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Black Explorers
Black Explorers

At its widest point, from West to East Africa is 4,600 miles wide (7,400 km) and 5,000 miles long from North to South (8,000 km). The North of Africa, or the Maghreb as it is known in Arabic, is separated off from the rest of the continent by desert which forms a band some 3,000 miles (4,830 km) across the northern part of the continent. Throughout history the people of Africa have made immense journeys. Some were one-way journeys involving the complete relocation of a society.

There were three main reasons for making these long and dangerous journeys:

· Trade
· Famine and climate change, and
· War

For thousands of years merchants made the trip across the Sahara, taking gold and slaves from the interior of West Africa up to the North and bringing back textiles and finished goods, later guns.

The journey could take three months with temperatures as high as 135 degrees Fahrenheit, falling to freezing point at night. It was a test of endurance for merchants, camels and slaves alike. A typical caravan in the 19th century would not have been much different from one of the 11th century, comprising about 1400 camels and four hundred merchants and slaves.

"The camels walked slowly and with effort for they were almost exhausted…The sight of this numerous caravan, destitute of water, scattered over the arid land, was truly dismal…the plain was interspersed with hills of coarse red sand mixed with gravel…The heat was stifling…The allowance of water was every time more and more scanty. We suffered beyond all expression." 
Excerpt from Journal d'un Voyage a Temboctou et a Jenne dans l'Afrique Centrale, by Rene Caillie.

The Nymawezi people and the Yao, were also prodigious travelers, moving from the East coast to the centre of Africa looking for slaves and ivory.

The Arab-African merchant Tippu Tip made himself a fortune by ceaseless journeys into the interior to capture and sell slaves. He proved indispensable to H.M. Stanley, the brutal, self-glorifying American news reporter, who was looking for the missionary David Livingstone. Stanley's men were on the point of revolt, having been worked six months beyond their engagement of two years. Tippu Tip saved the day with a rousing address:

"… they said: 'This European is a churl. He gives us nothing without putting it down - not even clothes does he give us; not a single loin fabric does he give.' I said to them: 'let that be my care. I will give you as much as you want. Only go on.'

Then they answered me: 'What then are we to do? We are not afraid of you, because of the words you have spoken. But with this European we have nothing to do. Our time was up more than six months ago.' But I said to them: 'Your words are idle. Do as I tell you.' And they did."

From Tippoo Tip: The Story of His Career in Central Africa, by Heinrich Brode.

Listen hereListen to historian Abdul Sheriff introduce Tippu Tip's autobiography followed by a BBC dramatisation of the slave trader's own writing.

Every European explorer owed his life to experienced African travelers. Stanley was grudging in his appreciation of Tippu Tip. Others, like the Hungarian anthropologist Emil Torday, who traveled through the Congo in the 1900's, paid fulsome tribute to his Bambala guide:

"…Mayuyu was the best of all. Higher praise is impossible. It was always Mayuyu who went to reconnoitre; it was Mayuyu who by his charming ways and invariably good temper managed to dispose the natives in our favour even before our arrival… He answered insults with flattery, sufficiently tinged with sarcasm not to be mistaken for fear.

An invitation to a fight met with ready acceptance - on condition that the challenger accepted an invitation to a dinner, previous to combat 'Let us talk before we kill each other; we won't be able to do it after,' he would say - and the swashbuckler was appeased by his blandishments."

Although best remembered as the first black Anglican Bishop, Samuel Crowther did an immense amount of travelling in the course of his work as a missionary. His passion for exploring was already evident in 1830 in Sierra Leone where he worked as a school teacher, but he devoted his spare time to visiting Temne villages.

Through his missionary work he travelled up the Niger every year, for over twenty years of his life, only stopping when he was 84. His achievement as a traveler, linguist and student of different cultures was recognised by The Royal Geographical Society which rewarded him with a gold watch.

A number of travelers in Africa, while not being African, were of African descent. The restless civil war veteran and journalist George Washington Williams journeyed all round Africa, stopping off in Cairo, Zanzibar and South Africa.

