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European exploration of Africa began with Ancient Greeks and Romans, that explored and settled in North Africa. Fifteenth Century Portugal, especially under Henry the Navigator probed along the West African coast. Scientific curiosity and Christian missionary spirit soon were subordinated to mercantile considerations, including lucrative trafficking in enslaved persons. Others (Dutch, Spanish, French, English, etc.) joined in African trading, though for centuries European knowledge of Africa's interior was very vague. Much of the blank map was filled in by arduous, often fatal, expeditions in the Nineteenth Century.


Prehistoric links between Europe and Africa

The connection between Europe and North Africa is older than recorded history. It seems clear that cultural influences crossed the Mediterranean barrier during the late Palaeolithic and Neolithic ages. Hence, the late Palaeolithic Aterian industry and Capsian culture, both from North Africa, are connected with Europe. Some early Neolithic influences may also have arrived to Europe via North Africa. Additionally, the Megalithic phenomenon of the Chalcolithic period is found on both shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

Early historical exploration of Africa

reconstruction of Hecataeus' map of the world

Africa is named for the Afri people who settled in the area of current-day Tunisia. The Africa Province of the Roman Empire spanned the Mediterranean coast of what is now Libya, Tunisia and Algeria. The parts of North Africa north of the Sahara were well known in antiquity. Prior to the 2nd century BC, however, Greek geographers were unaware that the land mass then known as Libya expanded south of the Sahara, assuming that the desert bounded on the outer Ocean. Indeed, Alexander the Great, according to Plutarchus' Lives, considered sailing from the mouths of the Indus back to Macedonia passing south of Africa as a shortcut compared to the land route. Even Eratosthenes around 200 BC still assumed an extent of the landmass no further south than the Horn of Africa. It was only in Ptolemy's world map (2nd century AD) that the realization that the southward extent of Africa was not in fact known at the time was made explicit.

As for early exploration of Sub-Saharan Africa, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus [1] describes how the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II sent out an expedition manned by Phoenician sailors about 600 BC which in three years circumnavigated Africa. They sailed south, rounded the Cape heading west, made their way north to the Mediterranean and then returned home. He states that they paused each year to sow and harvest grain. They reported that as they sailed around the southern end of the continent they had the sun to their north, which Herodotus found unbelievable. The Egyptologist Alan Lloyd suggests that the Greeks at this time understood that anyone going south far enough and then turning west would have the sun on their right but found it unbelievable that Africa reached so far south. He suggests that "It is extremely unlikely that an Egyptian king would, or could, have acted as Necho is depicted as doing" and that the story might have been triggered by the failure of Sataspes attempt to circumnavigate Africa under Xerxes the Great.[2]

The Phoenicians explored North Africa, establishing a number of colonies, the most prominent of which was Carthage. Carthage itself conducted exploration of West Africa. Donald Harden [3] describes the journey of Hanno the Navigator which Harden dates to c. 425 BC and even quotes in translation the surviving Greek account (about two pages long) of this expedition. There is some uncertainty as to how far precisely Hanno reached, "Some taking Hanno to the Cameroons, or even Gabon, while others say he stopped at Sierre Leone." [4]. In 146 BCE the Romans had conquered the African coasts, part of Numidia and Mauretania and started to explorer that land. It was later subdivided into Mauretania Tingitana, Mauretania Caesariensis, Numidia, and Africa Proconsularis also known as Vetus or Africa Nova. They remained a part of the Roman Empire until the 5th century AD.

Europeans in the Middle Ages

Detail of the Catalan Atlas by Abraham and Jehuda Cresques

With the expansion of Islam in the Middle Ages, North Africa was culturally cut off from non-Muslim Europe. The Islamic Empire created a barrier between Europe and the rest of the world, with European traders paying heavy tributes to obtain prized commodities like West African gold, East Asian spices and silk. The Italian republics of Venice and Genoa, among others, specialized in this trade.

In addition, the Jews of modern Spain, Portugal, and Morocco were allowed to trade in both cultural regions. Among them were Abraham Cresques and his son Jehuda, whose 1375 Catalan Atlas improved European knowledge of Africa and other regions, with a good deal of Muslim geographical knowledge and some educated guesses and imagination to fill in the blanks. This atlas details the Catalan expedition of Jaume Ferrer to the Gold River in 1346, which according to the map went south of Cape Bojador and to what is called West Africa Finisterrae.

