Africa Before Columbus

Africa before Columbus:


The fascinating story of the exploration of Sub-Saharan Africa

before the discovery of the Americas in 1492


by Godfrey Oswald

Last updated August 28th 2017



Table of Contents:






Part 1. Before the Arrival of the Portuguese


Part 2. The Arrival of the Portuguese

Sources / References / Further Reading

Copyright © 2002-2017 Godfrey Oswald / Oswald Productions




This historical blog is currently 31 A4 pages long and is an absorbing and very detailed look at the brave and astonishing explorations of the Sub-Saharan Africa coasts by the Portuguese, from the Madeira Islands (just off the Canary Islands) up to the Cape of Good Hope, along the coast in South Africa (see map below). I began this historical blog in 2008, while on the way to consult the National Library of Portugal in Lisbon for a reference book I had been working on about the history of libraries and books (Library World Records 2nd edition published in the U.S. in 2009) . While in Lisbon I came across the huge and extraordinary monument known as Padrão dos Descobrimentos (picture shown below, just before the sources). Remembering Basil Davidson (famous British historian) and his many enjoyable books about medieval Africa and the Portuguese, the giant monument soon piqued my interest in Portuguese explorations of Africa and soon I was also researching about Portuguese explorations of Africa as well.

I am currently promoting my newly published October 2017 (3rd edition) of my massive (401 pages) reference book, Library World Records .

The fascinating world map above shows the various places discovered or visited by curious Portuguese explorers around the world from 1336 (the Canary Islands) to the famous 1542 visit of Tanegashima, Japan by Fernão Mendes Pinto. After 1542, other European nations led by Spain, France, Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands joined in the explorations of the world started by the Portuguese in 1336, and the rest is history.

As you can see in the map above, The Cape of Good Hope was finally reached in 1488 by the Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz and is the southernmost point in Africa.

Once this point was reached, it opened up the trade route to India (e.g. spice trade) for others. Vasco Da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope onto the coast of Mozambique in 1498. Later in the same year, Kenya’s port of Mombasa was reached before several weeks later, the final destination of Calicut (today's Kozhikode), a coastal city in southern India. With Columbus reaching the Americas in 1492, two trade routes opened up: one westward and the other one eastward. These two trade routes erased the monopoly the Abbasid Arab Empire (AD 642-909); Fatimid Arab Empire (AD 969-1171) ; Saladin’s Kurdish Ayyubid Empire (AD 1171-1250); Turkish Mamluk Empire (1250-1517); then later Turkish Ottoman Empire (1517-1882) all had, when they all at various periods (for over 1000 years from about AD 642 up to 1882) took over and monopolised the eastern Mediterranean and Red sea trade routes. This was possible as the Abbasid Arabs; Fatimid Arabs; Ayyubids; Mamluk Turks; and the Ottoman Turks at various periods controlled Egypt. Whoever controlled Egypt, also monopolised the eastern Mediterranean and Red sea trade routes.

Prior to AD 642, Egypt had been under the control of the Byzantines (or the Eastern Roman Empire) from AD 330-642, whose capital was in modern day Turkey, founded by Constantine The Great). From 31 BC to AD 330, Egypt was under the rule of the Roman Empire. In ancient times before the Romans, Egypt had been ruled by the Assyrian Empire (669-639 BC); Babylonian Empire (605-569 BC); the Persian Empire (525-332 BC) and the Greco-Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great (332-31 BC).

In 1258 following the Mongolian invasion and devastation of Arab lands, the Mamluks were just able to hang onto Egypt and prevent the Mongols from capturing Egypt. At the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, the Mamluks led by Sultan Qutuz defeated the much larger Mongol army led by Hulagu Khan and Kitbuqa Noyan, but centuries later the Mamluks could not fend off the much stronger Ottoman Turks in 1517 who took over Egypt.

Following the establishment of the Khedive in 1867 and the loss of Egypt by the Ottoman Empire to the British Empire later on in 1882, the 1000 year plus monopoly of the eastern Mediterranean and Red sea trade routes was finally broken. Just before the Khedive was installed, the British and French decided to improve the eastern Mediterranean and Red sea trade routes by helping the Ottomans build the famous 100-mile-long Suez Canal, which opened in 1869. The long list of empires which ruled Egypt (669 BC to AD 1922) once the pharaohs were no longer in charge of Egypt, is a testament of the overall strategic importance of Egypt and trading in that area.


When we say Sub-Saharan Africa, we mean the regions of Africa below the Sahara Desert (that is all of Africa minus North Africa). The coastal and inland exploration (up to at least 100 miles into the interior from the coast) of North Africa from Morocco to Egypt had been extensively explored since ancient Greek times and also during the reign of the Roman Empire, when several parts of the Roman Empire also included the coasts of modern Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt (once the Romans defeated Carthage in the 3rd Punic War). This region was known as Ifriqiya. The word Ifriqiya is the origin of the word Africa.

Before the Romans ruled North Africa, the word Ifriqiya had its origins from the time Carthage Empire ruled most of the North African coasts. Carthage was founded circa 800 BC by the Phoenicians (who already were established in modern day Lebanon and parts of the coasts of modern day Syria). Though the Phoenicians (famous for inventing the alphabet we use today to write) were primarily based in Lebanon, they also had numerous colonial cities along the coasts of the Mediterranean, and the ones based along the North African coasts formed the basis of the Carthage Empire. Obviously the Roman Empire saw Carthage as a major rival and soon a series of wars ensured, known as the Punic Wars. When the Romans finally defeated Carthage in 146 BC (3rd Punic War), they adopted the name Ifriqiya (later corrupted to the word Africa) to represent all of North Africa under their control. At this time Sub-Saharan Africa was unknown to the Romans. The word Africa (Ifriqiya) was somehow applied to all of Africa by the famous ancient Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemy circa AD 120. But Sub-Saharan Africa was still unknown to Ptolemy and the rest of the learned world, until the 11th century AD when the Arabs arrived Sub-Saharan Africa for the first time. Bent on spreading Islam, the Arabs first conquered all of North Africa (i.e. now known as the Maghreb) from the middle 7th and 8th century AD. Earlier with the Roman Empire in disarray from the Barbarian invasions, in AD 637 the Arabs took advantage and captured the Roman province of Carthage. Moving on southwards, the Arabs reached much of southern parts of North Africa in the 10th century AD. Crossing the very hot Sahara Desert with camels and lots of water and food supplies for the first time in centuries, the Arabs pushed on southwards below the Sahara Desert and finally into Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Arabs in West Africa
Once inside Sub-Saharan Africa for the first time, the ancient Kingdom of Ghana was first reached in early 11th century AD (circa AD 1062) by the Arabs/Almoravids (Sanhaja Berbers from Morocco converted to Islam by the Arabs in the 9th century AD after the Arabs conquered Morocco). Most of the population was eventually converted to Islam and soon the Arabs/Almoravids took control over some parts of the Kingdom. The route taken to reach Ghana later became the famous Sanhaja salt trading route. Arabic writers such as Abu Ubayd al-Bakri (in AD 1067) and Al-Idrisi (in AD 1154) provided today's historians with the earliest descriptions of ancient Ghana. The Ancient Kingdom of Ghana (not actually located in modern Ghana but located in modern Mali and Mauritania) existed between circa AD 300 and AD 1250 and its capital Kumbi at the height of its prosperity, before 1240, was the greatest city of western Africa with a population of more than 70,000. Ghana fell to the Mali Empire in AD 1250, after the ruler of Mali (a nearby growing empire) King Sundiata, defeated Ghana king Sumanguru at the Battle of Kirina. Mali Empire was much greater in size than ancient Ghana and was finally reached in early 12th century AD by the Arabs/Almoravids and its very famous city Timbuktu was later extensively explored for the first time in AD 1353 by famous Muslim adventurer Ibn Battuta, who wrote a lot about the city in his personal journals which still exist today in libraries in Africa and Europe. Ibn Battuta alongside Abu Ubayd al-Bakri and Al-Idrisi all provide the best sources today about daily life in Ghana and Mali (the greatest kingdoms in sub-Saharan Africa before AD 1400). These written accounts would later be complimented by new writers: much about the life in west Africa in the 1500s was written extensively by Leo Africanus and earlier on by Portuguese explorers. What attracted Mali to Ghana was its extensive rich gold mines, and conquest of Ghana made Mali very rich and powerful. Around the time Ibn Battuta visited Mali, it was ruled by the famous King Mansa Musa, whose rather expensive pilgrimage to Mecca or Haj in AD 1324 was the most written story out of Africa in medieval times by Arab writers and soon picked up by European writers, causing the rest of the world especially in Europe to wonder what Timbuktu was like. The European fascination with Timbuktu went on for a long time: Timbuktu as the mysterious African city that conjured up images of long camel caravans out on the edge of the sand-strewn Sahara Desert. Apparently King Mansa Musa took along large quantities of gold mined in Ghana and flamboyantly waved around several gold nuggets to onlookers at in Mecca, and so Timbuktu was seen as the African El Dorado, long before the name El Dorado was associated with the gold mines in the Americas centuries later.

With so much news about Timbuktu and her gold nuggets in the medieval grapevine gossip, Timbuktu was finally put on a world map by the famous medieval Catalan Majorcan Cartographic School, who made the best world maps outside Italy (the people of Venice and Genoa made the best medieval world maps outside China). Catalan map maker Abraham Cresque's map of 1375 was the very first to put Timbuktu on any map (he named Timbuktu as Tenbuch on his map). In fact, Timbuktu was the first major Sub-Saharan Africa city to appear on a European world map. By the start of the 1800s no one in Europe had yet managed to travel to Timbuktu and return to tell the tale. Timbuktu was apparently the elusive El Dorado. The Society de Geographie, based in Paris and founded in 1821 finally decided to offer a fabulous prize of 10,000 French Francs for first person to return with a description of Timbuktu. This feat was won by Rene Caillie in 1828. Caillie managed to sneak into Timbuktu smartly disguised as a Muslim trader. His main rival for the big prize money, British explorer Alexander Gordon Laing, reportedly reached Timbuktu two years earlier but never returned to claim the prize. But the euphoria over Timbuktu was short-lived. By the 1800s Timbuktu was no longer a fabulously wealthy city that was portrayed in the medieval time of King Mansa Musa. Caillie complained that he found only poor people living in the streets and otherwise could not find evidence of the kind of splendour which Leo Africanus (see below) had written so much about. Most historians hearing about Caillie and his shocking complaints and assessment of Timbuktu in 1828 began to ask what on Earth had happened to Timbuktu?

The above diagram was part of the famous 1375 Catalan map of Timbuktu by Abraham Cresque. During the expensive pilgrimage to Mecca or Haj in 1324 by King Mansa Musa he took along with his entourage, large quantities of gold mined in Ghana (then part of the Mali empire) and flamboyantly showed off so many solid gold nuggets. He is seen in the diagram holding one of the numerous gold nuggets, that sent tongues wagging.

The Mali Empire also gave rise to a breakaway empire (which later conquered it) in late 1390s called Songhai Empire centred at the ancient city of Gao. Its famous ruler at the time was King Sunni Ali. Both Mansa Musa and Sunni Ali were converted to Islam by the Arabs who visited them and subsequently they and their successors all built the greatest mosques in medieval sub-Saharan Africa. Also built in the ancient Mali and Songhai empires were numerous Islamic education centres or madrasas such as Sankore University in Timbuktu (founded by King Mohammed Askia I in the early 1500s and the very first university in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa). The famous Berber Moorish writer and traveller Leo Africanus (El Hassan Ben Muhammed Al Wizazan Al-Fasi) who visited Songhai circa 1510, provided the first and most accurate written description of now wealthy Timbuktu and its famous multi-cultural Sankore University for Muslim scholars in the Middle East, as well as scholars in Europe. His famous book based on his travels called Description of Africa and translated in many European languages was a best seller in Europe from the middle 1500s to the 1700s. Soon other places in and around Sub-Saharan Africa centred around Ghana, Mali and Songhai were explored by the Arabs in medieval West Africa and from this point onwards, much of West Africa just below the Sahara Desert is now known to the Arab world and this knowledge of medieval Africa passed on to European explorers, academics and historians of the day.

Lets now turn to East Africa.

East Africa before the Arabs
The Kingdom of Aksum (Axum) in ancient Ethiopia (East Africa) existed from AD 100 to AD 940. It was one part of Sub-Saharan Africa known to the outside world before the Arabs arrived in the 11th century AD. There is proof of this: The ancient Greco-Roman manuscript titled Periplus of the Red Sea written in the 2nd century AD provides proof that the Roman Empire was trading with the Kingdom of Aksum (ancient Axum) by the 2nd century AD.

The Periplus of the Red Sea also known as The Periplus Maris Erythraei or "Circumnavigation of the Red Sea," is the single most important source of information for ancient Rome's maritime trade in the Red Sea between Rome and East Africa. Written in the first century A.D. by a Greek merchant and preserved today, it is a short manual for the traders who sailed from the Red Sea ports of Roman Egypt to buy and sell in the various ports along the coast of eastern Africa, southern Arabia, and western India. Professor Lionel Casson, the famous American historian, used the ancient Greco-Roman manuscript as a major source for his work on ancient seafaring and trade, which made him preeminent in this field of ancient history.

