The History of Gold

By Worker, Julian | The World and I, February 2011 | Go to article overview

The History of Gold


Worker, Julian, The World and I


The history of the world has been hugely influenced by the presence of gold in Africa. African gold was behind the rise of Egypt in the time of the pharaohs, it meant that the Chinese were trading with East African countries 1,000 years ago, and it almost certainly led to the start of the slave trade.

The Egyptian pharaohs believed that their claim for immortality would be enhanced by the radiance of their gold jewelry hence the preponderance of the metal in their tombs. It's amazing to realize that although Tutankhamen was only a minor pharaoh his 2-meter long coffin was made of solid gold and his head was enveloped in a gold portrait mask. There were many other gold objects in that tomb including a gold throne. The visitor can only wonder at the treasures that must have been buried with an important pharaoh such as Rameses II.

The first pure gold coin was produced during the reign of Croesus of Lydia (561-546 BC)--he was said to have sent 3,400 kg of gold to decorate the temple at Delphi. Kush, the ancient land between the Nile and The Red Sea, was, between 800-700BC, one of the richest countries in the known world and produced 1,600,000 kg of pure gold. Kush even invaded neighboring Egypt around 700BC and seized control of Thebes.

Around 600AD the Arabs set up Cairo and soon started minting coins called 'dinars' made from West African gold which were eventually accepted as currency from Spain to Asia.

The ancient Zimbabwe culture flourished around 1000AD across what is now Botswana, Zimbabwe, southern Mozambique and the northern parts of South Africa. Gold was behind its rise to power but there's a mystery behind the source of the gold. It's known that gold was used and worked at Mapungubwe and also at Thula Mela, in what is now Kruger National Park, but evidence of mining has only been found at the World Heritage Site of Great Zimbabwe itself.

Mansa Musa treks across the Sahara

In 1324, Mansa Musa the ruler of Mali trekked across the Sahara on his pilgrimage to Mecca. He was accompanied by over 200 camels and more than 1000 servants. Mansa Musa took so much gold to pay for the journey, to give as alms, and to present as gifts that the price of gold in Cairo plummeted and didn't recover for 12 years. Not surprisingly this single epic journey raised the profile of Mali in the eyes of Western Europeans and the Arab World and led to Mansa Musa's image appearing on a map of the known world in 1375; he was depicted holding a nugget of gold.

From this time there was a growing fascination with the riches of Africa. However, the existence of gold in Africa had already been known in other parts of the world for hundreds of years. There is documented evidence that the Chinese were buying gold from the East African nations in 1000AD; they traded blue and green glazed earthenware, yellow and black celadon, porcelain, and silk.

In 1400AD the Moors were trading salt, brass pots, and daggers with the Akan in Ghana. In this century the Portuguese began to set up trading stations on the west coast buying Akan gold in exchange for slaves from Benin, who were used as labour in the gold mines. An idea of how much gold was available can be gleaned by the fact that in 1482 more than 386kg of gold was exported to Lisbon - around this time it is believed that a certain Christopher Columbus conducted cartographic work on the Gold Coast before being commissioned by the queen of Spain to discover a westward route to India.

By 1600AD gold dust was being used as currency in Ghana. Portuguese traders were now selling objects of worked gold to the Wolof tribe in Senegal and also sharing their tools too, which enabled the local goldsmiths to produce similar pieces. The Portuguese were here because they were convinced that they would find the fountain of youth in Africa. There was also a fascination with the elixir of life, which was meant to cure all known ailments and grant immortality. …

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