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Thu, 02.11.1312

The First African Voyage To The Americas, a story


*On this date in 1312, we celebrate the first African voyage to the Americas. This episode though unproven, is worth contemplation and this article.


Mansa Musa, the 9th ruler of the Mali Empire, stayed in Cairo for three months in 1324 while en route to Mecca for the hajj. While there, he befriended an emir named Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Amir Hajib, who was the governor of the district of Cairo Musa and was staying in bn. Amir Hajib later recounted what he had learned of Mali from his conversations with Musa to the scholar al-Umari. In one such conversation, Ibn Amir Hajib had asked Musa how he had become king, and Musa responded: We belong to a house which hands on the kingship by inheritance.

The king, who was my predecessor, did not believe it was impossible to discover the furthest limit of the Atlantic Ocean and wished vehemently to do so. So, he equipped 200 ships filled with men and the same number equipped with gold, water, and provisions enough to last them for years, and said to the man deputed to lead them: "Do not return until you reach the end of it or your provisions and water give out." 

They departed, and a long time passed before anyone came back. Then one ship returned, and we asked the captain what news they brought. He said: "Yes, O Sultan, we traveled for a long time until there appeared in the open sea [as it were] a river with a powerful current. Mine was the last of those ships. The [other] ships went on ahead, but when they reached that place, they did not return, and no more was seen of them, and we do not know what became of them. As for me, I went about at once and did not enter that river." 

But the sultan disbelieved him. Then that sultan got ready 2,000 ships, 1,000 for himself and the men whom he took with him and 1,000 for water and provisions. He left me to deputize for him and embarked on the Atlantic Ocean with his men. That was the last we saw of him and all those with him, so I became king in my own right. Al-Umari’s record of this conversation is the only account of this voyage, as other medieval Arab historians of West African oral tradition do not mention it. Nonetheless, the possibility of such a voyage has been taken seriously by several historians.

The identity of the Mansa responsible for the voyage has been subject to some confusion. Al-Umari’s record of Musa’s account does not mention Mansa’s name nor indicate his identity other than that he was Musa’s predecessor. According to the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, writing several decades later, Musa’s predecessor Mansa was Mansa Muhammad ibn Qu. Several historians have attributed the voyage to Mansa Muhammad. Many sources call the Mansa in question Mansa Abubakari II. However, the inclusion of Mansa Abu Bakr II in the list of Malian rulers is a misconception that originated in a mistranslation of Ibn Khaldun’s text by the 19th-century European historian Baron de Slane.

De Slane translated Ibn Khaldun as saying that the kingship passed from Muhammad to Abu Bakr, then to Musa. However, in the original Arabic text, Abu Bakr is only mentioned as the progenitor of Musa's lineage, not as a ruler. The Abu Bakr in question was a brother of Sunjata, the founder of the Mali Empire, who never ruled himself. Another figure named Abu Bakr did rule as Mansa, but he was the predecessor of Sakura, not Musa. Additionally, some historians have suggested without elaboration that the voyage should be attributed to Mansa Qu, who was the father and predecessor of Muhammad ibn Qu according to Ibn Khaldun.


Not enough uncontroversial evidence of pre-Columbian contact between Africa and the Americas has been found. Regardless of whether any Malian ships ever reached the Americas, they never returned to Africa, and there were no long-term economic consequences of the voyage. The river on the sea described by the survivor of the first expedition is presumably the Canary Current. Including this fact in Musa's account indicates that Musa had some awareness of the oceanographic conditions of the open Atlantic. The Canary Current flows from West Africa to the Americas, which would have facilitated travel from Africa to the Americas but prevented it in the opposite direction.

Ivan van Sertima and Malian researcher Gaoussou Diawara proposed that the voyage reached the New World. Van Sertima cites the abstract of Columbus's log made by Bartolomé de las Casas, according to which the purpose of Columbus's third voyage was to test both the claims of King John II of Portugal that "canoes had been found which set out from the coast of Guinea [West Africa] and sailed to the west with merchandise" as well as the claims of the Taino community native inhabitants of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola that "from the south and the southeast had come black people whose spears were made of a metal called guanín ... from which it was found that of 32 parts: 18 were gold, six were silver and eight copper."

However, most archaeologists, anthropologists, ethnohistorians, linguists, and other modern pre-Columbian scholars say that there is no evidence of any such voyage reaching the Americas and that there are insufficient evidentiary grounds to suppose there has been contact between Africa and the New World at any point in the pre-Columbian era. For views representative of this point of view, see the considerations on the question advanced in Haslip-Viera et al. (1997), who notes "no genuine African artifact has ever been found in a controlled archaeological excavation in the New World." See also the supporting responses in peer review printed in the article by David Browman, Michael D. Coe, Ann Cyphers, Peter Furst, and other academics active in the field. Ortiz de Montellano et al. (1997, passim.) continue the case against Africa-Americas contacts. Other prominent Mesoamerican specialists, such as UC Riverside anthropology professor Karl Taube are confident that "There simply is no material evidence of any pre-Hispanic contact between the Old World and Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century."


Mansa Musa appears to have considered his predecessor's plan impractical. The main point he appears to have been trying to make to Ibn Amir Hajib is that his predecessor's failed voyage paved the way to his becoming king. Likewise, it has been speculated that the lack of information in the oral tradition about the voyage reflects a view that Mansa's voyage was a shameful abdication of duty. In modern times, the voyage has become more celebrated.

The Malian historian Gaoussou Diawara has remarked that modern politicians should look up to the Mansa as an example of a ruler who valued science and discovery over holding onto power. A precise date for the voyage is unknown, though it is interpreted as having occurred in or shortly before 1312; Musa is inferred to have become Mansa. No clear evidence of the fate of the voyage has been found.

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