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date: 06 March 2021

The Sahel in West African Historyfree

  • Barbara CooperBarbara CooperDepartment of History, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey


The Sahel or Sahil is in a sense the “coast” of the Sahara and its cities major “ports” in trade circuits linking long-standing regional exchange in the products of different ecozones to the markets of the Mediterranean through the trans-Saharan trade. Despite botanical diversity and the capacity to support high concentrations of humans and livestock, the productivity of this region depends upon a single unpredictable annual rainy season. Long- and short-term fluctuations in aridity have required populations specializing in hunting, farming, fishing, pastoralism, gold mining, and trade to be mobile and to depend upon one another for their survival. While that interdependence has often been peaceful and increasingly facilitated through the shared idiom of Islam, it has also taken more coercive forms, particularly with the introduction of horses, guns, and a dynamic market in slaves.

Although as an ecozone the region stretches all the way to the Red Sea, the political Sahel today comprises Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad—all former French colonies. France’s empire was superimposed upon the existing dynamics in the agropastoral meeting ground of the desert edge. Colonial requirements and transportation routes weakened the links between the ecozones so crucial to the success of states and markets in the region. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1905, France tacitly condoned the persistence of servile relations to secure requisitions of labor, food, and livestock. Abolition set off a very gradual shift from slavery to other kinds of labor patterns which nonetheless drew upon preexisting social hierarchies based upon religion, caste, race, and ethnicity. At the same time, gender and age gained in significance in struggles to secure labor and status. “Black Islam” (Islam noir), both invented and cultivated under French rule, was further reinforced by the bureaucratic logic of the French empire segregating “white” North Africa and “black” sub-Saharan Africa from one another.

Periodic drought and famine in the region has prompted a perception of the Sahel as a vulnerable ecological zone undergoing desertification and requiring intervention from outside experts. Developmentalist discourse from the late colonial period on has facilitated the devolution of responsibilities and prerogatives that typically belong to the state to nongovernmental bodies. At the same time, competition over political authority in the fragmented postcolonial states of the Sahel has often reinscribed and amplified status and ethnic differences, pitting Saharan populations against the governments of desert edge states. External and internal radical Islamic movements entangled with black market opportunists muddy the clarity of the ideological and political stakes in ways that even currently (2018) further destabilize the region.

The Sahel as Ecozone

The Sahel (more rarely spelled “Sahil” in the context of West Africa) is an ecozone that marks the transition between the Sahara desert to the north and the better-watered savanna to the south. Although for many in 2018 reference to the Sahel conjures images of a barren and impoverished region, it is in ecological terms rich in the diversity of desert and savanna flora and fauna it can support; historically, it was the site of transregional exchange, thriving urban centers, and legendary kingdoms and empires. Before the rise of trans-Atlantic trade, the valuable products of Africa’s more humid savanna and forest zones were traded toward the Sahel, which produced grain, meat, and leather. Some forestland goods, most notably gold, were then traded across the Sahara desert to the north. In exchange Arab and Berber traders carried prestige goods such as cloth, rare Saharan salt, and horses. The markets of the Sahel, made possible by the surplus production of hardy dryland grains such as millet, provided the site of convergence for all these varied goods.

Western Africa from the 1st to the 15th century was shaped by the mutually beneficial exchange of goods gathered or produced in the different ecoclimatic zones. If today the Sahel appears to be at the margins of the flow of goods shipped in and out of ports along the Atlantic coast, for over two millennia the Sahel was effectively the “coast” of the Sahara and its cities major “ports” in the trans-Saharan trade. Indeed, the word “Sahel” in French and in English originates with the Arabic word sāḥil (ساحل‎), meaning “fringe,” “shore,” or “coast.” In Arabic it can refer to a variety of regions or shorelines, whether along the Mediterranean, the desert’s northern fringe, or its southern edge. Here it will refer specifically to the southern edge of the Sahara. The region is dependent upon a single annual rainy season that results from the cyclical convergence of the humid winds from the south with the hot dry air mass of the Sahara. Wherever annual rainfall ranges from 100 to 600 mm across West Africa, a visibly distinctive array of plants can survive.1

Map: The Sahel region.

This tropical ecoclimatic belt stretches from Mauritania to the Red Sea, encompassing contemporary Sudan. The region is variously demarcated by scholars in light of rainfall, latitude, growing days, or plant life; it falls more or less between the latitudes of 9° north and 20° north.2 Farmers cultivate the hardy millet and sorghum that have supported relatively dense human settlement and the growth of trade centers. Prior to the introduction of New World crops (maize, cassava, sweet potatoes, and peanuts) through the trans-Atlantic trade, it was the forested coastal belt to the south that was sparsely populated. Sahelian conditions, inhospitable to the tsetse fly, enabled pastoralists to raise cattle. A host of edible and trade crops (some introduced through the trans-Saharan and trans-Atlantic trades) could be planted along permanent and seasonal rivers and lakes.3

Nevertheless, the literal desert edge of the Sahel could shift north or south with the significant variations in rainfall from one decade or century to the next. Rainfall variability defined living conditions in the Sahel. Between eleven thousand and five thousand years ago, during what is referred to as the Green Sahara period, vegetation and lakes covered what is now the Sahara desert. The climate has undergone a long-term aridification trend beginning five thousand years ago. Within that long timeframe, however, there have been distinctive secular phases (of several centuries) in which relatively wet or dry periods occurred. Shorter periods of oscillating high and low rainfall would be perceptible to humans within their own lifetimes.

These fluctuations produced a pulse pattern drawing populations more tightly together around the remaining water sources during dry periods, encouraging specialization in the exploitation of particular microenvironments. In wetter periods, these populations dispersed outward carrying ideas and practices with them.4 This has necessarily produced long-term histories of population movement as well as centuries of interaction between masters of the waterways, farmers in search of land suited to grain production, those skilled in growing crops in the riverbeds as waters recede, and cattle herders moving their cattle wherever the grass was abundant but the brush unsuited to the tsetse fly. Unpredictable rainfall produced interdependence and borrowing between populations specializing in different lifeways. Populations developed techniques for transforming overgrown bush into pastureland, for transforming desiccated waterbeds into oases, and for generating tree cover—humans both shaped the environment and were shaped by it.5

Mobility and the diversification of livestock and plant types to take advantage of a broad range of microenvironments are signal survival strategies in the region. Ethnolinguistic identification over time became linked to specialization in different lifeways; interethnic conflict could develop over conflicting uses of land and water as climatic conditions shifted in both short and longer cycles.6 A variety of social means of managing climate stress and population mobility developed, including the privileging of first-comer status, fictive kinship relations, joking relations, cooperative relations accommodating multiple kinds of use rights to the same land or water source, and absorption of stressed populations through marriage, fosterage, or enslavement.

The advent of camel porterage along the Mediterranean coast in the 1st century BCE made it possible to link the intraregional trades at the Lake Chad basin, the Senegal River, and the Niger Bend with the Mediterranean circuits to the north of the desert edge. Formerly sedentary Berber farmers of the northern littoral took up camel herding and the nomadic life of the desert. In the Sahel most nomadic Berber are today referred to as Tuareg, although they sometimes prefer to be referred to as “speakers of the Tamasheq language.” Berbers planted cities such as Sijilmasa and Awdaghost along the northern “shore” of the Sahara from which to launch caravans to Ghana and Gao. Trade with the peoples of the desert edge attracted Arab, Berber, and Persian merchants. Early trading networks included Jewish Berber merchants and unorthodox Ibadi Muslims (who rejected genealogically dictated leadership beginning in the 7th century).7 With the conquest of North Africa by Arab Muslims in the 7th century, Sunni Muslims gradually dominated the trans-Saharan trade that linked the trade of the African interior with that of the Mediterranean.

Unlike North Africa, Islam spread in the Sahel largely through peaceful exposure in the context of trade. Caravans brought with them not only merchants but also curious travelers, pilgrims, adventurers, and Muslim scholars such as Ibn Battuta, who visited Mali in the mid-14th century. Mande-speaking Islamic traders from the Senegambia region carried Islamic scholarship across the Sahel from west to east. By the 11th century, the king of Takrur in what is now Senegal had converted to Islam, and in the late 13th century the king of Mali, Mansa Uli, had performed the pilgrimage to Mecca. Kanem had diplomatic relations with North African states already in the 10th century, and a hostel in Cairo for pilgrims en route to Mecca in the 13th. Growing confidence in Islamic law undergirded trust between traders across vast territories, in a multitude of trading families, and in myriad ethnolinguistic groups. Knowledge of Islamic law was crucial to managing trade relations as was the ability to read and write in Arabic, prized by urban elites and merchants on both sides of the Sahara. Muslim scholars were integrated into the administrative structures of the trade centers of the Sahel, and texts in Arabic on a host of topics, including law, became a significant part of the trade.8

The Land of the Blacks

The famed kingdoms of the Sahel emerged against this backdrop. Specialists in gold mining, farmers with the skill to generate surpluses of grain sufficient to support trade centers, pastoralists knowledgeable about shifting pasture, intraregional traders, and desert dwellers with the ability to traverse the Sahara—all were necessary for the emergence of Ghana between the 8th and 13th centuries, and of her successor states Mali (c.1230–1670) and Songhai (1464–1592).

