Abu Bakr II’s 200 Ships
Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali. Photograph by Andy Gilham via Wikimedia Commons (cc).
Africa has never lacked civilizations, nor has it ever been as cut off from world events as it has been routinely portrayed. Some remarkable new books make this case in scholarly but accessible terms, and they admirably complicate our understanding of Africa’s past and present.
The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages by François-Xavier Fauvelle reveals—to many readers almost certainly for the first time—the existence of what specialists increasingly construe as medieval Africa. For Fauvelle, a leading French scholar of the continent, this was a period between the antiquity of places like Egypt, Nubia, and Aksum, all of which left spectacular archaeological legacies, and around 1500, after which Africa was deeply scarred by the slave trade and Western imperialism.
In a succession of brisk chapters, Fauvelle makes the case that medieval Africa suffered no dearth of cultural accomplishments. There is, for example, evidence of long-distance trade as early as the ninth century between northern African settlements and caravan towns like Aoudaghost, at the southern edge of the Sahara. Manufactured copper goods were sent south in exchange for gold dust, to be cast into ingots out of which much of the fast-rising Arab world’s coinage was struck. To illustrate just how well established these commercial exchanges were by the late tenth century, Fauvelle describes an order of payment—what we might call a check—sent by a sub-Saharan merchant to a businessman in the Moroccan town of Sijilmasa for the sum of 42,000 dinars.
Fauvelle also writes of sophisticated diplomacy in the seventh century between newly Islamized Egypt and Nubia, a Christian society to its south, in the course of which the Egyptians complained that their neighbors had not been living up to one of the terms of the pact between them, which required the return of any Egyptian slaves who escaped to Nubia. Twelve hundred years later, similar complaints by the American South against the North became a major cause of the Civil War.
The most intriguing story in Fauvelle’s book comes from the kingdom of Mali in the early fourteenth century. More than a century and a half before Columbus’s voyages, a Malian ruler named Abu Bakr II was said to have equipped an expedition involving two hundred ships that attempted to discover “the furthest limit of the Atlantic Ocean.” The expedition failed to return save for one vessel, whose survivor claimed that “there appeared in the open sea [as it were] a river with a powerful current…. The [other] ships went on ahead but when they reached that place they did not return and no more was seen of them.” Some modern historians (Michael Gomez, Toby Green, and John Thornton, among others) have interpreted this to mean that the Malian ships were caught in the Atlantic Ocean’s Canary Current, which sweeps everything in its path westward at about the same latitude as Mali.