The Genoese were also interested in circumventing the Muslim monopoly on Asian trade. In 1291, Tedisio Doria ordered Vandino and Ugolino Vivaldi to reach India via the Atlantic Ocean. When the expedition was lost, Doria sent ambassadors to Mogadishu to find out their fate.

Another interesting factor motivating European exploration was rumours of a powerful Christian kingdom, ruled by a priest-king known as Prester John, located somewhere in the eastern portion of Africa. Prester John was often identified as a Christian king who was a descendant of the Three Magi. Europeans sought his aid to defeat the Muslim nations that separated them from the Orient, or at least help them circumvent the Muslim monopoly.

Naval charts of 1339 show that the Canary Islands were already known to Europeans. In 1341, Portuguese and Italian explorers prepared a joint expedition. In 1342 the Catalans organized an expedition captained by Francesc Desvalers to the Canary Islands that set sail from Majorca. In 1344, Pope Clement VI named French admiral Luis de la Cerda Prince of Fortune, and sent him to conquer the Canaries.

In 1402, Jean de Bethencourt and Gadifer de la Salle sailed to conquer the Canary Islands but found them already plundered by the Castilians. Although they did conquer the isles, Bethencourt's nephew was forced to cede them to Castile in 1418.

In 1455 and 1456 two Italian explorers Alvise Cadamosto from Venice and Antoniotto Usodimare from Genoa, working for the king of Portugal, followed the Gambia river, visiting the land of Senegal, while another Italian sailor, Antonio da Noli from Genoa explored Cabo Verde and the Bijagos islands.

Portuguese expeditions

Henry the Navigator in 15th century triptych of St. Vincent, by Nuno Gonçalves

Portuguese explorer Prince Henry, known as the Navigator, was the first European to methodically explore Africa and the oceanic route to the Indies. From his residence in the Algarve region of southern Portugal, he directed successive expeditions to circumnavigate Africa and reach India. In 1420, Henry sent an expedition to secure the uninhabited but strategic island of Madeira. In 1425, he tried to secure the Canary Islands as well, but these were already under firm Castilian control. In 1431, another Portuguese expedition reached and annexed the Azores.

Along the western and eastern coasts of Africa, progress was also steady; Portuguese sailors reached Cape Bojador in 1434 and Cape Blanco in 1441. In 1433, they built a fortress on the island of Arguin, in modern day Mauritania, trading European wheat and cloth for African gold and slaves. It was the first time that the semi-mythic gold of the Sudan reached Europe without Muslim mediation. Most of the slaves were sent to Madeira, which became, after thorough deforestation, the first European plantation colony. Between 1444 and 1447, the Portuguese explored the coasts of Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea. In 1456, a Venetian captain under Portuguese command explored the islands of Cape Verde. In 1462, two years after Prince Henry's death, Portuguese sailors explored the Bissau islands and named Sierra Leoa (Lion Range).

16th century map of Western Africa, showing São Jorge da Mina (Elmina castle) fortified factory

In 1469, Fernão Gomes rented the rights of African exploration for five years. Under his direction, in 1471, the Portuguese reached modern Ghana and settled in La Mina (the mine), later renamed Elmina. They had finally reached a country with an abundance of gold, hence the historical name of "Gold Coast" that Elmina would eventually receive.

In 1472, Fernão do Pó discovered the island that would bear his name for centuries (now Bioko) and an estuary abundant in shrimp (Portuguese: camarão,), giving its name to Cameroon.

Soon after, the equator was crossed by Europeans . Portugal established a base in Sāo Tomé that, after 1485, was settled with criminals. After 1497, expelled Spanish and Portuguese Jews also found a safe haven there.

In 1482, Diogo Cão found the mouth of a large river and learned of the existence of a great kingdom, Kongo. In 1485, he explored the river upstream as well.

But the Portuguese wanted, above anything else, to find a route to India and kept trying to circumnavigate Africa. In 1485, the expedition of João Afonso d'Aveiros, with the German astronomer Martin of Behaim as part of the crew, explored the Bight of Benin, returning information about African king Ogane.

