Journeys to Timbuktu and Beyond

Tales of travels from West Africa to the Atlantic, from before the time of Colombus


Jo Ann Moran Cruz

B-reel animationSAVAMA-DCI

The global reach of Islam, with its tradition of hospitality and the value it placed on merchants, made long-distance travel possible. Muslims frequently traveled long distances as merchants, as pilgrims to Mecca or as explorers and tourists.

Quran manuscript close upSAVAMA-DCI

Like European writers on geography, however, the early twelfth-century Andalusian traveler, Abu Hamid al-Gharnati, believed that the southern hemisphere was uninhabitable by humans. The mobility of Muslims, from the Atlantic to Mecca and across to India or north to Central Asia and, in the case of Abu Hamid al-Gharnati, to Hungary and Kiev, was not matched by Europeans until early modern times.

Arrival at Hormuz of the traders of India in a boat loaded with goods (1410/1412) by Le Maître de la Mazarine et collaborateursInstitut du monde arabe

Although Europeans regularly made pilgrimages within Europe and to Jerusalem, and Vikings sailed to Greenland and Vinland, it was a rare traveler, such as Marco Polo or the Franciscan John of Plano Carpini who would travel east as far as Mongolia or China.

2013 Evacuation manuscripts Timbuktu, copyright Prince Claus Fund (2)SAVAMA-DCI

Just as Marco Polo measured time on his journey to the Mongolian capital and beyond by counting the days from one location to another, so does one of the Timbuktu manuscripts describe the travel from Timbuktu to Mecca as a journey of 187 days.

Western Africa including: Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Costa d'Avorio, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo and Benin (1580) by Stefano BonsignoriPalazzo Vecchio Museum

Sultan Musa of Mali told this story with regard to his predecessor as sultan to the Mamluk ruler of Egypt in 1324. 

Mali, at the time, was a vast kingdom with a maritime coast between the Gambia and Senegal rivers, from which such a journey would have embarked. 

When Europeans first visited the west African coast, they noted substantial craft that could carry up to 100 warriors.  As Musa relates, however, the journey was a failure, as the sultan never returned.  While one cannot prove the historical fact of this voyage of 1000s of ships across the Atlantic, there is nothing to suggest that it could not have happened.

Verovering van Gran Canaria door de vloot onder admiraal Pieter van der Does, 1599 (1600 - 1601) by Dolendo, Bartholomeus Willemsz.Rijksmuseum

At the same time as the Malian voyage, a Genoese, Lancelot Malocello, settled on the Canary Islands, while the Portuguese, in the fifteenth century, discovered the Azores and the Cape Verde islands and may have fished off the coast of north America prior to the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. 

Mauritania, Mali, Morocco and Algeria (1579) by Stefano BonsignoriPalazzo Vecchio Museum

There were, therefore, many explorations into the Atlantic, some of them from north Africa and, according to Sultan Musa, from Mali, prior to Columbus’ voyage in 1492 from which a journey westward across the Atlantic embarked.

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