When They Came

By Walker, Robin | New African, October 2006 | Go to article overview

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.

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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.

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"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.

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