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Travelers and Traveler's Accounts in World History, Part 1


Exploring Africa: Suggestions for Using Travel Literature

David Northrup


     Travel accounts are a relatively painless way to broaden one's understanding of African history, and carefully chosen excerpts bring a particular place and moment to life for students. The golden age of African travel literature was the 1800s when the accounts of Western "explorers" were best sellers in Europe and America, but fascination with the continent inspired accounts both going back antiquity and continuing to this day. Besides providing vivid, first-hand details, travel accounts can be pedagogically valuable because so many are written by outsiders who must confront the challenges of cross-cultural understanding. A few find the challenges overpowering and fall back on their prejudices. Most travellers choosing to undertake arduous and dangerous journeys are driven by disciplined curiosity and take great care to give accurate description and make sense of the differences in customs, beliefs, and values they observe. A few succeed brilliantly, but many travellers end up stuck somewhere in between prejudice and objectivity, unwilling or unable to put aside their own values. Helping students discover these defects can be a valuable exercise in stretching their own cross-cultural imaginations.

     A good example of both the factual and the prejudicial values of travel literature is the well-known account by Ibn Battuta of the people of Mali in the 1300s. At one place in his account the Moroccan traveller draws up a balance sheet of the Malians' good and bad features, both halves of which reflect the facts and his own prejudicial reading of them. The Malians are good, the pious Muslim scholar declares, because they are observant Muslims, zealous in attending religious services and in sending their children to Koranic schools. Ibn Battuta's personal values are equally vivid in his condemnation of the insufficiency of Malian women's clothing and people's departures from Arab-Islamic dietary rules and other customs. In another passage he sternly condemns the freedom some African women have to converse with male friends without supervision by husbands or male relatives. Even when judging the customs of the people through the lens of his own values, Ibn Battuta is providing factual information. Classroom discussion of the difference between facts and value judgments he presents can enhance students' critical reading skills and encourage them to consider how cultural values affect observations. It is also interesting to note that, although Ibn Battuta and the Malians he describes were both "Africans" according to modern constructions of identity, that fact had no detectable effect on how he thought of them. Their common identity as Muslims, however, was highly significant.1

Ancient and Medieval Travels

     Many travels to Africa below the Sahara preceded Ibn Battuta's and many others followed. Inscriptions from the Fifth Dynasty of ancient Egypt (2500-2350 BCE) mention expeditions on the Red Sea south to "Punt" for aromatic spices (frankincense and myrrh) and electrum (an alloy of silver and gold). Another inscription from the 1400s BCE recounts eleven expeditions to Punt for spices, electrum, ebony, slaves, and cattle. Punt is thought to be near the Horn of Africa and may be related to the land of "Ophir" mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. King Solomon of Israel (c. 970 to 931 BCE) built a fleet that brought 450,000 ounces of gold back from Ophir, along with silver, ivory, apes and peacocks (1 Kings 9:26-28, 10:11).

     The Greek historian Herodotus tells of a remarkable journey by young North Africans across the Sahara, who reached a river that appears to be the Niger, an account that may be confirmed by the chariot depictions in the mountains in the central Sahara. Herodotus also tells of a circumnavigation of Africa by Phoenician seafarers in the service of the Egyptian pharaoh Necho (Wehimbre Nekao, r. 610-595 BCE) and of a circumnavigation of Africa by Hanno, the king of Carthage, in the 6th century BCE, for which an authentic first-hand account may survive.2 Along with the fascinating details they recount, these expeditions also establish that the impulse of explore (whether successfully or not) has been a human trait since time immemorial.

     Medieval Muslims also recorded a number of travels to sub-Saharan Africa, translations of which are available in inexpensive paperback collections.3 These date from both before and after Ibn Battuta's well-known account of his travels in East and West Africa in the 1300s. The Andalusian-Arab geographer and historian Al-Bakri seems not to have left his native Spain, but he still managed to compile useful information about Ghana in 1067, the state known as "the land of gold" that preceded Mali. Chihab al-Umari, another Arab compiler rather than a traveller, provides a good account of fourteenth-century Mali and about Mansa Musa's passage through Cairo en route to and from Mecca. Al-Umari tells that the Sultan of Cairo, Ibn Amir Hajib, related an unusual story from Mansa Musa about his predecessor's explorations of the Atlantic. Mansa Suleiman sent out 400 ships on an expedition to explore what was across the Atlantic, from which only one ship returned. He then set out at the head of a second fleet of 2,000 ships, none of which retuned.4 The North African Muslim known as Leo Africanus (c. 1494 – c. 1554?) (or al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi) did travel below the Sahara but mixed up his own observations with those of others, which makes his text difficult to use in classrooms without specialized guidance.