The political and economic center of gravity of trade centers shifted gradually from west to east over many centuries, in part as a result of shifts in the sources of gold and in populations that could be enslaved, but also as a result of political circumstances in North Africa.9 Indeed, the fall of Songhai to Moroccan troops in 1591 resulted from Morocco’s attempt to secure access to the dwindling supply of gold that had long stimulated trade in the region. However, it is often forgotten that the Kanem–Bornu Empire began before and endured after the Western “Sudanic empires.” The earliest Arabic reference to Kanem in the middle of the 9th century predates references to Ghana. Kanem’s proximity to vulnerable farming populations to the south and to periodically habitable terrain stretching toward North Africa fed a vigorous exchange of slaves for horses.10 The drying climate prompted a transfer of the capital to Bornu on the southwest corner of Lake Chad in the 14th century. The long-standing political institutions of Kanem–Bornu informed the cluster of Hausa-speaking kingdoms that flourished from the 14th century in what is now northern Nigeria and southern Niger.

These trade centers fell within the “land of the blacks,” the bilad al-sudan. Arab and Berber travelers such as Ibn Battuta in the 14th century saw these peoples as different in kind, and that difference was marked as “black.”11 The ambivalence of the term signaled the ambiguity of the space referred to as the Sudan—even in urban centers most people there were not until the 15th century plausibly within the dar-al-Islam, the safe haven of the Islamic peoples, or umma. However, as trade partners neither were they within the dar-al-harb, the land of warfare against those whose status as infidels justified their enslavement.12 Given the centuries of interaction between Arabs, Berbers, and peoples of the Sudan, neither were they all phenotypically black.13 The bilad al-sudan was both the land in which black rulers, increasingly influenced by Islam from the 9th century on, controlled major centers of trade, and the land in which merchants and caravan leaders could readily secure and sell slaves from both the north and the south. If the first-generation captives taken north were overwhelmingly black, it is often forgotten that some of those brought south for sale were prized precisely because they were not.14

Within the legal logic of enslavement in Islam, it sufficed to mark one’s targets as either kaffir (non-Muslim infidel) or as ahl al-bid’a (heretical apostate) to justify their capture. Sedentary farming peoples were particularly vulnerable to capture by better-armed desert edge warriors and raiders on horseback and camel. Over time ideas about physical appearance (blackness) and the potential for enslavement (non-Muslim-ness) tended to slip toward one another, prompting considerable debate among Muslim scholars about the relationship between race and enslavement.15 Across the region, creative genealogical reckoning served as a means for Muslim rulers and circulating traders to stake a claim to nobility, “whiteness,” or simply nonblackness.16

By controlling access to the more southerly gold fields, Sudanic rulers managed to restrict the flow of gold north, accumulating it themselves as a mark of wealth and prestige, or trading it for cloth, salt, and the technologies of war (horses, swords, and guns). Captives were abundant and could be exchanged for the valuable goods arriving through the caravan trade.17 Most of the slaves who were traded north were women seized from the sedentary communities south of the desert edge or from among neighboring enemies. Many captives, also largely women, were retained within the bilad al-sudan to perform sexual and domestic services, and heavy labor.

As the drying trend accelerated beginning in the early 17th century, ethnic and racial identification sharpened prompting competition and violence that both promoted the development of defensive states and rendered them vulnerable to the increasing disruptions of warrior elites, both within the Sahara and the Sahel.18 The same phenomena stimulated the trade in captives across the Sahara and the import of horses and arms as technologies of war.19 Increasingly slaves were retained within the Sahel as soldiers, agricultural laborers, and herders. Within the Saharan oases, they cultivated dates, grains, and melons and maintained the dangerous underground networks of water channels.

European explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries, drawn to African gold, dreamed of reaching the Sahel’s cities and waterways. René Caillié’s famous journal, first published in French in 1830, served as a charter for French entitlement in the region. Through Caillié we learn of the painful experience of traversing this landscape of cram-cram on foot, like a captive. Once reached, Timbuktu was a far cry from the glorious city he had envisioned.20 By contrast, Heinrich Barth, coming from the north by camel with wealthy Arab merchants, drew a far more Edenic picture of the Sahel as a land of abundant grain and valuable trade goods. This rich landscape nevertheless required the labor of female slaves for traders to gain access to its wealth. In both travel accounts, the Sahel is most immediately a landscape of food.21

At the desert edge, a nomadic food production system based upon the by-products of livestock meets a sedentary food system based upon the cultivation of the resilient grain of the region, millet. In the 19th century, slaves provided nomadic and merchant populations with a secure foothold within the zone of cultivation. Caillié saw that black servile women busily collected wild grains and cultivated millet; through their charity, he was occasionally able to supplement his inadequate diet of milk with grain.22 Stephen Baier and Paul Lovejoy have detailed how slave and servile settlements in the Sahelian zone provided desert nomads with access to grain, secure points of water, and an emergency haven in the rainfed zone in times of drought and famine.23

Along the portion of the Niger River encompassing the fragmented remains of the Songhai Empire from the late 16th century, the emerging social hierarchies were akin to those of the nomadic Tuareg. Agricultural production was relegated to one servile segment of society, forever replenished through the raids of warrior classes and their slave armies upon sedentary populations. Wolof, Mande, and Songhai elites, like the Moors and the Tuaregs, practiced caste endogamy. They depended upon a division of labor between an extractive warrior class and a body of nominally free cultivators, second-generation slave clients, and recently captured slaves.24 Elites denigrated agricultural production as shameful and elevated the capacity to raid others—and in particular to acquire captives for exchange and for labor—as the sign of nobility.

Centralized societies a bit further east, such as the Hausa states of the 18th century, offered longer-term social mobility to captives; rather than constituting a distinct caste, captives were continually absorbed into the local population as free peasants or as court members over time. This process was facilitated by relatively expansive interpretations of potential marriage partners. In Hausaland and Kanem–Bornu, the children of concubines could be absorbed into aristocratic lines; the children of farm slaves merged with the much larger population of generally poor but nominally free sedentary farmers, the talakawa. Their absorption entailed the regular replacement of slave labor not solely through reproduction, but through purchase or capture. The logic of depredation here therefore also had the effect of creating a violence that cascaded southward, as sedentary societies of the Sahel preyed upon sedentary “infidel” kaffir populations or turned accusations of apostasy into pretexts to attack.

Fulfulde speakers and their cattle generally occupied an intermediate space south of the desert-dwelling Tuareg camel herders but north of the sedentary farmers. Known variously as Peul, Fulani, and Fulbe/Rimaibe, Fulfulde speakers drifted gradually eastward from the Futa Toro and Futa Jalon over many centuries. Fulbe society, like Tuareg society, comprised a mobile livestock-owning nobility, a relatively sedentary and often clerical population, a warrior elite, an artisanal caste, and a settled slave class (rimaiBe) whose agricultural production was taxed by their masters. As newcomers, Fulbe herders and mixed farmers were often dependent upon cooperative arrangements with relatively secure militarized sedentary populations for access to water holes and forage. Free sedentary farmers might entrust some of their own livestock to these herders to migrate north with their herds during the rainy season. Fulbe pastoralists gained seasonal access to forage and grain after the harvest by parking their herds on the lands of sedentary farmers, while agriculturalists gained access to manure, milk, and meat in the exchange.

Trade in the Hausa-speaking urban centers such as Kano was facilitated by long-standing linkages with Fulbe and Tuareg populations. Tuareg tribes might place servile artisans (often leather workers and silver or goldsmiths) in urban centers, and they sometimes established brokerage houses. The region benefited economically from the influx of these often captive populations into such urban centers; it contributed to the labor of the caravan trade, to artisanal production of leather and metal goods, and to agricultural production.25 The contempt for farm work typical of Songhai, Tuareg, and Fulbe society was not a prominent feature of Hausa society. The Hausa and Kanuri regions were characterized as well by a more intensive mixed agropastoral system than one finds among the smaller Songhai polities to the west. Here, agropastoral production provided more than a food reserve; it contributed to the attraction and resilience of urban market centers, including Kano, Katsina, and Zinder. The milk, leather, Islamic texts, and remedies of the Fulbe and the Tuareg were highly prized in these urban settings. Status for Hausa urbanites was marked by the clothing styles, leatherwork, and jewelry of the Tuareg. Islamic learning was sought, often in an itinerant fashion, from among the scholarly Mande, Fulbe, and Tuareg elites.

Nevertheless, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Fulbe clerics led numerous jihads that were successful, in part because of the growing resentment of herders at “un-Islamic” taxation of their cattle by rulers of sedentary societies. Another critical concern fueling these jihad movements, however, was the illegal enslavement of Muslims who were then occasionally sold into the trans-Atlantic or trans-Saharan trade, where they might find themselves outside the dar al-Islam.26 The enslavement of Muslim scholars, who embodied Koranic knowledge, was a particularly disturbing issue.27 In 1775, the scholars of the state of Futa Toro were at odds with the existing ruling classes and rallied followings through an antislavery stance (with the caveat that followers were expected to formally declare themselves to be Muslim).28 By 1780, the Atlantic slave trade had absorbed many Hausa Muslims, prompting the Fulani scholar Usman ‘dan Fodio to critique the Hausa aristocracy of Gobir. He launched a jihad in 1804 that eventually overcame all of the major Hausa states.29 Ironically, in the course of the conquest, a great many Muslims were enslaved, and many of those who were not seen as Muslim carried their spirit possession practices into the Islamic world, where they took root.30

In the territorial states that emerged (Futa Toro, Futa Jallon, Masina, and eventually, Sokoto), slaves were both a source of labor and a source of revenue. Slaves could be traded for guns and horses in cycles of violence. In the wake of the Haitian revolution and the passage of the British Slave Trade Act of 1807, the market for slaves at the Atlantic coast was gradually undermined. Warring states were constrained to absorb captives internally rather than export them. The Fulfulde elite of the post-jihad Sokoto and Gwandu caliphates significantly altered agricultural and slave-use patterns; the aggregation of large numbers of captive farm laborers and artisans fed the economic explosion of the region in the later 19th century, replicating and expanding in some ways upon the settlement pattern of locating captives in oases and servile villages that had previously been more common further to the west.31 By the 19th century, it was clear that slave labor had become the cornerstone of Sudanic societies.32

The Drive to Lake Chad

The Sahel today comprises contemporary Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad—all former French colonies. Although parts of the ecoclimatic belt fall outside the “francophone” Sahel (in parts of Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, and Eritrea), those regions are less immediately taken to be part of the Sahel in common parlance. This zone already had a coherence resulting from the environmental, racial, ethnic, and religious patterns that had emerged as a result of interactions among and between Africans dating from well before colonial rule. As a result, the scramble for Africa was played out within the context of those patterns.

