Changing the Flow: North Africa in the late 1640s
North Africa had, since the fall of Carthage to the Arabs in the late 600s, always been a very distant and minor concern for Constantinople, even after the reestablishment of a Roman presence in the area in the 1400s. In 1645, Roman presence in the region is represented by its island outposts at Tabarka and Djerba, plus the vassal Emirate of Tripoli, supported by the Kephalate of Malta & Gozo. As well there is the Despotate of Carthage, which controls an area surrounding the city plus an enclave at Mahdia.
These areas had suffered consistently from Roman neglect. Partly this was due to distance, as travel time, one-way, between the capital and these holdings was measured in weeks at best and often in months. Furthermore these lands were simply unprofitable. Tabarka brought in some finance with its coral fisheries, but not enough to even cover the costs of the naval base and squadron stationed there. Everywhere else was even worse. Also for Rhomania, these areas didn’t hold a strategic significance that might justify the cost. In terms of defending the Aegean against piracy, including Barbary corsairs, the squadrons in Crete and Piraeus did much better work, and were cheaper as well.
The purpose of these holdings was to guard against Barbary corsairs, and they had some effect in that regard. The Roman expedition against Tripoli in 1566 had destroyed a small nest of pirates, while the Algerians certainly regarded Tabarka as an annoying thorn. But, as recent history shows, that effect was still rather limited. The Sicilians wanted more, particularly after the unimpressive Roman performance in the expedition against Algiers.
Athena faces a dilemma here. Good relations with Sicily are crucial, yet spending more money on such peripheral areas is absolutely not in the treasury’s interest. Furthermore there is a faction at court and society that views recent Sicilian behavior, going back to the Italian affair, as ungrateful and impertinent. At best they are not inclined to provide funds in an effort that will disproportionately benefit the Sicilians; at worst they argue for some kind of readjustment in the Roman-Sicilian relationship. The faction is small but growing in number, and already includes a noticeable number of mid-ranking army officers, with interests in changing things in the empire far beyond just Sicilian affairs.
Athena at this point is more concerned about the financial issues. Spending money on provisions for Tabarka that could instead go to Thessaloniki (and more efficiently too) is hard to justify. So she comes up with an alternative, signing these territories over to the Sicilians. Tabarka, Djerba, and Malta & Gozo are to become Sicilian lands, while the Emir of Tripoli will henceforth be a Sicilian vassal. This saves the Romans the expense of maintaining these holdings, which had been utterly dependent on Sicily for provisions anyway.
The Sicilians had not been expecting such a proposal, but quickly take it up. From their perspective this is even better, as with direct control of such bases they can apply much sterner pressure on the North African coast, more easily than trying to pressure Romans. But while the Roman exchequer and the Sicilians like the idea, the aforementioned faction is outraged, disgusted at the signing away of Roman holdings, even if they are unprofitable dots on the edge of the map, which is why Athena had thought the transfer would not be an issue. Their anger helps to scuttle a different proposal whereby Rhomania-in-the-West would be sold to the Spanish, a proposal Athena had seriously entertained before deciding, after the Sicilian deal, that the money saved wasn’t worth the political backlash.
The Sicilians are not content to just change out the signs and continue as before. They are both more invested in using these holdings, and also can’t afford to let them be money-swallowing holes. The transfer marks the start of a Sicilian and Carthaginian push against central North Africa, supported partly by these new bases. The push is long and slow, varying in intensity, as the transfer does take place while Sicily is wracked by famine and plague, but it is a noticeable new trend that was not there before.
Tabarka’s coral fisheries continue to be exploited. Djerba’s olive tree groves are massively expanded and exploited, reviving the island’s former reputation as a prodigious producer of fine olive oil. The Romans had not exploited this as the heartland already produced plenty of olive oil and there was a risk of saturating the market. Also it would be competing against locally produced olive oil with that had lower shipping costs, so it likely wouldn’t do well either. The Sicilians didn’t produce as much olive oil per capita as the Romans, so there was a market niche here, and the Sicilians had the opportunity to export it onward to other parts of Italy and the western Mediterranean. Roman merchants, rarely active west of the Straits of Messina, would not have considered such possibilities.