In fact the ancient city of Sudan (Nubia or Kush) known as ancient Meroe and ancient Horn of Africa such as ancient cities in Ethiopia (Aksum), Eritrea, and Somalia (famous pre-Islamic ancient cities of Malao and Opone) were all engaged in some sort of lucrative trade in food and other items with the Roman Empire between the 2nd and 4th century AD, and later the Byzantine Empire from the 5th century until the Arabs took over the lucrative trade in the 9th century. Hence parts of the Horn of Africa were known to the Romans and the Byzantines before the arrival of the Arabs.

The Arabs in East Africa
When the Arabs conquered all of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the Horn of Africa is discovered and the lucrative trading, very soon the Arabs replace the Byzantines as the sole traders with the Horn of Africa from the 9th and 10th century AD. Thus much of West Africa just below the Sahara Desert and the Horn of Africa are now known by the Arab world and the Byzantines by the start of the middle 1300s. But what about other parts of Africa: the coasts of West, Central and South Africa and the interior of these areas from the coast. The Arabs in West Africa could have moved in further south and possibly reach the coasts of West Africa, but this was not to be. In 1258 following the Mongolian invasion and devastation of Arab lands in the Middle East, the exploration of West Africa beyond what was already explored, was brought to a halt. In-between 1258 and early 1400s, the coasts of Sub-Saharan Africa from West Africa to South Africa went unexplored by the learnt world in Europe and the Middle East.

With the expansion of Islam in the Middle Ages, North Africa was culturally cut off from non-Muslim Europe. The Islamic Empire created a barrier between Europe and the rest of the world, with European traders paying heavy tributes to obtain prized commodities like West African gold, East Asian spices and silk. The Italian republics of Venice and Genoa, among others, specialized in this trade.

In addition, the Jews of modern Spain, Portugal, and Morocco were allowed to trade in Muslim Africa. Among them were Abraham Cresques and his son Jehuda, whose 1375 Catalan Atlas put Timbuktu on the world map and help improve European knowledge of Africa and other regions, with a good deal of Muslim geographical knowledge and some educated guesses and imagination to fill in the blanks.

Comparing The Voyages of Christopher Columbus and the Voyages of the Portuguese in the 15th Century.
Only from the start of the early 1400s, did the Portuguese began to explore and discover in great detail hitherto unknown parts of the coasts of Sub-Saharan Africa from West Africa to South Africa, unknown to both the Arabs and the Byzantines. Two issues had prevented earlier exploration of much of the Sub-Saharan Africa by the Portuguese: The huge Sahara Desert and thick tropical rain forests and the extreme fear of going sailing past Cape Bodajor (Boujdour) at roughly latitude 27° North, by explorers (more of this explained later). These two issues meant very little was known about coasts of Sub-Saharan Africa to the outside world for centuries after much was well known about the coasts and interior of North Africa, parts of West Africa below the Sahara and Horn of Africa (East Africa).


Sub-Saharan Africa explorations were made by explorers from Italy (to a small extent in 13th century) and China (to a small extent in the earlier 15th century) and Portugal (for most of the 1400s). Bartholomew Diaz (also spelled Dias) reached the Cape of Good Hope (the southernmost tip of Africa) in 1488, some four years before, the Americas was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Thus it is fair to say that all Africa (west, east, central, north and south) was finally properly and fully put on a world map before Columbus discovered the Americas.

Portugal contributed to the bulk of the knowledge of Sub-Saharan Africa coastline at the time of Christopher Columbus last voyage and the start of the exploration of the Americas in detail by explorers such as
Amerigo Vespucci, Pedro Álvares Cabral, John Cabot, Martin Frobisher among others (from 1493 onwards).


The blog uses just 10% of the entire data I have accumulated in my 5 year off-on research. If after reading this blog, you come across any new facts or an update or correction to facts in the blog, please do drop me a line. My email is


The distance between the ports of Sagres and Lisbon in Portugal, where most Portuguese ships had departed onto the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa is about 4500 nautical miles (reached by Bartholomew Diaz in December 1488, a 5-months journey). Compare this to the distance between Palos de la Frontera in southern Spain which Columbus departed for his first Voyage to the Americas (first stop The Bahamas (island of Guanahani) in October 1492). This distance is about 3620 nautical miles and a 2-months journey. While the distance for the voyage to the Americas taken by Columbus is less than the one taken by Bartholomew Diaz to the Cape of Good Hope, Columbus voyage was in open ocean for the greater part of the voyage. Columbus thus had to stop by either the Azores Islands or the Canary Islands for supplies. Bartholomew Diaz voyage was made much longer because he and his crew stopped at over a dozen of coasts and ports from Senegal to South Africa for supplies and a decent rest.


The above map 1 shows the various African coasts that Vasco Da Gama’s famous voyage passed on his way to India in 1498. Each of the several coasts passed by Da Gama had been earlier discovered by various Portuguese sailors between 1434 (Cape Bodajor, Western Sahara) and 1488 (Cape of Good Hope, South Africa). The distance from Sagres and Lisbon to the Cape of Good Hope is a distance of 4500 nautical miles. If you look at the map above on upper westpart, you will see the words "volta do mar." One of the most fascinating navigation techniques invented by Portuguese explorers moving up and down the West African coast was the so called volta do mar also known as tacking. It was a sailing technique discovered in successfully returning from the African Atlantic islands, where the pilot first had to sail far to the west in order to catch usable following winds, and return to Europe.


From his journals, the experiences of the famous Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, in the service of Spain, as he landed in the Americas for the very first time in 1492 is thrilling to read about. Likewise, are the stories relating to Spanish conquistadors Hernándo Cortés arriving at the Aztec empire in Mexico for the first time in 1518 and Francisco Pizarro reaching the Inca Empire in 1532 in Peru. Even more intriguing is the stories related to voyage of Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral and landing on the coast of Brazil in 1500 for the first time. The stories of all these early explorations are well known around the world and several films, books and plays have been made about these voyages.


The above map 2 shows where Christopher Columbus famous 1492 first voyage passed. He first departed Palos de la Frontera in southern Spain to the Canary Islands, and then ultimately moved onto the Americas (first stop The Bahamas). The distance between Palos de la Frontera and The Bahamas (First voyage) is 3620 nautical miles.


In 2008, the world was mesmerized by stories about the discovery of lost tribes in the Brazilian Amazon rain forest. Photos were shown of frightened natives shooting arrows at airplanes that flew over them. Undoubtedly when two isolated and different civilizations clash for the first time in history, confusion and hostility at first reigns supreme.


First there is fear (who are these strange looking people?), then denial (I must be dreaming, it’s so unreal, this can’t be happening!!) then finally anger (they look hostile and must be after our food or women, where’s the poisoned arrows?). It is sometimes by chance or luck that the two suddenly realise they mean each other no harm, and friendly contacts are then made and cultural and trade exchanges take place afterwards. On other occasions it’s the exact opposite and a violent confrontation inevitable.


What is little known however is the reaction between the first encounters between African natives and Portuguese explorers along the West African coast between the 1450s and 1470s and the southern coastlines in the 1480s. I found this a rather unknown fascinating subject to dwell on and begin a new blog project.


One thing for sure is that the landing of Portuguese explorers for the very first time on the western coasts of Sub-Saharan Africa (from the coasts south of Cape Bojador in Western Sahara then southwards) from 1434 is not well known on the scale of say Columbus' voyage to the Americas.


However they are not comparable in the normal sense: while Africa, as a continent, was known to some extent in Roman times, and from the 8th century AD, having conquered most of North Africa, the Arabs began to push further southwards to spread Islam and reached as far as West African lands near the southern borders of the Sahara Desert. Meanwhile the Americas were totally unknown to Columbus and his crew or any other explorer.


Both of these long voyages from Europe however provide fascinating insight to clash of two civilisations isolated from each other for centuries. The major outcome of Portuguese explorations is hinged on the fact that scholars and academics in Europe and the Middle East, as well as China, were already all too familiar with the existence of the African continent: except that nobody had yet to explore Africa in fine detail and record extensive facts down for others to read about, until the Portuguese gave it a shot.


The One Voyage That Changed Everything
History was made in 1434 when Gil Eannes as well as Alfonso Gonclaves Baldaya sailed past Cape Bojador (Cabo Bojador in Portuguese and Spanish) on the southern coast of Western Sahara and onto Rio de Oro. This was the first verifiable record of any explorer sailing from nearby Portugal or Spain to successfully sail past the so called and much feared “point-of-no-return” Cape Bojador and return alive to tell of the feat.


Why on earth was sailing past Cape Bojador very much feared?

Map 3


Well prior to 1434 no one had ever attempted to go beyond Cape Bojador as it was deemed too dangerous. Notice how close the Canary Islands are to Cape Bojador in the map above. For centuries the Canary Islands had been paid visits by the famous sea explorers: from the Phoenicians from modern day Lebanon. Soon afterwards the Greeks paid a visit, and the later Carthaginians under Hanno The Navigator dropped by. Finally, the Spanish and Portuguese arrived in the early 1400s. But when explorers started venturing beyond the Canary Islands and reached Cape Bojador, it looked like so far so good. However as Spanish and Portuguese adventurers moved further south, strange things began to happen.


No one knows who began the terrifying horror stories, but soon numerous myths and wild tales about what lay ahead beyond Cape Bojador began to surface. Some wild tales said strange sea monsters such as African Krakens!!!! lay beyond Cape Bojador. Not surprisingly Cape Bojador is on the coast of Africa just below latitude 27° North (just a bit south of the coasts of the Western Sahara) and due to this particular position, random violent storms and strong currents were very common, on a scale not seen in areas around in and around the Azores, Madeira and Canary Islands. So everyone thus feared so much going beyond Cape Bojador: the much feared "point-of-no-return"


However this blog will show that back in the 13th century Italian explorers from Genoa may have achieved sailing past Cape Bojador, but they just kept it secret, and did not pass on this voyage to the grapevine. After Gill Eannes' courageous voyage (maybe he chose a much better time in the seasons to travel), the road was finally open for the other Portuguese explorers to extensively sail beyond Cape Bodajor (Boujdour) onto the southern and then the eastern coast of Africa for the first time in history and reveal some mysteries of Africa unknown to the learned world in Europe and Asia.


All this later culminating in Vasco Da Gama’s famous but brave voyage from the coast of South Africa to India, in 1498.



The above map 4 shows that between 1434 and 1445 (just over 10 years) Portuguese explorers had sailed and discovered coasts and ports half way round West Africa for the very first time.


Why did Gill Eannes put his life on the line and attempt to sail past Cape Bojador?


Gil Eannes was under the employment of Prince Henry (Henrique) the Navigator, son of the Portuguese King.


Henry the Navigator, out of curiosity and necessity, had wondered if it was possible to travel to India by way of Africa, as an alternative route for the lucrative spice trade. This necessity arose because the normal route for this trade via the Mediterranean Sea, had been monopolized by Arab, Venetian and Genoese traders and middle men, and further existing routes east overland had been blocked by the Ottoman Turks.

The First Encounter
As will be noted in detail later on in this blog, in 1443, the very first African natives taken captive by Portuguese explorer Antão (Antonio) Gonçalves and his crew from the coast of Senegal and brought back to Portugal, were the first ever African natives from the coastal region of sub-Saharan Africa to make contact with Europeans for hundreds of years since Roman times.


These captives however were not slaves because it was only after the later discovery of Brazil in 1500 as well as North America and many other Caribbean Islands in the late 1500s to 1600s that sowed the first seeds of the later transatlantic Slave Trade from the middle 1600s. The reason for taking these captives will be made clear in later in this blog.


Now the fascinating meeting between these two sides, (the African natives on one side and Gonçalves and his team on the other side), can be hypothetically examined in the context of the description given by Columbus when he and his crew first met American Indian natives for the very first time on the Caribbean Island of Cuba in October 1492.


In both cases, both sides had never met before and so their physical appearances, artefacts they carried along with clothes and hats they wore and other things etc., as well as two distinct languages they both spoke, must have been one big culture shock for both sides.


If I met a Martian for the very first time on a lonely deserted road, what would I say immediately? Hello there?, how are you? Of course not!!, I would be speechless and stare at the Martian in disbelief, fear and excitement kicking in for several seconds if not a few minutes, while I sized up the unique moment.


I have searched libraries and archives in Britain and Europe for authenticated details of Gonçalves first meeting with the African natives in 1443, and my discoveries make intriguing reading, read on.


Periods of the Exploration of Africa Not Covered by This blog
The pioneering achievements of the Portuguese was cut short from the late 17th century when the commercially-driven transatlantic Slave Trade between the Spanish, French, English and Portuguese colonies in the Americas and Africa began to overshadow the commercially-driven AND curiosity-driven motives of Portuguese earlier explorations of the Sub-Saharan African coasts. The exploitation of man by man, in this case enslaving people to work as slaves was not new. From ancient times it was standard practice to enslave people who were captured during times of war or after war. It was practised in ancient times in the Middle East such as in ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Persia and Assyria after decisive victories captured thousands after a war. The ancient Greeks in Sparta and Athens (i.e. during the Peloponnesian War), and the Romans in the Roman Empire practiced widespread slavery too in very large numbers. Thousands of ordinary people were slaves for life in all these regions in the Middle East and Europe. During all the Crusades and also during the era of the Mongolian Empire, slavery was a way of life as well. And between 1530 and 1780 there was a major trade in slaves along the Barbary Coast of North Africa, were about 1 million southern Europeans (estimated by Professor Robert Davies, Ohio State University historian) living along the coasts of European Mediterranean countries were enslaved by the Corsairs (pirates from North Africa).