France, with the appearance of Caillié’s travel narrative in 1830, fixed upon the Sahel as the heart of its commercial interests in West Africa.33 France’s agricultural economy, blessed with predictable rainfall, many rivers, and a multitude of microenvironments, was capable of reliably yielding an extraordinary diversity of kinds of foods. French commercial interests imagined that linking the upper Senegal River to the Niger Bend region and then to Lake Chad would generate a vast terrain of agricultural richness. By 1854, Timbuktu was seen as the lynchpin to bridge the valuable French territories of Algeria and Senegal.34 The Sudan, one such proponent declared in 1886, was comprised of numerous states both Muslim and idolatrous, “all countries of overabundant fertility.”35 Hausaland, Bornu, and Lake Chad seemed inevitable destinations in the emerging hydraulic vision of a French African empire. Once the city of Say had been secured along the Niger, the next major interior water body was Lake Chad—the potential meeting point of French expansion south from Aïr, north from the Congo, and east from the Niger River.

If commercial interests hoped to make these imperial connections peacefully through trade, military officers on the ground, impatient for glory and promotion, were willing to sacrifice commercial expediency to military drive. The Voulet–Chanoine expedition set out to secure French control of Lake Chad in 1899 against the recommendations of both the top military commanders and the commercial interests of the region. To feed the poorly provisioned and constantly growing column of three thousand soldiers, porters, and female captives late in the dry season, and to retain sufficient carriers, Captains Paul Voulet and Julien Chanoine engaged in a six-month scorched earth march, leaving in its wake burnt villages and the bodies of countless women and children hung from the trees. It became known, with some justification, as one of the darkest episodes in all of French colonial history.36

While the conquest of the largely sedentary populations at the desert edge was eventually to be “accomplished” after this dismal bloodletting, actually securing the territory held by the mounted Tuareg populations to the north—whose very survival rested upon the continued extraction of food and labor from settled tributary and slave populations—would take a good twenty more years to accomplish. For the French, the Sahel was a territory in which the Tuareg were their most worthy adversaries: the conquest of the Sudan would entail overturning the hegemony of these highly romanticized desert warrior tribes.37

The military scientists of the Mission Tilho, tasked from 1906 to 1909 with collecting a range of kinds of scientific data pertaining to the territory between the Niger and Lake Chad while demarcating the boundary between Niger and Nigeria, were disappointed to find how shallow the immense lake actually was and to discover the possibility that it was shrinking.38 To seek out water and foodstuffs and to know how best to move from one site to another, the mission was dependent upon human settlements and wells. However, the location of villages, paths, and water points could be highly changeable. The landscape could vary substantially depending upon the timing and force of the rainfall and the depth of the underground water resources. Heavy rainfall could alter the watercourses or create pools of water that made it possible unexpectedly to plant. Poor accumulation in other sites could significantly alter the vegetation or render a well unusable.39 Human movements and settlements in the Sahel had a fluidity that was out of keeping with the fixity envisioned by the mapping of European nation-states.

The pronounced east–west orientation of France’s imperial drive superimposed the new colonial order upon the existing dynamics of human appropriation in the agropastoral meeting ground of the desert edge. This east–west orientation inadvertently weakened the far more commercially viable north–south links between the forested zone and the interior, the control of which had always been crucial to the success of states and markets in the region. France’s landlocked territories of the Sahel were particularly poorly situated as the regional economy shifted away from northbound routes in favor of routes giving out on the Atlantic coast. Furthermore, French intrusion into this space was to destabilize the previous logic of accumulation and investment in human resources in ways that racialized differences and that placed greater weight upon biological reproduction and the control of land.

The Abolition of Slavery

European colonization of Africa was justified through an abolitionist discourse that cast “Arabs” as slave traders and Europeans as civilizing saviors. In 1905, France abolished all transactions in persons in its territories: it would no longer be possible to make a legal claim involving the sale, inheritance, exchange, or gift of a human being. This approach to the ending of slavery, known as “legal status abolition,” did not abolish slavery per se. However, it did make it possible for many slaves to leave their owners without fear of reprisal. Between 1905 and 1908, somewhere between two hundred thousand and five hundred thousand slaves simply picked up and left their masters to return to their homelands or to settle in new villages, a phenomenon known to historians as the Banamba slave exodus.40 Tuareg groups, already weakened by the depletion of their wealth in livestock during French conquest, now lost whatever capital they had invested in any slaves who chose to leave.

Not all captive populations left; some remained where they were for a host of complex reasons, giving rise to servile classes of “captives” and “domestics” of ambiguous status, with ongoing linkages to the societies into which they had become, in a sense, integral, if subordinate.41 The ending of the slave trade threatened to disrupt political and economic stability; France quite quickly found that the labor requirements of the region made the wholesale erasure of servitude incompatible with the maintenance of order and the raising of revenue to fund the emerging colonial order.42 The renegotiation of descent, marriage, social legitimacy, and fertility were central to the complex social revolution to which French occupation and the abolition of slavery gave rise. Somewhat paradoxically, these adjustments were often justified in the idiom of faithfulness to Islam and the rejection of “western” influence.

However, the Islam in question here was colored both by French understandings of Islam in Africa and by social practices that antedated the generalization of Islam. Indeed, one of the most striking features of colonial rule in Africa in general was the acceleration of Islamization during that period.43 In attempting to render its new territories “legible” and governable, French colonial thinkers consistently drew upon a schematic version of Islamic law and made reference to the racial assumptions that subtended the slave economy of the earlier era. To do so, they also relied upon the very aristocratic and scholarly elites that had an interest in sustaining relations of dominance and servitude.

Colonial administrators struggled with the limits and temptations of binary thinking about difference, the template for which had been set in Algeria in the negative perception of the Arab as a pillaging nomad and the sympathetic depiction of the Kabyle Berber as an autochthonous and productive farmer. On the far side of the Sahara, it was the “black” farming population, curiously, that occupied the less admired pole, while the Tuareg Berbers, still admired as fiercely autonomous, if in this context nomadic, were mythologized in the French imagination.44 Binary thinking was clearly inadequate for understanding the complexity of the broader Saharo–Sahelien region. Nevertheless, French racialization of the Arab and Berber conflict became inverted once projected upon the contrast between Saharan and Sudanic “races.” Maurice Delafosse admired the northerly “white” peoples (largely Tuareg) who, although permitted by Islam to take up to four wives, tended toward monogamy. Their women had greater social influence and their fidelity was purportedly highly prized.45 By contrast, in “black” societies polygyny was purportedly necessary because of the near universal taboo upon sexual relations during menstruation, pregnancy, and nursing.46 The highly Islamized Wolof, Hausa, Songhai, northern Mande, and Toucouleurs considerably muddied the clarity of a model casting “whiteness” as largely Islamic.47 The high labor demands within desert and desert-edge agropastoral economies that had for so long fueled the demand for slaves and inevitably produced a great deal of intermingling were entirely occluded within Delafosse’s division of “white” and “black” societies. Cultural practices attributed to race simultaneously undercut and reinforced the very notion of racial difference.

This colonial conceptualization of race-cum-ethnicity was superimposed upon the preexisting logic of religion and racial difference that had suffused enslavement in the region. Blackness was associated in French thought with marginal Muslim credentials and nonblackness with relative orthodoxy, if not fanaticism. French dominance entailed protecting the black populations from contamination by the imagined fanaticism of “Arab” Islam. The “Black Islam” (Islam noir) both invented and cultivated under French rule was further reinforced by the bureaucratic logic of the French empire in Africa, through which North Africa and, most importantly, Algeria fell to one ministry, and French West Africa to an entirely different one. Two separate cultures of administration and scholarship emerged, one of which functioned in French and Arabic, was driven by the logic of settler colonialism, and enjoyed the prestige of belonging to France proper; the other, clearly the poorer cousin, functioned in French and in a motley array of African languages, was driven by the logic of minimal expenditure, and fell under the Colonial Ministry.48 Rhetorically and politically, it was difficult to situate the racially ambiguous and highly mobile Tuareg.

