Did Europeans Discover Africa? Or Was It the Other Way Around?

From before the Middle Ages to the 19th century, there was plenty of exploration directed from south to north

Did Europeans Discover Africa? Or Was It the Other Way Around?
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

In 1203, a group of French barons who had gathered in Constantinople for the fourth crusade were treated to a remarkable encounter that would, in the eyes of their host, the Byzantine Emperor Alexios IV, reveal their ignorance of the world beyond Europe.

While the barons were in Alexios’ palace, “a king came there whose skin was all black, and he had a cross in the middle of his forehead.” The emperor quickly rose to meet the king and honor him. Alexios then turned to the barons and asked them, “Do you know who this man is?”

“Not at all, sire,” they admitted.

The emperor informed them: “This is the king of Nubia, who has come on pilgrimage to this city.”

The unnamed king of Nubia in this account was Moses George, from the Kingdom of Makuria, who had, in the tradition of his predecessors, abdicated the throne in search of pious retirement. While the Frankish barons were unaware of the broad expanse of the world beyond the Mediterranean and “gazed at this king with great wonder,” the Nubians were not, because Moses George was neither the first African from Nubia to visit Roman Europe nor the first to travel in an official capacity.

More than a thousand years before this tantalizing encounter, Queen Amanirenas of the Kingdom of Kush — the predecessor of Moses George’s Makuria — had sent her envoys to the Greek island of Samos to negotiate with the Roman Emperor Augustus in 20 BCE, following her army’s victory over the Roman legionnaires sent to invade her kingdom. It was only after Kush had initiated this diplomatic exchange and instituted the office of “apote Arome-li-se” (“envoy to Rome”) that the Romans sent envoys to Kush. A third-century Roman official named Acutus left an inscription on the temple of Musawwarat in Sudan recording his mission and wishing “Good fortune to the Lady Queen” of Kush.

Later, Roman emperors like Nero would build on Kush’s initiative and send the famed Roman expedition up the Nile, with two centurions accompanied by Kushite escorts and letters for safe conduct from the ancient city of Meroe. While often misconceived as a scientific mission to discover the source of the Nile, this expedition had a mostly political objective of conquering Kush.

In what would become a pattern in Africans’ relationship with Europe, Africans were almost always the initiators of discovery of both Europe and Africa, which contradicts discourses on discovery that exaggerate the role played by the “daring” European explorers of Victorian lore. African envoys and pilgrims often undertook perilous journeys through Europe as part of established political and cultural customs originating from internal processes within their kingdoms.

Moses George’s Kingdom of Makuria was a land teeming with pilgrimage sites, including the church of Banganarti, where a Frankish pilgrim from present-day Provence, France, left an inscription in his native language during the 14th century — in a way, reciprocating the Nubian king’s encounter with Frankish nobles at Constantinople centuries prior.

Amanirenas’ Kingdom of Kush was a major power of the ancient Mediterranean, especially at its height during the seventh century BCE. Envoys from Kush were sent to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in Iraq, where clay sealings with both Assyrian and Kushite impressions were discovered and were likely connected to the role played by Kush in the wars between Assyria and the Kingdom of Judah. Kushite mercenaries and horse trainers also appear in the diasporic communities of various classical empires, from Assyria to Persia, Greece and Rome.

The institution of diplomacy in Kush that drove the journeys of the kingdom’s envoys through Roman Europe would continue throughout the late Roman era, when both Rome and Kush were in decline.

In 336, envoys arrived at Constantinople from Kush accompanied by envoys from its northern neighbor, the Blemmyan kingdom. While Emperor Constantine didn’t officially reciprocate the visit, a mission led by Olympiodorus of Thebes was sent from Roman Egypt to the Blemmyan capital in 453 upon invitation from Blemmyan rulers, nearly a century after the collapse of Kush and the rise of Nubia.

The Nubian kingdoms, which took on the mantle of Kush and subsumed the Blemmyan kingdom, were just as open to maintaining Roman contacts as Kush had been. The three Nubian kingdoms of Noubadia, Makuria and Alodia received two religious missions from Constantinople led by Julian and Longinus in 541 and 569, respectively. By 573, the Makuria kingdom would send an emissary to Constantinople bearing gifts for Emperor Justin. It is this kingdom of Makuria that would later unite with Noubadia in the seventh century, then with Alodia in the 11th century, just prior to Moses George’s journey to Constantinople.

What made Moses George’s journey through Europe even more remarkable is that he and his two Nubian companions intended to travel to the church of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, an important site that Nubian pilgrims would have known about based on their well-documented presence in the Holy Land as well as in Cyprus and Syria.

