When They Came
Walker, Robin, New African
In their own words, early European merchants, travellers and explorers describe what they saw when they visited Africa 500 years ago. One of them, a truly flabbergasted Major Dubois, a French scholar, wrote about the Malian city of Djenne in these words: "What is this town ... with its wide, straight roads, its houses of two storeys built in a style that instantly arrests the eye? I am completely bewildered. Where did this gathering of unknown life come from? What is this civilisation, sufficiently assured to possess a manner and style of its own?" This extract is from When We Ruled, the new book by Robin Walker.
Professor Leo Frobenius was a pioneering German Africanist. Writing in the earlier part of the 20th century, he produced several highly original volumes on early African history. Most have remained in the original German, but a few were translated into French. One such work was Histoire de la Civilisation Africaine which appeared in 1936. It contains a splendid summary of what the earlier European merchants, travellers and explorers saw when they visited Africa 500 years ago.
"When they arrived in the Gulf of Guinea and landed at Vaida [in West Africa], the captains were astonished to find streets well laid out, bordered on either side for several leagues by two rows of trees; for days they travelled through a country of magnificent fields, inhabited by men clad in richly coloured garments of their own weaving!
"Further south in the Kingdom of the Congo, a swarming crowd dressed in 'silk' and 'velvet'; great states well-ordered, and down to the most minute details; powerful rulers, flourishing industries--civilised to the marrow of their bones. And the condition of the countries on the eastern coast--Mozambique, for example--was quite the same."
All very impressive, tree-lined streets, large farms, textiles industries, silk and velvet, etc., but how did the professor know any of this? Where is his evidence? How can we moderns check that this is indeed a fair picture of what the early travellers saw?
"And what they told," says Frobenius, "those old captains, those chiefs of expeditions, the d'Elbees, the De Marchais, the Pigafettas, and all the others, what they told is true. It can be verified. In the old royal Kunstkammer of Dresden, in the Weydmann collection of Ulm, in many other European 'curiosity cabinets' one still finds collections of objects from West Africa dating from that epoch; wonderful plush-velvets, of an extreme softness, made from the tenderest leaves of a certain banana tree; stuffs, soft and pliant, brilliant and delicate as silks, woven with well prepared raffia fibre, ceremonial javelins--their blades to the very points inlaid with the finest copper, bows so graceful, and ornamented so beautifully that they would do honour to any museum of arms whatsoever; calabashes decorated with the most perfect taste; sculpture of ivory and wood, the workmanship of which reveals skill and style."
The Kongo Empire
One of the sources Dr Frobenius alluded to was that of Filippo Pigafetta. His History of the Kingdom of Kongo was published in 1591. He based it on first-hand information supplied to him by the slave trader Duarte Lopex. The trader had sailed to Kongo far down the West African coast in April 1578. Abraham Hartwell made an English language translation of Pigafetta's work in 1597. Thomas Fowell Buxton made a modern translation in 1881.
Pigafetta informs us that the Kingdom of Kongo measured 1,685 miles in circumference and was divided into six administrative provinces. The capital city, Mbanza Kongo, lay in the province of Mpemba. It had a population of over 100,000 people and was already cosmopolitan. Some Portuguese lived there. Moreover, Christianity had spread to the region.
The Kongolese king, Nzinga a Kuwu, had been baptised and appears in Pigafetta's account under the Portuguese baptismal name of Dom Affonso. Modern scholars, however, identify the king as Dom Joao I.
"It was impossible to determine the area of this town outside the two enclosures," wrote Pigafetta, "since all of the countryside is filled with rural houses and palaces. Each lord with his group of inhabitants encloses a little village. The circumference of the Portuguese town measures about a mile, and that of the royal quarter as much. At night, the gates are not closed or even guarded."
In the 1520s, Francisco Alvarez, a Portuguese friar, visited Ethiopia. He published his report on the country in 1542, entitled Verdadera Informacam das terras de Preste Joam. From his account, we learn that the Portuguese sent him there on a mission to convert the Ethiopians to Roman Catholic Christianity. The Ethiopians were already Christians but they observed Coptic Christianity. On his visit, the Portuguese missionary saw the Ethiopian city of Lalibela. The city contained 11 underground churches. Clearly flabbergasted by their workmanship, Alvarez was worried that his fellow Portuguese citizens were not going to believe his account of this city. He wrote:
"I swear by God, in whose power I am, that all that is written is the truth, and there is much more than I have already written, and I have left it [out] that they may not tax me with its being falsehood."
In 1602, Pieter de Marees' Description of Guinea was published. It contained firsthand accounts of various travellers to Africa and what they found. Diereck Ruyters, a Dutch visitor, wrote one such account. He entered Benin City, in what is now southern Nigeria, and reported that: "At first, the town seems to be very large; when one enters it, one comes into a great broad street which appears to be seven or eight times broader than the Warme Street in Amsterdam [Holland]; this extends straight out, and when one has walked a quarter of an hour along it, he still does not see the end of the street ... The houses in this town stand in good order, one close to the other, like houses in Holland."
