The Circumnavigation of Africa
By Ciaran Branigan
Classics Ireland, Vol.1 (1994)
Introduction: 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.
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. 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. 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.