The Reworking of Social Relations

The extractive demands of the colonial economy pushed the agriculturalists of the desert edge to plant ever greater areas of land with cash crops to pay taxes. At the outset, cotton production was promoted, but later peanut production for export dominated the colonial economy, resulting in an increasing need for farm labor at the very moment that servile labor had become less available. The struggle to produce sufficient peanuts to meet tax requirements also prompted agriculturalists to plant seed in the northerly fringe of the rain-fed region, where in years of high rainfall it was possible to produce a crop. However, in years of poor rains serious cash and food shortages could result. The colonial period was marked by major famines in 1913–1914 and again in 1930–1931. Food shortages were aggravated by high taxes, requisitions of animals, and, in general, the erosion of the capacity to store wealth in livestock that could be sold where food was more plentiful and livestock prices high.49 The peanut economy pushed farmers to reduce fallow periods, depleting important components of the topsoil. Without organic matter to capture water, wind and water erosion carried away surface soils, leaving only the hardpan below, resulting in significant land degradation and increased vulnerability of both human and animal populations to food crises.50

The rise of cash cropping combined with the growing autonomy of formerly enslaved populations considerably altered the social landscape of the region as well. Some slave settlements established themselves as independent villages. Former slaves of Tuareg pastoralists, clerics, and merchants were among the most eager to establish their freedom and to stake a claim to sedentary status. Tamasheq-speaking former slaves, often referred to as Bella or Buzu, were particularly likely to mimic Hausa farming practices in an effort to make a permanent shift to sedentary mixed farming.51 The colonialists found these newly independent and highly mobile populations difficult to manage, for without masters the former slaves of the nomads effectively had no recognized chief through which to rule them.52

Other agropastoral settlements were populated by Fulfulde speakers who had begun to deploy a variety of strategies for combining livestock raising with farming. Some focused largely on raising livestock near wells, others farmed long narrow strips of land through which the livestock could be rotated, while yet others opened up new farmland in the relatively marginal land to the north of the higher concentration settlements near the seasonal watercourses.53 Like the Bella, these agriculturalists were often of slave origin or ancestry, although some freeborn Fulfulde speakers also participated in a broader mix of agricultural and pastoral practices.54

Colonial and postcolonial livestock support services have often been more accessible and suitable for Fulbe than for Tuareg herders. Shifting human patterns were accompanied by gradual changes in the varieties of livestock as the colonial economy shifted emphasis toward meat and milk production over livestock as a repository of wealth, security, and prestige in a nomadic culture. Fulbe herds in general increased in size and became a significant fixture of the landscape. The traditional symbiosis between farmers and cattle herders may also have facilitated these concentrations, but that same proximity also generated ever increasing friction over pasture and water sources.

All of these developments combined to push the Tuareg further north and to cut them off from their traditional access to pasture, grain, dry season water sources, and havens in times of drought. The gradual development of railroad lines altered transport patterns, encouraging the export of raw materials toward the Atlantic coast. The reorientation of trade permanently altered the relations of Tuareg and sedentary populations. As Buzu began to assert claims to the land they farmed as their own rather than their masters’, dependency relations between the noble and formerly captive populations took on a more elective quality, veiled in kinship language and softened by the allure of patron and client relations. Thus, beyond the question of loss of hegemony over the region and the prestige which followed from that dominance, fully pastoral Tuareg groups were increasingly vulnerable to food insecurity and to loss of livestock.

So long as the rainfall in the region remained unusually high, as was the case for much of the first half of the century, the vulnerability produced by these shifts did not necessarily come into evidence. But in times of a return to more normal rainfall, or in periods of striking deficit, Tuareg, Fulbe, and Songhai elites cut off from their tributary or servile agricultural base were no longer viable. The rainfall in the Sahel, we now know, is subject to great long-term variability, which was as true of the colonial period as it had been in the past.55 The unpredictable rainfall of the 1930s and 1940s pushed access to water and pasture further afield during the Global Depression and early years of World War II. Greater distances traveled with herds called for either the labor of more herdsmen or a greater burden upon those already at hand. In the past, the freeborn Tuareg and Fulbe had eased their own labor demands by claiming the labor of the children of their agricultural slaves. Captive boys had been enlisted to take over the task of herding and captive girls had been charged with domestic tasks, including the increasingly arduous task of finding and drawing water for animals as well as humans, and finding wild grain or processing millet for consumption. Where clientage relations persisted into the 20th century or where coercion was still possible because of the distance from colonial structures, that labor might still be available. Nevertheless, increasingly Buzu and Rimaibe populations contested the seizure of their children and laid claim to the land they worked or migrated in search of wage labor.56

Because colonial rule was carried out in large part through the vehicle of “traditional” rulers of both sedentary and pastoral populations, chiefs designated by the colonialists could recast former slave relations into traditional labor tribute for themselves, for the military, or for French major public works projects. Those who succeeded in making use of the coercive apparatus of the state to stake a claim to labor (or to the product of that labor) as part of their due as “customary” chiefs might continue to flourish. In local perceptions, slavery and the era of colonial forced labor often blurred into one another (and still do), for the coercion of labor persisted and was extracted through the hegemony of the same figures—noble chiefs and their sons—as had extracted it in the past. The suppression of the Indigénat code (summary punishments inflicted by administrators to enforce compliance) effectively ended forced labor in the spring of 1946. Bella were now free of the burden of forced labor obligations.57 Coerced labor increasingly shifted from the shoulders of male and female slaves and onto those of junior males and females more generally.58 Young men of both free and former slave backgrounds responded by migrating to seize upon labor opportunities in urban and coastal settings where they could choose the kind of labor they engaged in and could sometimes earn wages sufficient to redefine their positions within the local social order.59

Production and Reproduction

Colonial rule and the abolition of slavery in the Sahel gradually stripped away many of the defining characteristics of nobility—military prowess; privileged access to the intimidating trappings of warfare such as guns, horses, and camels; and perhaps most importantly, the recognized capacity to redistribute seized labor, women, livestock, and grain. These shifts had complex implications for reproductive concerns. With the decline in open enslavement, virtually all that remained to mark status difference was the size of one’s entourage and an exaggerated concern for the behaviors associated with free status. For Arab, Tuareg, Hausa, Kanuri, Songhai, and Fulbe elites, it would no longer be possible to simply assert control over resources through violence—hegemony would now have to be sustained through visible performances of superior status.60

Like other colonial powers, France found it a great deal easier to celebrate the ideal of the abolition of slavery than to actually operationalize it, since its priorities were the maintenance of order and the extraction of sufficient revenues to render the colonial territories self-financing—priorities with which wholesale abolition was incompatible.61 By tacitly approving the persistence of servile relations and subtly reinforcing them through the army, courts, and schooling, France hoped to set off a very gradual shift from slavery to other kinds of labor patterns without altogether disrupting the social hierarchy. Nevertheless, the institutions that reproduced power relations could also introduce spaces through which the existing order could be contested: slaves sent to school in the place of the “sons and nephews” of chiefs could eventually become more powerful than their former masters, former slave soldiers insisted upon enhanced rights as anciens combattants, while former captives could argue in court that land they had cleared themselves belonged to them as first-comers. Eventually through both schooling and courts, Muslim women could attempt to renegotiate the terms of marriage and their access to inheritance under Islamic law.62

As it grew increasingly difficult to reproduce captive labor through raids, warfare, or the market, it became necessary to control servile labor through some other means. One approach was to retain female slaves as “concubines,” who the French conveniently understood to be “like family,” and therefore not really enslaved. As a result, there was increasing slippage between the tasks of the female slave and the tasks of the junior wife. Concubines could be treated as junior wives and the hierarchy among and between wives was accentuated, with particular emphasis placed upon distinguishing between those wives who had produced children for the household and those who had not. Effectively, child-bearing and leisure time were to become the most important means of distinguishing free women from servile.63

By contrast, in the numerous societies in which the children of elite men by their female slaves had been set off in a category distinct from that of the elite, the logic of endogamy in marriage played an important role in maintaining social distinctions. Rigid adherence to status or caste endogamy could serve to maintain firewalls between the freeborn “noble” stratum, freed castes with artisanal skills, and the captive slave lines subjected to strenuous labor demands. Maintaining the leisure of a freeborn wife entailed the presence of female servants, generally from the formerly captive populations. Social boundaries between status groups were (and often still are) carefully policed. Across the Sahel differences in respectability, comportment and labor are bound up with free versus captive origin. Casted men whose families are understood to have been “born” into servile relations vis-à-vis the free would never be permitted to marry women of noble background; but by the same token casted men would not deign to marry women from families of recent slave heritage.64

The Ascendance of Patriliny

Patrilineal descent had become the norm by the 19th century in much of the Sahel, even in societies (notably Tuareg) that had previously tended toward matriliny. This process was facilitated under French rule as judicial concerns were handled largely on the cheap through Muslim scholars (or marabouts) recognized by the colonial administration. Former captives who settled in the sedentary zone were more likely to be drawn to the prevailing patrilineal norms in which offspring of a woman belong to the male genitor—the husband. By purchasing the freedom of a female slave (in Hausa fansa), a man of captive descent could gain rights over the children she produced. The colonial administration struggled to find ways to encourage the emancipation of the slaves of nomads without upending the authority of masters. One element of this effort was to attempt to persuade masters to let female slaves go in exchange for a traditional marriage payment, to be paid either by a male representative or the woman herself. The redemption fee paid to acquire the slave bride was treated euphemistically as a bride-wealth payment, but it went to the master rather than the bride or her male representative (as would occur in a legal marriage transaction), effectively compensating the nobility for the loss of female slaves upon emancipation.65

This patrilineal tendency was reinforced by French efforts to enforce some kind of order on the movements of the former slave populations and of the Bella in particular. In 1949, the governor of Soudan (now Mali) proposed that Bella households should be counted in the census as being “under the tent” of the male head of family along with his wife and children and any property.66 In free Tuareg households, the tent always belonged to the woman; clearly these new households were to be modeled not on noble Tuareg patterns, but on sedentary norms. In setting up such a male-headed household and by being recorded in the tax rolls, a man could in a rather literal way “count”; by paying his own tax, he would achieve “official consecration” of his status as independent from and equivalent to his former master.67 Consequently, the freed captive men initiating such family lines were likely to value female virginity and to embrace the prospect of polygyny, in contrast with the lesser importance placed upon virginity among Tuareg nobility and the strong preference for monogamy enforced by Tuareg noblewomen.68