Of bigger significance though are developments on the mainland. Tripoli was a pathetically poor husk under Roman rule, which had suited the Romans who’d only been interested in destroying a potential corsair base much better placed than Algiers to attack Romans in their home waters. Without piracy, Tripoli’s hopes of economic vitality depended on trade across the Sahara, then exporting African goods to markets in the Mediterranean. However the Romans got sub-Saharan African goods in quantity via Ethiopia and the Red Sea and had little need to use the Tripoli route. With no northern customers and no goods to trade with the South, Tripoli withered.
The Sicilians and Carthaginians though are interested in opening up trade routes across the Sahara, with Carthage’s incentives the same as would be the case for Tripoli. The Marinid hold on its eastern territories is again weakening due to bouts of political infighting in their Moroccan power base. (The Marinids have a history of expansion and contraction depending on their stability in Morocco, surviving by an impressively stubborn hold on Morocco itself, even if everything else falls away for a time.) This allows the Carthaginians to begin pushing southward through the ancient Roman province of Africa, imposing authority and winning allies among the villages and Bedouin. An important sweetener is reviving the trade across the sands, which is a benefit to everyone through whose lands it passes. A similar process enfolds south of Tripoli, pushed by the Sicilians via their new vassal.
The main trade items that go north to south are textiles, horses, iron bars, and guns and gunpowder. After the trade is well established, ‘Cart guns’ become a common expression in the lands around Lake Chad. These are poor-quality but cheap muskets that often come from Carthage (although usually made in Sicilian workshops), hence the name. Given their poor quality, they aren’t particularly lethal weapons even by the standards of muskets, which isn’t helped by the fact that the bullets are usually just pieces of the imported iron bars that are shaved off with a knife and shoved down the barrel. 
However the relative non-lethality of the Cart guns isn’t a bug but a feature. Items that go south to north include gold dust, salt, and ivory. However the backbone of this trade route is the trade in slaves. Transporting goods across the Sahara is hard, but slaves can walk and also carry other goods as well, so for their owners this is a double-win. The trade in enslaved humans is absolutely essential to the success of Sicilian and Carthaginian efforts in developing this trade route. This is also why the relative non-lethality is useful. The buyers of the Cart guns use them to help procure more slaves to fuel further trade, but dead men can’t be sold as slaves.
The Sicilians and Carthaginians did not create the slave trade, but they do help fuel it in the Lake Chad region, with the provision of horses and guns providing the tools for its expansion. The process is identical, although on a much smaller scale, to that unfolding on the western coasts of Africa that are involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Societies with access to the gunpowder weapons have an advantage, using them to expand empires that are funded by enslaving defeated opponents. The only real differences is that the coastal Atlantic states usually don’t get horses, unlike the Lake Chad areas where ‘gunpowder-cavalry empires’ become the terror of their neighbors, and in numbers. For the time period where the Atlantic trade moves millions, the Libyan trade, as the Sicilian-Carthaginian effort is called, moves tens of thousands.
The Sicilians and Carthaginians rarely export the enslaved humans they purchase in Tripoli and Carthage. The Romans purchase their slaves from Ethiopian merchants in Egypt, while the western Mediterranean powers are tapped into the Atlantic trade. The slaves are mainly used for construction projects, mining (which, like in ancient times, is practically a death sentence), swamp drainage, as workers at large agricultural estates, and as house slaves to adorn the homes of the wealthy. A small revival of the Patriarchate of Alexandria’s finances comes from the Patriarch, via Carthaginian Orthodox merchants, investing in shares in slave trading enterprises, reaping respectable profits.
There is little indication of moral outrage at this trade, as can be seen by the Patriarch of Alexandria’s involvement, which is no secret. The main cries of annoyance come from the use of slaves as agricultural labor that has the potential to push out tenant farmers. Hence the common use of slaves for dangerous and/or extremely laborious work that people are happy to leave to them, such as mining sulfur from Etna and Vesuvius. The unsurprisingly high death rates certainly please the investors in the slave trade, as there is thus a continual demand for more ‘product’.
