Exploring Africa

Introduction | Island 1 | Island 2 | Island 3 | Island 4 | Island 5 | References

Island 1: Africa before European Exploration

"Description Quartae Tabulae Africanae" 
from Claudius Ptolemaeus, fl. 2nd cent. A.D. 
Facsimile of Vatican Library MS. Urb. Lat. 277 (Codices e vaticanis selecti, no. LIII); no. 59 of 550 copies 
Zurich: Belser Verlag; New York: Johnson Reprint for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

Well into the Renaissance period, the major influence in European ideas of Africa remained such classical sources as the Greek historian Herodotus, the Roman natural historian Pliny, and the Alexandrian geographer and astonomer Ptolemy. Manuscripts and early printed versions of Ptolemy'sGeography, whether in the original Greek or, as here, in Latin translation, normally reproduced his twenty-seven original maps of the ancient world, including four of (north) Africa. This magnificent manuscript was written at Florence in 1472 for Federigo de Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino; the original is in the Vatican library. The fourth map of Africa, shown here (ff. 99v-100r), illustrates how pre-Renaissance European knowledge about Africa was essentially limited to the Mediterranean coast and the lower Nile. 
Purchased in 1983 from the John Shaw Billings Endowment Fund.

Giovanni Leo Africanus, ca. 1492-ca. 1550 
Ioannis Leonis Africani Africae descriptio IX. lib 
In Ramusio, Giovanni Battista, 1485-1557 
Primo volume, & quarta editione delle navigationi et viaggi raccolto . . . & con molti vaghidiscorsi, da lui in molti luoghi dichiarato, & illustrato. Nel quale si contengono la descrittione dell'Africa, & del paese del Prete Ianni, con varij viaggi . . . 
In Venetia, Nella stamperia de Givnti, 1588.

During the later medieval period, Arab travelers had greater contact with inland Africa than did Europeans. In Renaissance Europe, the most influential of the Arab historians of Africa was this author, known to his European readers as Leo Africanus, born in Granada and originally named al-Hassan ibn Muhammad. Shortly after the Spanish conquest in 1492, his wealthy family moved to Morocco, and the young al-Hassan traveled widely throughout the Arab world, including visits to Timbuktu and the subSaharan empires of Mali and Bornu. Captured by Italian pirates off Tunisia in 1518, he was presented as a slave to the Medici pope Leo X, who freed him, baptized him Leo, and set him on a new career in Italy as a teacher of Arabic and African historian. His great work was originally written in Italian, first published by Ramusio in Italian in 1550 and included in his great collection of voyages, as displayed here.

Giovanni Leo Africanus, ca. 1492-ca. 1550 
Ioannis Leonis Africani Africae descriptio IX. lib. absoluta 
Leyden: Elzevir, 1632.

Leo's work was soon translated, first from Italian into Latin in 1556, into French the same year, and into English in 1600. Shown here is the Latin text, in the convenient travel-size edition put out by the Dutch firm of Elzevir in Leyden.

Samuel Purchas, 1577?-1626 
Haklvytvs posthumus or Pvrchas his Pilgrimes. Contayning a history of the world, in sea voyages, & lande-truells, by Englishmen and others. . . 
London: Printed by W. Stansby for H. Fetherstone, 1625. 
4 v. illus. (incl. maps) fold. maps. 32 cm.

Shown here, with the title-page, is an excerpt from the English version of Leo Africanus, originally translated by J. Pory in 1600, and then included in the first volume of the best-known English collection of sea-voyages, Purchas his Pilgrimes. 
Click on the image to read Africanus's account of his visit to the West African king of Mali, and to the "great village" of Timbuktu.

Lorenz Fries, c. 1485-?1532, after Martin Waldseemuller, 1475-?1522 
"Tabu. Nova. Partis. Aphri" [c. 1525] 
in Claudius Ptolemaeus Alexandrinus, fl. 2nd century; Michael Servetus, ed. 
Geographicae e Narrationis. Libri Octo 
Lyons: Melchior and Gaspar Trechsel, 1535.

During the fifteenth century, under the influence of Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), Portuguese seamen had been steadily venturing down the west African coastline, past Sierra Leone, Cape Verde, the Gulf of Guinea, and the Congo, until in 1487 Bartholomew Diaz was blown round the southern tip of Africa, holding out the Good Hope of a sea-route to India, accomplished by Vasco da Gama in 1497-1499. Clearly Ptolemy's maps needed updating. The first printed edition of Ptolemy's Geography was printed in Venice, Italy, in 1477, and very shortly afterwards, in Florence in 1482, an edition was issued with the first modern additions. This beautiful French-printed folio edition uses the second of two woodcut maps of Africa by the pioneering cartographer Martin Waldseemuller, originally published in Strasbourg in 1513, showing the familiar coastal outline, but with only conjecture as to the interior; this edition uses the block recut in 1522 following Waldeseemuller's death by the Alsace physician Lorenz Fries.


Introduction | Island 1 | Island 2 | Island 3 | Island 4 | Island 5 | References

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