West Africa (London: Longman, 1984).

  • 113. For example, C. C. Stewart, Islam and Social Order in Mauritania (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973); M. Hiskett, A History of Hausa Islamic Verse (London: University of London SOAS, 1975); and Thomas Whitcomb, “The Origins and Emergence of the Tribe of Kunta: A Contribution to the History of the Western Sahara Between the Almoravid Period and the Seventeenth Century” (Doctoral thesis, University of London, SOAS, 1978); see individual studies in John Ralph Willis, ed., Studies in West African Islamic History, 2 vols. (London: Frank Cass, 1979).

  • 114. E. Ann McDougall, ed., The War on Terror in the Sahara, special issue of Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 25, no. 1 (2007). This collection followed two conference panels (the Canadian Association of African Studies and the American African Studies Association meetings 2005); jointly organized with Middle Eastern studies, they attracted large audiences (including many from governments, NGOs) and very vocal discussions.

  • 115. One such example to which we must draw attention is Paulo de Moraes Farias’s magnum opus, Of Arab Medieval Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali. Epigraphy, Chronicles, and Songhay-Tuareg History (The British Academy, Oxford University Press, 2003). He analyzed the historical significance of approximately 400 locally produced Arabic inscriptions on gravestones and rocks (reproducing photographs and providing interpretations of some 250) dating to the 11th to 15th centuries from the Saharan-Sahelian region east of the Niger Bend. In addition, he produced and addressed similar examples of early Tuareg writing (tifinagh), discussing among other issues why we do not find comparable evidence in the more western regions where the Almoravids were predominant during the early part of this era—thus engaging with another aspect of the “advent of Islam” received wisdom, namely its association with writing.