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The Ghana Empire in Africa (830-1235 CE)

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  • 0:01 Ghana Empire
  • 0:48 Iron Smelting
  • 1:25 Wealth & Trade
  • 2:16 Taxation & Decline
  • 3:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson explores the Ghana Empire of West Africa. In doing so, it highlights the gold and salt trade of the region, which made the empire wealthy. It also discusses the importance of iron smelting and taxation.

Ghana Empire

Growing up in the West, my history classes were full of tales of Rome, Greece, and the mighty British Empire. However, we spent very little time discussing the rich histories of places like China or even Africa. Today's lesson is going to buck this trend a bit by exploring the Ghana Empire of Africa, a trading empire that ruled in West Africa from about 830 to 1235 CE.

When discussing the empire of the Ghanians, one thing we need to keep in mind is that much of what we know of them has come from legend or has been passed down orally. In other words, giving specific dates and lots of factual tidbits can be a bit difficult. For this reason, we're going to stick to the generally accepted things about their way of life and their rule.

Iron Smelting

For starters, legend holds that the Kingdom of Ghana was established sometime around the year 200 to 300 CE. However, it didn't really begin to take off until about the year 350 CE when the Ghanian people learned the art of iron smelting. For those of us unfamiliar with this term, iron smelting is the act of melting down raw ore in order to extract metal. Using smelting to make iron swords, Ghanian warriors were able to conquer the people around them and spread the boundaries of their rule to include much of the Western Sudan by about the year 830 CE.

Wealth & Trade

With this surge of power, the Ghana Empire took control of West Africans' major trade routes, which carried salt and gold throughout the region and even into Asia and Europe. Of course, this, along with their iron-wielding warriors, made the kingdom extremely powerful and wealthy. In fact, the name Ghana actually means both 'warrior king' and 'king of gold.'

Speaking of kings, the Ghanaian kings were very adept at using the trade routes to turn a profit. Tradition tells us that the Ghanian kings taxed all goods that entered Ghana. This made the king so wealthy that legend holds all the gold nuggets in the land belonged to him, while everyone else had to settle for trading gold dust. One tale even speaks of a Ghanian king using a huge piece of gold as a hitching post for his horses.

Taxation & Decline

Adding to the wealth of the king and his empire, it wasn't just goods that got taxed. Sort of like our modern toll roads, any merchant that entered the kingdom had to pay a fee just to get in. They then had to turn around and pay another fee to leave. Although this sounds a bit lopsided, history tells us it was sort of a win/win for both the Ghanian rulers and the traveling merchants since the kings smartly used the fees to fund their armies. With this healthy budget of sorts, the army then made sure Ghana was a safe place to travel and do business. With this setup, the gold and salt of the empire was not just traded regionally; it also made its way to places like Europe.

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