The Mystery of Black Death in Sub-Saharan Africa
In the midst of a pandemic it is easy to reflect upon the role diseases, plagues, and infectious illnesses have played throughout history. However, of all the pandemics through history one, the Black Death, stands above them all. Yet despite the infamy of the Black Death, the common historical narrative ignores the differences in impact the Black Death had throughout different regions. Nowhere more evident is this disparity than the historiography of the Black Death in Africa.
Throughout history, Africa has often been portrayed as an appendage, a side-show through which main characters wander through and influence before withdrawing. The common narrative of the Black Death fits this category. For a pandemic of the scope that the Black Death was, a pandemic that by fatality rate ultimately makes our present pandemic appear miniscule, little has been made of its effects on Africa. As present studies into how Covid-19 has a higher fatality rate among minority populations are rapidly becoming well-known it is a suitable time to revisit the infamous Black Death and learn about its impact on Africa.
Given the incorporation of North Africa into the Islamic world it is unsurprising the first outbreaks happened in North Africa. The first appearance of the Black Death in Africa was in Alexandria which was recorded by the great medieval Arabic-Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi as having come from a slave-ship from the Golden Horde via Constantinople in 1347. From there the disease spread along the trade routes, reaching up the Nile to Upper Egypt by 1349 and along the coast. The plague struck Mecca in 1349, but did not travel further south immediately. The fact the Black Death did not make it to Yemen is important for the history of Africa because Yemen was a crossroads where Red Sea trade, Indian Ocean trade, and East African trade intersected. Little evidence exists for it hitting East Africa but by the time Yemen was hit with the plague in a later wave during the 1350s the chain of events caused by the Black Death would have already reduced the trade that linked East Africa with Yemen, thereby keeping East Africa relatively isolated by the disease.
The Black Death was next recorded along the North African coast in Tunis. The Marinid Sultanate, the then-rulers of Morocco, attempted to conquer Tunis in 1348 when the Black Death hit them. With their forces weakened they were defeated and immediately after the battle the Arabic-Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldūn recorded a “violent plague occurred.” The retreating forces of the Marinid Sultanate would have brought the disease into their core territories. By the end of 1348 many of the ruling and upper classes of the Marinid Sultanate were dead or dying and the dynasty weakened substantially. This is often where the history of the Black Death leaves Africa, with the Black Death raging in North Africa but prevented from spreading into Sub-Saharan Africa by harsh Sahara.
At first glance it appears as if that line of thinking is sound. Ibn al-Khatīb, a polymath who lived through the plague, wrote how the nomadic peoples of North Africa remained healthy despite the pandemic all around them. Given the fact that the Tuareg inhabitants of the Sahara had a similar nomadic lifestyle it is possible they avoided the plague. Had the Tuareg managed to avoid the Black Death, the Tuareg-controlled trans-Saharan trade routes would also have remained free from plague. Yet it is possible the Tuareg were not able to avoid the plague, in which case they could have carried it southwards. A lack of evidence for if, and if so how, the Black Death traversed the Sahara hampers all efforts to establish a clear direct link. But evidence in West Africa provides tantalizing clues that even if the disease did not survive the Saharan crossing, it indirectly caused changes in West Africa.
West Africa at the time of the Black Death was dominated by Mali. The most famous Malian monarch, Mansā Mūsā, died in 1337. A centerpiece of Mūsā’s foreign policy was aligning Mali with Malmuk Egypt. Yet a weakening Egypt in part due to the Black Death forced Mūsā’s successors such as Mansā Sulaymān, who reigned from the mid-1330s until 1360, to ally the Marinid Sultanate. Early in Sulaymān’s reign Mali voluntarily came under ritual and de jure, if not de facto, sovereignty of the Marinids. While an argument could, and should, be made that this was simply a ritual of unity and mutual connection rather than an actual subjugation of Mali to the Marinids, the importance of this event should not be understated. Mali even sent tribute to the Marinid Sultans. The Marinids, as previously mentioned, were severely weakened by the Black Death after their failed siege of Tunis. Voluntarily subjecting Mali to the rule – be it ritual or otherwise – of an already-enfeebled kingdom does not make sense unless Mali itself was weak.
The idea that the wealthy lands of Mansā Mūsā had in the length of less than a generation fallen to being made a subject kingdom of a weakened sultanate from Morocco seems inconceivable unless something sudden and drastic occurred. Evidence of a rapid change in fortunes is also demonstrated by a coup plot involving Sulaymān’s chief queen, his cousins, many outlying provinces, and even a considerable portion of the Mali army. Though the plot was exposed and the conspirators punished, coups and uprisings tend not to occur when conditions are normal and stresses on a society are minimal. When Sulaymān died in 1360 Mali descended into complete chaos with civil wars, rebellions, and coups.
