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D - 50: Gold - Linking Slavery to Volcanos

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Ten days ago, I wrote about the Phoenician traders who ventured into the Western Mediterranean in search of silver and tin. They found it just beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, the Pillars of Hercules, on the Rio Tinto near Huelva. The trade was very lucrative and they founded a large port settlement nearby, today’s Cadiz. With their sharp eye for business opportunities, the Phoenicians noticed that people on the Atlantic coast had golden jewelry, a metal not found in the Mediterranean. But they recognised it from dealing with the Pharaohs who imported large quantities from Nubia up the Nile.

Doing what the Phoenicians did best, they collected information and data and started probing the Atlantic. Cautiously, the established small outposts along the Moroccan Atlantic coast, then ventured further south along Africa’s shores. We know about these voyages from the Greek historian Herodotus.

Voyage of Hanno, the Explorer, around 500 BC to Cameroun

Hanno, the famous mariner from Carthage, sailed first to the Senegal River and then continued to the Gulf of Guinea. On the way down the African coast, he or his fellow sailors established a trading post on the Atlantic island of Cerne. There they bought gold from the locals living on the Senegal River, the door to gold-producing Ghana. Gold from West Africa found its way to the Mediterranean and would continue to do so until Roman times. The Romans simply took over the old Phoenician trade routes.

As we noticed in D – 60, Europe is relatively rich in silver but poor in gold. This is due to plate tectonics. Gold is star dust created by nuclear fusion during the explosion of supernovas. Even though rare, the element was part of our planet from the very beginning. But due to its heavy weight, it is sank to the Earth's core and is concentrated there. Were it not for volcanism, we probably would not even know about it. Volcanos lift magma from below our planet’s surface. With the magma come traces of gold. Gold is also often brought to the surface by hydro-thermal vents (super-hot water vapour) on the fringe of volcanos. If you look for gold, you need looking for old volcanos.

Global gold distribution

The reason for the relative scarcity of gold in Europe is our continent’s young age. Only the Scandinavian plate, Scotland and the Massif Central are older than 600 million years where volcanos had enough time to accumulate commercially exploitable gold. Compare this to Africa or Western Australia where there are volcanos 2 billion years old. You can stand on top of such an eroded volcano as Roselyne Renel and I once did when we visited a South African gold mine in 2003. You do not even notice what you stand on. The typical cone is completely eroded and the ground totally flat. But drilling along old hydro-thermal veins results in gold rich ore that is worth mining and refining. We were 2’000 meters below the surface where it is so hot that you can only wear super lights overalls. Most miners do not even bother and mine actually in their undergarments!

Roz 2’000 meter below the surface in the Tautona Goldmine in South Africa in 2003

Erosion does – of course - not just happen. It requires weather and water to break the rocks and grind them to sand. A lot of the precious metal is thus found in rivers downstream of old volcanic structures. The rivers carry the gold rich sand towards the sea. Central and South Africa are particularly rich of eroded volcanos. Their riverbeds were and are full of gold dust and nuggets. Add to this the fact that the Sahara dried out around 3’000 BC. Most rivers disappeared. You now had the perfect setting for easy gold exploration. Just walking around dried riverbeds the locals found gold in the dry alluvial river deposits! There was so much gold it was not even particularly valuable!

Gold panning in an African river

With the end of the Roman Empire, gold imports to Europe came to a stand-still. As long-distance trading fell apart and economies retreated to local autarchy there was far less demand for precious metals. Europeans forgot about the ancient trade route to Senegal.

New demand however arose from the Muslim states and empires which were established in the Middle East and North Africa after 700 AD. Their rulers had an insatiable appetite for gold not only for their luxurious lifestyle but also to mint coins for the armies on their pay role. Gold was also needed to buy silver which continued to be the currency for ordinary people. To get to the gold however, the Arabs had to solve a big logistical challenge first. How do you cross the Sahara? How do you pay for the gold you desire?


As always, human ingenuity found a way. The camel was introduced from the Arab peninsula to North Africa and caravan routes under Berber and Tuareg control established. Camels can carry a load of 170 to 250 kilograms on their back which makes them suitable pack animals for bulky goods. Due to the relative lack of salt in the Sahel and the northern rain forests, slabs of rock salt from North Africa could be used as payment. A kilo of salt fetched almost half a kilo of gold! What a lucrative trade! Putting the caravans under the control of Berber and Tuareg soldiers made them safe as well - it also empowered both and made them a force to reckon with as we’ve seen yesterday. Timbuktu and Agadez became important trading hubs. Two powerful empires emerged. The Ghana Empire which lasted from the 6th to the 13th century. And the Kingdom of Mali which existed from 1240 – 1645 AD.

Genovese trade routes

The caravan routes ended in the towns of Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers and Marrakesh where they met the Mediterranean trade routes. With the revival of the European economy, the demand for gold increased again. Importing it from North Africa was one of the more profitable Genovese businesses. They had the bankers and the political connetions to do so. Contrary to their Venetian rivals, they could sail straight to the North African coast and established exclusive commercial relationships.

However, as the Muslim rulers did, they faced the challenge of how to pay for the gold they wanted. The rulers in North Africa did not really need European goods, except during famines when they bought wheat in large quantities from Sicily and Sardinia. The Genovese had to pay in silver. Until they came up with a method of payment which is a dark chapter in the history of Christianity. They bought slaves from the Mongols on the Black Sea and sold them in North Africa. That these poor souls were Christians did not really matter since they were Orthodox who believed in the wrong Jesus …. Scary what human beings can come up with in their greed!


Tomorrow we are going to talk about wheat in Sicily and how it influenced their cuisine.

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roselyne.renel
roselyne.renel
May 22, 2020

Hugo as usual a completely fascinating and entertaining read. The trip to the Tautona mine is one of the best business trip I ever took. I remember they had to seal off one of the male locker rooms for me as there were no female locker rooms for me to change in. Not many women go down these mines ... Thank you for the great read and the great memories!

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