Hanno Sails Down the Coast of West Africa—and Perhaps Even Further

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Hanno Sails Down the Coast of West Africa—and Perhaps Even Further


In about 500 b.c. an expedition led by the mariner Hanno sailed westward from Carthage in what is now Tunisia. Commanding 60 vessels on which were some 5,000 men and women, Hanno was charged with establishing trading colonies along the western coast of North Africa. This he did, founding a number of cities in what is now Morocco; but in a feat that would not be repeated until the golden age of Portuguese exploration some 2,000 years later, Hanno went much further. He and his crew sailed down the African coast, perhaps as far as modern-day Senegal or even Liberia—and perhaps, in the view of some scholars, even further.


Some time after 800 b.c., the Semitic Phoenicians established Carthage near the site of modern-day Tunis. At its height, Carthage was home to some 1 million people, making it an almost unbelievably huge city by ancient standards. It expanded, adding colonies throughout North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, and Sicily, and by the fifth century b.c. Carthage had emerged as the dominant sea power in the western Mediterranean. In 264 b.c. Carthage would find itself in conflict with the Roman Republic in the Punic (the Latin adjective for "Phoenician") Wars, and 118 years later, Rome would completely destroy the city.

But all of that lay far in the future when Hanno undertook his historic voyage. It appears that his was not the first group of Carthaginians sent to sail around the African continent: reportedly the Egyptian pharaoh Necho II (r. 610-595 b.c.) hired a group of Carthaginians in about 600 b.c. to sail around the coast of Africa. Some reports maintain that these earlier journeyers completed the feat, hugging the coastline and rounding the southern tip of Africa before coming back up the coast along the Indian Ocean to Egypt.

It is hard to know how to treat this tale, which seems to have an existence independent of Hanno's but which includes many of the same elements—though in this case the commission to undertake the voyage was from a foreign ruler. This in turn raises the question of what exactly Necho, if indeed he sent out the expedition, intended to achieve. Egypt in 600 b.c., beleaguered as it was after years of attacks from outside powers, was hardly in a position to send out voyagers simply for the sake of curiosity or even to display Egyptian power. The first of these options was almost inconceivable among premodern states, and the latter most likely beyond the reach of Egyptian resources.


Virtually all details of Hanno's voyage—and indeed of his entire biography—come from an inscription left by Hanno himself in the form of a stele or pillar honoring the gods for him giving him safety on his journey. Known as the Periplus, it consists of 18 (and in some versions 19) numbered paragraphs regarding his exploits, and despite its short length is reputedly the longest known text by a Phoenician writer.

The text that has been passed down is a copy of a copy. Within a century of the time Hanno made the inscription, an unknown scholar prepared a serviceable but far from inspired rendering of the Semitic text into Greek. Over the centuries that followed, Greek, Greco-Roman, and later Byzantine clerks copied the original, and of the two versions known today, one dates back no earlier than the ninth—and the other the fourteenth—century. Some scholars maintain that Hanno himself did not actually make the inscription, but that it was the work of a priest who interviewed two sailors from Hanno's expedition.

In any case, the account begins by stating that "Hanno, king of Carthage" engaged in a voyage "to the Libyan lands beyond the Pillars of Herakles," and that the inscription is intended to honor "Kronos." In fact, the term king meant simply that he was a high magistrate, while Libya was the Greek name for Africa itself. Elsewhere the text refers to "Libyophoenicians"—in other words, Carthaginians—as well as "Ethiopians," the latter a general term for all the dark-skinned peoples of sub-Saharan Africa. Finally, Kronos was the name of a Greek god (or, more properly, a titan) who was father to Zeus. It is unlikely Hanno or any other Carthaginian would have erected a stele to Kronos; probably the intended deity was Baal Hammon, a variation of the god worshipped by the Carthaginians' Phoenician ancestors.

As is indicated in the first numbered paragraph of the inscription, the people of Carthage sent out Hanno's expeditionary force for the purpose of establishing cities or colonies to expand their trading empire. Hanno went on to note that "He set sail with sixty fifty-oared ships, about thirty thousand men and women, food and other equipment." It would have been impossible to fit 30,000 colonists on just 60 ships, and it is more likely Hanno brought with him 5,000 people—still an impressive number by ancient standards.

After sailing past the Pillars of Hercules, or the Straits of Gibraltar, some 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) west of Carthage, the journeyers entered the largely uncharted waters of the Atlantic. They then turned toward the shore of what is now Morocco, where they founded the first of several colonies at Thymiaterium, or present-day Mehdiya near the capital city of Rabat.

At the next spot (which may have been Cape Cantin, Cape Beddouza, or Cape Mazagan), the inscription states that they built an altar to Poseidon. Here again, the name is a Greek one, and probably they honored a Phoenician sea-god whose identity was unknown to the Greeks. According to the inscription, the journeyers then sailed eastward, a questionable detail since land lay to the east. Probably they navigated up the river known as Oum er Rbia and entered a lake, where according to Hanno they found "elephants and other wild animals."

After another day's sail, the voyagers established cities called Karikon Teichos, Gytte, Akra, Melitta, and Arambys. Each of these has been identified with varying degrees of certainty, and the last is associated with a site where modern archaeologists have found Carthaginian remains—including evidence that inhabitants engaged in a signature Phoenician industry, harvesting shellfish to make purple dye.