Like their more elite compatriots, Nubian pilgrims had traveled beyond the monasteries in northeast Africa and western Asia into lesser-known pilgrimage centers in southern Europe. A 12th-century Latin codex and a 14th-century text by Ibn Idhari al-Marrakushi both mention the presence of Nubian pilgrims at Santiago de Compostela as early as the 10th century.

Africans who traveled through pre-modern Europe didn’t originate only from Nubia. Envoys from the Kingdom of Aksum, located in present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea, joined those from the Kush and Blemmyan kingdoms in Constantine in 336 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Constantine’s reign.

This wasn’t the first time that Aksumites had been to a Roman capital in an official capacity — Aksumite envoys had attended the celebration of Emperor Aurelian’s triumph over Queen Zenobia in 272. Yet the visit in 336 represented a significant occasion, on which three different African states were directly involved in international engagements well beyond their home kingdoms.

Aksum was an important commercial partner of Rome, primarily because Aksumite merchants transshipped luxury goods from Sri Lanka to their port at Adulis before sailing northward to Rome’s Red Sea ports. Aksum’s initiative in contacting Rome wasn’t reciprocated until the late fifth century by a prominent, well-traveled lawyer from Thebes, and it wasn’t until 530 that the Byzantine Emperor Justinian sent two missions to Aksum, led by Julianus and Nonnosus. Aksumites had already sent a mission to Constantinople in 362, and they would reciprocate Justinian’s new embassy by sending two of their own missions to his court in 532 and 549, before the rise of the Islamic empires heralded the decline of both the Aksumite and Byzantine control of the Red Sea region.

While Africa’s Islamic empires mostly oriented their foreign relations to the Near East, the founding of Andalusia (Muslim Spain) in the eighth century provided an incentive for more Africans from regions outside Nubia and Aksum to explore Europe.

An illuminating account written in the 12th century documents African travelers reaching southwestern Europe soon after the Nubians had closed in from the east. Describing the adoption of Islam in the Ghana Empire, the Andalusian geographer al-Zuhri mentions that “today [the people of Ghana] are Muslims and have scholars, lawyers and Koran readers and have become pre-eminent in these fields. Some of their chief leaders have come to Al-Andalus.” This African presence in Spain is further corroborated by the writings of a West African scholar educated in Ghana named Ibrahim al-Kanemi (d. 1211), who retired in Spain after a successful career as a grammarian in the Almohad capital of Marrakesh.

On the other end of the continent, beginning in the 14th century, Africans from the Ethiopian Empire would establish direct contact with the kingdoms of southern Europe, eventually creating a permanent community of Ethiopian scholars in Rome. A few years after the Mamluk sultanate’s preemptive invasions of both Nubia and the Crusader states had stifled a planned alliance between the “dear black Christians of Nubia” and the European kingdoms, a group of 30 Ethiopians arrived in Avignon, France, in 1306, after passing through Rome. While this group most likely consisted of pilgrims, they presented themselves as envoys of their Emperor Wedem Arad (d. 1314). It wasn’t until 1402 that another Ethiopian delegation arrived in Europe, this time in an official capacity, sent by Emperor Dawit (1382-1413) to the Republic of Venice.

The Ethiopian embassy, which was sent to Venice in 1402, was part of a three-pronged international mission, with two others sent to Rome in 1403 and 1404. An Ethiopian account documenting the events leading up to the official embassy to Venice mentions that pilgrims from “the land of the Franks” (Latin Europeans) who were detained by Dawit in the 1390s for trespassing had told him about sacred relics in their home country. As with their predecessors from Nubia, the Ethiopians showed an initiative for discovery that was driven by internal cultural and political processes in Ethiopia, where the acquisition of relics affirmed the kings’ prestigious genealogical claims.

Further Ethiopian embassies were sent to Aragon in 1427, Rome and Aragon in 1450, Portugal in 1452 and Rome again in 1481. But it was not until 1494 that an official embassy from Europe arrived in Ethiopia from the Kingdom of Portugal, whose representatives had successfully sailed around Africa a few years before and would begin regular contact with Ethiopia by sea in 1520.

The arrival of European ships at the dawn of the modern era (a period that began around 1500) altered the dynamics of Africa’s contact with Europe, from one where Africans initiated contact with Europeans to one where both Africans and Europeans engaged in “mutual discovery.”

After many failed attempts to colonize the Senegambia region of West Africa, where they had landed in the 1440s, the Portuguese were forced to dispatch embassies to the African capitals, visits that were well received and immediately reciprocated. The first African embassy from the Atlantic Coast came from the Kingdom of Benin (Nigeria) in 1486-87, led by Ohen-Okun. It was soon followed by the Kingdom of Kongo (in Angola) in 1487-88, led by Kala ka Mfusu, and the Kingdom of Jolof (in Senegal) in 1488, led by Prince Jelen.