     One final Muslim explorer deserves a mention: Mir Ali Beg. Mir Ali's efforts were in the service of the Ottoman Empire, but we know of his two expeditions to East Africa only from Portuguese sources. For this reason we must depend on chapter six of Giancarlo Casale's magnificent The Ottoman Age of Exploration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) for a coherent account. The first voyage in 1585-86 was little more than a privateering expedition—and a successful one. When he returned three years later he was welcomed as a hero along the Swahili coast but ended up a prisoner of the Portuguese. What survives tells us little about Africans, but it does serve to put the European explorations in a broader context.

Portuguese Voyagers

     The fifteenth century inaugurated voyages that were of special importance for our knowledge of Africa and for the many examples of intercultural relations. The Hakluyt Society has published modern editions and translations of most of these accounts.5 Digital versions of many volumes originally published in English are available for free on the Internet. Although European explorers may be either too well known to require much attention elsewhere in this forum or are simply out of fashion, they can still provide fascinating insights into African-European encounters. Let me give a few specific examples that I have found very useful in teaching African and world history.

     The value of first-hand accounts, of course, is not just that they confirm what we know, but that they complicate what we know, which helps keep us honest. First-hand evidence helps to counter the tendency to oversimplifying what was happening, as teachers attempt to condense the narrative of world history to manageable size. Some specific examples of early Portuguese encounters with Africa are telling in this respect.

     For example, the Portuguese crown sent an expedition in 1482 to establish a trading post on the shores of what soon became known as the Gold Coast. The account makes clear that this could be done only with the consent of the local ruler, a man the account calls "Caramansa." The Portuguese leaders put on their best clothes, built a platform near the shore, and celebrated a Mass. By prearrangement Caramansa arrived with similar ceremony, proceeded by a great procession and accompanied by music. Through a local interpreter, the Portuguese explained their need for a secure dwelling to protect their trade goods and the mutual advantages that would accrue. The summary of Caramansa's reply is particularly fascinating. He begins by noting that, compared to the few "filthy and vile" Portuguese who had come before them, these well-dressed visitors appear more respectable and thus must be men of honor who will keep their word. But, he adds, should they fail to respect the terms of the agreement, his people will not have to resort to force but simply to withdraw from the trade and leave the Portuguese without trading partners. As the Portuguese account makes clear, this was a partnership and Caramansa had the upper hand on shore.

     The next year the Portuguese sent a delegation to the kingdom of Benin near the Niger Delta, whose ruler was the most powerful they encountered along the West African coast. After listening to their entreaties for trade, the king of Benin sent an ambassador back with the Portuguese to check out what these strangers had to offer. The ambassador evidently acquired a good grasp of Portuguese on the voyage to Lisbon, for an account praises him for the fine speeches and good impression he made in Portugal. The Portuguese crown gave great feasts in his honor, showed him the good things of Portugal, and sent him back richly dressed and with presents for the king of Benin. By agreement trade was opened.6

     For the most part Vasco da Gama's expedition to India in 1497-98 steered clear of Africa except for the southern tip, where accounts recorded some important information and some surprisingly complex meetings. This expedition produced the first written account of the two ancient populations on either side of the Cape of Good Hope. The account notes that the first of these were hunter-gatherers, who ate "the flesh of seals, whales, and gazelles, and the roots of wild plants." After rounding the Cape, the expedition made contact with a group of pastoralists, whose herds of cattle and sheep supported larger populations. The chronicler notes things that were thought significant because they were new: the hunter-gatherers' dogs barked the same as those in Portugal; the pastoralists' beef tasted the same as that of Europe. Though the humans were equally new to the Portuguese the account is free of prejudicial assumptions and language. The hunter-gatherers were quizzed about Indian spices, about which they had no knowledge, and were given small presents. The Portuguese were surprised when the pastoralists serenaded them on their flutes and danced for them, not expecting Africans, the account says, to be musical, and the Portuguese responded by blowing trumpets and dancing in return. One can only imagine what the pastoralists thought of the Europeans' music and dance.7

     The genrally amicable relations along the Atlantic coast are worth noting because they provide a sharp contrast to the hostile and generally violent Portuguese encounters along the Swahili Coast. The change is related to two differences. First the Swahili rulers were Muslims setting the stage for mutual hostility. Second, the Indian Ocean coastal towns were part of the vibrant trading system of the Indian Ocean and thus their inhabitants were less inclined than those on the more isolated Atlantic coast to be eager for new partners.

