King's College London
Online Exhibitions
I speak of Africa

Ramusio’s collection of voyages

For centuries European knowledge of Africa had been based on scarce sources from classical antiquity, such as the writings of Herodotus, Pliny the Elder and Ptolemy, as well as on early Arab writings by geographers like Idrīsī (ca. 1100-66). By the beginning of the sixteenth century, individual travel descriptions started to appear. In 1550 Giovanni Battista Ramusio assembled these and, together with hitherto unprinted texts, published them in the first edition of this collection of travels. Ramusio’s collection was a great success. Such early accounts spurred the reader’s imagination of Africa as a place of wealthy lands, mythical towns and legendary rivers, like the Niger.

Map of Africa with south at the top, from: Giovanni Battista Ramusio (ed.). Primo volume & seconda editione delle navigationi et viaggi. In Venetia: nella stamperia de Giunti, 1554 [FCO Historical Collection FOL. G159 RAM]Map of Africa with south at the top, from: Giovanni Battista Ramusio (ed.). Primo volume & seconda editione delle navigationi et viaggi. In Venetia: nella stamperia de Giunti, 1554 [FCO Historical Collection FOL. G159 RAM]One of the most important texts, which first appeared in print in Ramusio’s work, is Leo Africanus’s Descrittione dell’Affrica. Itwas the first modern account of North and West Africa by an indigenous writer, giving information on geography, animals, government, customs and religion.

Most of what is known about Leo Africanus comes from his own text and the information is rather vague. He was born Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzān al-Zayātī or al Fāsīb in the Islamic Kingdom of Granada some time between 1489 and 1494. Just before or after the conquest of Granada by the Spanish, he left with his family for Fez, where he later studied law and theology.

Hasan became emissary for the sultan of Morocco and undertook several diplomatic voyages to different parts of Africa, including the famed city of Timbuktu. In 1518, on his return to Morocco from Egypt, he was captured by Sicilian pirates who presented him to Pope Leo X. After a year in captivity Hasan converted to Christianity and was baptised by the Pope himself, who gave him the name Giovanni Leone Africano.

After several years in Italy, where he taught Arabic and wrote several other texts, of which only few survive, Leo apparently returned to North Africa in 1529. He died in Tunis in around 1550.

Even though Leo’s work was the key source of European information on some parts of West Africa, such as Timbuktu, until the nineteenth century, he is not always a reliable authority. Thus, Leo declared that the river Niger flowed from east to west, when in reality it flows from west to east.

On display is an unusual map of Africa, depicting the continent with the south at the top, from the second edition of the work.

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