Travelers from West Africa

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Travelers from West Africa


Physical Conditions. Some modern scholars have pointed out that as early as the year 500 the watercraft of ancient West Africa were suited to transatlantic travel. Because West Africa is only 1,600miles from South America with islands in between, this voyage would not have been as long or arduous as the one Polynesians made around the year 400 across the Pacific Ocean to Easter Island off the coast of Chile. Furthermore, currents running along the west coast of Africa loop westward toward the Americas. Some modern scholars have suggested that a ship could sail from Africa to the Americas almost without any navigation. In 1500, for example, the Portuguese fleet of Alvares Cabral was caught in a storm off the coast of West Africa and ended up in Brazil. Although anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians have uncovered evidence to suggest an early West African presence in the New World, not all scholars agree, with some arguing that transatlantic voyages by ancient West Africans were not technically possible.

An Explorer from Mali. Early Arabic histories of West Africa include accounts of westward voyages across the Atlantic. The best-known account was written by al-Umari (1301-1349), who recorded a story of Atlantic voyages by West African seamen during the reign of Mansa Abubakari II, king of Mali in 1300-1311. Al-Umari heard about Abubakari from Ibn Amir Hajib, governor of old Cairo, who got the information from Abubakari’s half brother and successor, Mansa Musa (ruled 1312-1337). Abubakari sent two large fleets westward across the Atlantic, commanding the second one in 1311. They never returned to West Africa.

Africans in the New World. Though Abubakari’s voyage is the best documented, he was probably not the first African to set out for the New World, and evidence of an early African presence there has been found in several sources. Preserved in the footnotes of Spanish and Portuguese documents from the New World, oral traditions of Native Americans and Guinea Africans told of Africans in South, Central, and North America when the Europeans arrived. On his third voyage (1498), which took him along the coast of South America, Christopher Columbus reported that natives brought his men cotton handkerchief’s woven in symmetrical patterns and colors like those he had seen in Guinea and along the rivers of Sierra Leone, when he had traveled there in 1483. These handkerchief’s were also worn in the African fashion as head wraps or loincloths. He had already heard stories from the Indians of the island of Hispaniola about communities of black people on

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the South American coast. In the nineteenth century French anthropologist Armand de Quatrefages pointed out that these small isolated settlements were located along the South American seaboard in places that coincided with the ending points of transatlantic currents. Columbus also heard about African traders from Guinea (Ghana) who had brought spears with points made of “gua-nin,” which when assayed proved to be an alloy of gold, silver, and copper that was common in West Africa. When Vasco Nuñez de Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513, he reported seeing Africans in Panama. Archaeologists have found statues with African features, some dating as early as 700-800 B.C.E., in Mexico among the Olmecs, who lived eighteen miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. Portraits of black Africans done in clay, gold, and stone have also been found in pre-Columbian strata of digs in Central and South America, and some South and Central American archaeologists now believe that Africans were in the Americas before Columbus. In February 1975 a Smithsonian Institution team reported finding two African male skeletons in the U.S. Virgin Islands in a soil layer that dated to 1250 C.E. A study of the teeth of these skeletons showed their characteristics to be consistent with those of people in early African cultures.

Royal Delegations. The rulers of the many kingdoms in North and West Africa routinely corresponded, exchanged delegations, and traded among each other. In the ninth century, the Rustamid imam of Tahert on the north end of a trans-Saharan trade route sent a delegation with special gifts to the “king of blacks,” probably the ruler of Gao. These sorts of visits continued, and in the fourteenth century royal delegations were regularly exchanged between West and North African capitals. News of various events was communicated in a timely manner for those days of caravan travel and communication. A year after the conquest of Tlemcen by Marinid Sultan Abu I-Hasan in 1337, Mansa Musa of Mali sent a royal delegation to congratulate the sultan. Another delegation was sent from Mali to congratulate the sultan for the conquest of Constantine in 1349. Also in the fourteenth century, the ruler of Kanem sent delegates on an official mission to present many gifts to kings in North Africa. These ambassadors traveled along a trade route that led directly from Lake Chad to the Mediterranean. In 1391 Mai Abu Amr Uthman ibn Idris, the ruler of Bornu, corresponded with Sultan Barkuk of Egypt. By the fifteenth century Benin was an important power in West Africa. Oba Ewuare (ruled 1440-1473) of Benin wanted to know more about Europe than his Portuguese visitors could tell him, so he sent one of his chief’s to find out. Ewuare was an accomplished, literate ruler who was said to have traveled much in Guinea and even to have gone to the Congo.

Early Pilgrimages to Mecca. The kings of Kanem-Bornu and other kingdoms were converted to Islam by Muslims from North Africa who traveled south with merchant caravans. Many rulers made the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca. Dunama I of Kanem-Bornu made the pilgrimage twice and drowned in the Red Sea on his third journey to Mecca around 1150. Arabic writer Ibn Sa’id wrote in 1252-1253 that Dunama II Dibbalemi, king of Kanem during the first half of the thirteenth century, was an Islamic reformer known for his holy wars and Muslim good works. He is thought to have made a pilgrimage to Mecca, and he probably established the madrasah (Quranic school) of al-Rashiq in Cairo during the 1240s for Kanuri students in that city. Rulers of Mali also made pilgrimages. The first one was made by Mansa Uli (ruled 1255-1285) during the 1260s. Mansa Sakura went to Mecca and visited Cairo, dying on the way home, possibly around 1300. The bestknown hajj of a Mali ruler was performed by Mansa Musa in 1324, when he carried so much gold to Mecca that he upset the economy for many years after. Askia Muhammad I (ruled 1493-1528) of Songhai was well known for his 1495 pilgrimage, on which he was accompanied by an army of one thousand infantrymen and five hundred men riding horses and camels. He carried with him 300,000 pieces of gold—one-third for his expenses, one-third as alms and support for an inn for Sudanese pilgrims in Mecca, and one-third to purchase food and supplies. Common people from West Africa seldom made pilgrimages to Mecca until after the fifteenth century, the time at which Islam moved out of the courts and started to become established in the beliefs of the people.

Students in Morocco and Spain. West Africans also traveled for the purpose of religious study. After West Africans began to convert to Islam, some went abroad to wellknown Islamic universities. In the twelfth century, some West African students studied in Spain and Morocco. In the thirteenth, West African students were studying at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. These students studied subjects such as geography, religion, literature, and economics and returned home with worldviews broadened by their experiences.


J. F. A. Ajayi and Michael Crowder, eds., The History of West Africa, second edition, 2 volumes (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976, 1987).

Basil Davidson, with F. K. Buah and the advice of Ajayi, A History of West Africa to the Nineteenth Century, revised edition (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1966).

Pekka Masonen, “Trans-Saharan Trade and the West African Discovery of the Mediterranean,” in Ethnic Encounter and Culture Change: Papers for the Third Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies, edited by M’hammed Sabour and Knut S. Vikor (Bergen: Nordic Society for Middle Eastern Studies, 1997), pp. 116-142.

D. T. Niane, ed., Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century, volume 4 of General History of Africa (Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 1984).

J. A. Rogers, Africa’s Gift toAmerica (New York: Future Press, 1961).

J. Spencer Trimingham, History of Islam in West Africa (London, Glasgow & New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).

Ivan Van Sertima, They Came Before Columbus (New York: Random House, 1976).

Van Sertima, ed., African Presence in Early America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Journal of African Civilizations, 1987).