He spent six months going through the Congo by foot and on steamer, witnessing first hand the horrors of forced labour under the Belgian regime there, leaving him "disenchanted, disappointed and disheartened." His accounts of what he saw at the hands of the Belgians contributed to raising public awareness of the brutal treatment of the people of the Congo.

Recently the diaries of three African Americans who travelled in the interior of West Africa have come to light. The starting point of George Seymour and James Sims was Liberia where they had emigrated from America. But tiring of Monrovian society they set off, attracting interest and attention wherever they went, some friendly and some decidedly unwelcome.

"Friday evening, the 15th of January, we entered Passilla, situated on the banks of St. Paul's river. This town consisted of some two hundred houses and a mixed population of Goulah and Passah people - who crowded around me in such a manner that I was nearly suffocated. I was not a little surprised at this, nor could I conjecture what it was about my person, unless it was my clothes, that attracted their attention; as nearly one half of the people in the town was of a lighter complexion than myself.

But the great secret was simply this - I was a 'white man' - white because I was a 'Merica man' - 'Merica man, because I Sarvy book,' and every body who 'Sarvy book,' except the Mandingoes, are 'white.' They say the Mandingoes would be white too if they would only dress like white people.

I did all that I could to convince them that I was not white, but I was unsuccessful; they would have it that I was white, and therefore I had to undergo, and submit to the most minute inspection. The inspectors were chiefly ladies, and very inquisitive ones too."
Quoted from Freedom to Roam, African Americans Journeys Inland from Liberia in the 19th century, by Dr. James Fairhead, Tim Geysbeek, Professor Svend Holso and Dr. Melissa Leach

Levin Ash, born a freeman in America where slavery was still practised in the southern states, now found himself in danger of losing his freedom in Africa.

"Brother Ash was absent twenty-three days; and, when he returned, he was an object of pity. I had myself fallen away in flesh, from being dreadfully scratched with grass. Brother Ash was bare headed, and looked very wild.

After he got a little rested, he informed me that, when we were attacked, he put down his knapsack, and gave the native sign of battle, by flourishing his walking stick. They followed his motion by a charge of arrows, which came so plentifully, that he soon took to the water, dove like a duck, but one arrow hit him, which was in the shoulder blade. It stuck in his flesh, and it was some time before he got it out, in the water. In the creek he lost his cap…

He continued his journey from day to day, till he was arrested, stripped naked, and a large stick fastened to his leg by an iron strap. He was kept in this condition ten days. He was then taken as a slave, with one hand tied to his neck, and driven to the large towns to be sold for a gun; but they could make no sale of him, and took him back to the town where he was captured; and after being without his clothes fifteen days, they were restored to him."
Quoted from Freedom to Roam, African Americans Journeys inland from Liberia in the 19th century.

Making long journeys is central to the Islamic culture. Every Muslim tries to visit the Holy City of Mecca, at least once in a lifetime. This hadj or pilgrimage can be an immense journey taking months, depending on where the pilgrim lives. And if you are travelling in a land where Muslims live then you can be sure of hospitality. Another central tenet of Islam is going out and finding converts.

Added to this is the academic tradition describing and noting strange and new societies. So there were three main reasons Muslims took to the road:

Observing the faith by going on pilgrimage
Spreading the faith among nonbelievers, and
Academic interest

The earliest documented Muslim explorer was the Arab Ibn Haukal who in the 10th century, went to the ancient Kingdom of Ghana (part of modern Mali). Three hundred years later the learned Berber Ibn Battuta travelled both in West and East Africa. In the 16th century Leo Africanus, who was born in Granada of North African descent (he would have been described as a Moor), travelled extensively in West Africa. He visited Hausaland (modern northern Nigeria) Timbuktu and Bornu. He saw the Niger but thought it flowed to the West.

Listen hereListen to traveller and scholar, Ibn Battuta, describing Mombasa