Representing Africa I: The Early Years

When non Africans talk about Africa today, it is often in the context of discussions of poverty, disease, warfare, or political instability. Africans are often represented as villains or victims. This was not at all the way the outside world's understanding of Africa began. Indeed, the whole notion of any generalized collective understanding of a landmass or entity called 'Africa' took a long time to develop in the world – including within Africa itself. Africans did not, in most cases, refer to themselves as Africans or to the landmass collectively as Africa until the nineteenth-century.

The term, 'Africa', most likely derives from a local term for a region of Tunisia (Ifriqiya) that came to be utilized by Greek, Roman, and Arab conquerors to stand for a larger area – eventually a province in the Roman empire's dominions on the southern tip of the Mediterranean Sea, and the major Arab settlement zone under the Ummayad and Abbasid dynasties that ruled North Africa from 670 to 900 CE. The more commonly utilized term for the territories that Europeans left largely unexplored to the south of Egypt, Libya, and Africa was Ethiopia, inhabited by people they called Ethiopians. In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote detailed second hand descriptions of 'Ethiopian' cities and their customs (likely to have actually been based on the northern Sudanese city state of Meroe). Ptolemy's geography of the second century CE provided more details, but again was limited to the middle and northern stretches of the greater Nile Valley. What is identified today as Ethiopia 'was' a heavily populated and highly sophisticated agrarian civilization by the GrecoRoman era. But the Greeks and Romans knew little of it, and even less about any other region of what would become known as Africa. In a maritime trading guide to the Red Sea from the late first century or early second century CE, Periplus of the Erythraean [Eritrean] Sea, written in ancient Greek, we gain some understanding of what outsiders knew of ancient cities in the Horn of Africa and along the Swahili coast, but little or nothing about Africa's vast interior.

Europeans were not the only outsiders curious about the continent. Early medieval Arab and Chinese travelogs and cartographies broadened and deepened the larger picture of the landmass. Arab writers such as Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Battuta traveled widely in the northern portion of Africa and wrote extensively about the people they met along the way. The Chinese explorer and trader, Cheng Ho, visited the East African coast in the fifteenth century and reputedly returned to the court of the emperor he served with two giraffes, gifts from the Sultan of the city state of Kilwa in today's southern Tanzania.

Indigenous African geographies and understandings of broader spaces in the ancient and medieval world are given short shrift in most historical geographies of the continent. Many African peoples developed elaborate geographical knowledge of their immediate regions, and several, most famously the Dogon of today's Mali, had highly developed astronomic skills that included broad awareness of the whole of the world. Africa even produced its own explorers. It is vital to remember that Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Battuta, despite their common identification as 'Arab' explorers, can be considered Africans, since they were born and raised in what became Tunisia and Morocco, respectively. That neither considered himself an 'African' and that both occasionally used derogatory language toward sub-Saharan peoples, though, usually leads to them being classified as outsiders to 'Africa'. But the seafaring explorers of the medieval Malian empire and the Swahili sailors of the Indian Ocean are less likely to be stripped of their Africanness, and both saw quite a bit of the world beyond the continent.