The very trading posts of the Portuguese explorers such as those at Fort Elmina in Ghana (built in 1482 by the Portuguese), set up exclusively for trading in gold, fruits, tin, cloth, pepper, shrimps, etc with African natives, soon also became forts for sending about 10 million slaves (estimated by most history books) to the Americas, during the Atlantic Slave Trade between late 1600s and early 1800s. The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slavery was outlawed and abolished in the early and middle 1800s in most European countries (France, Britain, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands) and their colonies primarily in the Caribbean Islands and the early 1860s (Civil War era) in the U.S., and in 1888 in Brazil.


A notable exception witnessed in the Victorian era explorations of the Sub-Saharan Africa, was that most of the explorations of the Sub-Saharan Africa from the late 18th century were very different from those made in the 15th century. For instance the majority of explorers came from other European countries, and not Portuguese, such as Mungo Park and Richard Burton (Britain); Daniel Houghton (Ireland); Johann Burckhardt (Switzerland); and René Caillié (France, first European to return from a trip to Timbuktu.) In Britain, many of these new wave of explorers such as Mungo Park were funded or inspired to embark on the exploration by one institution: The African Association (also called the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa). It had been founded in 1788 in London. A rival French version was called Société de Géographie, based in Paris and founded in 1821. In one good example of promoting the exploration of the interior parts of Africa, Société de Géographie had offered a fabulous prize of 10,000 French Francs for first person to return with a description of famous muslim city, Timbuktu. This feat was won by René Caillié in 1828. Most of the journals and letters of European explorers in the late 18th and most of the 19th century were published by The Hakluyt Society, a publication society, founded in 1846 in London, which published scholarly editions of primary records of historic voyages and travels in Africa and Asia.


Another difference was that a good majority of these new 18th to 19th century explorations now occurred in the interiors parts of Africa and not the coasts which had already been explored and charted in detail by Portuguese explorers. These second waves of explorations of the interior of Africa, also ultimately led to gradual colonialism of nearly all of Africa, culminating in German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck setting up the famous Berlin Conference of 1884-85 to partition Africa into organized colonies based on spheres of influence or pre-existing gentlemen's agreements.


There are already so many blogs and books already written on the Atlantic Slave Trade and the pioneering 18th to 19th century explorations, so there is no need for this blog to divulge in them, save for this brief mention.


Why Did the Portuguese Begin Exploration of Sub-Saharan Africa?
It must be reemphasized from the start that the objectives of the extensive 15th century Portuguese explorations of Sub-Saharan Africa, this blog covers, were not to seek slaves, since the islands of Americas on the Caribbean Sea (first discovered in 1492) and Brazil (discovered 1500) had not yet been discovered, so there was no work for the slaves to perform.


The objectives of the extensive 15th century Portuguese explorations was due to Prince Henry the Navigator, out of curiosity and necessity, wondered if it was actually possible to travel to India by way of Africa (finally accomplished in 1498 by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama), as an alternative route for the lucrative spice trade, since the normal route for this trade via the Mediterranean Sea, had been monopolized by Arab, Venetian and Genoese traders and middle men, and further existing routes east overland had been blocked by the Ottoman Turks.


But not surprisingly as my research shows, Genoese (from modern day Italy) and Catalan explorers (from modern day Spain) themselves had already thought about this, and evidence exist to back up the claim that Genoese and Catalan explorers (in the 13th and 14th centuries) began to explore the coasts of sub-Saharan Africa long before the Portuguese arrived (in the 15th century). I will explore these claims in much detail in this blog.


Did You Know That Christopher Columbus was in Africa in 1481?
Not everyone knows of this fact: in 1481, Christopher Columbus had passed through the several Portuguese trading posts along the West African coasts on his way to help build the Portuguese Fort Elmina in Ghana. Along the way he learned about Portuguese navigation techniques and the Atlantic high seas wind systems, and learnt about why the Portuguese where busy pushing forward to explore the whole coast of Africa until they found a way to India. All this would be beneficial to him, about 10 years later in 1492, when he embarked on his famous voyage to the Americas.


But this fact also reveals a little acknowledged but important fact I have revisited: Had Portuguese explorers through Bartholomew Diaz not yet discovered in 1488 how to circumvent Africa and find the route to India eastwards, it is very probable that Columbus would not have ventured in 1492 to find a western route to India. This is because logic would have dictated to Columbus that an eastern route to India was shorter and should be discovered first (as was the case).

Why Did Columbus choose to take a Western Route to India in 1492?
Well simply because Columbus and his sponsors had already found out that Bartholomew Diaz has reached the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa in 1488, and thus the Portuguese explorers were on course to be the first Europeans to reach India via Africa and the Indian Ocean.

If Bartholomew Diaz had not yet reached the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 or had no one before or after him embarked on such a crucial voyage, then most likely the Americas would not have been discovered in 1492, but more probably in the 16th century at least. So it is important to remind ourselves of the importance of the Portuguese extensive explorations of the coast of Africa all the way to South Africa from Morocco before 1492.


It took the Portuguese explorers a few months short of 65 years to chart the entire sub-Saharan African coastline starting from Cape Bojador in Western Sahara from 1434 to the coast of Mombasa in Kenya in 1498. Along the way they passed the coasts of the following countries: Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote D’Ivorie, Ghana, Togo, Republic of Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, Zaire, Angola, Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, and Tanzania.

As the Portuguese explorers went through these numerous ports, they also gave the land, towns, ports, rivers, canals, mountains, coasts etc they discovered along the way Portuguese names (many of which still survive today). For example Cape Verde, Madeira, Azores, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Gabon, Lagos, Sao Tome and Principe, Cameroon, Zaire, Luanda, Mozambique etc are just a few names all derived from the original Portuguese names given by the explorers as they explored the very long African coasts from Mauritania to Kenya.


This blog thus covers these explorations in fine details, including several explorations on the African coastlines before the Portuguese, notably by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Genoese (Italy) and Chinese explorers.


At the end of this blog, is an extensive list of my sources.




Part 1

Before the arrival of the Portuguese


Before 1 AD. Hanno the Navigator, a Phoenician from Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, is believed to have visited the African coastline between Senegal and Sierra Leone for a few days circa 470 BC. This is not well documented but the source of this voyage originated from a Punic inscription found in Carthage by Greek scholars luckily before Roman forces destroyed Carthage in 146 BC during the Punic wars. It is possible that before Hanno's travels, other Phoenicians had explored the West African coastline around 650 BC. One of the first Romans to gain access to written stories about Hanno the Navigator was 1st century AD Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder. Records relating to Hanno the Navigator alleged African voyages was used by Greek scholar Herodotus for his crude world map showing Africa (mostly the northern parts) drawn in 450 BC. Another famous Greco-Roman scholar Claudius Ptolemy completed his more accurate world map (that included a near-accurate map of North Africa) in AD 150 at Alexandria, Egypt, known today as the Geographia or the Cosmographia.


Special Look At the Canary Islands from Roman Times to the Middle Ages


The Canary Islands was the first place not far from the African coast that was extensively explored, before the continent itself was explored by Greek, Carthaginians, Romans and Phoenicians explorers (from circa 500 BC) and Chinese explorers (from 1420s). The islands were visited by the Phoenicians (circa 800 BC, but only via oral tradition, no records), the ancient Greeks (circa 600 BC, but only via oral tradition, no records), and the Carthaginians (from 400 BC, for whom written records of the visit exists today). According to the 1st century AD Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder, the archipelago was found to be uninhabited when visited by the Carthaginians under Hanno the Navigator, who mentioned he saw ruins of old buildings on the islands. Hanno The Navigator's story about old ruins may suggest that the islands were once inhabited by other people prior Hanno's arrival such as the Guanches. The Guanches were the aboriginal Berber inhabitants of the Canary Islands from 1000 BC, who later abandoned the islands (circa 700 BC) after a severe famine. Guanches legacy exists today because at La Gomera (one of regions of the Canary Islands) we find the famous whistled language known as Silbo Gomero or el silbo in Spanish. La Gomera dates back to the Guanches.

King Juba I, Roman Emperor Augustus's Numidian protégé, is credited with discovering the Canary Islands islands for the Western world, via extensive exploration on the island. Numidia was the name given to former ancient Berber Kingdom in North Africa centred around Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. It's capital was Sirta. Around 130 BC it was conquered by the Romans under Emperor Augustus and soon after Numidia was Romanized, becoming a Roman province. King Juba I had dispatched a naval contingent to re-open the dye production facility at Mogador (today's Essaouira) in what is now western Morocco circa 40 BC. That same naval force was subsequently sent on an extensive exploration of the Canary Islands, using Mogador as their mission base. His successor (King Juba II) was the originator of the name "Canary Islands" see below.


King Juba II, King of Roman province of Mauritania (or Mauretania) sponsored an exhibition to the Canary Islands from Mauritania in the 1st century AD. Details of these explorations were recorded by Roman writers Plutarch and Pliny the Elder and both are good written sources for information on the Canary Islands during Roman times.

How Did the Canary Islands get its name?
King Juba II was the originator of the name Canaries (from the word dog), because several wild dogs were discovered on the islands by Juba's team. Prior to that the Canary Islands had been known since Roman times as Fortuna or Fortunate Islands.

The Portuguese first set foot on the beautiful Canary Islands in 1336.

There is no evidence that King Juba II sponsored an expedition south of Mauritania i.e. the coasts of Senegal, even though both countries share a same border. It was the Zenaga Berbers living near the Mauritanian border who introduced the name Senegal (Sanhaja) for "land south of Mauritania".

Canary Islands during Medieval Times

1270. Lancelot Malocello, an Italian explorer from Genoa (Italy) was believed to be the first explorer to reach sail past the coast modern day Morocco and reach Canary Islands coasts. Some data exists on this Italian explorer to verify this, but no extant maps date from this time.

1300s During the later part of Middle Ages, several naval charts from 1339 show that the Canary Islands were now correctly shown on the charts.

In 1336, the Portuguese undertook the first major expedition to the Canary Islands in medieval times, since the islands was first explored by King Juba I back in 40 BC. Credit is thus given to Portuguese explorers for being the first to land there in 1336 in over 1000 years since long forgotten expedition of King Juba I (see last world map in this blog, before the Sources). However the Portuguese may have rediscovered the Canary Islands, for some reason they made no attempt to colonize the islands. It was left to the French and Spanish (via the Kingdom of Castile or the Castilians) who decided to colonize the islands permanently after conquest.

In 1344, Pope Clement VI (using a Papal Bull, Tu devonitis sinceritas) granted the French-Spanish admiral Luis de la Cerda the title "(Prince of Fortunate Islands)" and sent him to conquer the Canary Islands for Christianity. He was the expatriate royal prince of the Crown of Castile, but was in the service of the Kingdom of France. The strange thing about this dubious Papal Bull was that although Luis de la Cerda was made the first Prince of Fortuna (or the sovereign ruler of the Canary Islands) by Pope Clement VI in 1345, he never actually set foot on the islands in the first place!

The Portuguese King Afonso IV immediately lodged a protest about the Papal Bull, claiming that the Portuguese had already re-discovered the islands in 1336 (using Genoese explorers such as Emmanuel Pessagno and other Genoese sea experts). In fact the very first accurate naval chart of the Canary Islands was drawn by one of the hired Genoese experts, Angelino Dulcert in 1339. However Spanish King Alfonso XI of Castile also laid counter claim to the Canary Islands for Spain, this time using the ancient Visigothic dioceses and prior reconquista treaties to claim the islands fell within Castilian jurisdiction or as as he put it "sphere of conquest". The Visigothic dioceses were drawn up by the Visigoths, who ruled Spain from the 5th century AD (after the Roman Empire's rule of Spain collapsed), until the Moors (Berber-Arab natives from Morocco) overthrew Visigoths in AD 711. Although Spain and Portugal were bitter rivals at the start of the Iberian Age of Discovery, one war put an end to possible Spanish dominance: The Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385 won by the Portuguese against the Spanish, ensured Spain would not try to seize Portuguese discoveries by force. But on this occasion it did not apply to the Canary Islands, as the Portuguese interest turned to other islands such as the Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde islands. But for other discoveries such as Brazil in 1500, the Spanish were happy for the Portuguese to keep it since it was now "Finders Keepers"

In 1402, French men, Jean de Bethencourt and Gadifer de la Salle sailed to conquer the Canary Islands for the Kingdom of France, but found the islands already plundered much earlier by the Castilians who had arrived in the late 1370s and were now on the islands permanently for good this time. Although Jean de Bethencourt and Gadifer de la Salle did actually conquer the Canary Islands, Bethencourt's nephew was forced to cede the Canary Islands to Kingdom of Spain in 1418.

