Differences in language can be an undeniable barrier in communicating across national borders and cultures, especially when the intricacies of commerce are involved. The African nation of Ghana found a way to get around this obstacle centuries ago with the introduction of the "silent barter." The silent barter was also frequently called the "dumb bartering."
Gold and Salt in Ghana
Between A.D. 300 and 1200, Ghana was an extremely wealthy nation. The country's immense wealth came from the commerce of gold and salt. Ghana oversaw the goods that moved along the trade paths located between the northern and western regions of the continent.
Value of the Trade
Salt was a necessity for the people of western Africa due to their extremely hot climates. They had to make up for bodily salt loss by consuming salt through their meals, hence the high demand for it. The people of North Africa, on the other hand, had a thirst for gold -- and salt to spare. Both regions had what the other wanted or required, which is why this commerce in Ghana was so highly valued. Ghana had an abundance of resources, although salt wasn't one of them. Gold, however, was.
Ghana's King and the Silent Barter
Ghana's king was the inventor of the silent barter. This method was extremely useful in that it allowed trade to proceed without requiring face-to-face interaction between any two involved parties. The Ghanaians simply didn't share the same languages with many of their traders. Going the silent route allowed trade to move along swiftly without anyone having to utter a word. Not only did the king introduce the idea of the silent barter, he also required all visitors to his nation to pay a tariff. The tariff was vital both for entry and departure.
How Silent Barter Worked
Silent bartering was simple and effective. The traders in Ghana would keep the gold at a designated spot, often by a river. The gold was labeled with its exact price. Once the foreign traders arrived at the spot, they would in turn leave the appropriate amount of goods, whether salt or anything else. If they didn't leave enough, the penalty was severe -- no more valuable trade with Ghana. Silent barter was so effective that it actually caused traders to leave goods in excess as a means of encouraging harmonious trade interactions for the future.
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- An Introduction to the History of West Africa; John Donnelly
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- American Institute for History: Trade in West Africa - The Silent Trade System
- Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media: Ghana
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- BananaStock/BananaStock/Getty Images