Camels, Canoes and Timbuktu

exploring the history of a fabled city

by Geoffrey Clarfield (January 2012)

In 1829 when Alfred Lord Tennyson was writing his poem on Timbuctoo as a student at Cambridge University, educated Europeans knew almost nothing about the history of sub-Saharan Africa, and even less about Timbuktu.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Timbuktu has maintained its hold on the Western imagination for centuries. Part of the reason for this is that for just under a thousand years since its founding in the eleventh century, the city was the major trading entrepot between the pagan and the Islamicising kingdoms of West Africa and the wider Islamic world of North Africa and the Middle East.

In the early second millennium, Timbuktu soon became the farthest and most developed Westerly trading and scholarly outpost of literate Islamic civilization, linked to the rest of the world through the camel caravans of the Saharan trade routes and for that alone, it would have been remembered for all time, regardless of its local political ups and downs.

Here is a taste of how they describe the owner of one of the most cherished private libraries in Timbuktu, one that houses thousands of ancient manuscripts:

Later they explain to the reader that there are probably more than a million ancient historical manuscripts spread across Islamic West Africa that if properly copied, transcribed and translated, would provide hundreds of social historians with decades of work in bringing to light the complex and varied social history of this part of the world.

For centuries Timbuktu was also the home of resident Jewish traders whose trading networks went as far north as Morocco. As the dynasties who rose and fell dominated Timbuktu, so did their degree of orthodoxy and tolerance ebb and flow. We read of rulers who banished Jews and who at the same time enforced the hijab (face veil) on local Muslim women and then, we read of rulers who brought back the Jews and allowed women to go unveiled, in a curious foreshadowing of the kinds of social tensions that pervade contemporary Islamic societies.

Despite these short periods of intolerance and despite changing regimes, it seems that the residents of Timbuktu practiced and continue to practice a tolerant version of Islam that respects the equality of women.

Since the gradual conversion of Timbuktu and its surrounding inhabitants to Islam, the city and its environs have participated in a series of kingdoms each defining a particular historical era. De Villiers and Hurtle do more than an adequate job narrating the rise and fall of the dynasties that have made Timbuktu a centre of civilization or a backwater, and they are able to give a coherent account of the rise and fall of monarchs with all their peccadilloes, strengths and weaknesses.

At the same time the people who have lived beyond the desert to the north, on the plains of North Africa have had a thirst for gold, as the basic currency on which their economy ran until colonial times and which does not occur in abundance in the north (we retain this historical token in the word for an English gold coin, the Guinea, which betrays its origins on the West African coast).

The people in and around Timbuktu provided gold and slaves to the northerners and no doubt much of their own labour was done by slaves. The caravans brought gold and slaves to the north, traders, luxury goods and scholars to the south.

To put it simply if a ruler maintained a hold on an expansive area that included the city of Timbuktu and its environs, and held it against all comers, he would trade in gold, slaves and salt and end up with a surplus of cash, as he and his merchant elite knew the value of gold as a trading commodity. Thus a well run kingdom could have the necessary food, slave labour and cash surplus to expand, wage war, reward soldiers, trade, invite scholars to come from other parts of the Islamic world, buy manuscripts, build libraries, palaces and mosques and support learning. This is the underlying pattern which drove one ethnic group to oust another until crazed by West African gold, and understanding its source, the Moroccans invaded in the late 16th century only to withdraw some years later.

There is a scholarly consensus that the indigenous glory of Timbuktu ended with its conquest by the Sultans of Morocco, who came down from their royal city of Marrakech and with their later withdrawal, somehow sapped the energy and ambition of local rulers until their final subjection by the French at the turn of the nineteenth century. This is period that saw periods of unending interethnic strife, plagues, earthquakes and holy wars.

What De Villiers and Hurtle fail to mention is that by the late 1500s, the Spanish were injecting more gold and silver from the New World into the European economy, thus reducing the importance of the trade in gold from West to North Africa and into the Mediterranean. Soon after the British, French and Portuguese established themselves on the Atlantic coast of West Africa to begin the infamous Atlantic slave trade, where African slaves were now brought to the coast for transport to the Americas instead of the northerly route that had once been monopolized in Timbuktu.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.

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