BlackFacts Details

European Exploration of Africa

Europeans have been interested in African geography since the time of the Greek and Roman Empires.  Around 150 C.E., Ptolemy created a map of the world that included the Nile and the great lakes of East Africa.  In the Middle Ages, the large Ottoman Empire blocked European access to Africa and its trade goods, but Europeans still learned about Africa from Islamic maps and travelers, like Ibn Battuta.

The Catalan Atlas created in 1375, which includes many African coastal cities, the Nile River, and other political and geographical features, shows how much Europe knew about North and West Africa.

     By the 1400s, Portuguese sailors, backed by Prince Henry the Navigator, began exploring the West coast of Africa looking for a mythical Christian king named Prestor John and a way to the wealth of Asia that avoided the Ottomans and the powerful empires of South West Asia.  By 1488, the Portuguese had charted a way around the south African Cape and in 1498, Vasco da Gama reached Mombasa, in what is today Kenya, where he encountered Chinese and Indian merchants. Europeans made few inroads into Africa, though, until the 1800s, due to the strong African states they encountered, tropical diseases, and a relative lack of interest. Europeans instead grew rich trading gold, gum, ivory, and slaves with coastal merchants.

      In the late 1700s, a group of British men, inspired by the Enlightenment ideal of learning, decided that Europe should know much more about Africa. They formed the African Association in 1788 to sponsor expeditions to the continent.  With the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808, European interest in the interior of Africa grew quickly.

  Geographical Societies were formed and sponsored expeditions. The Parisian Geographical Society offered a 10,000 franc prize to the first explorer who could reach the town of Timbuktu (in present day Mali) and return alive. The new scientific interest in Africa was never wholly philanthropic, however. Financial and political support for exploration

Business Facts