The relationship of urbanism and trade to state power in the Segou region of Mali

Freigeist-Fellowship of the Volkswagen Foundation

The Middle Niger region’s history is famous for being at once the centre of a precocious urbanism dating back to 800 BCE, and for a succession of polities controlling large parts of West Africa from AD 400. In the existing literature on the Middle Niger’s past, these two phenomena have mostly been treated as fundamentally distinct, with trading cities and imperial states as opposing poles in a form of civilisation which kept economic power and military might completely apart. Where their relationship is discussed, states are usually seen as predatory, parasitic beneficiaries of successful trading cities. But how plausible is this one-sided relationship, the separation of two forms of power? This project aims to elucidate the interplay between urbanism, statehood and trade with the hypothesis that the relationships were far tighter, more complex and changeable than currently assumed. With a radical methodological change and a re-focussing of questions, this project makes a fundamental contribution to the flagging endeavour of understanding socio-political and economic development in pre-colonial West Africa.