Still, masters endeavored to reinforce their status through rituals of submission well after abolition. For example, one means of controlling former captive populations was to refuse to authorize such marriages or to decline to provide meat for the naming ceremony of a child so that it would, by implication, be seen as a bastard.69 Former slaves and their lineages often chose to maintain a deferential attitude to their former masters in the interests of retaining access to land through membership in recognized social relationships.70 By the same token, without slaves, the nobility would have no way to mark themselves as such, for the antithesis of nobility is enslavement. The performance of nobility required the presence of slaves. For example, noble Tuareg girls were gorged with milk by women of captive origin in order to render them fat before marriage. Their obesity signaled their exemption from domestic labor.71

Gender and sexuality were to become far more central than in the past to the structuring of honor and shame, both of which were becoming ever more closely associated with Muslim status. Because of the profound importance of the sexual vulnerability of women in defining the slave condition for both women and men, and because of the urgency of securing offspring for freeborn and freed men in the sedentary zone, women’s bodily comportment became a major battleground in the postabolition struggle to mark slave from free, dishonorable from honorable.72

From Subject to Development Beneficiary

After World War II, “development” of the colonial territories was the dominant discourse of the day, enacted through long-term loans to build infrastructure such as dams, irrigation projects, and transportation in the service of the expanding peanut economy. This investment privileged urban areas (particularly Dakar) and large companies at the expense of rural areas and small farmers while accelerating deforestation and land degradation.73 The question of whether such development would be best managed through a more tightly integrated French West Africa or through some other structure emerged in the wake of the war. The “framework law” or Loi-cadre of 1956 attempted to balance the retention of strategic powers by France with greater representation by Africans in territorial assemblies. The Loi-cadre effectively delinked the individual colonies from one another, undermining the potential for a larger territorial federation conjoining the landlocked states to the wealthier coastal states. With decolonization in 1960, the fragmented form of the postcolonial states of French West Africa tended to reduce the scale of potential political membership and economic intervention dramatically from the whole of the region to a host of individual states. The landlocked countries of the Sahel were particularly hard hit as a result. Ordinary travel between regions of the former French West Africa was recast as transnational migration. These movements were not new (although the French colonial government had done all it could to retain laborers within the French colonies as a whole). Nevertheless, the long tradition of mobility of humans and livestock so necessary to survival in the region was increasingly cast as a crisis to be rectified. At the same time, demographic patterns of high fertility and falling mortality appeared to onlookers to throw the capacity of the region to produce food out of balance with its population growth. The perception that the region was suffering from ecological degradation as a result of overgrazing and poor land management resulted from an inattention to the ways that the peanut economy had pushed farmers into pasture land, concentrating herds in a limited number of water holes and grazing areas.74

Most countries understood to be in the Sahel today fall entirely within the ecozone. However, many West African countries traverse several ecozones from the Atlantic coast, through forest zones, into Savana, and finally the Sahel. Sahelien populations in such countries often suffer from marginalization, whether colonized by the French, British, or the Portuguese. Under colonial rule, coast-adjacent zones, with their greater access to ports and higher agricultural promise for high-value tree farming (cocoa, coffee, and tea), received more investment in infrastructure, health, and missionary education. Upon decolonization, political dynamics were everywhere dominated by coastal populations, largely Christian, with very different social, economic, and cultural profiles than those of the Sahel. The often troubled relations between “northerners” and the populations to the south can become manifest in tensions over religion, conflicting claims to indigeneity, and divergent views about the place of the nation in global politics and economics. In Nigeria in particular, those tensions have contributed to violence between Muslims and Christians and between northern protest groups and the national government. Political dissent has frequently been articulated in the form of Islamic reform movements, sometimes Sufi, but often Salafist in orientation. Nigeria’s demographic and economic heft in the region has contributed to the attraction and dissemination of such reform movements, accounting in part for the debates about the place of Islamic law in Sahelien countries. Contemporary reform movements within the Sahel may be framed as inheritors of the jihadist tradition of the Sokoto Caliphate, despite the incongruity of claiming Sufi origins for Salafist movements.

The logic of resource mobilization in the region after decolonization had a further fragmentary effect. Party politics were often predicated upon the mobilization of an ethnic following. Appeasing different regional interests within new countries contributed to the creation of districts in which administrative structures were endlessly duplicated. Such structures became the channels through which access to jobs, capital, and prestige could be mobilized, producing a great many jobs but also inevitable waste. Such structures invited the identification and expulsion of “outsiders” competing for economic niches or political influence. The ethnic overlap between populations of the Sahel and of these northerly regions was often deployed to tag northerners as aliens.

This phenomenon of administrative fragmentation was heightened with structural adjustment programs imposed by international lenders, who sought to sidestep the perceived excess of state governance through decentralization. Etiolation of the postcolonial state through the selling of parastatal companies and the reduction of staff inevitably gave rise to the transfer of control of health, education, and development infrastructure to a host of nongovernmental bodies.

In an effort to shape the economy without the coercive mechanisms of colonial rule, late colonial and postcolonial governments reframed unpaid labor for the betterment of the community as traditional forms of “volunteer” labor. Unfree (i.e., unpaid) labor became regularly referred to as “participation” in development.75 Decisions about what should be done and by who were increasingly dictated by planners who were not answerable to a voting electorate and, indeed, were not necessarily part of the state at all. Responsibilities (welfare provision, medical care) and prerogatives (policy planning, and distribution and oversight of health, education, and infrastructure) that are often understood to belong to the state devolved to nongovernmental organizations.

This occurred in parallel with a growing international awareness of “the Sahel.” The recasting of the cluster of Sudanic colonies of France as a distinctive and fragile ecological space grew in force with the gathering alarm over the great Sahel drought of 1969–1974. The decline in rainfall from an unusual high in the 1950s and early 1960s was characterized as “desertification” and was often attributed to “inappropriate” pastoral and farming practices, without deeper analysis of climate history or the accumulated experiences of farmers and herders of land use in the region. Because humanitarian interventions to respond to the famine were directed at the Sahel as a whole, mobilization to respond was international and often directed by “experts” from the UN, France, and the United States. In a sense, the famine was “governed” through a variety of NGOs whose legitimation became couched in terms of human rights. National governments and individual citizens were rendered invisible and largely irrelevant, which is not to say that governments and individuals did not profit from the arrangement.76

In the landlocked Sahel, tensions between Saharan populations that had been simultaneously admired and marginalized under colonial rule deepened with decolonization and independence, as multiple nationalisms competed for political authority and cultural hegemony. In Mali, the adoption of the historical Mali Empire as the foundation of a national narrative privileged Mande speakers over others and heightened the racialization of ethnic difference. Bidan and Tuareg populations of northern Mali and Niger resented their perceived political irrelevance, prompting rebellions under fractious and inconsistent leadership that continue to inform violence in the region today.77 Increasingly rebel movements in northern Mali bleed into other radical “jihadist” movements that attract participants from outside the region with motives less linked to the longer history of desert-edge interactions and colonial rule. The long tradition of reform in the idiom of jihad continues to inform other movements as well, including Boko Haram, situated at the nexus of Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad in the heartland of the Kanem–Bornu Empire.78 Since 9/11, the concerns of France, the United States, and the European Union have shifted from development to securitization in the face of radical Islamic movements that are seen as an existential threat to Western interests and liberal values.79

Discussion of the Literature

Work on the region has taken up the Sahel as a “bridge” to the trans-Saharan trade and as the site of major Sudanic empires. E. W. Bovill’s The Golden Trade of the Moors (Oxford University Press, 1958) provided an engaging early description of the trade, drawing upon sources from Saharan rock art to Arabic travelogues to describe the major Sudanic empires, the expansion of Islam, the trade between Morocco and Timbuktu, European exploration, and the Sokoto empire.80 The book drew together the history and culture of the Saharan littoral but was marred by a reified framing of racialization. Subsequent scholarship, less ecumenical in its source base, gravitated toward materials produced in the context of debates about Islamic governance in the major states at the desert edge, for which Arabic sources were rich.81 These works gained in density and complexity but sometimes at the expense of regional scope. Scholarship has struggled to overcome an intellectual divide, begun under French colonial rule, between the study of North Africa (seen as Arab and Berber) and sub-Saharan Africa (seen as “black”). Studies focusing upon trade and Islamic scholarship to a degree bridged the divide but rarely took up the Sahel as a distinctive space.82

Privileged written sources, of course, tended to emphasize religious and political concerns as articulated by literate elites. Some scholars of economic history and the slave trade nevertheless continued to work out the logic of regional trade, the cultural formations that made the trade possible, and the human implications of the slave trade. A significant body of work emerged on the trans-Saharan slave trade and slavery within the Sahel. Under the leadership of Paul E. Lovejoy, this research has been increasingly placed in dialog with work on diaspora and world slavery.83

French colonial rule overlaid the Sahelian zone so that the history of French West Africa coincided with the colonial history of the entire region. However, the separation of the bureaucratic administration of Algeria and French West Africa tended, once again, to occlude the linkages between the two “shores” of the Sahara.84 Prosopographical studies of the whole of French West Africa have shed light on the extremely uneven impact of educational and medical infrastructure.85 Work in English has taken up social historical questions of regional scope, including the operation of colonial law, the impact of French labor and military recruitment, interracial relationships or metissage, and the impact of cash crop regimes.86 Richard L. Roberts nurtured a major body of work related to colonial law, often situated in French West Africa.87 In development discourse, the Sahel became a space seemingly destined for external intervention through external aid that was subject to the conditions set by donors and best managed by development experts. Anthropologists, geographers, and historians have struggled to counter the depoliticizing effects of such narratives, with limited success.88

From the late 1980s, scholars working on the Sahel collaborated in two major periodicals that transcended the limitations of the Islam noir/African Islam paradigm: the interdisciplinary periodical, Islam et sociétés au sud du Sahara: Notes et documents (launched in 1987 under the leadership of Jean-Louis Triaud), and the journal, Sudanic Africa: A Journal of Historical Sources (launched in 1990 under the leadership of John Hunwick, succeeded by Islamic Africa in 2010). The centrality of Islam to the politics and society of the region has yielded a prodigious literature on the varieties of Islamic religious practice and their contestation, invaluable to making sense of the region. Both periodicals emphasized Islam over environment but provided platforms for sharing work and ideas on the region.