European Travellers in Inner Africa

     From the late 1700s new expeditions by northern Europeans provides additional information about inland Africa and the niceties of cross-cultural interactions.8 The pioneer of such explorations was the Scotsman Mungo Park, who in 1795-1797 went up the Gambia River and through the Western Sudan to the upper Niger River, and returned. As his journals show, Park was well educated and a good observer.9 In Africa's Discovery of Europe, 1450-1850, I used details from Park's journals to show African reactions to the sight of a white man, but his own, more restrained reactions are there, too.

     Even more scholarly was the German explorer Heinrich Barth. In addition, as one historian comments, Barth's diaries show that "he had, or acquired from his travels, many of the valued personal qualities needed [by a] successful worker in Africa—qualities like patience, friendliness, understanding, and accessibility." He also became fluent in Hausa and compiled wordlists of dozens of other African languages, making him a well-informed observer. Barth provides valuable descriptions of the Sokoto Caliphate at its height, including the major cities of Katsina and Kano and the province of Adamawa, where, he relates, slave–raiding and slavery existed "on an immense scale."10 Scottish explorer Hugh Clapperton's accounts of his travels in the Sokoto Caliphate three decades earlier provide interesting comparisons.11

     The nineteenth century also saw a huge increase in explorations of African rivers, including the Niger, the Nile, and the Congo.12 These explorations had several complementary motivations. Genuine scientific interest was primary and accounted for the sponsorship by geographical societies, especially the Royal Geographical Society of London. The suppression of the slave trade and other humanitarian interests were another. Humanitarian motives often overlapped with interests in economic development, which reflected the belief that expanding "legitimate trade" was needed as an alternative to the slave trade. Economic motives got tied into the "Scramble for Africa" late in the century, but it would be wrong to minimize the genuine humanitarian motives, even though travelers as different as the Scottish missionary David Livingstone and the Anglo-American journalist Henry M. Stanley managed to blend the two.

     Stanley generally gets a bad press, especially due to his later activities in the service of King Leopold of Belgium, but his account of his 1876-1877 traversal of East Africa and descent of the Congo is full of surprises. Besides the meeting with Livingstone, he also has a complimentary account of his meeting with the Zanzibar trader Tippu Tib. Even more laudatory is his account of King Mutesa of Buganda. Finally, his illustrations of African hairdos, designs, and artifacts show an early and unexpected appreciation of African esthetics.13

     Richard F. Burton's great love of other cultures comes across in Ron Rafelson's 1990 film "The Mountains of the Moon," about Burton and John H. Speke's trek across East Africa in search of the headwaters of the Nile. As soon as Burton enters a new village, he is picking up the language, examining the artifacts, tasting the local food and drink, and flirting with the women.

     Not all the explorers of the 1800s were Europeans. Two Africans rescued earlier from the slave trade and educated in Sierra Leone published their own accounts and observations on the 1857-59 Niger River expedition. One of them, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, later returned to the lower Niger as the first Anglican bishop in West Africa. Several African Americans wrote accounts of Liberia, the Niger, and the Congo.14

     Nor were all the explorers men. At century's end, the formidable Mary Kingsley (niece of the novelist Charles Kingsley) travelled in West Africa making no new discoveries but offering many refreshingly candid takes on the realities of the day.15 She criticized British missionaries for their narrow-mindedness and pointed out the positive side of African polygamy, while condemning African infanticide. She was outspoken against the belief, then popular in Europe that naïve Africans were being led astray by the European liquor trade. "I should rather like to see the African lady or gentleman who could be 'led away'," she wrote, "all the leading away I have seen on the Coast has been the other way." In this passage Mary Kingsley's values and facts may provoke discussion even richer than that suggested above with regard to Ibn Battuta.

Twentieth-Century Exploration

     By the early 1900s most of Africa's major geographical secrets were known to the outside world, but the impulse to explore was far from over. The continent has continued to be of intense interest. There are several categories of writing that serve up the same sort of good observation as the older explorers' accounts.