In 1479, the Kingdoms of Portugal (under King Afonso V) and Spain (under King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile) sat down to talk and after days of heated debates and arguments and discussions reluctantly signed the Treaty of Alcáçovas. Both sides did not want a new war, with the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385 still fresh in their minds. The Treaty of Alcáçovas was a fair treaty for both sides and among other things it concluded seperate the War of the Castilian Succession (1475-1479) and more importantly settled the disputes between the Kingdom of Castile and Aragon and the Kingdom of Portugal over who had total control of the Atlantic and its major islands: under the treaty, Castilian control of the Canary Islands was recognised and Portuguese possession of the Azores, Madeira, and the Cape Verde islands was recongnized. In essence, Portugal has happy to give up the Canary Islands in exchange for the nearby islands of Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde. Seems a fair deal in the end was worked, and no armed confrontation was needed to settle the disputes. The 1480 Treaty of Toledo, signed in Spain, and given a blessing by the Pope, who was involved in setting it up, reinforced the Iberian settlement on the Canary Islands, along the lines: "The Canary Islands was from this day forth Spanish, and only Spanish. Period!"

The beautiful Canary Islands has remained Spanish ever since (it came close to being a Portuguese colony though!). Today the island is a favourite holiday spot for travellers wanting to taste an African adventure and long days of hot weather without actually visiting the continent, itself.



Circa AD 1000 to AD 1200. Arrival of several Arabic and Berber (Tuareg) explorers, almost all started the journey, from North Africa (then crossed the Sahara Desert with camels to the Sahel region just south of the Sahara) and reached Sub-Saharan Africa from the 11th century AD. Arab explorers also arrived on the coast of East Africa, e.g. Zanzibar from Yemen. The earliest explorer to write extensively on his voyages to Africa was Ahmad al-Ya'qubi in AD 871. He was a prominent geographer. Although he mostly explored North Africa (the Maghreb), he did notice that it was possible to cross the Sahara with camels alongside sufficient food and water to last several weeks. Once inside Sub-Saharan Africa for the first time, the ancient Kingdom of Ghana was first reached in early 11th century AD by the Berbers (Almoravids). The route taken to reach Ghana became the famous Sanhaja salt trading route. Arabic writers such as Al-Bakri (in AD 1067) and Al-Idrisi (in AD 1154) provided today's historians with the earliest descriptions of ancient Ghana. In the 11th century, the Berbers (Almoravids) founded several important cities such as Timbuktu, and initiated also helped the growth of existing kingdoms such as Ghana by increasing lucrative trade activities in products such as gold and salt. Among the best known Arabic explorers to reach Sub-Saharan Africa's famous mediaval city Timbuktu was Ibn Battutah, who arrived in Timbuktu, in Mali Kingdom from Morocco in AD 1352. Since Sub-Saharan Africa, excluding Ethiopia and the Sudan, had no written records before AD 850, the very first comprehensive texts about Africa were thus written by these explorers, who arrived modern-day Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad before going southwards, taking the teachings of Islam with them.


1291. The Italian brothers Ugolino Vivaldo and Guido (Vadino) Vivaldo with Tedisio Doria from Genoa, Italy reached the coast of Senegal in 1291. Some independent sources exist on this exploration. but no extant maps date from this time. A good source is the 1455 letter of Antonio (Antoniotto) Uso di Mare (or Antoniotto Ususmaris). He was the Genoese, who after accompanying Cadamosto in the 1450s to explore the coast of West Africa (more on Cadamosto discussed below), wrote his famous letter of the 12th of December 1455 purporting to record a meeting with the last surviving descendants of the Genoese expedition of 1291.

1300s and 1400s. Both earlier explorations in 1270 (by Lancelot Malocello who sailed past the coasts of Morocco) and 1291 (the Vivaldo Brothers), as well those in the 14th century by other explorers from Genoa and Venice show that these Italian explorers were the first to reach the West African coastlines of Morocco, Mauretania and Senegal) well before the Portuguese. Two remarkable authentic records among others prove this theory. The first can be found at the Laurentian Library in Florence. In this library is an accurate volume of 8 maps of Africa, Europe and Asia, made circa 1425 in Genoa, named Portolano Laurenziano Gaddiano (i.e. the Laurentian Sea Atlas or the Medicean / Medici Atlas). This map in particular shows for the first time, the correct coastal outlines of the north, west, east Africa and southern Africa as well as near accurate positions of rivers such as the Congo and the Niger (at that time unnamed). In particular it shows the circular shape of the South African coastline (this was over 50 years before Bartholomew Diaz voyage of 1488). This map was acquired by the library (founded in 1571) in the 16th century. The second authentic record of early Italian explorations of the West African coast can be found at the Marciana National Library in Venice. Here a map called Portalano Fra Mauro made circa 1450 (1459?) by a medieval cartographer of the same name. This map shows the coastline of Africa from the Mediterranean Sea up to the coast of modern day Guinea in West Africa. It also shows circular shape of the South African coastline (this was about 38 years before Bartholomew Diaz voyage of 1488).

The sources for both the Portolano Laurenziano Gaddiano and Fra Mauro maps were from Niccolò de' Conti's travels in the early 1420s with the famous Chinese explorer Admiral Zheng He, who was in the service of the Chinese Ming Dynasty. Niccolò de' Conti from Venice, had learnt about Chinese explorers from the extraordinary stories of another Italian explorer Marco Polo who had returned from China in 1295. For instance as previously mentioned the two maps show clearly show very accurately the shape of the South African coast, long before Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz had rounded it in the 1488.

How Come Bartholomew Diaz (1488) and Not Zhen He (1421) and Gets the Credit as the First Person to Round The Cape of Good Hope?
Strange but here is why: The answer is quite obvious, while Zhen He’s ships WAS the first to discover South Africa's Cape of Good Hope back in the 1421, Bartholomew Diaz was however given the credit of having rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the 1488 because he explored the cape extensively, while Zheng He just sailed past while noting the longitude and latitude map co-ordinates and the shape of the cape for later Chinese map construction, for which the Italian maps Portolano Laurenziano Gaddiano map (1425) and Portolano Fra Mauro map (1459) used as sources later on. There is a strong possibility that Bartholomew Diaz may have known about either the Chinese or Italian maps prior to his voyage.

A Look at Portolans and the Oldest Naval Charts (Maps) Showing Parts of Africa 450 BC to AD 1459
Both the above mentioned Italian naval charts are Portolans, which is the term given to medieval navigational charts and maps dating from the 12th century. A mappa mundi is any medieval European map of the world. Italy, Spain and later Portugal all produced the bulk of the earliest extant accurate portolans made in Europe, a legacy based on the activities of brave explorers from these three countries who were the first to venture out into open sea in search of new lands and people. Believe me: just getting on a large boat (with food supplies and water) to embark on a voyage that could take several weeks if not months, exploring faraway foreign lands separated by vast unknown and uncharted rough seas and oceans needs more than just Dutch Courage!


It is now accepted that the Chinese, not the Portuguese, were the first to attempt to explore the world extensively by means of the 3 vast oceans, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean, from the 14th century or thereabouts. Major 14th century Chinese cartographers, Chu Su-Pen and Lo Hung-Hsien, drew maps, (much better than Ptolemy’s world atlas) showing the coastline of east and southern Africa, presumably from a Chinese voyage in the Indian Ocean in the 14th century.

Records give details of further Chinese explorations of coastlines of east Africa, including the voyages of Chinese admiral Zheng He (Cheng-Ho) in the Indian Ocean. Ch’uan Chin and Li Hui created detailed maps these areas in 1401. Zheng He, the Admiral of the Ming Dynasty fleet (1405-1433), was a Chinese Muslim who sailed through the Indian Ocean and down the coast of East Africa. Several maps based on his travels showing the east African coastlines can be seen at the national library in Beijing. On a map made in 1402, called Kangnido by Chinese mapmakers Ch’uan Chin and Li Hui (a copy exists today at Ryukoku University in Japan), it shows the southern and south western coastline of Africa in detail


Some vague but traceable data from Spain suggesting an expedition (non-Muslim) from Majorca and the Catalan region, possibly Barcelona, reached the coast of Guinea around Sierra Leone. It should be noted that several parts of southern Spain was still under Moorish rule at this time, except places like the Catalan regions of north eastern Spain. Whether the independence of the Catalan region from Moorish rule allowed for a possibility of this exploration is a different matter, but it has been confirmed that a Majorcan Cartographic School was founded and made the best European portolans outside Genoa and Venice. Several 14th and 15th century Catalan atlases (naval charts) showing west and north African coasts exists today, such as Angelino Dulcert map of 1339 which also shows the Canary Islands, Abraham Cresque's map of 1375 (the very first to put Timbuktu on any map), and Mecia de Viladestes map of 1413. It should be noted that all of the Catalan maps, with the exception of this Catalan-Estense world map, which was the last of its line, had their southern most limit as the latitude of Sierra Leone. In other words most of these Catalan maps did not show the main coastline parts of West Africa. Surviving copies of several Catalan maps can be seen at the French national library in Paris.


Data from France claims that a couple of expeditions from Dieppe and La Rochelle, including one by a Jean de Bthencourt (Béthencourt), reached coast of Senegal from the Canary Islands. De Béthencourt claims to be have founded the original settlements of Saint-Louis or Ndar in Senegal (which records say was founded in 1659 and is the oldest European colonial city on the western African coast). But most if not all records today only associate de Béthencourt with colonizing the Canary Islands from 1402.


Oldest extant map today showing Africa (only north Africa and its coastline)

Herodotus World Map 450 BC. (Greek map)

Claudius Ptolemy’s World Map, known as Geographia / Cosmographia AD 150 (Greco-Roman map) only north Africa and its coastline


Earliest medieval maps from China to show sub-Saharan Africa coastline (West, South and East).

Chu Su-Pen and Lo Hung-hsien maps 14th century

*Ch’uan Chin and Li Hui Kangnido map 1402 used by Zheng He’s ships as they travelled to the Americas from China via India and Africa in 1421.
Zheng He himself also made maps in late 1420s, the first comprehensive maps to show the South Africa's coasts and the famous Cape of Good Hope.


Earliest medieval maps from Spain and Italy to showing parts or all of Africa:

Angelino Dulcert map 1339: (made in Majorca / Catalonia) only shows north Africa. First naval chart to show the Canary Islands.

*Portolano Laurenziano 1425 (Genoa) shows coastline of north, west, east Africa and southern Africa. The maps showing South Africa coasts was based on the 1420s maps of Zheng He.

Abraham Cresque map 1375 (Majorca / Catalonia) only shows North and west central Africa, first naval chart to show Timbuktu.

Mecia de Viladestes map 1413. (Majorca / Catalonia) only shows north Africa??

Zuane Pizzigano world map 1424. (Venice). Shows west African coastline.

Fra Mauro map 1459 (Genoa) shows sub-Saharan Africa coastline. The maps showing South Africa coasts was based on the 1420s maps of Zheng He.


Earliest medieval Arabic maps showing Africa

Muhammad al-Idrisi world map 12th century e.g.Tabula Rogeriana, only shows north Africa

Other major early Arab explorers such as Ahmad ben Abi Yaqub in AD 871. and Ibn Battutah in 1352 may have used early Arabic maps of north and East Africa.


Other notable maps: Venetian Albertinus De Virga world map of 1415 (1411) shows the whole African outline in detail, it is preserved at the French national library in Paris. The sources of this famous map are very likely Chinese explorers under Zheng He or early Arab explorers, but more evidence supports source from China, as evidence now shows the Chinese were the first to pass the West African coastline on ships (junks). This is also the case for the source of another Italian map by Fra Mauro and the Venetian map of 1424. All three maps were made after the 1402 Chinese map by Ch'uan Chin and Li Hui Kangnido. Only the 1351 map shows the north, west, east Africa and southern Africa before the 1402 Chinese map. The leads to speculation that the map was based on early Genoese explorers of sub-Saharan Africa from the West coast to the south coast before the Chinese. The unique texts used in the maps, show the maps had to be made after explorers had been there, so both maps represent the earliest evidence of Genoese and Chinese explorers in West Africa.



Part 2

The Arrival of the Portuguese


1415: The beginning of Portuguese explorations (part of the Iberian Age of Discovery) began with the capture the important commercial port of Ceuta on the western coast of Morocco in 1415. It was captured from the Moorish ruler of Cordoba's governor of Ceuta Ben Salah, during the short Battle of Ceuta. Today Ceuta is a Spanish enclave and Ceuta in 1515 became first European colony in Africa.

Earlier on mentioned some important details about Prince Henry the Navigator. Prince Henry the Navigator, out of curiosity and necessity, had wondered if it was possible to travel to India by way of Africa, as an alternative route for the lucrative spice trades in India. This necessity arose because the normal route for this trade via the Mediterranean Sea, had been monopolised by Arab, Venetian and Genoese traders and middle men, and further existing routes east overland had been blocked by the Ottoman Turks. Greed was the norm and every one wanted a piece of the Indian spice trades.

Portugal had itself been ruled by Spain but gained its independence in 1143. The Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385 won by the Portuguese against the Spanish, ensured Spain would not try to seize Portuguese discoveries by force. In the later years treaties between Portugal and Spain (such as the Treaty of Alcáçovas in 1479 and the Treaty of Toledo in 1480) where made to keep the peace between Portugal and Spain, and it worked for the duration of the era of the Iberian Age of Discovery. It was the Dutch, French and English explorers from the middle 1500s that started using force to take over Portuguese discoveries. By the start of the 19th century Portugal lost all its dozens of colonies, dependencies and territories except Brazil, Angola, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Macao and Goa.

With the capture of Ceuta in Morocco, the door was now open to further African discoveries, en route to India, mostly via the coasts as the Sahara Desert was too huge and rather difficult to cross by Portuguese explorers. This was because Portuguese explorer were only skilled in naval and maritime techniques like ship building (e.g. use of the caravel, sternpost rudder and lateen sails, the latter permitting sailing against the wind). The use of the compass and night stars etc also ensured ocean crossing from Europe to Africa would be a formality. The Portuguese explorers were not skilled in desert crossing with camels, water and food supplies, as the Arabs, Moors, Tuaregs and Berbers were. So ocean / sea voyages, which Portugal was more skilled in, was the norm.

Prince Henry the Navigator, the third son of Portuguese King John I, (Dom João Afonso 1) who conquered Ceuta, initiated these explorations. In 1416 he established a School of Cartography and Navigation at Portuguese port of Sagres, near Cape St Vincent. From 1426 till 1460 he was able to send out ships to explore the African coast from Morocco to Guinea. Much of the pioneering work of Prince Henry was written by the 15th century historian and chronicler Gomes Eanes de Zurara (see Sources). Zurara may also spelled Azurara in some references. Alongside Alvise Cadamosto (discussed later on) and Fernão Lopes, all three were the most prominent 15th librarians and chroniclers (writers who record history in detail and are eye-witness or lived during the events recorded). It is through the books of Cadamosto, Zurara and Lopes that we have first-hand description of the many voyages of the Portuguese in Africa in the 15th century (see sources for more details). Many history books on west, central and southern Africa covering the Middle Ages use the books by Cadamosto, Zurara and Lopes as the original sources. Two other history writers and chroniclers worth mentioning who also wrote extensively about Prince Henry the Navigator and the early Portuguese explorations of Africa were Diogo Gomez who also was involved in the exploration of Senegal and Cape Verde in the 1440s (see below). His best known book is De prima inventione Guineae .

The other notable chronicler is famous Martin Behaim who was the only known major medieval German chronicler in the service of the Kingdom of Portugal in the late 1480s. Incidentally it was Martin Behaim's famous but inaccurate 15th century map of Asia (1490) as well as Greek geographer Ptolemy's 4th century world map, that confused Christopher Columbus so much into thinking that the land he had discovered in 1492 (i.e. the Americas) was still part of eastern Asia! Obviously Martin Behaim did not know the Americas existed. Medieval German map maker Martin Waldseemüller's map of 1507, was the first map to show location of the Americas. The "new world" known as America originated from the name Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer who after exploring much of the coast of the Americas, realised that a new continent had been discovered, by Columbus in 1492 and not an unknown part of eastern Asia. Vespucci published two letters in 1503 and 1504 in which he described his voyages, his letters were entitled Novus Mundus ("the New World"). Why didn't Columbus have his name as the "new world"? Events after his 1492 voyage conspired against him. Columbus was disgraced by the Spanish court for, amongst other things, his rough treatment of the natives of the new world, and Vespucci, who succeeded where Columbus had failed by finding the mainland, was glorified as the "discoverer" of the Americas. It was only long after his death that Columbus was finally acknowledged as the first European to cross the Atlantic to the Americas. His name lives on today, e.g. as the South American nation of Colombia and the Canadian province of British Columbia. Of course, there are rumours that Irish Saint Breandán had already sailed to North America (phantom island of St Brendan’s Isle) in the 6th Century, and some proof that the Vikings from Denmark settled in Canada, which they called Vinland in the 11th century. The full title of the famous 1507 map is was Universalis cosmographia secunda Ptholemei traditionem et Americi Vespucci aliorum que lustrationes hence it was Martin Waldseemüller who first used the first name of Amerigo Vespucci to name the "new world" Vespucci mentioned in his letters. Some scholars mention that America is named for the sponsor of explorer John Cabot 1497 voyage to North America. Cabot's sponsor was Richard Amerike (Richard ap Meryk) and apparently the 'stars and stripes' flag of the U.S. is taken from his coat of arms! However, the general consensus view today is that America is named after Amerigo Vespucci.

The most important book by Gomes Eanes de Zurara was detailed Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea. I am a proud owner of this medieval Portuguese text!!! According to several historians, such as the famous British historian and expert on African history, Basil Davidson the name "Guinea" was the name the Portuguese gave to several parts of the coast of West and central Africa. At that time most parts of the West and Central Africa had local native names, but the Portuguese were not aware of them, except the Ghana Kingdom (discovered by the Arabs in the 11 century). So the Portuguese simply gave the name of all the new West African coasts they had discovered "Guinea" The word "Guinea" itself is actually an anglicized version of the Portuguese word "Guine" (a corruption of the native Ewe word "Ghana"). The name Guinea was also used as the former names of three West African countries first explored by the Portuguese: Portuguese Guinea is now Guinea-Bissau; Spanish Guinea is now called Equatorial Guinea; French Guinea is now called simply Guinea.

Meanwhile the chronicler Fernão Lopes was famous for the book General Chronicle of the Portuguese Kingdom (Corónica de Portugal ou Crónica Geral do Reino)



Portuguese explorers Diogo de Silves, along with Bartolomeu Persetrello, Gonzal Cabral, João Gonçalves Zarco, and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, start to explore the Azores and Madeira islands (Porto Santo) and later claimed them for the kingdom of Portugal (today they are Portuguese overseas territories). João Gonçalves Zarco was the first to set foot on the Madeira Islands in 1420. João Gonçalves Zarco statues can be seen on the streets of Madeira's capital Funchal today, which he founded.

Madeira is the Portuguese word for wood, as lots of quality trees were found on the island of Madeira for repairing the wooden caravels of the Portuguese explorers . Diogo de Silves was the first to set foot on Azores islands in 1427.

The name Azores is the English version of the Portuguese name for a particular species of the Goshawk bird, that was found in great numbers on the island. The flag of the Azores Islands today, shows a Goshawk bird in the center. Diogo de Silves, along with Bartolomeu Persetrello, Gonzal Cabral, João Gonçalves Zarco, and Tristão Vaz Teixeira also found time to briefly visit the Canary Islands before returning to Portugal. Back in 1336 a small group of Portuguese explorers had re-discovered the Canary Islands. It was the first visit to the island in over 1000 years since King Juba's (long forgotten) 40 BC expedition to the Canary Islands. Although Italian Lancelot Malocello is reported to have seen the Canary Islands earlier in 1270, no surviving or extant records or even naval charts exist to back up this claim. The very first accurate European naval charts covering the Canary Islands made in 1339 by Genoese expert Angelino Dulcert and based on the 1336 Portuguese expedition and others that followed it. Interestingly Bartolomeu Perestrelo's daughter later married Christopher Columbus, before his 1492 voyage to the New World.


1434 Gil Eanes and Joao Diaz land on Cape Bojador, on the coast of Western Sahara, (latitude 27° North), then explores the coastline around Cape Bojador.


1435-1436 Alfonso Gonçalves Baldaya (Baldaia) and Gil Eannes sail south of Cape Bojador and travel as far as Rio de Oro on the south western coast of Western Sahara. First verifiable record of European explorers to extensively sail past Cape Bojador, i.e. below latitude 27° North. Prior to 1434 no one attempted to go beyond Cape Bodajor (Boujdour) as it was deemed dangerous. After Eannes's voyage, other Portuguese explorers would travel bit by bit further south of Rio de Oro.


1441 Nuno Tristão (Tristam) lands on Cape Blanc (or Cabo Blanco), then later reaches the Island of Arguim (Gete and Garcas) in 1443, on west coast of Mauritania.


In 1442, Antão Alfonso Gonalves Baldaya and Nuno Tristão passed the coasts between Mauritania and Senegal, and while on the Senegalese coast capture some African natives whom he takes back to Portugal. One of these captives is alleged to be Senegalese Tuareg called Adahu who later became a well-travelled explorer in the service of Portugal. The captives taken by Gonçalves were the first African natives from the coastal region to make to reach Europe.


1444-1448. Nuno Tristão reaches Terra dos Negros (on Senegalese coast). Diniz Diaz (Dinis Dias) and Diogo (Diego) Gomez lands on coast of the westernmost point of Africa (a few miles west of Dakar, Senegal) in 1444, and explores it extensively, most notably Ilha da Palma or today’s Goree Island and Cape Verde. Diaz named this westernmost coast of Africa Cabo Verde (Cape Verde) or Green Cape because of the abundant green vegetation he found when he land on the coast . And the Cape Verde Islands a few miles west off the coast (discovered later by Gomez and António de Noli in 1460) soon became to be known as Cape Verde as well. Nuno Tristão was among the first to enter the southern coasts of Senegal, then onto the coasts of Gambia and Guinea Bissau in 1446. The word Guinea (from the Ewe name for Ghana) was given by the Portuguese to the coasts between today's Senegal and Gabon. These coastline was also visited extensively in 1445 by Lanzarote, Gomes Pires and Alvaro Fernandez (Fernandes), and 1448 by Danish explorer and prince Adalbert Vallarte. The name Senegal was given by the Portuguese for the main river they encountered in the Senegalese coast. It comes from the Zenaga Berber word for Senegal (Sanhaja). The Zenaga Berbers lived near the Mauritanian border with Senegal and were the first to make contact with the people living in Senegal via trading.


1450. Up to now, the furthermost part of the African coastline that had been explored and charted by Portuguese explorers was the coast of modern day Guinea up to Latitude 12° North, or just before Ilha de Jeta and Ilha de Pecixe, two major islands on the coast of Guinea Bissau. The 1450 Venetian Fra Mauro map (mentioned earlier in this blog) map shows the coastline of Africa beyond Latitude 12° North. This means the coast of Guinea Bissau has already been explored long before 1450. This is not surprising since explorers from Italy and Spain, such as the Vivaldo brothers from Genoa in 1291, were the first to explore the West African coastline before the Portuguese, as surviving portolans show. But one should remember that many explorers from Italy were working in the service of the Portugal and Spain and not Italy. E.g. Christopher Columbus was from Genoa and made explorations on behalf of Spain. But since Portugal and Spain only began major organised explorations beyond continental Europe from the 15th century, the voyages of Italian and Spanish explores before the start of the 15th century such as the Vivaldo brothers and the famous 13th century voyages of Marco Polo from Venice, were done for the benefit of their respective home countries, (Italy at that time was not united but comprised city states such as Venice and Genoa). By the 1450s, with news of the extent of the Portuguese travels in West Africa reaching the Vatican in Rome, Pope Nicholas V and Pope Calixtus III gave their blessing (via Papal Bulls read at the Lisbon Cathedral) for Portugal to convert the Africans they encountered to Christians in their explorations of the African coasts.


1455-1460[2] Venetians from Italy in the service of Portugal, Alvise da Cadamosto (Avise Ca'da Mosto) and Antonio Uso di Mare (Antoniotto Ususmaris or Usodimare) meet in 1455 in Africa and both explore the coastlines between Guinea Bissau and Guinea and the surrounding rivers in these areas such as the River Bissau. A second voyage by the two was made in 1456. Cadamosto wrote extensively on his travels which are later published in Italy, notably by Giovanni Battista Ramusio in 1550, who belonged to a famous Italian family of writers and government officials. While exploring River Bissau, Cadamosto came across an animal in the river he had never seen before, so he called it a horse fish. Today we call it hippopotamus, which is Latin for river horse!

In 1455 and 1456, Italians Alvise Cadamosto from Venice and Antoniotto Usodimare from Genoa, working for the kingdom of Portugal, followed the Gambia river, visiting the land of Senegal, while another Italian sailor, Antonio da Noli from Genoa explored Cabo Verde and the Bijagos islands.


1460-1475. Lançarote (Lancelot) de Freitas, Alvaro Fernandez (Fernandes) and Diogo (Diego) Gomez were the first Portuguese explorers to reach the coast of Sierra Leone in 1461. Pedro de Cintra (or da Sintra) having earlier toured Guinea in 1460, and explored the coast of Sierra Leone and Liberia more extensively in 1461, and reportedly meets emissaries from Sonni Ali. At this time Sonni Ali is king of Songhoi Empire and his empire's maximum extent included much of West African coast and hinterland. In 1461, after extensively exploring coasts of Sierra Leone, De Cintra called the area Sierra Leone from Serra Lyoa (which means Lion Mountains), because of the huge sound the winds made as they passed through the mountainous areas of coasts. The coastal areas between Sierra Leone and Liberia was called Costa da Pimenta, or Grain Coast by Portuguese explorers, because it contain abundant supplies of malaguetta pepper (grains of paradise) which they took back in huge quantities back to Portugal.


In 1469, a wealthy Lisbon merchant named Fernão Gomes (Gomez) da Mina was given exclusive rights by the Portugues King Alfonso V to explore and trade in West Africa for 5 years. With this lucrative contract, Gomes leads a well organized team that first explores the West African coast further south east in Liberia, Here in 1470 they encounter a rocky cape which they called Cabo das Palmas or "Cape of the Palms” which is today called Cape Palms. The river at the cape was named Rio das Palmas, and later called the Hoffman River. Later in 1470, moving further east Gomes’ sailors such as Soeiro da Costa reached the coast covering modern day Cote d’Ivorie. The coast of Ghana was reached at a place named Cape Three points in 1471. Here a chance discovery was made that would lead the Portuguese to build the Elmina Fort and entice other European explorers to come to West Africa and seek their fortune: natives wearing gold artefacts were discovered on the coastline, clearly indicating the lands (now known today as Ghana) must be abundant in gold. Ghana’s River Pra (were the Elmina Fort was built later on) was reached in January 1472. Elmina Fort was originally called Sao Jorge da Mina or St George at Mina.


