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Trade in Ethiopia before the coming of money, was largely carried out, as we saw in a previous article, on the basis of barter and non-monetary exchanges. These were often performed with the aid of commodities such as salt or iron which economists have dubbed “primitive money”.
This form of business was noticed in the early 16th century by the Portuguese priest-traveller Francisco Alvares. He reports that commerce at markets mostly took the form of non-monetary exchanges, that is to say, “the bartering of one thing for another, “as for instance a donkey for a cow”. The individual whose articles were of less value would make up the difference by giving the person with whom he was exchanging “two or three measures of bread or salt”.
Elaborating on this type of exchange which was at that time virtually unknown to his Portuguese readers, Alvares explained that with bread people obtained cloth, and with cloth they obtained mules and cows, and whatever they wanted, including salt, incense, pepper, myrrh, camphor, and other small articles. Chickens, and ”whatever they need or want” were likewise obtained in the markets “in exchange for other things”, for there was “no current money” in the country.
Such barter operations, Alvares testifies, were carried out “quickly”, and virtually without any talk, let alone disputing. As we have seen in an earlier article, silence was a feature of the Ethiopian gold trade, described by the Egyptian traveller Kosmas a millennium earlier.
Trade in Alvares’s day was based largely on local markets, which were held weekly or bi-weekly, and based almost entirely on barter. Some markets specialized in short-distance, and others in long-distance trade. The former were attended almost exclusively by the local populace, and both buyers and sellers were mainly from the local peasantry. Articles dealt in were almost invariably displayed for sale in modest quantities. They consisted principally of local produce: grain, butter and honey, perhaps a few lemons, barbare, or red pepper, and other spices, as well as cattle, mules, horses and other livestock, hides and skins, and sometimes raw or unspun cotton.
By contrast, long-distance trade was largely carried out by professional merchants, but was also widely based on local markets. These were visited by large caravans, many of them composed of Muslims dealing in clothe. Such markets generally handled the import-export business, and were linked by caravan to the important Red Sea ports of Massawa and Hergigo, or Arkiko, and to the Gulf of Aden ports of Zayla, Tajurah and Berbera. This led to commercial contact with Arabia, and lands further afield.
The salt trade was also important. It brought in the amoles, or salt bars, used throughout the land as money. It was based on large caravans travelling to and from the north of the country. They were involved in transporting the amole, mined in the Afar depression. One such caravan, which Alvares saw in southern Tigray, comprised some 300 to 400 mules or other pack animals “in herds, laden with salt’’, while others made their way back to the salt-mines in search of further supplies. Some of the larger caravans belonged to “great lords”, who sent their retainers each year to obtain salt-bars to meet their expenses, while other caravans were composed of smaller groups of merchants, each of whom took with him “droves of twenty or thirty mules or human porters “to make a profit from market to market”.
So much for the history of barter exchanges in Ethiopian history. The social anthropologists have however much more to tell us!
Consider the Journal of Ethiopian Studies, volume XL for 2007, edited by Dr Heran Sereke-Brhan. It contains an article on “The Logic of Barter in Ethiopian History and its Resilience in Contemporary Society” by our son Alula. Discussing the traditional role of barter in Ethiopia he argues that it was “not only… a prominent mode of exchange throughout the ages”, but also one that “persisted in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries”.
In support of this contention he quotes four cases in which social anthropologists in the post-World War II period have described the exchange of articles without the use of money.
The first case was reported in the late 1960s by the British anthropologist Paul Baxter. In an article significantly entitled “Butter for Barley and Barley for Cash: Petty Transactions in an Arsi Market”, he explains that in Arsi, the area in question, barley was ”imbued with cultural and religious value” that prevented it being sold for money. Arsi women would therefore exchange it for barley, which could subsequently be sold. This avoided the cultural taboo on the sale of butter. Cultural constraints on marketing were thus overcome, but without subversion.
In the second case Abebech Belayneh, an Ethiopian social anthropologist discussed the use of barter in 2003. Reporting on three markets in southern Ethiopia, namely those of Kofale, Alaba and Korate, she tells how maize was exchanged for other foods, which were in turn either consumed, or exchanged for other items of food, among them coffee leaves and ensete, or false bananas, as well as sugar cane and peppers.
In the third case Alula and an Ethiopian M.A. student, Zergew Lemessa, described the exchange of vegetables for barley in a peri-urban market in 1996. This form of trade was found advantageous because it cut out one stage with the direct exchange of vegetables for barley, without the intermediary use of money.
The fourth case was a widespread system of commerce in Addis Ababa, discussed by an Ethiopian social anthropologist Feleke Tadele in 2000. In this operation men, usually from Tigray, Wallo or Gurage, purchased plastic household utensils, such cups, plates, and bowls which they took to the richer areas of the town, and exchanged with the local women for old clothes and shoes, which they subsequently sold for money, thereby satisfying all concerned.
The above reports show that, despite the advent of money and the development of a modern banking system, the institution of barter, which we can trace back to Aksumite times, is not yet entirely dead and buried.