The Asante Empire
In 1817, Thomas Bowditch, an Englishman, visited the Asante Empire in what is now Ghana. Sent on official business by the British government, his book, Mission from Cape Coast to Ashantee, was published in 1819. It contains a vivid account of his impressions on entering Kumasi, the capital city:
"We entered Kumasi at two o'clock ... Upwards of 5,000 people, the greater part warriors, met us with awful bursts of martial music ... The smoke which encircled us from the incessant discharges of musquetry confined our glimpses to the foreground. "The dress of the captains was a war cap, with gilded rams' horns projecting in front, the sides extended beyond all proportion by immense plumes of eagles'feathers ... Their vest was of red cloth, covered with fetishes [ie, symbols] and saphies in gold and silver. They wore loose cotton trousers, with immense boots of a dull red leather, coming half way up the thigh. "The king, his tributaries, and captains, were resplendent in the distance, surrounded by attendants of every description ... At least 100 large umbrellas, or canopies which could shelter 30 persons, were sprung up and down by the bearers with brilliant effect, being made of scarlet, yellow, and the most shewy [sic] cloths and silks, and crowned on the top with crescents, pelicans, barrels, and arms and swords of gold. "The caboceers, as did their superior captains and attendants wore Ashanti cloths of extravagant price from the costly foreign silks which had been unravelled to weave them in all varieties of colour, as well as pattern; [these cloths] were of an incredible size and weight, and thrown over the shoulders exactly like a Roman toga; a small silk fillet generally encircles their temples, and massy gold necklaces, intricately wrought."
The English sent yet another fact-finding mission into West Africa. Led by the meticulous German, Dr Henry Barth, the findings were published between 1857 and 1858. Five large scholarly volumes were issued entitled Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa.
During his travels, word reached Dr Baarth that an African historian in the 1600s had already mapped the early history of the region. The book, Tarikh es Sudan, was still in circulation, if only one could get one's hands on it.
"I passed the time during my residence in this place [Gando] not quite uselessly," wrote Dr Baarth, "especially as I was so fortunate as to obtain here from a learned man of the name of Bokhari, a son of the late Mohamed Wani, a copy of that most valuable historical work ... to which my friend 'Abd el Kader, in Sokoto [in Northern Nigeria], had first called my attention.
"I spent three or four days most pleasantly in extracting the more important historical data of this work, which opened to me quite a new insight into the history of the regions of the middle course of the Niger ... exciting in me a far more lively interest than I had previously felt in a kingdom the greater power of which, in former times, I here found set forth in very clear and distinct outlines."
William Winwood Reade wrote The Martyrdom of Man in 1872. It is a strange but beautifully written text that attempts to show that Africa was never far from the mainstream of history. Among other things, Reade wrote an admirable summary of what Captain Clapperton and his two colleagues witnessed when they visited Kanem-Borno and Northern Nigeria:
"Denham and Clapperton ... were astonished to find among the Negroes magnificent courts; regiments of calvary; the horses caparisoned in silk for gala days and clad in coats of mail for war, long trains of camels laden with salt, corn and cloth and cowrie shells--which form the currency--and kola nuts which Arabs call 'the coffee of the Negroes'. "They attended with wonder the gigantic fairs at which the cotton goods of Manchester, the red cloth of Saxony, double-barrelled guns, razors, tea and sugar, Nuremberg ware and writing paper were exhibited for sale. They also found merchants who offered to cash their bills (ie, cheques) upon houses at Tripoli; and scholars acquainted with Avicenna, Averroes, and the Greak philosophers."
Djenne, the mysterious
Major Dubois, a French scholar, synthesised the Tarikh es Sudan with a travelogue to produce the first modern account of the Songhai Empire of West Africa. His Timbuctoo the Mysterious appeared in New York in 1896 and London the following year:
"As my boat approaches ... the banks and walls of the city [of Djenne in Mali] emerge in greater proportions from encircling water. At their feet, I can distinguish a harbour filled with large boats that have nothing in common with the accustomed pirogue. They are large and strange in form, like the city that shelters them. "When I climbed the banks and entered the walls, my surprise takes a definite form. I am completely bewildered and thrown out of reckoning by the novelty and strangeness of the town's interior. Surely the angel of Habakkuk has suddenly transported me a thousand leagues away from the Sudan [ie, Africa]. For it is not in the heart of a country of eternally similar huts (childish in their simplicity and confusion) that I should look to find a real town. "Yes, a real town in the European sense of the word; not one of those disorderly conglomerates of dwellings which we call towns in this country. Here were true houses; not primitive shelters crowned with roofs that are either flat or in the shape of an inverted funnel. Streets too; not seed-plots of buildings amongst which one wanders by paths that serpentine more than the most serpentine serpent. "The idea suddenly occurs to me, perhaps this is Timbuctoo [sic] after all. This would explain everything. But it is impossible; the Bosos say we are still 12 days' journey distant from there. What is this town, then, with its wide, straight roads, its houses of two storeys (some with a sketch of a third) built in a style that instantly arrests the eye? I am completely bewildered. Where did this gathering of unknown life come from? What is this civilisation, sufficiently assured to possess a manner and style of its own?"
Those who say "Africa has no history" or that "African history started when the Europeans came" would do well to read these European travellers, merchants and explorers who wrote as witnesses of truth.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: When They Came. Contributors: Walker, Robin - Author. Magazine title: New African. Issue: 455 Publication date: October 2006. Page number: 18+. © 2005 IC Publications Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.