     Modern adventure travel might be said to begin with Graham Greene's 1935 trek through Liberia recorded in Journey Without a Map (1935) and his cousin and companion Barbara Greene's Too Late to Turn Back, published two years later. Neither is uplifting but both are literate and informative. Congo River explorations have been a popular genre, beginning with André Gide's journals of his passage through French Equatorial Africa in 1925-26, Travels in the Congo and Return from Chad. (Voyage au Congo, 1927, and Retour du Tchad, 1928). Since the end of colonial rule there has been a revival of adventure travel. In East along the Equator: A Journey up the Congo and into Zaire (1967), for example, journalist Helen Winternitz memorably recounts her travels up the river from Kinshasa to Kisangani and overland through the Ituri forest to Goma. Jeffrey Taylor, Facing the Congo: A Modern-day Journey into the Heart of Darkness (2000) is a reprise of Stanley's journey down the Congo. Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town (2003) builds on his earlier stays in Africa.

     A different sort of adventure is at the heart of African American accounts of their efforts to come to grips with their own African heritage by travelling in Africa or living there. Most are frustrated by the obstacles of language and other cultural differences that separate them from ordinary Africans. Some, like W.E. B. Du Bois in Liberia and the Rastafarians who settled in Ethiopia, were so wrapped up in their own myths about Africa that they could not be objective.16 Three readable accounts with greater objectivity are Eslanda Goode Robeson's African Journey (1945), Era Bell Thompson,'s Africa, Land of My Fathers (1954), and Maya Angelou, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986). Excerpts of these appear in this author's anthology, paired with accounts by Africans of the United States.17

     Realistic fiction by Africa's novelists is another way to encounter Africa. Their recreations of parts of Africa are not travel books strictly speaking, except in the sense that those who read them are transported to the places they describe. Anything by Chinua Achebe works, but his two novels set in Igbo villages at the beginning of the colonial period are history lessons: Things Fall Apart (1959) and Arrow of God (1964). Unfortunately the former is often taught as though it were a societal tragedy rather than an account of Igbo resilience and adaptability in the face of difficult circumstances. T. Obinkaram Echewa brilliantly recreates the Woman's War of 1929 in southeastern Nigeria in his novel, I Saw the Sky Catch Fire (1992). In her novel The Slave Girl (1977) Buchi Emecheta recreates the world of her grandmother's time and The Joys of Motherhood (1979) captures the entire colonial period in Lagos. The early novels of James Ngugi (a.k.a. Ngugi wa Thiong'o) provide wonderful entrees to the history of the Kikuyu of Kenya: Weep Not Child (1964) looks at education and nationalism after the Second World War; The River Between (1965) tells a gripping story of struggles over education and female circumcision in the 1920s & '30s.

     Personal memoirs are another form of armchair travel. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1986, Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka has written two accounts of his happy childhood in a Christian family in southwestern colonial Nigeria: Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981) and Ìsarà: A Voyage around "Essay" (1989), a more fictionalized account of about his schoolmaster father. As one reviewer of the latter notes, "Isara supplies the essential ingredient missing from history books—…the heart that propels the spirit." Two very different memoirs from post-colonial eastern Africa are The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior: An Autobiography (1986) by Tepilit Ole Saitoti, a Tanzanian whose access to formal education helped him grow from a herd boy to an accomplished writer and rural development specialist; Nega Mezlekia, Notes from the Hyena's Belly: an Ethiopian Boyhood (2000) describes his harrowing experiences during the war-torn period following the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie.

     Two other memoirs delightfully bring to life places in West Central Africa. Song from the Forest: My Life among the Ba-Benjellé Pygmies (1993), an enchanting account by Louis Sarno, a young man from New Jersey who was so enchanted by Pygmy music that he went to live with a forest-dwelling community in the Central African Republic. Four decades earlier another young man, Belgian-born Jan Vansina, (who went on to be one of the pioneers of African history at the University of Wisconsin) similarly immersed himself in a very different setting, a remote Kuba village, in the Belgian Congo, charmingly recounted in Chapter Two of his autobiography, Living with Africa (1994). The struggles for majority rule in Rhodesia are the setting for two other gripping memoirs that move our understanding beyond simplistic black/white categories: Peter Godwin's Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa (1996) and Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (2001). As in Elspeth Huxley's The Flame Trees of Thika (1959) set in white settler country in Kenya, these memoirs of childhood are able to transcend the prejudices that adults find harder to escape.