The transfer takes place in 1647, coinciding with a significant development in trade just to the east in Egypt. The Great Canal, as the Roman canal between Marienburg am Nil and Suez is pretentiously and unimaginatively officially called, had always had issues due to it connecting the Nile and Red Sea. When the level of the Nile was higher than the Red Sea, it deposited vast quantities of silt that had to be cleared. This was back-breaking work, done by slaves purchased from Ethiopian merchants.
However a much greater issue occurred when the Nile ran low, with the Red Sea level being higher. Because the Nile is a freshwater body, while the Red Sea is a saltwater body, and the Canal connects them. When the Nile runs low, the canal dumps saltwater into the Nile, and that is disastrous since the Nile is the source of drinking water and crop irrigation for everyone downstream.
This isn’t a new issue in the 1640s, and rejuvenated Nile floods tend to flush out most of the salt. But that doesn’t alleviate the harm to those dependent on the Nile waters in the interim, and note that not all the salt is washed away. By this point, the effects of a century of the Canal and its salinization are becoming quite noticeable and destructive. The mid-1640s exacerbate this already stark trend, with weak monsoon rains in the Ethiopian highlands ensuring disastrously low Nile floods downstream.
By 1647, the issue cannot be ignored any longer. The Despot of Egypt, Andreas II, orders the Canal to be closed, its Nile end to be sealed up with earth to prevent any more seepage of salt into the river. This back-breaking work is done by the slaves who normally perform the exact opposite task; no historian knows what went through their minds.
This all happens in territory under his dominion, with the ill effects being borne by his subjects, so he does not need to consult the Romans. However they approve of the decision, without much question or argument. There really isn’t one to be made. Water and grain are essentials; pepper and kaffos are not. The grain and taxes of the Nile valley are worth far more than the eastern trade, and the livelihood and survival of three million Egyptian peasants is far more important than ensuring that Aegean basin customers can more cheaply season their dinner.
This hardly means that the trade ends. The Canal still mostly exists; it just ends somewhat short of the Nile, in the eastern suburbs of Marienburg am Nil. Given concerns about saltwater seepage, it was decided to make the earth barrier bigger on the grounds of ‘better safe than sorry’. Goods are still barged up the canal but are then unloaded at the suburban dock, carried over to the old Nile dock that used to mark the terminus of the canal, and placed on a Nile barge for the trip downstream. This process takes far more time and labor than the old system, but it is necessary. Although the Egyptians and Romans of the time do not know of how steady salinization of soil over centuries turned the once lush grain fields of ancient Sumer into desert , they did not need that example to know the danger. While the price of goods shipped via this route necessarily go up given the extra expense, the volume of trade does not seem to have been affected.
In response, there are some Roman proposals about digging a replacement canal between the Mediterranean and Red Sea directly, but these are quickly squashed. Even if it was feasible, which is questionable, it would be an incredibly expensive undertaking with the savings being surprisingly small to a modern viewer. Assuming a canal, sailing ships would hardly be expected to be able to reliably transit the canal under their own power. Furthermore, the hazardous winds and currents of the Red Sea would be very dangerous to Mediterranean and Indian Ocean merchantmen, so there would still need to be a changeover for the Red Sea leg, and probably another for the canal itself. So even a direct canal would not appreciably improve the situation, certainly not enough to justify its massive expense. It would not be until the age of steam, which would drastically reduce the cost while increasing its value, as steamships could hazard the Red Sea much more safely, when such proposals could be realistically revived.
 This is the same concept behind the ‘Long Dane’ muskets of the Ashanti, which were cheap but low-quality muskets sold to Africans. The Ashanti provided for ammunition in the same manner as well.
 In ancient Mesopotamia over time there was a steady decline in wheat production over barley as a stopgap measure, as barley can tolerate more salt than wheat. But this can only go so far, as barley has its limits too.