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  • On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks, and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa
  • Bruce Hall
On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks, and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa. By Ghislaine Lydon . New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 496 pp. $99.00 (cloth); $76.00 (e-book).

Ghislaine Lydon has written a history of trans-Saharan trade that is both comprehensive and highly sophisticated. It will serve as a principal reference for those interested in the Sahara, and it will gain a place in the larger literature on early modern commercial networks around the globe.

Lydon's book is the first in-depth examination of Saharan commerce [End Page 618] in many decades. To a much greater extent than other work on the trans-Saharan slave trade, which has relied heavily on European consular and colonial sources, Lydon bases her work on written and oral sources produced within the Saharan commercial networks themselves. Because of this, she is able to trace the internal social and cultural logics of different Saharan trading networks, showing how this difficult and dangerous commerce actually functioned historically. This is no small feat. It is this aspect of the book that is most original and exciting.

The book is a history of the commercial networks that crossed the western end of the Sahara (in the modern-day countries of Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali). It focuses in particular on groups of traders who originated in the northern Saharan region of Wad Nun and who organized camel caravans that moved south through Mauritania and ultimately to the market towns of the Middle Niger Valley and the Niger Bend in West Africa. There is an extensive overview of the long history of commercial crossings of the Sahara, but the focus of the analysis is on the nineteenth century. Lydon pays a lot of attention to explaining the social mechanisms that made Saharan trade possible. She provides detailed accounts of how caravans were organized, labor mobilized, and credit extended. There is no question that Lydon's ethnographic methodology allowed her to amass a tremendous amount of detailed information about a wide variety of issues connected to Saharan commerce.

The most spectacular source used in this book, though, is a set of Arabic legal texts found in Tishit (Mauritania) that were written in 1852 to resolve a complex inheritance dispute between different partners in commercial transactions, debtors, and the widows of the diseased. Using these remarkably detailed documents, Lydon is able to reconstruct the competing claims made against the estate of one deceased trader who was part of the Wad Nun commercial network. It is the basis of Lydon's explanation of the behavior of particular members of this network in seeking their own material advantage against other claimants located in both Tishit and Guelemin (in Wad Nun).

This inheritance case is a principal means for Lydon to intervene in the larger field of early modern commerce. She argues that scholars have underplayed the importance of religious institutions in organizing long-distance trade. In the Saharan case, both Muslim and Jewish communities relied on religiously based legal frameworks and on the services of legal scholars who were often also involved in the trade themselves to uphold contracts and agreements over long distances. This is not, on the face of it, a new argument; S. D. Goitein made [End Page 619] a similar point in his pioneering work on medieval Jewish traders in the Cairo Geniza documents. 1 But by emphasizing the importance of the role of the religious establishment—or legal scholars—in the functioning of Saharan trade, Lydon offers an important corrective to the emphasis on the cultural basis of trust found in Abner Cohen and Philip Curtin's model of the trade diaspora. 2 It also suggests that reputation-based institutions described by Avner Greif in his work on medieval Jewish traders found in the Cairo Geniza documents were not as important in the Saharan context. Greif argued that the trust and honesty of commercial agents was ensured by the flow of information between members of a trading network. Because of the damage that news of misdeeds could do...