Review of Trans-Saharan Africa in World History by Ralph A. Austen Oxford University Press

Trans-Saharan Africa in World History. Ralph A. Austen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN: 0195337883

The desert comes alive in Ralph A. Austen’s Trans-Saharan Africa in World History, as over a thousand years of vibrant trade and commerce in trans-Saharan Africa are carefully chronicled and explained. The premise of Austen’s book asserts that from the arrival of Islam to North Africa until the Colonial period and the introduction of railroad lines to the region, the Sahara Desert became “the center of its own African world,” a great commercial highway. Instead of viewing the Sahara as a vast obstacle or hindrance to humans throughout history, Austen demonstrates that from the 700s through the 1900s it was the Sahara Desert through which goods and people flowed back and forth from the Mediterranean coastal lands of North Africa to the area of Sudan. As a part of the new World History Series published by Oxford University Press, this book provides a comprehensive approach to this sliver of world history, while at the same time confining this introductory work on the topic to under 200 pages. Also, in keeping with the theme and focus of the series, Trans-Saharan Africa in World History engages its topic by skillfully melding together the threads of culture, economics, geography, religion, and politics into one rich history.

Since the Sahara Desert itself is a geographical feature, it makes sense to open any discussion of this area and its place in human history with an overview of the region’s basic geography. By describing the basic land and water features and how these impacted human settlement and subsistence patterns in the thousands of years preceding the book’s main focus, Austen lays out a concise yet informative summary that enables any reader unfamiliar with the geographic peculiarities of the region to attain a solid footing before moving on to the phenomenon of trans-Saharan trade that arises later. To round out his first chapter, Austen also discusses the early trade and commerce that crossed the Sahara prior to the period that is his focus, and ends with a brief look at the introduction of Islam to North Africa.

Following an introduction to the Sahara, the second and third chapters focus on local African economies, caravan commerce, and the political landscape of the region. This section opens with an anecdote about the ruler of the Kingdom of Mali, Mansa Musa, and his journey to Mecca. After crossing the Sahara desert, the ruler stopped in Cairo, where his wealth dazzled the Egyptians, who had little knowledge about Mali. Austen then draws several conclusions from this story, including that clearly a ruler and his retinue could safely traverse the Sahara at this time, and that large states existed south of the desert, including states ruled by Muslims. Lastly, he states that this indicates that gold was the basis for traveling across the Sahara. While the story about Mansa Musa, as it is related, does not seem to support this conclusion directly, Austen does demonstrate his assertion about the role of gold in the course of the chapter. In addition to explaining the role of gold in trans-Saharan commerce, this second and third chapter flesh out the nature of caravan trade overall between the 700s and the 1900s. For example, technology related to the caravan trade during this period hardly changed at all across the centuries, aside from the adoption of firearms. In a desert environment, nothing could supersede the camel as the most fundamental unit of caravan transport. The logistics of caravan trading and goods that were bought and sold are also analyzed, with Austen paying special attention to the slave and gold trades. Finally, politics falls under Austen’s scrutiny, and he paints a rich portrait of the political entities that participated in trans-Saharan trade, including African and European states.

The importance of Islam is clearly evident in the discussion of trans-Saharan trade. As Austen notes, Islam is both the longest lasting influence across this region, and the most commonly held cultural element. To further buttress this claim, one third of the book (chapters 4-5) is devoted to Islam and Islamic culture. To begin his chapter on Islam, Austen relates some basic information about the tenets and practices of Islam, while at the same time pointing out specific connections to the region. For example, he mentions the five pillars of Islam and describes how one of these tenets, the pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj, is directly tied into the trans-Saharan world. Travel across the Sahara was a necessary component of life for many African Muslims seeking to fulfill the hajj, and thus the movement of Muslims across the Sahara was in part facilitated by religious needs. Islam also played a large role in shaping the culture and politics of many African states, thus reinforcing the need for an ample look at the religion and its impact on this region.

The final chapter of Austen’s book centers around the single force that most impacted trans-Saharan trade in its final years: European colonialism. While the European influx to the continent of Africa was no doubt a factor, it was technology that effectively ended trans-Saharan trade as a major player in international commerce. Trains, planes, and automobiles all helped to make the colonizing activities of the British, French, and others much easier, and in turn made the need to travel overland across the Sahara unnecessary and obsolete. Of course, colonialism played a key role in developing and extending this transportation network across Africa, and Austen gives a brief overview of colonialism in the region, paying special attention to the impact on local commerce. Austen ends his book by explaining how the Sahara has come full circle, reverting to the state it was in during the era of Carthage and Rome.

Trans-Saharan Africa in World History, stands as a notable work, one that strikes an oft hard-to-find balance between the need for a concise, general-audience-friendly text and the demands of a work that contributes to scholarly discussion. With its abbreviated length, compared to many texts, and an affordable price point (under twenty dollars), this book could easily be utilized in a world history survey class alongside other books, or even used in a more finely focused class. By including a discussion of topics beyond trans-Saharan trade itself, such as the impact of Islam on the regions in and around the Sahara, or the interaction with Europeans through trade and later through colonialism, this book helps to foster larger discussions in world history. Trans-Saharan Africa in World History sheds light on over a thousand years of vibrant trade and commerce in trans-Saharan Africa, but at the same time, by placing this subject in historical context, Austen manages to craft a book that touches upon themes and topics far beyond just desert trade.


Reviewed by Natalie Kohout, Wayne State University
Edited by Karen Rosenflanz

(c) 2012, The Middle Ground Journal, Number 5, Fall, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]