The Circumnavigation of Africa

Ciaran Branigan


It is commonly believed that the first circumnavigation of Africa was made by the Portuguese under Vasco da Gama in A.D. 1497-99. However a closer look at the records will reveal that they in fact were not the first people to do so. They were only the first to do so in modern times.

Pliny the Elder records that the Greek historian Polybius sailed down along the west coast of Africa in ships lent to him by his friend Scipio Aemilianus when the latter was involved in the Third Punic War around 146 B.C. He may have seen Mount Kakulima in Guinea, which, Pliny says, the Greeks call 'Theon Ochema', the Chariot of the Gods. However it has proved impossible to reconstruct details of his voyage or how far he succeeded in going.[1]

The Carthaginian Hanno is also mentioned as having sailed in a period of 35 days down to the Bight of Bonny, probably as far as Sherbro Island off Sierra Leone or Cape Palmas off the south-east coast of Liberia. The date is uncertain, but is likely to have been early 5th c. B.C. An account of his periplus was engraved in Punic on a bronze tablet set up in the temple of Baal at Carthage. It was translated into Greek and this translation still survives - the only piece of Carthaginian literature we have.[2] According to it 'sixty ships fifty oars each were sent out from Carthage together with a body of men and women to the number of 30,000 and provisions and other necessaries'. They settled colonies on the way. These included Thymiaterion (now Meledia), Carian Fort (now Mogador) Aera (now Agadir) and Cerne, possibly at the mouth of the Rio de Oro.[3] One night the sight of many fires burning and the sound of cymbals, drums and confused shouts frightened the Carthaginians away from an island. They may have witnessed one of the native festivals which are still celebrated there in this way. The Portuguese voyager Pedro da Cunta also heard similar sounds in 1450.[4] The account continues: 'We passed a country burning with streams of fire and perfumes from which great torrents of fire flowed down to the sea (natives burning grass along the Niger?); in the middle was a lofty fire larger than the rest, which seemed to touch the stars; when day came we discovered it to be a large hill called the Chariot of the Gods' This may have been Mt. Kakulima in Guinea (?); some have also suggested Mt Cameroon in the Cameroons (?).[5] Then 'We came to an island with a lake and in this lake there was another island full of savage people, the greater part of which were women whose bodies were hairy and whom our interpreters called "Gorillas".' (Sherbro Island?). They pursued and captured some of the women 'but they could not be prevailed to accompany us'. So they killed and flayed them and later took their skins back to Carthage.[6] They did not sail on any further 'as our provisions failed us.' Hanno's account was used by Ptolemy and remained the standard guide for seafarers until Portuguese explorations of the 15th century.[7]

We also have some fragmentary evidence that a certain Euthymenes of Massilia sailed down the west coast of Africa as far as a river which was infested with crocodiles and whose waters were driven back by strong sea breezes. He thought that this river was the Nile, but it may in fact have been the Senegal River. Euthymenes, however, is an obscure figure. We do not even know in what century he lived.[8]

Pride of place must go to the Phoenicians who anticipated the Portuguese by some 2,000 years. Herodotus (4.42) says that the Pharaoh Necho II, who reigned c. 615-595 B.C., determined to see if Africa could be circumnavigated. Accordingly, he commissioned a number of ships manned by Phoenicians for the task. These sailed down the Red Sea and down the east coast of Africa. Every year they settled for a while on the coast, cleared a strip of land, planted a crop and, when they had harvested it, continued on their journey. In the third year they sailed through the Pillars of Hercules and back to Egypt again. They reported that as they sailed around Africa they had the sun on their right. Herodotus refuses to believe this possible 'but perhaps others may.' For us of course this is conclusive proof that such a voyage was made. It is another instance of how Herodotus' dedication to recording exactly what he had heard, irrespective of whether he believed it or not, has given proof of an event which he described. Herodotus (4.43) also mentions a Carthaginian called Sataspes, who, because he had used violence against a maiden, was given a choice by the Great King Xerxes of being impaled on a stake or of sailing around Africa. He elected to attempt the circumnavigation but lost heart after many months at sea. He returned to 'civilisation' and reported that 'at the farthest point he had reached, the coast was occupied by a dwarfish race' and 'whenever he landed, they left their towns and fled to the mountains; but his men did them no wrong, only entering into their cities and taking some of their cattle. The reason why he had not sailed around Libya was, he said, because the ship stopped and would not go any further. Xerxes however did not believe this and Sataspes was impaled by the king's orders in accordance with the former sentence.'[9]

The Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Persians then were aware that Africa was surrounded by sea, except where it was connected to Asia.[10]


1. Pliny, NH. 5.9-10, 6.199-200, F.W Walbank, A Historical Commentary on Polybius , vol. 3 (Oxford, 1979), pp.630-39.

2. Müller, Geog.Graeci Min. i.1-14; text and translation 1979), pp. J. Blomqvist, The Date and Origin of the Greek Version of Hanno's Periplus (Lund, 1979); translation also in B.H. Warmington, Carthage (London, 1964), pp. 74-6. The National Library, Dublin, has a copy of The Voyage of Hanno , translated with Greek text, commentary and map by T. Falconer (London, 1797) - not to be despised because of its age. Cf. also Pliny, NH 5.8-10, 6.199-200.

3. Identifications as W.W. Hyde, Ancient Greek Mariners (London, 1947).

4. Hyde, op. cit., p. 144.

5. Hyde, op. cit., p. 145.

6. Gorillas as we know them are found now in West Africa in the Congo. In Yola in Nigeria the word 'ghorl' means any tall monkey. In Sierra Leone there are still chimpanzees to be found in the wild. So perhaps Hanno saw chimpanzees. On the other hand he seems to think they were humans. Because of this some have said that he was describing pygmies which have hairy bodies and are from three to four and a half feet tall. Hyde, op. cit., pp. 143-47.7.

7. Hyde, op. cit., p. 148.

8. Hyde, op. cit. p148.

9. Herodotus 4.43. Sataspes may have reached Cape Palmas. He may have been caught in the doldrums off the Cape Verde coast of Senegal and hence unable to proceed further. Some of the Arab voyagers down the west coast of Africa in medieval times reported that at a certain stage they could go no further, Hyde, op. cit. p.242. Herodotus and possibly Hanno report dwarves in West Africa. Sataspes' dwarves have been identified as early Bushmen, still found in South Africa but which may have been found further north 2500 years ago. Pygmies were also found in the Cameroons, Hyde op. cit. p242-244.

10. For routes of explorers, P. Levi, Atlas of the Greek World (1980), cf. also M. Cary and E.H. Warmington, The Ancient Explorers (London, 1929).

COPYRIGHT: All material published in Classics Ireland is copyright. Responsibility for, and ownership of, copyright remains with the author of each article.
© Classical Association of Ireland :