Only recently have social historians of the modern era tended to conceptualize the Sahel as a specific space rather than as the site of Islamic Africa or of political units under French colonial rule.89 Historical scholarship has certainly shifted away from major individuals and states and toward the social relations that have been the legacy of the complex history of ecology, trade, slavery, religious change, and colonial rule.90 Contemporary work in French has contextualized the recurring rebellions in the Sahara through careful attention to the experience of Tuareg populations.91 Some of the best work in English in recent years has taken up the challenge of making sense of the history of the Sahel region without flattening it into a false homogeneity. Ghislaine Lydon has led a move to take up the Sahara and its littorals as a single interconnected socioeconomic region, resulting in stimulating conferences, collections, and monographs that bridge regional and scholarly divides. Benedetta Rossi has drawn scholars together through an approach to the region that focuses upon “the imperative of mobility” as an alternative approach to the understanding of power in the region. Roderick McIntosh, Scott MacEachern, Stacy Keech McIntosh, and Anne Haour, among others, have reintroduced archaeological evidence into historical debate about regional trade, modes of authority, and identity.92

Primary Sources

A number of excellent collections offer primary sources in Arabic, translated into English.93 Original manuscripts are often privately owned and are quite scattered. Northwestern University’s Melville J. Herskovits Library houses a significant collection.

Documents produced in correspondence between French colonial administrators across French West Africa and the Government General are housed in the Archives Nationales du Sénégal in Dakar; colonial ministerial documents as well as microfilm of the French West Africa archives (except for health and law materials) are housed in Aix-en-Provence (France) at the Centre des Archives d’Outre-Mer. Archives in individual Sahelian countries and districts hold colonial era reports and correspondence within each territory, as well as documents of postcolonial governments. Useful documents may also be scattered in relevant national ministries.

French administrators produced memoirs and novels accessible at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. Published travel narratives are abundant for the region.

Branches of the colonial Institut Français d’Afrique noir, or IFAN, were repurposed upon independence to serve as libraries, museums, and archives; centers in Dakar, Bamako, and Niamey hold a wide range of useful materials.

Links to Digital Materials

West African Arabic Manuscript Database

BNF Gallica provides a digital library of published works, largely in French.

University of Florida Sahel Research Group offers a portal into a variety of resources related to the Sahel.

African Studies Centre Leiden provides research focused on the Sahel.

Harriet Tubman Institute SHADD collection contains life history materials related to the Sahel.

Panos London network’s oral interview materials are distilled into At the Desert’s edge.

The Drylands Research consortium conducted environment and policy research in Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal (as well as Kenya). Findings and studies are available at this location.

Further Reading

  • Babou, Cheikh Anta. Fighting the Greater Jihad: Amadu Bamba and the Founding of the Muridiyya of Senegal, 1853–1913. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2007.
  • Brooks, George E. Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in Western Africa 1000–1630. New York: Westview Press, 1994.
  • Conklin, Alice L. A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895–1930. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.
  • Cooper, Barbara M. Marriage in Maradi: Gender and Culture in a Hausa Society in Niger, 1900–1989. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1997.
  • Echenberg, Myron. Colonial Conscripts: The Tirailleurs Senegalais in French West Africa, 1857–1960. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1991.
  • Hall, Bruce S. A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600–1960. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Harrison, Christopher. France and Islam in West Africa, 1860–1960. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • Kanya-Forstner, Alexander Sydney. The Conquest of the Western Sudan: A Study in French Military Imperialism. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
  • Klein, Martin. Slavery and Colonial Rule in French West Africa. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Last, Murray. The Sokoto Caliphate. New York: Longmans, 1967.
  • Lecocq, Baz. Disputed Desert: Decolonisation, Competing Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.
  • Levtzion, Nehemia, and Jay Spaulding, eds. Medieval West Africa: Views from Arab Scholars and Merchants. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2003.
  • Lovejoy, Paul. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Lovejoy, Paul, and Jan S. Hogendorn. Slow Death for Slavery: The Course of Abolition in Northern Nigeria, 1897–1936. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Lydon, Ghislaine. On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks, and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • MacEachern, Scott. Searching for Boko Haram: A History of Violence in Central Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Manchuelle, François. Willing Migrants: Soninke Labor Diasporas, 1848–1960. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989.
  • Mann, Gregory. From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel: The Road to Nongovernmentality. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Roberts, Richard. Litigants and Households: African Disputes and Colonial Courts in the French Soudan 1895–1912. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2005.
  • Robinson, David. Paths of Accommodation: Muslim Societies and French Colonial Authorities in Senegal and Mauritania, 1880–1920. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000.
  • Rossi, Benedetta. From Slavery to AID: Politics, Labour, and Ecology in the Nigerien Sahel, 1800–2000. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Troutt Powell, Eve, and John Hunwick. The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2002.
  • Van Beusekom, Monica M. Negotiating Development: African Farmers and Colonial Experts at the Office du Niger, 1920-1960. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2001.
  • Webb, James L. A. Desert Frontier: Ecological and Economic Change Along the Western Sahel, 1600–1850. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.


  • 1. The appearance of the thorny annual grass Cenchrus biflorus (better known as cram-cram) might, in botanical terms, be said to define the limits of the Sahil. Its painful thorny burrs carry edible seeds that are an important survival food in times of drought.

  • 2. For an exposition of the various demarcations, see Adrian Chappell, “Drought in the Sahel,” GeoJournal 48 (1999): 299–311.

  • 3. African rice, wheat, sesame, beans, cowpeas, eggplant, cabbage, cucumber, melon, pomegranate, fig, lime, lemon, mango, sugarcane, avocado, onions, garlic, tobacco, cotton, and indigo; see Stanley B. Alpern, “Exotic Plants of Western Africa: Where They Came From and When,” History in Africa 35 (2008): 63–102.

  • 4. Roderick McIntosh, “The Pulse Model: Genesis and Accommodation of Specialization in the Middle Niger,” Journal of African History 34, no. 2 (1993): 181–220.

  • 5. James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

  • 6. Roderick McIntosh, “The Pulse Model: Genesis and Accommodation of Specialization in the Middle Niger,” Journal of African History 34, no. 2 (1993): 181–220.

  • 7. Daniel Schroeter, “La découverte des juifs berbères au Maroc,” in Relations judéo-musulmanes au Maroc, ed. M. Abitbol (Paris: Editions Stavit, 1997), 169–187; and T. Lewicki, “Al-Ibāḍiyya,” The Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 3 (Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1986), 648–660.

  • 8. Ghislaine Lydon, On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks, and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

  • 9. Claude Meillassoux articulated these dynamics in his provocative Anthropology of Slavery: The Womb of Iron and Gold (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991). Meillassoux emphasized military dynamics of the aristocracy (the transformation of free individuals into commodities through capture) over a devotion to trade. On the shift in sources of slaves as the socially available captives shifted, see 51–52.

  • 10. Anne Haour, “The Early Medieval Slave Trade of the Central Sahel: Archaeological and Historical Considerations,” in Slavery in Africa—Archaeology and Memory, ed. Paul J. Land and Kevin C. MacDonald (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 61–78.

  • 11. Bruce S. Hall, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600–1960 (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 34.

  • 12. Nehemia Levtzion, “Islam in the Bilad al-Sudan to 1800,” in The History of Islam in Africa, ed. Nehemia Levtzion and Randall L. Pouwels (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press 2000), 63.

  • 13. John Hunwick, “Aḥmad Bābā on Slavery,” Sudanic Africa 11 (2000): 131–139.

  • 14. Al-Umari recorded an account of numerous “Turks” serving the ruler of Mali in the early 14th century, while at midcentury Ibn Battuta encountered a slave girl from Damascus not far from Timbuktu. See Nehemia Levtzion and Jay Spaulding, eds., Medieval West Africa: Views from Arab Scholars and Merchants (Princeton, NJ: Markus Weiner Publishers, 2003), 55, 86.

  • 15. Bruce Hall, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa; Eve Troutt Powell and John Hunwick, The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam (Princeton, NJ: Markus Weiner Publishers, 2002), xix–xxi, 35–50, 71–72; and Hunwick, “Aḥmad Bābā.”

  • 16. Hall, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 38, 58.

  • 17. Leo Africanus, The History and Description of Africa: And of the Notable Things Contained Therein, vol. 3, ed. Robert Brown and trans. John Pory (London: Hakluyt Society, [1550] 1857), 819–834.