In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias and his pilot Pêro de Alenquer, after putting down a mutiny, turned a cape where they were caught by a storm, naming it Cape of Storms. They followed the coast for a while realizing that it kept going eastward with even some tendency to the north. Lacking supplies, they turned around with the conviction that the far end of Africa had finally been reached. Upon their return to Portugal the promising cape was renamed Cape of Good Hope.

Some years later, Christopher Columbus landed in America under rival Castilian command. Pope Alexander VI decreed the Inter caetera bull, dividing the non-Christian parts of the world between the two rival Catholic powers, Spain and Portugal.

Finally, in the years 1497 to 1498, Vasco da Gama, again with Alenquer as pilot, took a direct route to Cape of Good Hope, via St. Helena. He went beyond the farthest point reached by Dias and named the country Natal. Then he sailed northward, making land at Quelimane (Mozambique) and Mombasa, where he found Chinese traders, and Malindi (both in modern Kenya). In this town, he recruited an Arab pilot and set sail directly to Calicut. On August 28, 1498, King Manuel of Portugal informed the Pope of the good news that Portugal had reached India.

Egypt and Venice reacted to this news with hostility; from the Red Sea, they jointly attacked the Portuguese ships that traded with India. The Portuguese defeated these ships near Diu in 1509. The Ottoman Empire's indifferent reaction to Portuguese exploration left Portugal in almost exclusive control of trade through the Indian Ocean. They established many bases along the eastern coast of Africa, from Mozambique to Somalia, and captured Aden in 1513.

In 1500, a Portuguese fleet commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, which followed the route just opened by Vasco da Gama to India, was dispersed by a storm in the Indian Ocean. One of the ships under command of Diogo Dias arrived to a coast that wasn't in East Africa. Two years later, a chart already showed an elongated island east of Africa that bore the name Madagascar. But only a century later, between 1613 and 1619, did the Portuguese explore the island in detail. They signed treaties with local chieftains and sent the first missionaries, who found it impossible to make locals believe in Hell, and were eventually expelled.


Portugal and the native states of equatorial Africa

17th century Crucifix, copper alloy, by Kongo peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Portuguese colonization of some parts of Africa would have a very negative impact in some of the existing civilizations. By 1583, they had destroyed the Afro-Muslim Zendj civilization of East Africa that competed with them for the African trade. Two other important African kingdoms, the Kongo and the Monomotapa, would also be destroyed by the Portuguese conquerors. Relations with the Kongo were initially good: Congolese kings embraced Catholicism and welcomed Portuguese missionaries and merchants. But the slave trade eventually became a major issue of dispute in the region. The Portuguese (and later also the Dutch) supported the enslaving warrior state of the Jaggas, who sacked the Kongo repeatedly.

Queen Nzinga in peace negotiations with the Portuguese governor in Luanda, 1657

They also used the Kongo to weaken the neighbour realm of Ndongo, where Queen Nzinga put a fierce but eventually doomed resistance to Portuguese and Jagga ambitions. Portugal intervened militarily in these conflicts, creating the basis for their colony of Angola. In 1663, after another conflict, the royal crown of Kongo was sent to Lisbon. Nevertheless, a diminished Kongo Kingdom would still exist until 1885, when the last Manicongo, Pedro V, ceded his almost non-existent domain to Portugal.

The Portuguese dealt with the other major state of Southern Africa, the Monomotapa (in modern Zimbabwe), in a similar manner: Portugal intervened in a local war hoping to get abundant mineral riches, imposing a protectorate. But with the authority of the Monomotapa diminished by the foreign presence, anarchy took over. The local miners migrated and even buried the mines to prevent them from falling into Portuguese hands. When in 1693 the neighbouring Cangamires invaded the country, the Portuguese accepted their failure and retreated to the coast.

Dutch intervention

Beginning in the 17th century, the Netherlands began exploring and colonizing Africa. While the Dutch were waging a long war of independence against Spain, Portugal had temporarily united with Spain, starting in 1580 and ending in 1640. As a result, the growing colonial ambitions of the Netherlands were mostly directed against Portugal.