     In short, travel literature is a wonderful way to teach history. An excerpt from a first-person account can bring a distant time and place to life, usually without oversimplifying and often by adding nuances that a textbook may omit. Although assigning two accounts of the same time and place is rarely possible, one can often highlight differences in the observers and the observed by assigning accounts of a single place at different times or two different places in Africa at about the same time. Not only can such paired readings bring out differences, they also can make it easier to detect the ways in which the values of the observers may influence their observations. Finding room in a world history survey course for excerpts from travel accounts is a challenge, but the immediacy and opportunity for critical thinking they bring makes the effort worthwhile.

David Northrup taught African and world history for four decades, first at Tuskegee Institute and then at Boston College. His numerous publications include The Diary of Antera Duke: An Eighteenth-Century African Slave Trader, co-author (2010); The Atlantic Slave Trade, compiler and editor, 3rd ed. (2010); Africa's Discovery of Europe, 1450-1850, 3rd ed. (2013); and How English Became the Global Language (2013). He is past president of the World History Association and can be reached at


1 Said Hamdun and Noël King, ed. and trans. Ibn Battuta in Black Africa (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2005).

2 Herodotus, The Histories, ii.32, iv.42, 196. A good introduction by a Dutch historian is Jona Lendering, "Hanno," Livius.Org, 1998, 2007,

3 The most comprehensive collection is N. Levtzion and J. F. P. Hopkins, eds., Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2000). The same publisher has reissued revised versions of Robert O. Collins's African History: Text and Readings (1990), volumes I and II of which contain medieval Muslim texts, as well as E. W. Bovill's The Golden Trade of the Moors (1995), which is a good guide to the history and sources of the Western Sudan.

4 In Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus, pp. 268-69.

5 John William Blake, ed., Europeans in West Africa, 1450-1560 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1942) is a useful compilation of translated early accounts. Cf. David Northrup, "Africans, Early European Contacts, and the Emergent Diaspora," in Oxford Handbook on the Atlantic World c.1450-c.1820, ed. Philip Morgan and Nicholas Canny (London: Oxford University Press, 2011), 38-52. Some key texts also appear in Basil Davidson, ed., African Civilization Revisited (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1991) and the volumes edited by Collins cited in note 3.

6 These accounts can be found in the collections edited by Blake and by Davidson cited above.

7 E. G. Ravenstein, ed., A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama (London; Hakluyt Society, 1898), 11-12.

8 A good place to start are the sketches of nine of these written by pioneering Africanists and edited by Robert Rotberg, Africa and Its Explorers: Motives, Methods, and Impact (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970).

9 Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa: Performed in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797 (London: John Murray, 1816). Copies of this work and other travels in Africa can be downloaded from Google books and Gutenberg-e.

10 Anthony Kirk-Greene, "Heinrich Barth: An Exercise in Empathy," in Rotberg, Africa and Its Explorers, 26. Barth's original German text and the English translation, Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa, are available on-line. Excerpts are in Hodgkin, Nigerian Perspectives. Allan G. B. Fisher and Humphrey J. Fisher, Slavery and Muslim Society in Africa (New York: Doubleday, 1971) summarizes Barth's findings.

11 Hugh Clapperton, Narrative of Travels in Northern and Central Africa in the Years 1822, 1823 (1828), available online.

12 Useful introductions are Sanche De Gramont, The Strong Brown God: The Story of the Niger River (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1977) and Alan Moorehead 's The White Nile (New York: Harper & Bros., 1960) and The Blue Nile (New York: Harper & Row, 1962).

13 Henry Morton Stanley, Through the Dark Continent (reprinted, New York: Dover Publications, 1988), I:238-325; II:74-121, and passim.

14 Samuel Adjai Crowther and John Christopher Taylor. The Gospel on the Banks of the Niger: Journals and Notices of the Native Missionaries on the Niger Expedition of 1857-1859 (London: Dawsons, 1859); Lamin Sanneh, Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); M. R. Delaney and Robert Campbell, Search for a Place: Black Separatism and Africa, 1860 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969); James Fairhead, Tim Geysbeek, Svend E. Holsoe, and Melissa Leach, eds., African-American Exploration in West Africa: Four Nineteenth-Century Diaries (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2003).

15 Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (London: Macmillan, 1899). See Katherine Frank, A Voyager Out: The Life of Mary Kingsley (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986).

16 Ibrahim Sundiata, Brothers and Strangers: Black Zion, Black Slavery, 1914-1940 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 11-15, 301-2.

17 David Northrup, Crosscurrents in the Black Atlantic, 1770-1963: A Brief History with Documents (2008), 148-65. See also James Campbell, Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005 (2006).


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