  • 18. Sharon E. Nicholson, “Climatic Variations in the Sahel and Other African Regions during the Past Five Centuries,” Journal of Arid Environments 1 (1978): 3–24; and George Brooks, “A Provisional Historical Schema for Western Africa Based on Seven Climate Periods,” Cahiers d’études africaines 26 (1986): 43–62.

  • 19. James L. A. Webb Jr., Desert Frontier: Ecological and Economic Change along the Western Sahel, 1600–1850 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).

  • 20. René Caillié, Travels Through Central Africa to Timbuctoo, and Across the Great Desert, to Morocco, Performed in the Years 1824–1828, vol. 2 (London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1830), 60–61, 71–75.

  • 21. Mary Bivens, Telling Stories, Making Histories: Women, Words, and Islam in Nineteenth-Century Hausaland and the Sokoto Caliphate (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2007), 49.

  • 22. Throughout his travels his nomadic companions have milk to drink, which they sometimes share with him. From their vantage point it is grain that is scarce. Caillié, Travels, vol. 2, 40, 45, 54, 56, 65, 78, 198, 416.

  • 23. Paul E. Lovejoy and Stephen Baier, “The Desert-Side Economy of the Central Sudan,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 8, no. 4 (1975): 551–581.

  • 24. Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, Les sociétés Songhay-Zarma (Niger-Mali): chefs, guerriers, esclaves, paysans (Paris: Karthala, 1984); and Boubacar Barry, Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 29–30.

  • 25. Lovejoy and Baier, “Desert-Side Economy.”

  • 26. Paul Lovejoy, ed., Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2003).

  • 27. Rudolph T. Ware, The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge and History in West Africa (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

  • 28. Rudolf T. Ware, “Slavery and Abolition in Islamic Africa,” in Cambridge World History of Slavery, vol. 4, ed. David Eltis, Stanley Engerman, Seymour Drescher, and David Richardson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 350–351.

  • 29. Ware, “Slavery and Abolition,” 353–354.

  • 30. Ismael Musah Montana, “Ahmad ibn al-Qadi al-Tumbuktawi on the Bori Ceremonies of Tunis,” in Lovejoy, ed., Slavery, 173–198.

  • 31. Paul Lovejoy, “Plantations in the Economy of the Sokoto Caliphate,” Journal of African History 19, no. 3 (1978): 341–368; and Mohammed Bashir Salau, The West African Slave Plantation: A Case Study (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2011).

  • 32. Martin Klein, Slavery and Colonial Rule in French West Africa (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 12; and Paul Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

  • 33. Alexander Sydney Kanya-Forstner, The Conquest of the Western Sudan: A Study in French Military Imperialism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 263.

  • 34. Kanya-Forstner, The Conquest of the Western Sudan, 27.

  • 35. Jean-Marie Le Roux, Essai de dictionnaire français-haoussa et haoussa-français: précédé d’un essai de grammaire de la langue haoussa Magana n haoussa renfermant les éléments du langage parlé par les nègres du Soudan accompagné d’une carte de l’Afrique septentrionale (Paris: Adolphe Jourdan, 1886), iv. Le Roux compiled the dictionary in Algiers; his central informant was a Hausa-speaking woman, presumably of captive origins.

  • 36. In the messy denouement, Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-François Klobb was ordered to leave his command at Timbuktu to stop the column; he was shot by Voulet, and subsequently both Voulet and Chanoine were shot by their own African troops. See Finn Fuglestad, A History of Niger, 1850–1960 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 54–61; Chantal Ahounou, À la recherche de Voulet. Sur les traces sanglantes de la mission Afrique centrale (1898–1899) (Paris: Cosmopole, 2009); Jean-Claude Simoën, Les fils de rois: le crépuscule sanglant de l’aventure africaine (Paris: Editions Jean-Claude Lattès, 1996). Bertrand Taithe argues in his book that such violence was not unique to this expedition; see The Killer Trail: A Colonial Scandal in the Heart of Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

  • 37. Olivier de Sardan, Les sociétés Songhay-Zarma, 23–24, 150–156.

  • 38. Jean Tilho, Documents scientifiques de la mission Tilho 1906–1909, 2 vols. (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1910); and “Variations et disparition possible du Tchad,” Annales de Géographie 37 (1928): 238–260.

  • 39. Camille Lefebvre, “Science et frontière en équation: le terrain de la Mission Tilho entre Niger et Tchad (1906-1909)” in Territoires impériaux: une histoire spatiale du fait colonial, ed. Hélène Blais, Florence Deprest, and Pierre Singaravélou (Paris: Editions de la Sorbonne, 2011), 109–138.

  • 40. Richard Roberts and Martin Klein, “The Banamba Slave Exodus of 1905 and the Decline of Slavery in the Western Sudan,” Journal of African History 21, no. 3 (1980): 375–394; and Klein, Slavery and Colonial Rule, 159–167. Similar departures occurred across the Sahel; see Marie Rodet, “Escaping Slavery and Building Diasporic Communities in French Soudan and Senegal, ca. 1880–1940,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 48, no. 2 (2015): 363–386.

  • 41. Andrew F. Clark, “The Ties that Bind: Servility and Dependency among the Fulbe of Bundu (Senegambia) c. 1930s–1980s,” in Slavery and Colonial Rule in Africa, ed. Suzanne Miers and Martin Klein (London: 1999), 91–108.

  • 42. Klein, Slavery and Colonial Rule, 16.

  • 43. Nehemia Levtzion and Randall L. Pouwels, “Introduction: Patterns of Islamization and Varieties of Religious Experience among Muslims of Africa,” in The History of Islam in Africa, ed. Levtzion and Pouwels, 1–18.

  • 44. Hall, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 113–134;

  • 45. Maurice Delafosse, Haut Sénégal-Niger, vol. 1 (Paris: Emile Larose, 1912 [1972]), 311.

  • 46. Delafosse, Haut Sénégal-Niger, vol. 3, 62–63.

  • 47. Delafosse, Haut Sénégal-Niger, vol. 1, 350–351.

  • 48. Jean-Louis Triaud, “Giving a Name to Islam South of the Sahara: An Adventure in Taxonomy,” Journal of African History 55, no. 1 (2014): 3–15.

  • 49. Boureima Alpha Gado, Une histoire des famines au Sahel: étude des grandes crises alimentaires, XIX–XX siècles (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1993).

  • 50. Richard W. Franke and Barbara H. Chasin, Seeds of Famine: Ecological Destruction and the Development Dilemma in the West African Sahel (New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 1980).

  • 51. Edmond Bernus, Touaregs nigériens: unité culturelle et diversité régionale d’un peuple pasteur (Paris: ORSTOM, 1981), 275–276.

  • 52. National Archives of Niger (hereafter ANN), Fonds colonial (Affaires politiques) 5 E 2 5 Questions des Bellas.

  • 53. Souleymane Diarra, ̏ Les stratégies spatiales des éleveurs-cultivateurs peul du Niger central agricole,̟ˮ in Maîtrise de l’espace agraire et développement en Afrique tropicale: logique paysanne et rationalité technique (Actes du Colloque de Ouagadougou, 4–8 décembre 1978) (Paris: ORSTOM, 1979), 87–91; and Jean Boutrais, ̏ Pour une nouvelle cartographie des Peuls,ˮ Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines 34, no. 133–35 (1994): 137–146.

  • 54. Paul Riesman, First Find your Child a Good Mother (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992); and Marguerite Dupire, Peuls nomades. Etude descriptive des Wodaabe du Sahel nigérien (Paris: Institut d’ethnologie, 1962).

  • 55. Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, “Sahel rainfall index (20-10N, 20W-10E), 1900 – November 2016,” posted by Todd Mitchell, December 2016.

  • 56. Bernus, Touaregs nigériens, 61; and Martin A. Klein “The Concept of Honour and the Persistence of Servility in the Western Soudan,” Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines 45, no. 179/180 (2005): 831–851.

  • 57. ANN 5 E 2 5 Questions des Bellas, Letter from Commandant de cercle de Maradi P. G. Gerber to Gouverneur du Niger Jean Toby, July 21, 1950. The letter includes lengthy excerpts from a report by the Commandant de subdivision de Dakoro Vilmin marked “confidential” and dated July 7, 1950.

  • 58. Olivier de Sardan, Les sociétés Songhay-Zarma, 136–138.

  • 59. For the longer history of labor circulation and how the patterns of slave use could shape these migrations, see François Manchuelle, “Slavery, Emancipation and Labour Migration in West Africa: The Case of the Soninke,” The Journal of African History 30, no. 1 (1989); and François Manchuelle, Willing Migrants: Soninke Labor Diasporas, 1848–1960 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989).

  • 60. Ware, “Slavery and Abolition,” 370.

  • 61. For the French case, see Klein, Slavery and Colonial Rule; for the British, see Paul Lovejoy and Jan S. Hogendorn, Slow Death for Slavery: The Course of Abolition in Northern Nigeria, 1897–1936 (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993). See, for a broader picture, Suzanne Miers and Richard Roberts, eds., The End of Slavery in Africa (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988).

  • 62. Barbara M. Cooper, Marriage in Maradi. Gender and Culture in a Hausa Society in Niger, 1900–1989 (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1997).

  • 63. Barbara M. Cooper, “Reflections on Slavery, Seclusion, and Female Labor in the Maradi Region of Niger in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” Journal of African History 35, no. 1 (1994): 61–78.

  • 64. Olivier de Sardan, Les sociétés Songhay-Zarma, 44, 120.