Gomes’ sailors in later explorations visited the coasts of Togo, Republic of Benin, Nigeria and finally Cameroon for most of 1472 and 1473. For his commercial activities in West Africa, Gomes chose a coat of arms that showedthe busts of three native Africans from Togo with gold rings on a silver background. Clearly his business was doing well and the 5 year contract was extended to 1475.


West African Portuguese voyages from the middle 1450s to the late 1470s passed: Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote D’Ivorie, Ghana, Togo, Republic of Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon and Gabon.

During his explorations of the Nigerian coast, Rui de Segueira (
Ruy de Sequeira) became the first Portuguese to move inwards from the coastline and visit the ancient Benin Kingdom in 1472. Previously until now, all Portuguese explorers never ventured inwards beyond a few miles from the coastline. While in the Benin kingdom it is not known whether he met the then reigning monarch, the Benin king called Oba Ewuare. Before reaching Benin Kingdom, in early months of 1472 Segueira had passed islands on coastal land (in what is today the city of Lagos in Nigeria) which he gave the name Lagos, because its many lagoons resembled those found in a small town called also called Lagos, in southern Portugal .. Lançarote (Lancelot) de Freitas or Gonçalves da Cintra may have first used the word Lagos in 1450 and 1461 respectively. But not much historical records back this up.


João Alfonso (Affonso) Aveiro later in 1486 was the second Portuguese explorer to visit the ancient Benin Kingdom in 1486. Aveiro’s trip was more extensive. The earliest of the famous Benin Kingdom bronzes from Nigeria, which depicts Portuguese sailors in uniform and brandishing muskets (types of rifles common in 1400s), were those resembling both Ruy de Sequeira 1472 visit and de Aveiro's visit and other Portuguese explorers who followed up Alveiro’s 1486 visit.

Some sources suggest various possibilities for the date of the Portuguese arrival in Benin:

Antonio Galvão's Tratado dos descombrimentos (published in Porto, 1944) claims that Ruy de Sequeira first reached Benin in 1472. Meanwhile Chief Egharevba's history book which includes the oral tradition stories of the Portuguese in the Benin Kingdom, passed on from generation to generation from the 1470s to the 1960s. His book titled A Short History of Benin (published in Nigeria in 1960), concludes that Ruy de Sequeira only reached the general vicinity of Benin Kingdom.

Ruy De Pina's Chronica del Rey Dom Joao II, translated by J.W. Blake, in the book Europeans in West Africa (London: Hakluyt Society, 1942) and João de Barros's Da Asia, translated G.R. Crone, in Voyages of Cadamosto and Other Documents (London: Hakluyt Society, 1937, 124-125), all assert that João Affonso d'Aveiro's journey to the court of Benin in 1486 was the first visit of the Portuguese to Benin Kingdom.

The diagram above shows that before 1472, all Benin bronzes typically depict the people, animals etc living in Benin.

The diagram above shows that after Portuguese sailors wearing steel helmets and uniforms arrived brandishing muskets or Arquebus in Benin in 1472, several Benin bronzes were made of these Portuguese sailors in the late 15th century. This proves the arrival of the Portuguese in the Benin Kingdom for the first time in the 15th century. This type of dressing with steel helmets and muskets was also used by others: When Christopher Columbus sailed into the Americas in 1492; Hernándo Cortés arrived at the Aztec empire in Mexico 1518; Francisco Pizarro reached the Inca Empire in 1532 in Peru; and Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered Brazil in 1500, all of them wore steel helmets and possessed muskets.

Tourists visiting Nigeria for the first time, will enjoy visiting Benin and seeing the famous Benin Bronzes in their splendor and style.

Aveiro remained in Benin for about a year. Aveiro also explored the Niger Delta region By the end of 1486, Aveiro encouraged the King of Benin, Oba Ozolua to exchange ambassadors with Portugal. When Aveiro returned to Portugal, he took back sacks of Benin pepper. In the early 1500s, several members of the Benin monarch had learnt to speak Portuguese and were baptized as Christians.


Fernao explored the Gulf of Biafra and Equatorial Guinea and discovered Fernando Po Islands in late 1472 (named after him). Fernando Po Islands is now called Bioko. Meanwhile Rui de Sequeira discovered (Annobón or Anobom in today's Equatorial Guinea) on January 1473. Annobón (or Annabon or Anabon) comes from the word ano bom, the Portuguese word for "good year". Pedro (Pero) de Escobar (some sources say Fernao Po) was the originator of the name Cameroon, from Rio dos Camarões (River of prawns or shrimps) for the crayfish he saw in great numbers in the Wouri river estuary. He had actually mistakenly identified them as shrimps. On the way back his team stopped near the coast of the Bight of Biafra to explore a bit further inland and named the friendly people in the village they encountered on the mouth of a river in the Bight of Biafra, Calabarra (today's town called Calabar) .


João da Santarem, Lopo (Lopez or Lopes) Gonçalves, João Alfonso d’Aveiro and Pedro de Escobar and Soeiro da Costa went further east of the African coastline and extensively explored São Tome and Principe Islands between 1471 and 1473, south east of Equatorial Guinea. The origin of the name of the São Tome and Principe is as follows: Santarem, Escobar and the other members of the team first reached São Tome and Principe on December 21 (which is St Thomas's Day, a holiday in Portugal) hence the word "São Tome". The word "Príncipe" was initially named Santo Antão ("Saint Anthony's Day") another holiday in Portugal, but its name in 1502 was changed to Ilha do Príncipe ("Prince's Island"), in reference to Prince Henry The Navigator.


Lopo Gonçalves and Rui de Sequeira reached the coast of Gabon between 1474 and 1475, passing the equator and a cape they called Cabo Santa Catarina (Cape Saint Catherine). They called the land near the coast Gabão (origin for the name Gabon) meaning hooded cloak, after the shape of the coastal area.


Although Portuguese King Alfonso V had granted Gomes discoveries trading rights monopoly in West Africa which eventually covered several trading posts set up between the coastlines of Guinea and Nigeria, trading post were set up only in places were the local inhabitants were friendly with the Portuguese and trade was profitable. Hence the major trading posts were at coastal towns in Senegal, Guinea, Ghana, Benin and Nigeria, the most profitable were those in Ghana were gold was traded. By and large these trading posts were run by Alfonso's son Prince John (who later became King John II in 1481). Items traded between the Portuguese and the locals included food stuffs such as malaguetta pepper (mentioned earlier), palm oil and grains, ivory, timber, gold, brass, copper, clothing, and salt. Slaving trading was not evident before 1500, although the Portuguese did acquire local people employed as servants to work in their ships or on land at the trading posts. Some were also taken back to Lisbon and other Portuguese towns to work as servants at ports or for households.


By 1475, when his contract expired, Fernao Gomes commercial activities had reached the coast of Gabon, the greatest extent of his voyages as both a trader and explorer. Between 1475 and 1482, Portuguese traders and explorers worked hard to consolidate and expand their near monopoly of trading along the West African coast from Senegal to Gabon. Exploring beyond Gabon was put on hold until 1483


1482. Diogo de Azambuja (d'Azambuja) built Fort Elmina, originally called Sao Jorge da Mina (St George at Mina) on coast of Ghana on the orders of Portuguese King John II (Dom João II). The first of several other European forts to be built in Ghana in 15th and 16th centuries. The fort was needed because the new King John II realized that Portugal needed to protect her entire Western African trading posts from her main competitor the Spanish. With the discovery earlier on in 1471 of gold by the trader and explorer Fernão Gomes who himself had been given a contract to trade there by King Alfonso V, the Portuguese clearly wanted to protect their lucrative trade: the Portugues had discovered that from Cape Three Points to the Volta River, alluvial gold was washed down. A fleet of several caravels and provision ships set sail from Lisbon to land near the mouth of the River Pra, where the fort was built in three weeks with fortress walls built from stone and timber imported from Lisbon. The Portuguese trade particularly in gold, subsequently helped to finance further explorations of the African coast from the southern tip to the Indian Ocean and Asia. Among the deckhands on the caravel that helped Azambuja to ship, from Lisbon, the prefabricated building materials used in constructing the fort was a little known young Genoese sailor from Italy, by the name of Christopher Columbus or name Cristobal Colon as he was called in Spanish and Portuguese. During his journey to and from Ghana accompanying Diogo de Azambuja to help build the fort in 1482, Columbus passed the Portuguese West African trading posts where he learned about Portuguese navigation techniques and the Atlantic wind systems, which would be beneficial to him, 10 years later, when he embarked on his voyage to the Americas in 1492. Remember that King John II had a goal to continue the work of Prince Henry the Navigator in finding a eastern route to Asia (to reach India for its much sort spices).

The photograph above shows the 1482 Portuguese Fort Elmina Castle in modern Ghana, it was the FIRST major building constructed in sub-Saharan Africa before the 1700s, and was for many centuries the LARGEST European building ever constructed in sub-Saharan Africa. When other European nations began to copy what the Portuguese were doing at Elimina, several fortified castles or forts were also built in and around the West African coasts between 1482 and 1786 by numerous European traders from France (Fort Île de Gorée, i.e. Gorée Island), Sweden (e.g. Fort Christianborg and Cape Coast Castle), The Netherlands (e.g. Fort Nassau), Denmark, Germany/Prussia (e.g. Fort Gross-Friedrichsburg or Princestown), and Britain.

You can read more about these castles in the book: Trade Castles and Forts of West Africa by A. W. Lawrence, published by Stanford University Press in 1964.

Elmina Castle was so successful in the gold trading, that it soon attracted other European powers, who just wanted to steal the castle from the Portuguese by any means necessary!! In 1653, following Sweden’s conquest of the Ghana's Cape Coast after a brief war with Portugal, the Swedish Africa Company took over running Elmina Castle and constructed a more permanent wooden fortress for trade in timber, ivory, wax, pepper and of course gold. A decade later in 1663, the Elmina fort was reconstructed in solid stone when the Danes seized all of Ghana from the Swedish. Elmina Castle then passed through the hands of the Dutch and even a local Fetu chief at some point, before being conquered by the British in 1667. Over the years from the start of the middle 1700s the fort was increasingly used this time for the developing slave trade, which came to a peak in the late 18th century. By late 1800s, the Elmina fort served as the headquarters of the British colonial governor until the middle 20th century.

The photograph above shows one of the many heavy canons placed to protect the 1482 Portuguese Fort Elmina Castle in modern Ghana.

There are numerous official written records that state that in 1483 in Lisbon, King John II had rejected a suggestion from Christopher Columbus that rather than find a way eastwards to round the coast of Africa, King John II sponsor a westward voyage to Asia.


How Did the Portuguese Manage to Explore Vast Areas of Africa?
Now that story of the Portuguese explorations has reached the stage were they were now firmly established in trading along the entire coastline of West Africa, let us pause for a moment in the story so far and take a detailed look at the Portuguese navigation techniques and the Atlantic high seas wind systems, that made it possible for them to travel from Portugal all the way to South Africa.


Today ships take just weeks to pass across large areas of the world’s vast oceans and large seas, and the one factor that has made this possible has been the invention of the engine and the propeller.


Prior to the invention of the engine and the propeller, it was wind power via the use of sails that made ocean voyages possible, and before the advent of using sails, oar-powered shipping vessels with steering oars using man power were the norm, although the use of the oars (in reality man power) meant that only short distances at sea were possible. The Phoenicians way back back in 2000 BC first invented the use of sails, and soon galley ships that used both sails and oars began to make appearance, but the oars provided most of the raw power, as some galley ships used multi banks of oars. Bireme galleys used two banks while and trireme galleys used three banks. There were also quadrireme, and quinquereme galleys.


From the 12th century, circa AD 1180, the invention of the all-important Sternpost Rudder came into use, as more and more shipping vessels had begun to rely more on wind power and sails and less on oars. Sternpost Rudder was invented in China and the technology passed onto the Portuguese via Genoa and Venice in the middle 12th century. Sternpost Rudders are needed for steering huge shipping vessels using only sails. Lateen sails invented by the Arabs and passed onto European ship builders, allowed sailing against the wind system. The use of oars on shipping vessels was now limited only to shorter voyages at sea or along the coast. It is believed that both the Chinese (with junks) and the Genoese simultaneously invented the advanced use of sails on much larger shipping vessels for ocean voyages prior to the 12th century. For instance Chinese junks were already sailing to India from China via the Indian Ocean by the 9th century AD.