At each city, the voyagers left settlers behind as they continued southward. Hanno's account first mentions human life (other than the Carthaginians themselves) in describing an encounter beside a river he called the Lixos, where the nomadic "Lixites" befriended the visitors. Apparently some of locals continued on with the Carthaginians, serving as interpreters. Later, however, in what may have been the Anti-Atlas Mountains, the journeyers encountered "hostile Ethiopians."

After sailing "past desert land," Hanno's party reached a small island five stades (about 900 meters or half a mile) in circumference, where they founded a colony named Cerne. This may have been Herne Island off the coast of the Western Sahara, though it is much larger than the dimensions given by Hanno. Soon they encountered more hostile inhabitants "who sought to stop us from landing by hurling stones at us," and afterward they passed a river—probably the Senegal—that was "infested with crocodiles and hippopotami."

They sailed for 12 days beyond Cerne, during which time the party observed a coastline "peopled all the way with Ethiopians.... [whose] tongue was unintelligible to us and to the Lixites in our company." On the twelfth day, they "came in sight of great, wooded mountains, with varied and fragrant trees." This may have been Cape Verde, or Cape Mesurado near the present-day Liberian capital of Monrovia; in any case, it is noteworthy that Hanno seemed to be pointing out the area's valuable resources with an eye toward commerce.

Soon they were in the Gulf of Guinea, where at night they saw numerous fires along the shore. At a place Hanno called the Western Horn, which is perhaps Cape Three Points in modern Ghana, they "heard the sound of pipes and cymbals and the rumble of drums and mighty cries. We were seized with fear, and our interpreters told us to leave the island." Still further on, Hanno's party saw a volcano he dubbed "Chariot of the Gods," which may have been Mount Cameroun. They sailed on for three days "past streams of fire" to what he called the Southern Horn, located either in Gabon or Sierra Leone.

In his final paragraph, Hanno related a strange incident that took place in the Southern Horn: "In this gulf was an island ... with a lake, within which was another island, full of savages. Most of them were women with hairy bodies, which our interpreters called Gorillas. Although we chased them, we could not catch any males: they all escaped, being good climbers who defended themselves with stones. However, we caught three women, who refused to follow those who carried them off, biting and clawing them. So we killed and flayed them and brought their skins back to Carthage. For we did not sail any further, because our provisions were running short."

This was the first written reference to the gorilla, a term that according to Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary comes from the Greek Gorillai—"a tribe of hairy women mentioned in an account of a voyage around Africa." The word itself is apparently a Hellenic version of the kiKongo term ngò diida, meaning "powerful animal that beats itself violently"—but therein lies an intriguing aspect of the Hanno story. Based on the written account, the voyagers would still have had to travel much further, crossing the Equator, to meet speakers of kiKongo.

Thus is raised the question of whether Hanno actually rounded the southern tip of Africa, but chose to keep his further discoveries a secret. Pliny the Elder (c. a.d. 23-79), who stated that the gorilla furs remained on exhibit at a Carthaginian temple until the city's destruction by the Romans, wrote that "Hanno sailed from Gades [Cadiz] to the extreme part of Arabia," in the process circumnavigating the African continent. Most likely, however, Hanno actually turned back when he said he did: though the matter of the word gorilla's derivation is a compelling one, it seems rather less so in light of the fact that there is no evidence of a Carthaginian presence in southern or eastern Africa. More important, the Cape of Good Hope constitutes a formidable barrier, one that Portuguese mariner Bartholomeu Dias (c. 1450-1500)—possessing far more advanced marine technology than that of the Carthaginians—found impassable.

In any case, Hanno's account influenced numerous other writers, among them Herodotus (c. 484-c. 420 b.c.). According to the Greek historian, Phoenician traders on the coast of Africa, probably in the region of modern Senegal, would land on an island and set a certain amount of goods on a beach, then return to their ships. The Africans would then place an amount of gold, which was plentiful in their area, next to the Phoenicians' goods. If the Phoenicians judged that it was a fair exchange, they would take the gold and depart. If they did not, however, they would leave their goods on the shore until the Africans brought out more gold. Once they had agreed on an exchange, the Phoenicians would take their gold and sail away.

Herodotus's description seems to be drawn from Hanno's, and centuries later, Arab journeyers in the region reported that the Africans still maintained those trade practices. Carthage and its colonies, of course, had long since died out, but Hanno and his voyage remained legendary: even if he did turn around well on the west side of Africa, he still traveled further down the African coast than any sailor prior to the fifteenth century. In later centuries, writers as diverse as Montesquieu and Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote admiringly of Hanno and his exploits.


Further Reading


Cary, M., and E. H. Warmington. The Ancient Explorers. London: Methuen, 1929.

Simon, Charnan. Explorers of the Ancient World. Chicago: Children's Press, 1990.

Sladen, Douglas. Carthage and Tunis. London: Hutchinson, 1906.

Internet Sites

Casson, Lionel. "Setting the Stage for Columbus." http://www.millersv.edu/~columbus/data/art/CASSON01.ART

"Hanno's Periplus on the Web." http://www-personal.umich.edu/~spalding/Hanno.

Lendering, Jona. "Hanno." http://home.wxs.nl/~lende045/Hanno/Hanno.html.

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Hanno Sails Down the Coast of West Africa—and Perhaps Even Further

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