  • 65. Benedetta Rossi, “Tuareg Trajectories of Slavery: Preliminary Reflections on a Changing Field,” in Tuareg Society within a Globalized World: Saharan Life in Transition, ed. Ines Kohl and Anja Fischer (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010), 101–102.

  • 66. ANN 5 E 2 5 Questions des Bellas, letter marked “Confidential” from L’Administrateur en Chef des Colonies p.i. du Soudan Français [Edmond Louveau] to Monsieur le Gouverneur du Niger [Jean Toby], Bamako, March 22, 1949.

  • 67. ANN 5 E 2 5 Questions des Bellas, report from Paul Urfer, chef de subdivision Filingué to Commandant de Cercle de Niamey, “Politique nomade au Soudan 1949,” November 14, 1949; and ANN 3 ECOL 115 5 Marc Guemas, “Condition juridique et sociale des Iklane Soudanais et Nigériens,” 1952–1953.

  • 68. ANN 5 E 2 5 Questions des Bellas, “Les Iklan ou les Touareg Noirs,” Mémoire du Capitaine Reeb, Chef de Subdivision Nomade de Tahoua, 1947 pour l’admission au Centre des Hautes Etudes Musulmanes.

  • 69. ANN 5 E 2 5 Questions des Bellas, “Les Iklan ou les Touareg Noirs.”

  • 70. Klein, “Concept of Honour”; and Thomas Kelley, “Unintended Consequences of Legal Westernization in Niger: Harming Contemporary Slaves by Reconceptualizing Property,” American Journal of Comparative Law 56, no. 4 (2008): 999–1038.

  • 71. Sara Randall, “Fat and Fertility, Mobility and Slaves: Long-Term Perspectives on Tuareg Obesity and Reproduction,” in Fatness and the Maternal Body: Women’s Experiences of Corporeality, ed. May Unnithan-Kumar and Soraya Tremayne (New York: Berghahn, 2011), 43–70.

  • 72. Barbara M. Cooper, A History of Childbirth and Fertility in the Sahel: Countless Blessings (Bloomington, forthcoming).

  • 73. Franke and Chasin, Seeds of Famine, 75–78.

  • 74. Franke and Chasin, Seeds of Famine, 92–104.

  • 75. Benedetta Rossi, From Slavery to AID: Politics, Labour, and Ecology in the Nigerien Sahel, 1800–2000 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

  • 76. Gregory Mann, From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel: The Road to Nongovernmentality (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

  • 77. Baz Lecocq, Disputed Desert: Decolonisation, Competing Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010).

  • 78. Vincent Hiribarren, A History of Borno: Trans-Saharan African Empire to Failing Nigerian State (London: Hurst, 2017).

  • 79. Malinda Smith, ed., Securing Africa: Post-9/11 Discourses on Terrorism (Burlington: Ashgate, 2010).

  • 80. E. W. Bovill, The Golden Trade of the Moors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958)

  • 81. A necessarily partial list would include: David Robinson, The Holy War of Umar Tal: The Western Sudan in the Mid-nineteenth Century (New York: Clarendon Press, 1985); Sharīʻa in Songhay: The Replies of al-Maghīlī to the Questions of Askia al-Ḥājj Muḥammad, edited and translated with an introduction and commentary by John O. Hunwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985); Murray Last, The Sokoto Caliphate (New York: Longmans, 1967); Nehemia Levtzion, Ancient Ghana and Mali (London: Methuen and Co 1973); Mervyn Hiskett, The Sword of Truth: The Life and Times of the Shehu Usuman Dan Fodio (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1994); Yves Person, Samori: Une Revolution Dioula, 4 vols. (Dakar: IFAN, 1968–1975); John Ralph Willis, ed., Studies in West African Islamic History, vol. 1, The Cultivators of Islam (London: Frank Cass, 1979); and Louis Brenner, The Shehus of Kukawa: A Jistory of the al-Kanemi Dynasty of Bornu (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973).

  • 82. A list, again partial, would include: Barry, La Sénégambie du XVe au XIXe siècle: traite negrière, Islam, conquête colonial (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1988); George E. Brooks, Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in Western Africa 1000–1630 (New York: Westview Press, 1994); Ann E. McDougall, “The Economics of Islam in the Southern Sahara: The Rise of the Kunta Clan,” in Nehemia Levtzion and Humphrey J. Fischer, eds., Rural and Urban Islam in West Africa (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1987), 99–121; Philip Curtin, Economic Change in Precolonial Africa: Senegambia in the Era of the Slave Trade, 2 vols. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975); Marie Perinbam, “The Julas in Western Sudanese History: Long-Distance Traders and Developers of Resources,” in West African Cultural Dynamics: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives, ed. B. K. Schwartz and Ray Dumette (New York: Mouton Publishers, 1980), 455–475; Marion Johnson and Jan Hogendorn, The Shell Money of the Slave Trade (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Paul Lovejoy, Caravans of Kola: The Hausa Kola Trade, 1700–1900 (Zaria: Ahmadu Bello University Press, 1980) and Salts of the Desert Sun: A History of Salt Production and Trade in the Central Sudan (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985); and Richard Roberts, Warriors, Merchants and Slaves: The State and Economy in the Middle Niger Valley, 1700–1914 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987).

  • 83. See, for example, Ehnaza A. Mirzai, Ismael Musah Montana, and Paul E. Lovejoy, Slavery, Islam and Diaspora (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2009).

  • 84. Christopher Harrison, France and Islam in West Africa, 1860–1960 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988); and Alice Conklin, A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895–1930 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997).

  • 85. Jean-Herve Jezequel, ̏ Les enseignants comme élite politique en AOF (1930–1945),ˮ Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines 2, no. 178 (2005): 1–22; and Pascale Barthélémy, Africaines et diplômées à l’époque colonial (1918–1957) (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2010).

  • 86. On the military, see Myron Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts: The Tirailleurs Senegalais in French West Africa, 1857–1960 (Portsmouth: Heinemann 1991); and Gregory Mann, Native Sons: West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006). On agriculture, see Donal B. Cruise O’Brien, The Mourides of Senegal: The Political and Economic Organization of an Islamic Brotherhood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971); Steven Pierce, Farmers and the State in Colonial Kano: Land Tenure and the Legal Imagination (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005); and Monica M. Van Beusekom, Negotiating Development (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2001). On the history of interracial communities, see Owen White, Children of the French Empire: Miscegenation and Colonial Society in French West Africa 1895–1950 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); and Hilary Jones, The Métis of Senegal: Urban Life and Politics in French West Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013). Broader social histories include Cooper, Marriage in Maradi; Sean Hanretta, Islam and Social Change in French West Africa: History of an Emancipatory Community (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Robert Launay, Beyond the Stream: Islam and Society in a West African Town (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

  • 87. Richard Roberts, Litigants and Households: African Disputes and Colonial Courts in the French Soudan 1895–1912 (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2005); Shamil Jeppie, Ebrahim Moosa, and Richard Roberts, eds., Muslim Family Law in Sub-Saharan Africa: Colonial Legacies and Post-colonial Challenges (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010); and Suzanne Miers and Richard Roberts, The End of Slavery in Africa (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988).

  • 88. Michael Watts, Silent Violence: Food, Famine and Peasantry in Northern Nigeria (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015 [first edition 1983]); and Roy H. Behnke and Michael Mortimore, eds., The End of Desertification? Disputing Environmental Change in the Drylands (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2016).

  • 89. See, for example, Mann, Empires to NGOs; Rossi, From Slavery to Aid; Barbara M. Cooper, Evangelical Christians in the Muslim Sahel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); and Anne Haour, Rulers, Warriors, Traders, Clerics: The Central Sahel and the North Sea, 800–1500 (London: British Academy, 2008). An n-gram in either French or English is revealing in this regard.

  • 90. Vincent Bonnecase, Pauvreté au Sahel: du savoir colonial à la mesure internationale (Paris: Karthala, 2011); and Boureima Alpha Gado, Une Histoire des famines au Sahel: Etudes des grandes crises alimentaires (XIXe-XXe siècles) (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1993). Demographers and geographers have treated the region as a unit of analysis longer than historians. See Jacques Giri, Histoire économique du Sahel (Paris: Karthala, 1994); and Philippe Antoine, Victor Piché, and Dieudonne Ouedraogo, Trois générations de citadins au Sahel: Trente ans d’histoire sociale à Dakar et à Bamako (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998).

  • 91. Gerd Spittler, Les Touaregs face aux secheresses et aux famines: Les Kel Ewey de l’Aïr, Niger (1900–1985) (Paris: Karthala, 2000); Pierre Boilley, Les Touaregs Kel Adagh. Dépendances et révoltes: du Soudan français au Mali contemporaine (Paris: Karthala, 2012); Emmanuel Grégoire, Touaregs du Niger: Le Destin d’un Mythe (Paris: Karthala, 2000); and Abdoulaye Tamboura, Le conflit touareg et ses enjeux géopolitiques au Mali (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2016).

  • 92. Sonja Magnavita, Lassina Kote, Peter Breunig, and Oumarou A. Ide, Crossroads/Carrefour Sahel: Cultural and Technological Developments in First Millennium BC/AD West Africa (Frankfurt: Verlag, 2009).

  • 93. Nehemia Levtzion and J. F. P. Hopkins, eds., Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2000); John Hunwick, Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire Al-Saʿdi’s Taʾrīkh Al-Sūdān Down to 1613, and Other Contemporary Documents (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002); and his Sharīʻa in Songhay: The Replies of al-Maghīlī to the Questions of Askia al-Ḥājj Muḥammad (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).