For this purpose, two Dutch companies were founded: the West Indies Company, with power over all the Atlantic Ocean, and the East Indies Company, with power over the Indian Ocean.

The West India Company conquered Elmina in 1637 and Luanda in 1640. In 1648, they were expelled from Luanda by the Portuguese. Overall the Dutch built 16 forts in different places, including Goree in Senegal, partly overtaking Portugal as the main slave-trading power.

The Dutch left a lasting impact in South Africa, a region ignored by Portugal that the Dutch eventually decided to use as station in their route to East Asia. Jan van Riebeeck founded Cape Town in 1652, starting the European exploration and colonization of South Africa.

Other early European presence in Africa

Map of Fort James (Gambia), the first English possession in Africa

Almost at the same time as the Dutch, other European powers attempted to create their own outposts for the African slave trade.

As early as 1530, English merchant adventurers started trading in West Africa, coming into conflict with Portuguese troops. In 1581, Francis Drake reached the Cape of Good Hope. In 1663, the British built Fort James in Gambia. One year later, another British colonial expedition attempted to settle southern Madagascar, resulting in the death of most of the colonists. The British forts on the West African coast were eventually taken by the Dutch.

In 1626, the French Compagnie de l'Occident was created. This company expelled the Dutch from Senegal, making it the first French domain in Africa.

France also put her eyes in Madagascar, the island that had been used since 1527 as a stop in travels to India. In 1642, the French East India Company founded a settlement in southern Madagascar called Fort Dauphin. The commercial results of this settlement were scarce and, again, most of the settlers died. One of the survivors, Etienne de Flacourt, published a History of the Great Island of Madagascar and Relations, which was for a long time the main European source of information about the island. Further settlement attempts had no more success but, in 1667, François Martin led the first expedition to the Malgassy heartland, reaching Lake Alaotra. In 1665, France officially claimed Madagascar, under the name of Île Dauphine. However, little colonial activity would take place in Madagascar until the 19th century.

In 1657, Swedish merchants founded Cape Coast in modern Ghana, but were soon displaced by the Danish, who founded Fort Christiansborg near modern day Accra.

In 1677, King Friedrich the Great of Prussia sent an expedition to the western coast of Africa. The commander of the expedition, Captain Blonk, signed agreements with the chieftains of the Gold Coast. There, the Prussians built a fort named Gross Friederichsburg and restored the abandoned Portuguese fort of Arguin. But in 1720, the king decided to sell these bases to the Netherlands for 7,000 ducats and 12 slaves, six of them chained with pure gold chains.

Overall, European exploration of Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries was very limited. Instead they were focused on the slave trade, which only required coastal bases and items to trade. The real exploration of the African interior would start well into the 19th century.

19th century

Although the Napoleonic Wars distracted the attention of Europe from exploratory work in Africa, those wars nevertheless exercised great influence on the future of the continent, both in Egypt and South Africa. The occupation of Egypt (1798–1803), first by France and then by Great Britain, resulted in an effort by the Ottoman Empire to regain direct control over that country. In 1811, Mehemet Ali established an almost independent state, and from 1820 onward established Egyptian rule over the eastern Sudan. In South Africa, the struggle with Napoleon caused the United Kingdom to take possession of the Dutch settlements at the Cape. In 1814, Cape Colony, which had been continuously occupied by British troops since 1806, was formally ceded to the British crown.

Meanwhile, considerable changes had been made in other parts of the continent. The occupation of Algiers by France in 1830 put an end to the piracy of the Barbary states. Egyptian authority continued to expand southward, with the consequent additions to knowledge of the Nile. The city of Zanzibar, on the island of that name, rapidly attained importance. Accounts of a vast inland sea, and the discovery of the snow-clad mountains of Kilimanjaro in 1840–1848, stimulated the desire for further knowledge about Africa in Europe.