Africans’ travel to Europe went beyond embassies and pilgrimages. The empire of Ethiopia and the Kingdom of Kongo, both of which had adopted Christianity on their own terms in the fourth and 15th centuries, respectively, maintained a near-permanent presence on the European mainland, which they used to facilitate their activities and journeys.

The embassy from Kongo to Portugal in 1488 turned the monastery of Saint Eloy in Lisbon into the permanent residence for Kongo elites in Portugal. In 1497, Ethiopian pilgrims and envoys to Rome also turned the Santo Stefano church behind St. Peter’s Basilica into their primary residence. These African residences in Europe became major conduits for cross-cultural intellectual exchanges by both European and African scholars and were used by various travelers from Africa in their journeys across the continent. The Kongo embassy to Rome in 1513 was led by Prince Henrique, who was also a resident of Saint Eloy, while the Ethiopian pilgrim Täsfa Seyon arrived at Santo Stefano in 1535 and also had a noticeable influence on both Pope Paul III and the Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola.

More travelers from both Africa and Europe crisscrossed the Atlantic to visit each other’s lands over the 17th and 18th centuries, following an established pattern of reciprocal exchanges and mutual discovery. African kingdoms continued sending embassies to Europe, such as Allada’s mission to Spain in 1552 and 1657 and to France in 1670, as well as Temne’s mission to Portugal in 1660. Other kingdoms also sent representatives to various Western European capitals over the 17th and 18th centuries.

It was not until the late 18th century that European kingdoms began commissioning quasi-scientific missions with imperialist designs to explore what to them was still a relatively unknown African mainland. From the African perspective, by contrast, the European mainland was a region they knew well, thanks to their own explorers who had traveled through it countless times. The African states of Kongo and Ethiopia, in particular, were familiar with Europe’s political landscape, having sent multiple envoys, scholars and pilgrims across the continent.

In the 19th century, when European explorers began extensively documenting their journeys in the African interior using routes established by Africans, guided by African escorts and granted safe passage by African authorities, African explorers were also documenting their journeys through the European interior using the same methods. Both Africa and Europe were therefore engaged in “mutual exploration.”

The most remarkable travelog written by an African was that of the Comorian explorer Selim Abakari, who traveled through Germany and the Russian Empire, which he documented in his 1896 work “Safari yangu ya Urusi na ya Siberia” (“My Journey to Russia and Siberia”). Other similar travelogs written by Africans include the Ethiopian travelers Ṣägga Krestos, whose work is titled “Narratione del sig. Zagra Cristos” (“Narration of Mr. Zagra Cristos”) and covers a journey through Italy and France in the 17th century, and Fesseha Giyorgis, who wrote “An Account of a Voyage From Ethiopia to Italy” in 1895.

Selim’s account is especially fascinating, given the similarities it shares with contemporary European travelogs about the African mainland at the time. It presents us with an African perspective of Europe. African travelers had been to eastern, southern and western Europe but knew little about northern Europe. Selim was active on the East African coast and provided a description about a part of Europe unknown to his compatriots at the time.

His journey took him through Germany, Russia, Siberia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, placing him in direct contact with the populations he encountered. As a Muslim, Selim was astonished to discover Muslims in northern Europe, exclaiming, “How did Islam come to territories that are so far from everything?” Selim gave detailed topographic and ethnographic descriptions of various places and groups across the Russian Empire, where “the sun sets at midnight.” To conclude the incredible account of his journey, Selim writes that, “truly, when a man travels, he never stops learning and discovering very much.”

The history of Africa’s encounter with Europe challenges popular understandings of discovery that often exaggerate and misattribute the initiative of international contact to Europeans. African travelers directly initiated international contacts with distant pre-modern European societies and engaged in mutual discovery and exploration with their European counterparts throughout the modern era. African envoys, scholars and pilgrims in Europe presented themselves as active agents of transcontinental discovery and purveyors of geographical knowledge at a time when much of European discourse about the African mainland was still imbued with fantasies and rumors of ancient and medieval derivation.

Our understanding of the concept of discovery is decidedly Eurocentric in perspective and disregards the remarkably cosmopolitan and enterprising Africans who contributed greatly to our knowledge about Africa and Europe. If we take into account the African initiative in contacting Europeans and the continued presence of African travelers on the European mainland, the concept of a “European discovery of Africa” becomes frivolous.

This article was published in the Spring 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition.

Sign up to our mailing list to receive our stories in your inbox.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy