Travel and Exploration

Early in recorded history, people from outside Africa visited—or at least knew about—the lands on Africa’s northern coast. In ancient times kingdoms of the Middle East and southern Europe had dealings with EGYPT. Phoenicians from what is now Lebanon founded the colony of CARTHAGE (in present-day TUNISIA), the Greeks established settlements in LIBYA, Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, and for about 300 years the Romans included the coastal region of North Africa in their empire.

The rest of Africa, however, remained a mystery to the outside world until medieval travelers began exploring the continent. Arabs crossed the northern and western parts of Africa. The Chinese learned much about eastern Africa’s coast along the Indian Ocean. Europeans spent hundreds of years charting the shores of Africa and then probing all of the continent’s interior. Driven by trade, conquest, religion, science, or curiosity, generations of explorers gradually revealed Africa to the rest of the world.

Africa: Travel and Exploration

Arab Travelers

Beginning in the A.D. 600s, invaders from the Arabian peninsula colonized Egypt and North Africa. They introduced Arabic language and culture and the religion of Islam to the region. Eventually some Arabs began venturing south into the SAHARA DESERT and beyond it to the Africa they called the bilad al-sudan, “the land of the blacks.” Reports of their journeys appear in books from as early as the 900s. Most of these accounts were written by scholars who stayed comfortably north of the desert and collected tales from returning travelers.

The early Muslim travelers took particular interest in two African kingdoms: Kanem, located north of Lake Chad, and Ghana, on the border of present-day MAURITANIA and MALI (not part of modern Ghana). Trade motivated many Arab merchants to travel. They bought slaves, gold, and other goods from the lands on the southern edge of the desert. One Arab account compares the experiences of two traders, one with gold and the other with slaves, returning north across the desert. The first trader had a fairly easy trip, but the second had constant trouble with slaves who were hungry, sick, or trying to escape.

The spread of Islam was closely related to travel into sub-Saharan Africa. Some early references describe Arab travelers as holy men who performed religious services for local rulers. Such functions as fortune telling, praying for rain, and interpreting dreams gave Arab travelers a chance to plant the seeds of Islam and gain converts. One notable holy man, Abdullah bin Ya Sin, may have brought Islam to ancient Ghana in 1076.

The first extensive eyewitness account of travels in sub-Saharan Africa comes from the Arab IBN BATTUTA. In 1330 he sailed along the eastern coast, visiting Mombasa and Kilwa (now in TANZANIA). A second expedition 20 years later took him from MOROCCO across the Sahara to the empire of Mali. Another traveler from Morocco, Muhammad al-Maghili, visited Mali’s Songhai Empire in the 1490s and left a detailed description of the empire’s Islamic life and customs.

Chinese in Africa

Information about Africa filtered into China for centuries before the first recorded visit to the continent by Chinese explorers. The Chinese traveled mainly along the eastern coast of Africa, and reports of their journeys turn up in a variety of places. For example, the memoirs of a man named Tu Huan, held captive by Muslims in central Asia in the mid-700s, include accounts of the city of MEROE in what is now SUDAN that he heard from his captors.

China’s overseas trade increased during the Sung dynasty (960–1279), and contacts with foreign merchants brought the Chinese information about eastern Africa. The earliest known Chinese map of Africa, dating from the early 1300s, accurately shows the shape of the southeastern part of the continent. At the time Europeans believed that southern Africa stretched far to the east and that the Indian Ocean was a landlocked sea.

Yet the Chinese did not gain firsthand experience of Africa until the early 1400s, when the rulers of the Ming dynasty sent a series of naval fleets to the Indian Ocean. Two of these missions reached the Horn of Africa, the peninsula that extends eastward below the Gulf of Aden. As a result, information about this region of Africa appeared in official Ming histories and in unofficial accounts. Descriptions of giraffes aroused special interest because the giraffe seemed to resemble a Chinese mythical animal called the ch’i-lin, believed to bring good fortune.

When an African ruler sent a giraffe to the Chinese emperor, the event was celebrated as a sign of “endless bliss.” Through these contacts the Chinese knew far more about eastern Africa than Europeans did. But Europeans soon began a vigorous program of exploration and conquest that greatly expanded their knowledge of African geography.

European Exploration before 1500

Little is known about European travelers in Africa before 1500. European rulers and merchants maintained a policy of secrecy about African travel, commerce, and politics to prevent rivals from taking advantage of their knowledge. Although medieval Europeans did visit the Christian kingdom of ETHIOPIA, no reports of this contact have survived. In the 1400s the Portuguese made some daring explorations of the coastal areas of Africa, but most of Portugal’s historical documents perished in an earthquake in 1755.

Ethiopia and Europe developed relations through their shared religion, Christianity. Ethiopians visited Rome in 1302, and for several centuries afterward Europeans tried to visit Ethiopia. Some travelers were blocked from their goal by the Muslim rulers of Egypt. Others reached Ethiopia but were prevented from returning home by Ethiopian officials. One such traveler, Pedro da Covilha, left Portugal in 1487 and went as far east as India before venturing south from Egypt into Ethiopia. Covilha arrived in Ethiopia but never left—a later traveler named Francisco Alvarez met him there in 1525.

The major European effort to explore Africa before 1500 took place at sea, not on land, and focused on Africa’s western coast. In 1419 Prince Enrique of Portugal, known to later historians as Henry the Navigator, set up a research center on Portugal’s south coast to gather information about Africa and to sponsor expeditions southward into waters unknown to European sailors. After the prince died in 1460, Portugal continued to send these explorers out to sea.

By the 1480s the Portuguese had charted most of Africa’s western shores. Bartolomeu Dias reached the southern tip of the continent in 1487–1488. A decade later Vasco da GAMA led the first expedition to sail around southern Africa and enter the Indian Ocean. Gama and other Europeans of the time were chiefly concerned with commerce and conquest in Asia, not Africa, but Portugal’s voyages also opened the way for Portuguese trade and exploration in Africa. A region around the mouth of the CONGO RIVER later became the Portuguese colony of ANGOLA, and another area on the Indian Ocean coast became the colony of MOZAMBIQUE.

European Exploration from 1500 to 1800

Europeans completed the exploration and mapping of the African coastline in the early 1500s. For the next 300 years, their knowledge of sub-Saharan Africa grew slowly and was limited mostly to coastal trading areas for gold, ivory, and slaves. But a few travelers did explore parts of the African interior and left records of their journeys.

One such traveler, LEO AFRICANUS, an African who lived in Europe and converted to Christianity, made two visits to western Sudan between 1509 and 1513, and Europeans relied on his writings for nearly 300 years. Around the same time, Antonio Fernandes of Portugal explored Mozambique and visited gold mines in Mutapa, a kingdom of the southeastern interior. Eventually the Portuguese established control over the valley of the ZAMBEZI RIVER in that part of Africa. Meanwhile, in western Africa, English traders probed inland along the Gambia River, while the French used the Senegal River as a highway into the interior.

As a Christian kingdom in Africa, Ethiopia continued to hold a powerful fascination for Europeans. A number of travelers managed to visit Ethiopia in the 1500s and 1600s—and to return to Europe with tales of their experiences. Antonio Fernandes was one of them. James Bruce of Scotland traveled in Ethiopia between 1769 and 1772, and his vivid accounts of the country’s warfare and court life caused a sensation in Europe. His book Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (1790) became a classic of adventure and travel writing.

The popularity of books such as Bruce’s, especially in London and Paris, showed Europeans’ growing interest in African exploration at this time. In 1788 the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa (usually called the African Association) was formed to sponsor expeditions. A few years later, the Association sent Scottish explorer Mungo Park to chart the course of the NIGER RIVER. Park’s adventures included imprisonment by an Arab chief, a long illness, and a difficult journey alone, but he failed to map the Niger. Ten years later the British government sent him to try again, this time with 40 men. Park and his companions traveled down the river by boat for hundreds of miles before drowning while under attack by local people.

European Exploration after 1800

At the beginning of the 1800s, European maps of Africa’s interior had large blank areas. For the next 100 years, European travelers, explorers, missionaries, diplomats, and soldiers fanned out across the continent.

Explorers in western Africa continued Mungo Park’s quest. Dixon Denham, a British army officer, set out to trace the Niger after crossing the Sahara and finding Lake Chad. Like Park, however, Denham died on the Niger. His servant, Richard Lander, later explored the lower Niger but died in an ambush in 1834. Despite resistance by local people, other British travelers soon completed the journey on the Niger by boat.

Besides mapping major geographic features, many travelers gathered information about the peoples, cultures, languages, and natural history of Africa. Perhaps the most scholarly explorer of western Africa was Heinrich BARTH of Germany, who traveled in LIBYA, NIGER, and the region south of Lake Chad. Some travelers, however, were simply big-game hunters. South Africa especially appealed to British hunters, and some of them made trips into unknown territory in search of game trophies.

David LIVINGSTONE, a Scottish missionary doctor, achieved great fame as the key figure in African exploration during the mid-1800s. Driven by hatred of the slave trade and the belief that his course was directed by God, Livingstone made several very long journeys. During a three-year crossing of the African continent he became the first European to see the great waterfalls of the Zambezi River and named them for Britain’s Queen Victoria.

The search for the source of the Nile River grew into an obsession for many Europeans. In 1856 Britain’s Royal Geographical Society sent Richard Francis BURTON and John Hanning Speke to solve the mystery, considered one of the great geographic puzzles of the age. In the course of their exploration Speke sighted Lake Victoria. He identified it as the river’s source, confirming this fact with a second expedition. Speke had found the source of the White Nile River, the longer of the two main branches of the Nile.

However, some doubt remained, and in the 1860s Livingstone undertook another expedition to settle the matter. While searching for the “fountains of the Nile,” Livingstone lost contact with the outside world. In 1871 the American journalist Henry Morton STANLEY made a famous journey to find the explorer. Stanley’s book about his meeting with Livingstone made him an international hero, and he went on to lead several long and grueling expeditions across central Africa.

Women also played a role in the exploration of Africa during the late 1800s. The century’s last important European traveler was Mary KINGSLEY of Great Britain. Her book Travels in West Africa (1895) describes two journeys and criticizes the policies of colonial governments and missionaries toward the African people. Kingsley’s book was widely read, and like other popular works of travel and exploration did much to shape the images of Africa held by most Europeans and Americans.

Yet these images did not provide the full story of European involvement in Africa. By the second half of the 1800s, exploration in Africa had cleared the way for full-scale conquest and colonization. European nations hired explorers such as Stanley and Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza to help establish colonial governments. Britain, France, Portugal, Germany, and Italy all competed furiously to gain control over the continent and divide it among themselves. European exploration led to colonization, which left deep wounds in the politics and cultures of Africa. (See also Arabs in Africa, Islam in Africa, Maps and MapmakingRoman Africa, Sudanic Empires of Western Africa.)