43 africa through the eves of an european merchant

Though the Romans had known quite a bit about Africa, even south of the northern rim
which they controlled, postclassical Europe had far more limited contacts. In the 15th cen­
tury, however, ex panding trade brought more Europeans to Africa beyond the Mediter­
ranean coast. Their comments, like those of other travelers, he lp us to learn more about
postclassical Africa and of course about the attitudes of Europeans themselves in this
Antonius Malfante wrote from Tuat (Tawat) in the central Sahara in 1447, to a col­
league in Genoa. Tawat was an important oasis on a trade route from the city-states of
northern Nigeria. Malfante obviously traveled fairly widely in the region, and offered
interesting comments on the diverse peoples of the area and on the kinds of trading
activities they conducted. His observa tions also cover religious and political issues. We
know nothing about Malfante himself. Genoa was increasingly active in Mediterranean
trade, so we can surmise that he was involved in these endeavors, as he himself implies.
His account raises the usua l questions about traveler's observat ions, as to which
seem particularly accurate, and which are shaded by bi as, exaggeration, or unacknovvl­
edged ignorance. He was certainly sym pathetic in many ways, and in the process may
te ll us quite a bit about the nature of African civilization in and around the Sahara.
After we had come from the sea, we journeyed on horseback, always southwards, for
about twelve days. For seven d ays we encounte red no dwelling-nothing but sa ndy
plains; we proceeded as though at sea, guided by the sun during the day, at night by
the stars. At the end of the seventh day, we arrived at an oasis, wh ere dwelt very poor
peopl e who supported th emselves on water and a little sanely ground. Th ey sow little,
living upon the numerous date palms. At this [oas is] we had come into Tueto [Tawat,
a group of oases]. In this place there are eighteen qu arters, enclosed within one wall ,
and ruled by an oligarchy. Each ruler of a quaner protects his followers, whe the r they
be in th e right or no. The quarters closely adjoin each other and are jealous o f their
pJivil eges. Everyone arriving here places him self und er the protection of one of these
from The Voyages orCadanwsto and Other Documents on Westem Af>'ica in the Second f-l alJ or llLe 15th Cen­
tury, trans. and ed iled by G. R. Crone (New York: Ca mbridge Univer sily Press , 1937), pp. 85-90.
Chapter 43 I Africa Through (he Eyes of a European Merchant
rulers, who will proteCl him to the death: thus merchants enjoy very great sP,wil1'.
much greater, in my opinion, than in other North African kingdoms such as Tun is.
Though I am a Christian, no one ever addressed an insulting word to me.
They said they had never seen a Christian before. It is true that on my first arrival
they were scornful of me, because they all wished to see me, saying with wonder
"This Christian has a countenance like ours"-for they believed that Christians had
disguised faces. Their curiosity was soon satisfied, and now I can go alone any­
where, with no one to sayan evil word to me.
There are many Jews, who lead a good life here, for they are under the pro­
tection of the several rulers, each of whom defends his own clien ts. Th us they enjoy
very secure social standing. Trade is in their hands, and many of them are to be
trusted with the greatest confidence.
This locality is a mart of the country of the African Muslims, to which mer­
chants come to sell their goods: gold is carried hither, and bought by those who
come up from the coast. There are many rich men here. The generality, however,
are ve!")' poor, for they do not sow, nor do they harvest anything , save the dates
upon which they subsist. They eat no meat but that of castrated camels, which are
scarce and very dear.
It is true that the Arabs wiLh whom I came from the coast broughL with them
corn and barley which they sell throughout the year.
It never rains here: if it did, the houses, being built of salt in the place of
reeds, would be destroyed. It is scarcely ever cold here: in summer the heat is
extreme, wherefore they are almost al l blacks. The children of both sexes go naked
up to the age of fifteen. These people observe the religion and law of Muhammad.
In the viciniLY there are 150 to 200 oases.
In the lands of the blacks, as well as here, dwell the Tuareg, who live , like the
Arabs, in tents. They are without number, and hold sway over the land from
the borders of Eg)'Pt to the shores of the Ocean [presen t day Libya] , and over all the
neighbouring towns of the blacks. They are fair, strong in body and very handsome
in appearance. They ride I\~thout stirrups, with simple spurs. They are governed by
kings, whose heirs are the sons of their sisters-for such is their law. They keep their
mouths and noses covered. I have seen many of them here, and have asked Lhem
through an interpreter why they cover their mouths and noses thus. They rep li ed:
'''We have in herited this custom from our ancestors." Their faith is that of the Blacks.
Their sustenance is milk and flesh, no corn or barley, but much rice. Their sheep,
cattle, and camels are without number. One breed of camel, white as snow, can·
cover in one day a distance which would take a horseman four days to travel. Great
warriors, these people are continua lly at war amongst themselves.