Although the connection between the Black Death and the rapid collapse of a wealthy and powerful kingdom south of the Sahara could be considered merely coincidental, its quick collapse is too much to simply ignore. Three plausible explanations exist for explaining the collapse of Mali in relation to the Black Death. Firstly, the Black Death in fact made it over the Sahara to Mali. Secondly, the Black Death did not make it over the Sahara but a chain reaction caused by it ultimately doomed Mali. Thirdly, the collapse of Mali was in no part due to the Black Death.
The first hypothesis has some support. While documentation of the Black Death in Mali appears to have never been located by any historian, genetic and archaeological evidence lends some weight to this hypothesis. A strain of Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that caused the Black Death, was discovered in Africa with a DNA sequence that indicated it was a descendant the fourteenth-century outbreak. Researchers, operating under the assumption that the Black Death did not make it to Sub-Saharan Africa, had been expecting instead to find the strain that is descended from an eighteenth-century outbreak. That discovery provides some key evidence for this hypothesis, but it is far from conclusive. Archaeological excavations of settlements in what is now Ghana discovered that many were abandoned suddenly and en mass in the 1300s. Although the archaeologist who undertook the excavations argues they were abandoned because of the Black Death, he admits further excavations are needed to see if the abandonment of settlements are of a scale necessary to indicate the impact of a pandemic. It is also possible, although not mentioned by the archaeologist, that the settlements were abandoned from the indirect impacts of the Black Death as opposed to an active outbreak.
The second hypothesis relies on understanding the economic and cultural pressures caused by the Black Death. Mali was a large gold exporter for much of the medieval world. Mansā Mūsā’s historical legacy is directly tied to Mali as a center of gold production. Gold was what Mali traded for everything else. Yet the exchange rate between gold and silver was unstable during the Black Death and gold lost 60% of its value against silver. It is difficult to determine if the situation was gold losing value or silver gaining value but two things are possible. The first possibility is that the value of gold fell. During the Black Death people started to spend rather than save. Prior to the Black Death gold was more valuable than silver, meaning people with a propensity to save would be attracted to it; as Gresham's Law says: when two currencies circulate the more-valuable currency will be hoarded and saved. If one is expecting to die people are incentivized to spend, especially given the practically non-existent nature of a banking system. If people had previously tended to save gold but then suddenly stopped saving and started spending the market would be awash with gold. More gold would mean the value of gold would decline. Mali, with an economy heavily tied to the export of gold, would have been harmed if the value of gold fell. The other possibility is that the value of silver rose. Theoretically the price of silver would rise if production of silver decreased. If the sources of silver for the medieval world were hit with the plague mining would slow or cease. However, tracing the sources for silver in the medieval world is difficult. Certainly the silver mines in most of Europe would have slowed or ceased production during Black Death, driving up the value of silver. But tracing all the possible sources of silver in the medieval era to determine how much each mine was affected by the plague would be difficult. Either way, be it through a decrease in the value of gold or an increase in the value of silver, Mali would have been harmed.
The third hypothesis would simply be that all the evidence for a direct or indirect impact of the Black Death on Africa is merely coincidental. Perhaps it is. As with much of pre-colonial Sub-Sahara Africa we lack sources. Yet even with our meager collection of sources for Sub-Sahara Africa it is plausible to conclude the Black Death hit Africa. The sources we do have from the Islamic world make it also plausible that even if Black Death did not hit Sub-Sahara Africa it had at least indirect effects. Simply by following the easy route and quickly dismissing the possibility out-of-hand that Black Death had an impact in Africa is ultimately unhelpful for determining what did or did not happen. The difficulty is the lack of sources. Both hypotheses outlined above do rely on circumstantial evidence, rather than direct evidence. It is possible that all the circumstantial evidence is just coincidence. Yet there are a lot of coincidences that must be explained away for this last hypothesis to be correct.
Ultimately we do not know how the Black Death affected Africa. It is possible it travelled through the Sahara. It is possible the damage it caused north of the Sahara resulted in changes south of the Sahara. It is possible it had no effect. But whatever the role Africa had in the history of the Black Death it is a role that should be remembered, explained, and elaborated on. There is evidence, even if not conclusive evidence, that it had a substantial impact on the continent, although probably not on the scale of Europe or Asia. Similar to how our current pandemic effects people and regions in varying ways, the ultimate pandemic—the Black Death— impacted different people and different regions in different ways.
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