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What Did the Songhai Empire Trade?

What Did the Songhai Empire Trade?

The Kingdom of Songhai (or the Songhay Empire), the last kingdom of Western Sudan, grew from the Mali Empire’s ashes. Like the earlier kingdoms of this region, Songhai had control over the salt and gold mines.

While encouraging trade with Muslims (like the Berbers of North Africa), the thriving marketplaces in most cities had kola nuts, precious woods, palm oil, spices, slaves, ivory, and gold traded in exchange for copper, horses, arms, cloth, and salt. [1]

What Did the Songhai Empire Trade? Infographic.

Rise of the Empire and Trade Networks

Salt on sale in a Timbuktu market.
Salt on sale in a Timbuktu market
Image courtesy: Robin Taylor via (CC BY 2.0)

The display of riches and generosity by the Muslim ruler of Mali was drawing the attention of Europe and the entire Islamic world. With the ruler’s death in the 14th century, Songhai began its rise around 1464. [2]

The Songhai Empire, established in 1468 by Sunni Ali, captured Timbuktu and Gao and was later succeeded by Muhammad Ture (a devout Muslim), who founded the Askia Dynasty in 1493.

These two rulers of the Songhai Empire introduced organized government to the area. In the first 100 years, it reached its peak with Islam as a religion, and the king actively promoted Islamic learning.

Ture improved trading with the standardization of currency, measures, and weights. Songhai gained riches through trade, just like the kingdoms of Mali and Ghana before it.

With the privileged class of craftsmen and slaves serving as farm workers, trade truly thrived under Ture, with the main exports being slaves, gold, and kola nuts. These were exchanged for salt, horses, textiles, and luxury goods.

Trade in the Songhai Empire

Taoudéni salt slabs, which have just been unloaded at the river port of Mopti (Mali).
Taoudéni salt slabs, which have just been unloaded at the river port of Mopti (Mali).
Taguelmoust, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The rise of Songhai came with a strong trade-based economy. Frequent pilgrimages from the Muslims of Mali promoted trade between Asia and West Africa. Just like in Ghana and Mali, the Niger River was a vital resource for goods transportation.

Apart from the local trade within Songhai, the Empire was involved in the Trans-Saharan salt and gold trade, alongside other goods like cowry shells, kola nuts, and slaves.

As traders traveled for long-distance trade across the Sahara Desert, they would get accommodation and food supplies from local towns along the trade route. [6]

The Trans-Saharan trade wasn’t limited to trading and exchanging salt, cloth, kola nuts, iron, copper, and gold. It also meant close cooperation and interdependence between the kingdoms south and north of the Sahara.

As important as gold was for the north, so was salt from the Sahara Desert, equally important for the economies and kingdoms of the south. It was the exchange of these commodities that helped in the region’s political and economic stability.

Economic Structure

A clan system determined the Songhai economy. The direct descendants of the original Songhai people and the noblemen were at the top, followed by traders and freemen. The common clans were carpenters, fishermen, and metalworkers.

Lower caste participants were mostly non-farm working immigrants who could hold high positions in society at times when provided with special privileges. At the bottom of the clan system were slaves and war captives, forced into labor (mainly farming).

While trade centers turned into modern urban centers with huge public squares for common marketplaces, rural communities largely relied on agriculture through rural markets. [4]

Atlantic System, Contact With the Europeans

Once the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was on the rise, leading to the decline of the Songhai Empire, as it wasn’t able to raise taxes from the goods transported through its territory. The slaves were being transported across the Atlantic Ocean instead. [6]

The slave trade, which lasted for more than 400 years, significantly impacted the Songhai Empire’s fall. African slaves were captured and made to work as slaves in the Americas in the early 1500s. [1]

While Portugal, Britain, France, and Spain were the key players in the slave trade, Portugal established itself in the region first and entered into treaties with West African kingdoms. Hence, it had a monopoly on the gold and slave trade.

With expanding trade opportunities in the Mediterranean and Europe, trade increased across the Sahara, gaining access to the use of the Gambia and Senegal Rivers and bisecting the long-standing Trans-Saharan routes.

In exchange for ivory, pepper, slaves, and gold, the Portuguese brought horses, wine, tools, cloth, and copperware. This growing trade across the Atlantic was known as the triangular trade system.

The Triangular Trade System

Map of the triangular trade in the Atlantic between European powers and their colonies in West Africa and the Americas.
Map of the triangular trade in the Atlantic between European powers and their colonies in West Africa and the Americas.
Isaac Pérez Bolado, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The triangular trade, or the Atlantic Slave Trade, was a trading system revolving around three areas. [1]

Beginning in Africa, large shipments of slaves were taken across the Atlantic Ocean to be sold in the Americas (North and South America and The Caribbean) for working on plantations.

These ships that offloaded the slaves would transport products like tobacco, cotton, and sugar from the plantations for sale in Europe. And from Europe, these ships would transport manufactured goods like guns, rum, iron, and cloth that would be exchanged for gold and slaves.

While the cooperation of African kings and merchants helped capture most slaves from the interior of Western Africa, the Europeans organized occasional military campaigns to capture them.

The African kings would be given different trade goods in return, like horses, brandy, textiles, cowry shells (served as money), beads, and guns. When the kingdoms of West Africa were organizing their militaries into professional armies, these guns were a vital trade commodity.

The Decline

Having lasted just about 150 years, the Songhai empire began to shrink because of internal political struggles and civil wars, and its mineral wealth tempted invaders. [2]

Once the army of Morocco (one of its territories) revolted to capture its gold mines and the sub-Saharan gold trade, it led to a Moroccan invasion, and the Songhai Empire collapsed in 1591.

Anarchy in 1612 resulted in the fall of the Songhai cities, and what was the greatest empire in African history disappeared. 


Not only did the Songhai Empire keep expanding territory right until its collapse, but it also had widespread trade along the Trans-Saharan route.

Once it dominated the Saharan caravan trade, horses, sugar, glassware, fine cloth, and rocksalt were transported to Sudan in exchange for slaves, skins, kola nuts, spices, ivory, and gold. [5]

It was the biggest empire in West African history, spreading from the Senegal River in the West to central Mali in the east, with Gao as its capital.


  1. Songhai, African Empire, 15-16th Century | South African History Online (
  2. The Songhai Empire (
  3. Songhai Empire – World History Encyclopedia
  4. Songhai Empire – Wikipedia
  5. Songhai Empire Rise & Decline, Trading industry, Facts & Worksheets (
  6. Rise Of The Songhai Empire (