Portuguese 15th century caravel



It was in 13th and 14th centuries that saw the greatest advance in shipping vessels technology, largely aided by the invention of the compass (invented several centuries ago by Chinese scientists circa 4th century AD), better cartographic maps and crucially the use of the night stars e.g. using The Plough (also Big Dipper and part of Ursa Major constellation) and the North Star or Polaris as guides to pin point position (via creating crude versions of geographic latitude and longitude co-ordinates). One of the most fascinating navigation techniques invented by Portuguese explorers moving up and down the West African coast was the so called volta do mar also known as tacking. It was a sailing technique discovered in successfully returning from the African Atlantic islands, where the pilot first had to sail far to the west in order to catch usable following winds, and return to Europe. Briefly volta do mar was perfected by Portuguese navigators during the Age of Discovery around 1460s, using the dependable phenomenon of the great permanent wind wheel, the North Atlantic Gyre. This was a major step in the history of navigation, when an understanding of winds in the age of sail was crucial to success: the European sea empires would never have been established had the Europeans not figured out how the trade winds worked.

One of the most fascinating navigation techniques invented by Portuguese explorers moving up and down the West African coast was the so called volta do mar also known as tacking. It was a sailing technique discovered in successfully returning from the African Atlantic islands, where the pilot first had to sail far to the west in order to catch usable following winds, and return to Europe.

The Portuguese contacts in Italy brought home one of the best kept secrets in Venice: The Venetian Arsenal (or Arsenale di Venezia). The Arsenal was a huge complex of shipyards and military industries clustered together in the city of Venice in northern Italy. Owned by the state, the Arsenal was responsible for the bulk of the Venetian republic's naval power from AD 1104 to about early AD 1450 and allowed Venice developed methods of mass-producing warships and merchant ships in the Arsenal on an industrial scale, much like Henry Ford assembly line for the Model T in the 20th centruy. Portugal and Spain and later on France, Britain and the Netherlands from the 16th century all benefited hugely via copying and improving and enhancing the technology used in the Arsenal. Shipping vessels began to travel much further into the ocean and soon major islands and lands, that hitherto had remained undiscovered for centuries, were soon put on the map. One good example was the Canary Islands, re-discovered (after centuries forgotten) for the very first time in AD 1270 by Genoese sailors led by Lancelot Malocello, and in 1336 by the Portuguese using large Galleys powered with sails. Galleys are large ships propelled mainly by rowing. The Phoenicians and the Romans built large crude navies with hundreds of galleys.

It was the 15th century caravels (first used by Portuguese and Spanish ship builders) and
galleons (first used by the Spanish) e.g. with several rectangular, square or triangular sails on three to five masts (e.g., the middlemast, foremast, and rear mizzenmast in caravels), which began the European exploration of the Americas, Africa coastlines and Asia. Galleons which finally replaced galleys in the 17th century was in widespread use until the early 18th century. Other shipping vessels such as the Dutch Schooners invented in the late 1500s were noted for speed and agility as they used two or more masts, all with fore-and-aft sails; if two masted, having a foremast and a mainmast (i.e. foremast and mainmast) the foremast being shorter than the mainmast.


The fastest and most powerful shipping vessels invented next were the Clippers of the 1840s made with iron and not wood, the latter had been the principle material for ship building for centuries. The famously preserved 1860s Cutty Sark is a British clipper ship, which can still be seen today at Greenwich. Next came the steam-propelled steel ships of the late 1880s, before finally in the early 20th century when compound engine and turbine-propelled shipping vessels came into being. The great advances in ship building not only made bigger and stronger ships that could take more crew and goods, but also took less time for a shipping vessel to cross a vast ocean. For instance, crossing the Atlantic Ocean, was reduced from 2 months in the 15th century (Columbus era), to about 2 1/2 weeks in the 19th century, to a less than a week today!


Going back to the main theme of this blog, we thus see that the shipping vessels used by the Portuguese to explore the West African coasts in the 15th century was made possible by the advances in shipping vessels technology made in the 13th and 14thth centuries and the introduction of the galleons and caravels. Had all these advances been made in the 16th century or later, then it is very likely that much of the West African coast and of course the Americas would have not been explored until the late 16th or 17th centuries.



1482-1486. Earlier in 1474, Diogo Cão had been brought in by John II to manage the Portuguese trade with locals along the Guinea coast. During the reign of King John II Portuguese explorers to Africa were sometimes given stone pillars (or padrões) to stake the claims of the area for the Portuguese crown.

A padrão was a large stone cross inscribed with the coat of arms of Portugal that was placed as part of a land claim by numerous Portuguese explorers during the Portuguese Age of Discovery. Notable explorers known to have erected padrões were Diogo Cão, Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama.

In the center of Lisbon today is the giant Padrão dos Descobrimentos or Monument to the Portuguese Discoveries of the 1400s, showing a padrão being raised by the Portuguese navigators Bartolomeu Dias, Diogo Cão and António Abreu.


Diogo Cão and others, sent by Portuguese King John II, travelled beyond the coast of the Gabon in 1482, explored the mouth of the River Congo, before moving onto explore the coasts of nearby Angola in 1483. The Congo River (Congo is a Bantu name) had been called Nzadi (meaning great river or big water) by the locals there, but Luis Vaz de Camoes called the river Zaire which was a corruption of the name Nzadi. In 1997, Zaire changed its Portuguese originated name to the Republic of Congo. Diogo Cão finally reached the north western Namibian coastline on a second voyage in 1485-86. Before leaving Africa for the last time to return to Portugal, Diogo Cão built 4 stone pillars or padrões to mark the various spots he came ashore in the banks of the River Congo, at Cape Santa Maria (Cape St. Mary or C. Lobo) near Monte Negro 13°26′ S (in Angola) and Cape Cross 21°50′ S (near Walvis Bay, Namibia). These stone pillars still survive today in Namibia, Angola and South Africa and fine replicas can be seen at the Museum of the Lisbon Geographical Society in Portugal and at Kiel University in Germany.


Diogo Cão probably laid the foundations for the first Portuguese colony in Africa in Angola. In 1483, Diogo Cão had sailed up the uncharted Congo River, finding Kongo villages and becoming the first European to encounter the Kongo kingdom of Angola. In 1484 during his voyages into areas that is now Angola and Congo, Diogo Cão had made friendly contact with rulers of the Kongo kingdom under Nzinga Nkuwa. This meeting later laid the foundation of Portuguese rule in Angola. In 1491 Portuguese Christian missionaries began to arrive after Diogo Cam reported back to Lisbon, that the Angolan ruler was very friendly and wished to become a Christian. These missionaries were able to convert to Christianity another ruler named Nzinga a Cuum. In 1512 another king of the Kongo kingdom, Nzinga Mbemba (Afonso I), was also persuaded by Portuguese traders to convert to Christianity and he went further by establishing diplomatic and economic relations with Portugal. These early beginnings lead to the foundation of the Portuguese colony of Angola, when the Portuguese explorer Paulo Dias de Novais founded Luanda (São Paulo Assumpcao de Loanda) in January 1576. Today Luanda is the 3rd largest Portuguese-speaking city in the world after São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Bazil, all three much larger than Lisbon, Portugal largest city. The Portuguese named the city Loanda from the local name for shellfish tax payments used to settle trade payments between them and the locals. The other major Portuguese-speaking city in Africa is Maputo, capital of Mozambique. Incidentally the name Mozambique is of Portuguese origin. The word comes from Mouzinho de Alberquerque, who was one of the Portuguese colonial rulers of Mozambique in the 1800s.

1487-1489. Sensing that he was very close to rounding the coast of Africa, King John II sent Portuguese explorers led by Bartholomew Diaz (Dias) with brother Pero Dias and Joao Infante and Pero de Alenquer travel to areas beyond the Angolan (Benguela) and Namibian coast and they finally reached South Africa coastline in 1488, sailing from the western to eastern parts of today's South Africa. King John II gave Bartholomew Diaz and his crew two huge 50-ton caravels for the voyage.

Like Diogo Cão back in 1485, Bartholomew Diaz also erected stone pillars at the Orange River border between Namibia and South Africa; at Angola Bay on the tip of southern part of South Africa; and along the way back to Portugal, erected another stone pillar or padraõ at the Cabo da Boa Esparanca or Cape of Good Hope. This name was suggested by King John II. Bartholomew Diaz had now reached the southernmost point of Africa and showed it was could be circumvented, The next mission was to find the legendary christian ruler known as Prester John somewhere in Abyssinia (today's Ethiopia) and a pathway way to India and its rich spices. Finding Prester John was a separate personal mission for King John II, so he sent Pero de Covilhao (Colvilham) to specifically look for Prester John. In 1493 Pero de Covilhao did in fact reach Abyssinia and he was welcomed by the king (Prester John) who gave him an Ethiopian wife and asked him to stay.


By 1492, when Christopher Columbus set sail for the Americas, the complete coastline of Africa between Morocco and South Africa had been meticulously mapped and accurately recorded in navigational charts. Vasco da Gama (sent by Portuguese King Manuel I, who succeed King John II) completed things in 1497 when he completely rounded South Africa's Cape of Good Hope. He then reached the coast of Mombasa in Kenya 1498, after passing the coasts of Mozambique and Tanzania, on his way to landing on the port of Calicut (today's Kozhikode) in India in 1498, saling from Zanzibar. Vasco da Gama returned to Kenya in 1499 (on his return trip to Lisbon) to erect yet another pillar or padraõ at Kenyan port of Malindi which still stands there today, see photo below. Although the coast of Mombasa was the main limit reached by Portuguese explorers on the African coast, as the coast of Somalia and northwards was not extensively explored. Vasco da Gama did visit Somalia's Mogadishu in 1499, before turning back to Mombasa. And other Portuguese explorers after Vasco da Gama did reach the Island of Socotra off the coast of Somalia in 1507.

When Vasco da Gama returned to Kenya in 1499 (on his return trip to Lisbon) he erected yet another Portuguese Stone cross pillar or padraõ at Kenyan port of Malindi. The photo show just how big the padraõ was!!


The photo above shows the concluding part of the Portuguese explorations of sub-Saharan Africa, first Diogo Cão (1485) and Bartholomew Dias (1487) and landing in Angola, Namibia and South Africa and then Vasco da Gama landing in Malindi in Kenya (1498). But the final destination and the real objective of the Portuguese voyages was the Indian port of Calicut (today's Kozhikode) in India, reached in 1498 by Vasco da Gama.

With Mission Accomplished at Mombasa and Malaindi in Kenya, the Portuguese had taken a few months short of 65 years to map and chart the entire sub-Saharan African coastline starting from Cape Bojador in Western Sahara from 1434 to Mombasa and Malindi in Kenya in 1498. One reason the Portuguese did not attempt to sail up northwards from the Kenyan coasts to neighbouring Somalia (save for Vasco da Gama brief visit to Mogadishu), was because Somalia by that time was already a powerful Arabic trading post run by the Arabs from Oman and Yemen, although there were some Portuguese contacts on the Somali coastal region in later on in the early 16th century.

Having reached Mombasa and Malindi, the Portuguese extra-ordibnary long expedition and voyages (initiated by Prince Henry the Navigator back in 1413), was now complete and a success.


With the exploration of the African coastline complete by the beginning of the 1500s, the most important foreign text about areas south of the Sahara, sought after by European explorers, was the one written by Hassan Ibn Mohammed Al-Wizaz (Al-Fasi) better known as Leo Africanus (born of Arabic-Berber parentage in Granada, Spain, and educated mainly in Fez, Morocco). So important were his Arabic blogs about Sub-Saharan Africa that the Vatican, through Pope Leo X, petitioned him to collaborate on a project for an Italian version of his travels. This was published in 1550 by the famous Italian geographer Giovanni Battista Ramusio, who also published in the same year the important documents about the African travels of Alvise da Cadamosto in 1456. The blog on the voyages of Leo Africanus was later translated into Latin and French in 1556 and English in 1600, for scholars and libraries all over Europe. Information from the voyages of Leo Africanus was used to supplement the huge knowledge gained by the Portuguese explorations of Africa.


Armed with this extensive knowledge, from the middle 1500s onwards, several other Europeans notably the Dutch, English, French and Danish explorers began to arrive en masse on the West African coastline in particularly in Ghana (were several forts such as the Danish Fort Christiansborg Castle or Osu Castle, built in the 1650s) to join the lucrative Portuguese and Spanish trade with the African natives in food stuffs, metals such as gold and learn more about Africa.


Unfortunately, the discovery of the Americas coincided with the completion of the initial exploration of the western parts of African coastline from Morocco to South Africa. This meant that further explorations of Sub-Saharan by Europeans now continued on a smaller scale, while the main focus was the Americas.


In fact extensive explorations of interior of Africa did not begin until the early 18th century, when exploration and colonization of interior of much of the Americas was well into an advanced stage, and Europe once again turned its attention to exploring Sub-Saharan Africa.


Meanwhile the Dutch explorers such as Wilhelm Bossman and Portuguese explorers such as Duarte Lopez, pursued the exploration of Africa, leading to the founding of several early pre-colonial cities such as Luanda (by the Portuguese in 1575 in Angola) and Cape Town (by the Dutch in 1652 in South Africa) and Saint Louis or Ndar (by the French in 1659 in Senegal).


During the intervening years between 1492 up to the early 1700s, Arabic travellers, explorers and traders also pushed further deep into the heart of sub-Saharan Africa from the edges of the Sahara Desert and also from Zanzibar (Tanzania), Somalia and Nova Sofala (Mozambique) in East Africa into the interior.


