Voyages to West Africa

views updated

Voyages to West Africa


Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Explorers. Though knowledge of West Africa had been carried along trans-Saharan trade routes to North Africa, and from there to Europe for hundreds of years, West Africa was not explored by sea until the twelfth century, when Arabic sources recorded several attempts to sail along its coastline. Writing in 1154, Moroccan geographer al-Idrisi told about some Muslim adventurers who set off from Lisbon, Portugal and may have reached the Canary Islands, which lie off the Atlantic coast from the southwestern corner of Morocco. The thirteenth-century historian Ibn Sa’id said that Muslims explored the West African coast during the twelfth century, probably in search of a good source for the “tunny fish” that were a main food for Moroccans. North Africans, however, did not put much capital or effort into such seafaring ventures because the trans-Saharan trade route was a well-established and efficient means of supplying their needs for most West African goods and materials.

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

Therefore, much of the exploration along the west coast of Africa was financed by European countries, especially Portugal and Italy, which were particularly attracted by West African gold and by its suitability for growing crops such as sugarcane.

Early Portuguese Exploration. Portuguese explorers landed on the shores of West Africa during the 1430s, after they had begun to build ships that could navigate the shallow waters and strong currents around Cape Bojador, which lies just below the Canary Islands, in the modern nation of Western Sahara. These Portuguese caravels, which weighed far less and were more maneuverable than Venetian cargo ships, could sail with the Atlantic winds and travel up rivers. Gil Eannes was the first Portuguese mariner to round Cape Bojador, making his journey in 1434. After Alvise Caàda Mosto discovered the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Senegal in 1456, the Portuguese established a town on São Tiago, the principal island. Writing in the next century, Leo Africanus reported that a large number of African slaves—many of whom had converted to Christianity—were on the Cape Verde Islands, where their jobs were to “till the earth, water the sugarcanes, and serve both in the cities and in the country.” Ca da Mosto and Diogo Gomes explored the Gambia River on separate expeditions for Portugal in 1455 and 1456 and wrote accounts of their travels. After this time, Portugal, and other countries, continued to send small fleets on annual expeditions.

Italian Exploration. In 1447 the Genoan merchant Antonio Malfante stayed for a time at Tuat, a Saharan oasis that had become an important commercial center where traders from Tunis and Egypt exchanged goods for Sudanese gold. His letter to a friend reported what he heard there about sub-Saharan Africa. In 1469 a Florentine, Benedetto Dei, reportedly traveled up the Niger River by boat to Timbuktu.

Later Portuguese Exploration. In 1471 some Portuguese ships landed at Shama on the southern “Gold Coast” of West Africa, so-called because of its proximity to the Akan goldfields, and the Portuguese established their first settlement, at Elmina in the modern nation of Ghana. When they visited the wealthy and powerful kingdom of Benin in 1486, the Portuguese were impressed with the size of the empire and its ruler’s skills. As the largest political system of Guinea at the time, Benin traded far and wide. It exported cotton, spices, kola nuts, shea butter, hides, civet musk for making perfumes, and ivory. It imported salt, horses, copper, silver, dried dates and figs, beads, glassware, and other manufactured goods. During the Portuguese explorations of the early fifteenth century, sailors acted like pirates, taking goods and prisoners from the West African mainland, but by the end of the century, Europeans and West Africans had developed a trading partnership. For the most part, the African empires along the coast were too strong to be pushed around or exploited.

Exploration and Changes in Trade. In 1488 Portuguese explorer Duarte Pacheco Pereira brought horses, cotton goods, and other merchandise to trade for gold and slaves along the southern coast of West Africa. Like Ca da Mosto before him, Pacheco Pereira observed weather problems, including heavy summer rains and winds that allowed ships to sail only at certain times of the year. These poor weather conditions kept Europeans from developing the gold trade to the extent they wanted. Exporting African slaves for sugarcane production, however, turned out to be the most profitable trade venture for Europeans.

Exploration and a Shift in Trade Routes. The arrival of Europeans on the southern coast of West Africa in the late 1400s corresponded with the rise in power of the city of Ile-Ife on the Niger River at the edge of the tropical forest. Its rulers controlled the trade with Europeans in ivory, gold, pepper, kola nuts, and slaves from the interior along the Niger River. By 1500, however, the center of power had shifted to Benin, where the Portuguese traded maize and pineapples that they brought from Central and South America. By 1600, the long-established trans-Saharan trade routes had become less important for the West African economy than the new trading places all along the western and southern coasts. Events in North Africa also contributed to this change. Between 1471 and 1514 the Portuguese took several Moroccan ports of the Atlantic, and during this period of civil unrest the city of Sijilmasa at the northern end of the western caravan routes fell into decline. After driving the Muslims from their last outpost in Spain in 1491, Spanish Christians were also fighting the Muslims of North Africa, who at the same time were beginning to come under attack from fellow Muslims, the Ottoman Turks, who completed their conquest of Tunisia in 1575. As a result, travel along the caravan routes became dangerous, and trade shifted to the southern coast of West Africa.


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

Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds., Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999).

Brian Catchpole, A History of West Africa in Maps and Diagrams (London: Collins Educational, 1983).

Basil Davidson, The Lost Cities of Africa (Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown, 1959).

Mary Penick Motley, Africa, Its Empires, Nation, and People (Detroit:

Wayne State University Press, 1969).

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).