The states which are under their rule border upon the land of the Blacks. I
shal l speak of those known to men here, and which have inhabitants of the faith of
Muhammad. In al l, the great majoriLY are Blacks, but there are a sma ll number of
whites [i.e. tall'll)' Moors].
These adhere to the law of Muhammad.
To the south of these are innumerable great ciLies and territories, the inh a bi­
tanLS of which are al l blacks and idolators, cOlltinually at war with each othe' t' in
defence of their law and faith of their idols. Some worship the sun, others th e moon,
the seven planets, fire, or water; others a mirror which reflects their fac es, which they
Section Three I The Poscciassical Period . 500-1500
Expansions and Contacts
take to be the images of gods; others groves of trees, the seat'i of a spirit to wh om
th ey m ake sacrifice; o thers aga in, statues of wood a nd stone, \\~th which, th ey say,
they com mune by incantati o ns. They relate here extraordinary thin gs of this peo ple.
The lord in whose protection I am , here , who is the greatest in this land , hav­
ing a fo rtune of more than 100,000 doubles [a co in], a man worthy of credence,
re lates that he live d for thirty years in that town, and , as he says, for fOllrteen years
in th e land of the Blacks. Every day he tells me wonderful things of these peo ples.
H e says that these la nds and peoples extend endlessly to the south: th ey all go
naked , save for a small loinclo th to cover thei r privates. They have a n abundance of
nesh , milk, a nd rice, but n o corn or ba rley.
The slaves which the blacks take in their inte rnecine wars are sold a t a very
low price . These peo ples, wh o cover the land in multitudes, a re in ca rnal ac ts like
the beasts. They breed greatly, for a woman bears up to five at a birth. Nor can it be
d o ubted that they are eaters of human fle sh, for many people have gone h e nce
into their co untry. Neither there nor here a re there eve r epidemics.
''''hen th e blacks catch sight ofa white m an from a di sta nce , they take to flight
as though fro m a monster, be li evi ng him to be a phantom . Th ey are unl e tte red,
a nd without books. They are grea t magicians , evoking by incense di a bo lical spirits,
\~~ th whom , they say, they perfo rm marvels.
Th e wares for which th e re is a demand here are many: but the prin cipal arti­
cles are co ppe r, and salt in slabs , bars, and cakes . The copper of Ro mania [th e
Byzantin e Empire) , which is obtained through Alexandria, is a lways in great
d emand througho ut th e land of the Blacks. I frequently enquired what they did
with it , but no one co uld give me a definite answer. I believe it is that the re a re so
ma ny peoples that there is almost nothing but is of use to th e m.
Th e Egyptian merchant, co me to trade in the land of the Blacks with half a
million head of caltle and cam e ls-a figur e which is no t fantastic in this region.
Th e place where I am is good for trade, as the Egyptia ns and other me rch ants
come hither from the land of th e Blacks bringing gold, which th ey exc hange for
cop pe r a nd other goods. Thus everything selJs well ; until th e re is nothing left for
sale. The people h e re will neith er sell n o r buy unless at a profit of one hundre d pe r
ce nl. For this reason, I have lost on th e go ods I brought he re , (11' 0 thousand doubles.
From wh a t r can understa nd , these people n e ighbour on India. India n mer­
c hants come hith e r, an d converse throug h interpreters. These India ns are Chri s­
tian s, adorers of the cross . It is said that in the la nd of th e Blacks th e re are forty
dialects, so that they are unable to understand each other.
I often enquire d where the go ld was found a nd collected; my patron always
re plied "I was fourteen yea rs in the land of the Bl ac ks, and I have never heard nor
see n anyone who could reply from d e finite kn owledge. That is my experience, as to
h ow it is found an d collected. "V11at appears pl a in is that it comes from a di stant
la nd, and , as I be lieve, from a definite zone." He also said that h e had been in
pl aces where silver was as valu able as gold.
1. "\'hat was Malfante doing in Africa? How was h e tre a ted , and how would you
explain the way Africans seem to have reac te d to him )
Chapter 43 / Africa Through the Eyes of a European Merchant
28 I
2. What aspects of Malfante's observations about Africa seem most surprising?
Where does he seem to lapse into stereotype or exagge ration? Overall , do you
nnd him a sympath e ti c observer)
3. vVhat were the main religious features of Saharan Africa and points south~
''''hat were the main political features?
4. According to Malfante's account, what kinds of contacts did this African region
have with other parts of the Ivorld? What were the range and position of
African merchants)
5. HOI, does Malfante's account compare with the observatjons of o ther com­
mentators on Africa . sllc h as aI-Bah; o r Ibn Battuta? Do hi s emphases differ? Is
h e more or less biased)
6. Is this a valuabk source for understanding post-classical Africa? ''''hat other
kinds of sources would help fle sh ou t o ur grasp of this civilization in this period?