Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Plantation of the Atlantic: An African Reconnaissance

A boat launching in the Banc d'Arguin National Park

At the risk of repeating myself, it's worth restating where this investigation has been going. First of all, I have Lameen's challenge to think of a West African Age of the Reconnaissance, which turns out to be exactly right. And, second, we have the challenge of taking Morocco as a key actor in the European Reconnaissance seriously. 

It is an old truism of the earliest "Reconnaissance of the Atlantic" that the Portuguese effort that eventually led to Vasco da Gama rounding the Cape and reaching India, began as an attempt to bypass Moroccan control of the northwestern terminus of the trans-Saharan trade in sub-Saharan gold, slaves and naturalia. Going a little further, Peter Russell suggested in 1994 that this effort was, on the one hand, an extension of an attempted Portuguese continuation of the Reconquista into the southernmost portions of the old Roman Diocese of Hispania, which is to say, Morocco; and on the other, a defensive measure against Castilian efforts to secure the defection of Hispano-Lusitanian grandees with opportunities to crusade.  

All of this is interesting, but would be less so if, in fact, the Portuguese had just arrived on the African shore in 1405. In reality, the city of Ceuta has traded hands between Hispanic and Moroccan regimes so often that I doubt anyone can keep track, and, by extension, Hispanic and Moroccan regimes have their hands deep in each others' pockets since at least sub-Roman times. Therefore, Prince Henry's involvement in Morocco has as its mirror image, Moroccan interest in Portugal. Or, to put it another way, that it is all one political realm, and Moroccan politics have to be considered alongside Hispanic.

It is probably also worth noting that the core period of Henry's African adventure coincided with the period in which Henry's brother was being held hostage in Fez for a Marinid restoration in Ceuta. Ferdinand surrendered himself in 1438 and died in 1443, a period spanning the first half of Afonso V's difficult minority. During this short period, a series of expeditions along the coast reached the Bay D'Arguin and as far beyond it as the mouths of the Gambia and the Senegal. Henry, withdrawn from politics to his villa at Sagres, remained an entrenched opponent to any scheme for the redemption of the Infante Ferdinand, while patronising the geographical, and, perhaps, naval architectural sciences. 

Note all the little Portuguese enclaves down 
the coast. 

So any understanding of this adventure needs to focus on the political axis between Fez and Sagres. This much, should, indeed, be obvious. There is, however, that traditional blindness, or to be more charitable, professional unwillingness to overextend, that puts Morocco in a different category from Europe, drawing the line of political history at water's edge. There is also the foreshortening effect that makes far off countries seem smaller and more homogeneous than they would seem if we took their politics more seriously. Morocco, in particular, is a very big country. The Almoravid/Almohad imperial city of Marrakesh is 500km south of the Marinid/Wattid capital of Fez, and even a Martian would, when it was put that way, expect a north-south rivalry. It is, moreover, a rivalry that one can easily visualise as producing a kaleidoscopic variety of potential alliances. From the perspective of Ferdinand's uneasy custodian, the vizier Abu Abd Allah al-Sheikh Muhammad ibn Yahya, not only Portugal, but also Castile, Aragon, Tlemcen, Marrakesh and the sub-Sahelian states all had to be taken into account. 

 And for anyone from the marginalised North, South, East or West of any given polity, attention will be on the marginalised, the political interest denied its legitimacy by the simple expedient of grouping it into the larger state. Morocco had just been through an extended period of government from the south, by the Almoravids and the Almohads. I'm going to link to that classically bloated Hollywood epic, El Cid, again, just so that the reader can appreciate the way that even the comparatively heedless visual politics of the 1960s biopic could read the Almohads as a threat to northern Christians and Muslims alike. (And a reminder that mask politics is not new.) It's unfortunate that it was the Almoravids who sometimes trace their origins to a ribat on the island of Tidra in the Bay d'Arguin, but given that the Portuguese did not just happen to arrive in 1405, full of wide-eyed innocence, on the North African shore in 1405, the arrival there in 1443 of Nuno Tristao, and his subsequent attack on a village on the adjacent island of Arguin, has, or ought to have, resonance. As much as Christian slavers were an ominous novelty in African affairs, small communities on islands in the Bay of Arguin were an established threat to northern regimes.