European exploration of the interior of Sub-Saharan Africa starting from the late 17th century initially began as part of a quest to discover the sources of several large African rivers, such as the Nile, Niger, Zambezi and Congo, and later included missionary activities to spread Christianity. Organizations such as the famous Africa Association, set up in 1788 in London, initiated these quests. Blogs by Leo Africanus and Alvise da Cadamosto among others were widely read to update them on what was known about Sub-Saharan Africa up till then, before embarking on their voyages to the interior. Leading the way were the likes of Mungo Park, Hanning Speke, Richard Burton, David Livingstone, John and Richard Lander etc.


Alfonso Baldaya and Adalbert Vallarte 15th century explorers of the western coast of Africa, are depicted on 1992 Dominican Republic stamps.

The map above shows the various places discovered or visited by Portuguese explorers around the world from 1336 (Canary Islands) to the famous 1542 visit of Tanegashima, Japan by Fernão Mendes Pinto. After 1542, other European nations led by Spain, France, Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands joined in the explorations of the world started by the Portuguese in 1336.


During my extensive research work overseas in 2006 and 2008 primarily for the 2nd updated 2009 edition of my published book Library World Records I also found time (when I was in Portugal) to do some initial research work for this historical blog, before my extensive overseas trip. A list of places consulted in 2006/2007/2008 included the British Library, London; Bodleian Library in Oxford and Cambridge University Library; National Library of France, Paris; New York Public Library, Manhattan, U.S.; National Library of Portugal, Lisbon; Institute of the National Archives Lisbon, (enjoyed my stay here!); Berlin state Library in Germany; numerious Google Books pre-20th century history and geography texts and numerous pre-20th century geographical and historical texts from Project Gutenberg and the UNESCO Memory of the World.

A partial list of books consulted is listed below.

N.B. As noted earlier on, while the extensive diaries and journals of Arabic writers Ibn Battuta, Abu Ubayd al-Bakri and Al-Idrisi all provide the best sources today about daily life in sub-Saharan Africa from AD 1000 to AD 1400. The bulk of what we know about daily life in sub-Saharan Africa for most of the 1400s was written primarily from the diaries and journals of Italian Alvise Cadamosto and Fernão Lopes and Gomes Eanes de Zurara (Azurara) from Portugal, as well as many other 15th and 16th century Portuguese and some Spanish writers as well. Much about the life in west Africa in the 1500s was written extensively by Moorish writer Leo Africanus. Meanwhile the bulk of what we know about daily life in sub-Saharan Africa for most of the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s was written by French, Portuguese and British explorers, sailors, missionaries, traders, colonial staff and adventurers.

History books today all rely on the written works of all these individuals as the starting source. The reason for this was the fact that much of the indigenous populations of sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of ancinet Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan) only had oral tradition: their many languages had no written forms until the arrival of the Arabs (Arabic alphabet) in the 11th century and the Europeans (starting with Portugal who introduced the Roman or Latin alphabet) in the middle 1400s. So history book authors today had to be careful when using sub-Saharan African oral tradition for history scholarship on sub-Saharan Africa. Ancient Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan all had good written forms of their languages before the arrival of Arabic and European explorers, two good reasons being firstly, these countries were close to ancient Egypt which had the first written language in the whole of Africa, and this encouraged Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan later on to develop written forms of their languages. Much of the world that did not originally have written forms of their languages, copied alphabets or scripts from others. For instance it was the Koreans who introduced writing (Chinese ideographic script) to ancient Japan. It was the Greeks who introduced the alphabet to the Romans and it was the Phoenicians in ancient Lebanon, who invented the alphabet everyone else uses today around the world. Of course we all learn by copying! The other reason, why the first written languages in the whole of Africa were in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan, was that in ancient times from 100 BC to at least 1200 AD many ancient cities of ancient Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan had been trading with ancient Egypt, the later on the Roman and Byzantine Empire and later on from 900 AD with the Arabs. These trading activities would have exposed ancient Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan to the Roman and Arabic alphabets.

Corpo Cronológico (Collection of Manuscripts on the Portuguese Discoveries): more than 83,000 documents, most from the 15th and early 16th centuries, inform us on the interaction between Europeans, particularly the Portuguese, and African, Asian and Latin American populations in the Age of Discovery. These are also at the UNESCO Memory of the World in Paris, France.

Literature of Travel and Exploration - An Encyclopedia by Jennnifer Speake (editor) 2003, ISBN-10: 1579582478.

Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 1415--1580 (Europe & the World in the Age of Expansion) by Bailey W. Diffie and George D. Winius. 1977. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN-13: 978-0816607822.

Cadamosto documents his voyages in accounts written in the 1460s, which were printed in Milan in 1507-1508 with Antonio Montalboddo Fracanzano's Itinerarium Portugallensium e Lusitania in Indiam et Inde in Occidentem et Demum ad Aquilonem

Both Montalboddo and Rumusio published accounts of Cadamosto’s voyages.

Giovanni Battista Ramusio in 1550 and Antonio Montalboddo Fracanzano in 1507/08

The English translation of this voyage was provided by Hakluyt Society.

Hakluyt Society of London, The Voyages of Cadamosto. Series II V’ol. LXXX London, 1937. Edited by G.R. Crone. This translation is very comprehensive.

Founded in 1846, the Hakluyt Society is a registered charity based in London, England which seeks to advance knowledge and education by the publication of scholarly editions of primary records of voyages, travels and other geographical material. The Society is named after Richard Hakluyt (1552–1616), a collector and editor of narratives of voyages and travels and other documents relating to English interests overseas. The Hakluyt Society was created at a meeting convened in the London Library, St James’s Square, in December 1846. The early to mid-nineteenth century had seen the emergence of a large number of so-called ‘societies’, many of them little more than clubland gatherings of well-to-do gentlemen whose pleasure it was to meet over dinner to argue and discuss matters of common academic interest. Others, however, like the Hakluyt Society, would attract into their ranks men of formidable scholarship, adopting formal constitutions and expanding their horizons to proselytizing among the wider public. Past Hakluyt Society editions have dealt with the following explorers: Ibn Battuta, Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, Pedro Cieza de León, John Cabot, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Cosmas Indicopleustes, James Cook, Vasco da Gama, Semyon Dezhnev, Francis Drake, Humphrey Gilbert, La Pérouse, Ludwig Leichhardt, Ma Huan, Olaus Magnus, Arthur J. M. Jephson, Jens Munk, and George Vancouver.

Today currently, two or three volume are published each year. The Society's Annual General Meeting and Annual Lecture is held at the Royal Geographical Society. The Society's website hosts a discussion group and publishes an online Journal of the Hakluyt Society.


Diogo Gomes wrote several chronicles of his exploration. There is only one manuscript surviving, namely, Codex Hisp. 27, in the Hof- und Staats-Bibliothek, Munich; the original Latin text was printed by Schmeller, Uber Valentim Fernandez Alembico in the Abhandlungen den philosoph.-philolog Kl. der bayerisch. Akademie der Wissenschaften, vol. iv., part iii. (Munich, 1847);

Richard Henry Major: Life of Prince Henry the Navigator, pp. xviii., xix., 64-65, 287-299, 303-305 (London, 1868)

Richard Henry Major was a geographer and map librarian who curated the map collection of the British Museum from 1844 until his retirement in 1880.

CR Beazley: Prince Henry the Navigator 1895.

Sir Charles Raymond Beazley (C.R. Beazley) was a British historian. He was Professor of History at the University of Birmingham from 1909-1933.He was educated at St Paul's School, King's College London and Balliol College, Oxford.

Introduction to Azurara's Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, ii., iv., xiv., xxv.-xxvii., xcii.-xcvi. (London, 1899).

Chronica do Descobriniento e Conquista de Guinea (Chronicles of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea) by Gomes Eannes de Azurara
Gomes Eanes de Zurara (Azurara) was a famous 15th century Portuguese chronicler and librarian. His blogs and notes in Chronicles of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea is an authoritative chronicle of Portuguese explorations of Africa covering the period 1415 to 1474. Historian say it is the best source for early Portuguese voyages of African especially for those first sanctioned by Prince Henry the Navigator. his works has been translated in many languages.

Alongside Alvise Cadamosto (discussed earlier on) and Fernão Lopes, all three were the most prominent 15th librarians and chroniclers (writers who record history in detail and are eye-witness or lived during the events recorded). It is through the books of Cadamosto, Zurara and Lopes that we have first-hand description of the many voyages of the Portuguese in Africa in the 15th century (see sources for more details). Many history books on west, central and southern Africa covering the Middle Ages use the books by Cadamosto, Zurara and Lopes as the original sources. The most important book by Gomes Eanes de Zurara was Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea. The name "Guinea" was the name the Portuguese gave to several parts of the coast of West and central Africa, it is actually an anglicized version of the Portuguese word "Guine" (a corruption of the native Ewe word "Ghana").

French version, Paris, 1841.

English version. in 2 vols. London, (1896-1899). Translated by C.R. Beazley with Edgar Prestage. Published by Hakluyt Society of London.

Trade Castles and Forts of West Africa by A. W. Lawrence, published by Stanford University Press in 1964.

Fernão Lopes.

The chronicler Fernão Lopes was famous for the book General Chronicle of the Kingdom (Corónica de Portugal ou Crónica Geral do Reino) which desribes the very early efforts of the Portuguese to discover a route to India, via Africa. Both Zurara and Lopes worked in the same library at a major archives unit in medieval Portugal: The National Archive of Torre do Tombo (Portuguese: Arquivo National da Torre do Tombo). It was established in 1378, located in center-north Lisbon, and in 2009 renamed the Instituto dos Arquivos Nacionais (Institute of the National Archives).

A History of Sub-Saharan Africa by Robert O Collins and James McDonald Burns

C. R. Beazley, Henry the Navigator London, (1895).

C.R. Beazley, The Dawn of Modern GeographyLondon, (1892).

The Dawn of Modern Geography (three volumes 1897-1906)

At the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy is the Atlas: Portalano Laurenziano Gaddiano 1351

Kimble, G.H.T. The Laurentian world map, with special reference to its portrayal of Africa, Imago Mundi, vol I, London.

Johnston, H Harry (ed). A History of the Colonization of Africa by Alien Races, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 2nd edition, (1913). First edition was published in 1899. A very good Victorian era history book about the exploration of Africa from the 1400s to 1880s, written in typical Victorian era fonts! I bought a copy for myself.


J. Leighton Wilson. Western Africa: Its History, Condition and Prospects. Sampson Low. 1856.


Menzies Gavin, 1421, The Year China discovered the world. Bantam Press, London, (2002 ??)


R. H. Major, Life of Prince Henry the Navigator, London, (1868).

Uwechue, Raph, Africa Today. Africa Blogs, London (1991).

Yule Oldham, Discovery of the Cape Verde Islands London, (1892).

The Phoenicians by Donald Harden, published in 1962 by Thames and Hudson.

Go-betweens and the Colonization of Brazil, 1500-1600 By Alida C. Metcalf

For general background on the Portuguese in West Africa, see Eric Axelson, Congo to Cape. Early Portuguese Explorers (London, 1973), James Duffy, Portuguese Africa (London, 1949), J.W. Blake, Europeans in West Africa 1450-1560 (Hakluyt Society, 1942), E.G. Ravenstein, The Voyages of Cão and Bartholomew Dias 1482-88, in Geographical Journal (London, 1900), and A.F.C. Ryder, Benin and the Europeans 1485-1897 (Longmans, 1969). For primary source material on the Portuguese in West Africa, see J.W. Blake, Europeans in West Africa: Documents to Investigate the Nature and Scope of Portuguese Involvement in Africa; Basil Davidson, ed., The African Past: Chronicles from Antiquity to Modern Times, (rpt. London: Penguin Blogs, 1966), and Thomas Hodgkin, ed. Nigerian Perspectives.



National Geographic "Ibn Battuta, Prince of Travelers" 12/91

12. Fra Mauro's World Map, Turnhout, Brepols, 2006 [collana “Terrarum Orbis”, n. 5], by Piero Falchetta, department of ancient maps at the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice.


[1] It may be noted that Antonio (Antoniotto) Uso di Mare (or Antoniotto Ususmaris), the Genoese, after accompanying Cadamosto in the 1450s to West Africa (see below), wrote his famous letter of the 12th of December 1455 purporting to record a meeting with the last surviving descendant of the Genoese expedition of 1291.


[2] Besides the accounts of his two voyages, Cadamosto wrote a narrative of Pedro de Cintras explorations in 1461 (or 1462) to Sierra Leone and beyond Cape Mesurado to El Mina and the Gold Coast; all 3 stories first published in 1507 in Vicenza, Italy by Fracanzano Montalboddo as Collection of Voyages and Travels (or Italian title: Paesi novamente retrovati et novo mondo da Alberico Vesputio Florentino); In the 15th century it was frequently reprinted and translated e.g.:

Italian version in 1508, 1512, 1519, I526, 1550 (published by the Giovanni Battista Ramusio).

Latin. Version: Itinerarium Portugallensium, 1508, 1532 (Grynaeus).

French version: Sensuyt le nouveau monde, 1516, 1521;

German version: Newe unbekante Landle, 1508).


Original Italian title of Cadamosto’s work was: La Prima Navigazione per lOceano alle terre de Negri della Bassa Afrique). The title of Giovanni Battista Ramusio’s 1550 book which mentioned Cadamosto was Descrittione dell’ Africa, which was part of a more voluminous book titled Delle navigationi e viaggi


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