In the mid-19th century, Protestant missions were carrying on active missionary work on the Guinea coast, in South Africa and in the Zanzibar dominions. Missionaries visited little-known regions and peoples, and in many instances became explorers and pioneers of trade and empire. David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary, had been engaged since 1840 in work north of the Orange River. In 1849, Livingstone crossed the Kalahari Desert from south to north and reached Lake Ngami. Between 1851 and 1856, he traversed the continent from west to east, discovering the great waterways of the upper Zambezi River. In November 1855, Livingstone became the first European to see the famous Victoria Falls, named after the Queen of the United Kingdom. From 1858 to 1864, the lower Zambezi, the Shire River and Lake Nyasa were explored by Livingstone. Nyasa had been first reached by the confidential slave of António da Silva Porto, a Portuguese trader established at Bié in Angola, who crossed Africa during 1853–1856 from Benguella to the mouth of the Rovuma. A prime goal for explorers was to locate the source of the River Nile. Expeditions by Burton and Speke (1857–1858) and Speke and Grant (1863) located Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. It was eventually proved to be the latter from which the Nile flowed.

Henry Morton Stanley, who had in 1871 succeeded in finding and succouring Livingstone (originating the famous line "Dr. Livingstone, I presume"), started again for Zanzibar in 1874. In one of the most memorable of all exploring expeditions in Africa, Stanley circumnavigated Victoria Nyanza and Tanganyika. Striking farther inland to the Lualaba, he followed that river down to the Atlantic Ocean—which he reached in August 1877—and proved it to be the Congo.

Explorers were also active in other parts of the continent. Southern Morocco, the Sahara and the Sudan were traversed in many directions between 1860 and 1875 by Gerard Way, Georg Schweinfurth and Gustav Nachtigal. These travellers not only added considerably to geographical knowledge, but obtained invaluable information concerning the people, languages and natural history of the countries in which they sojourned. Among the discoveries of Schweinfurth was one that confirmed Greek legends of the existence beyond Egypt of a "pygmy race". But the first western discoverer of the pygmies of Central Africa was Paul du Chaillu, who found them in the Ogowe district of the west coast in 1865, five years before Schweinfurth's first meeting with them. Du Chaillu had previously, through journeys in the Gabon region between 1855 and 1859, made popular in Europe the knowledge of the existence of the gorilla, whose existence was thought to be as legendary as that of the Pygmies of Aristotle.

Africa as the "dark continent"

For many centuries, Africa was known to the Western world as the "dark continent", meaning an unexplored but also savage and untamed area, populated by heathens and wild animals. The mind of the explorer is typically excited by the prospect of negotiating hostile and uncharted environments, and hence Africa became a magnet to many European explorers.

Attitudes to exploration of Africa

Many explorers felt that it was their duty to introduce Western civilisation and Christianity to "savage" black African peoples, and hence exploration was seen by most people during the post-Renaissance era as a useful expenditure of energy. It was also a source of national pride to have an explorer reach a certain goal, and explorers certainly competed as the stakes of hubris were high for the men who could identify the source of the Nile or reach other landmarks. Exploration was an activity mostly practised by well-educated, wealthy men, who had the resources and the initiative to explore.

Portuguese explorers

15th century - African Coast

15th century - Atlantic Islands and African Coast

15th century - Other

16th century

19th century

British explorers

19th century

Other European explorers

19th century

See also


  1. ^ Herodotus, Histories IV: 37
  2. ^ Lloyd, Alan B. "Necho and the Red Sea: Some Considerations Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 63, (1977), pp. 142-155
  3. ^ Donald Harden, The Phoenicians, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1971 (1962)p. 162f
  4. ^ Harden, op. cit. p. 169


  • Michael Crowder, The Story of Nigeria, Faber and Faber, London, 1978 (1962)
  • Basil Davidson, The African Past, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1966 (1964)
  • Donald Harden, The Phoenicians, Penguin, Harmonsworth, 1971 (1962)
  • Herodotus, transl. Aubrey de Selincourt, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968 (1954)
  • Historia Universal Siglo XXI. Africa: desde la prehistoria hasta los años sesenta. Pierre Bertaux, 1972. Siglo XXI Editores S.A. ISBN 84-323-0069-1
  • Vincent B. Khapoya, The African Experience, Pretice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 1998 (1994)
  • Louise Levanthes, When China Ruled the Seas, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 1994
  • Kevin Shillington, History of Africa, St Martin's Press, New York, 1995 (1989)

The End


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