Mauritania's Banc d'Arguin National Park protects 12,000 square km from Cap Blanc, which marks the modern southern Moroccan border (*) south to Nouadhibou. A major nesting area for migrant Palarctic birds, it has extensive fishery resources, and is a major resort for marine mammals including monk seals within the larger Sub-Canarian  Zone that stretches almost 800km along the African shore opposite the Canary Islands. To European historians oblivious to back country marabouts and the succession of Moroccan dynasties, the eyes of the outer world fall upon the Bay of Arguin with the arrival of Antam Gonsalvez, a youth of Prince Henry's household, charged to take a cargo of monk seal hides and train oil in the rich coastal fishery of the Sub-Canarian Zone, which would the key industry standing in the way of resolving the Western Sahara dispute in the later years of the Franco regime, and Nuno Tristao, remembered today as the commander of a prototype caravel, although I'll have something to say about that below. Technically, Tristao's 1441 voyage only reached as far as Cape Blanc, but he was at least on the doorstep of the Arguin. 

"The historian," Gomes Eanes de Zurara, passes lightly over the next three years before drawing his account to a conclusion in 1448. This was, significantly enough, the year of Afonso V's majority and of the death of Abu Zakariya Yahya ibn Ziyan al-Wattasi. Civil war would ensue in Portugal, although  Abu Zakariya's succession arrangements would hold for the next decade. De Zurara's main goal in writing, more than a  decade later, seems to be one of establishing the youthful fame of the young men of the Infante's household, decades before they emerged as the protagonists of greater struggles at home in Iberia. Thus, he is careful to paint them as zealous crusaders and slavers, and is hardly aware of them as explorers. Since the exploring narrative was hardly unknown, and they were, in fact, explorers, this is a bit peculiar, and we have to turn to Diogo Gomes and Cadamosto's late life memoirs for further insight. From them we know that it was in 1448 that the Portuguese, or rather the men of Lagos, established a factory at Arguin to short circuit the western trans-Saharan trade and transship gold, slaves and naturalia directly by sea to Lagos in Portugal; and that it was in 1455 that the Venetian, Cadamosto, along with Antoniotto di Usodimare, reached the Gambia and, after considerable difficulties engendered by the Portuguese's local reputation as cannibalistic slave traders,  entered into trade arrangements with the Mandinka rulers of the Cayor/Cantor. Specifically, one Niumimansa, having resisted Portuguese incursions for several years, had now been converted to a pro-Portuguese position, opening up his ports to European trade. The reasons for his change of heart are beyond our ken, but presumably we would have to look inland to understand them, if not anywhere so far north as Fez. 
Mansa Musa, from The Catalan Atlas

This is, however, a good time to  haul back and talk about something we can know. In 1324/25, the Mansa Musa, "Tenth King" of the Mali Empire passed through Cairo on his hajj. With a  reported entourage of 60,000, carrying a hundred tons of gold amongst other riches. This created a considerable stir, albeit a somewhat over-excited one that makes it difficult to reconstruct the details. This is particularly unfortunate because of a juicy detail from the writings of Shihab al-Usmari, who reports that Mansa Musa became ruler of the empire when his predecessor appointed him viceroy for the duration of an expedition into the Atlantic, from which Abubakari Keita II did not return. The story, it turns out, is second hand, but only at one remove and reported less than a year after Mansa Musa passed through Cairo. 

All sea stories are alike, so It is probably best not to take any of
The ruler who preceded me did not believe that it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean that encircles the earth (meaning Atlantic), and wanted to reach that (end) and obstinately persisted in the design. So he equipped two hundred boats full of men, like many others full of gold, water and victuals sufficient enough for several years. He ordered the chief (admiral) not to return until they had reached the extremity of the ocean, or if they had exhausted the provisions and the water. They set out. Their absence extended over a long period, and, at last, only one boat returned. On our questioning, the captain said: 'Prince, we have navigated for a long time, until we saw in the midst of the ocean as if a big river was flowing violently. My boat was the last one; others were ahead of me. As soon as any of them reached this place, it drowned in the whirlpool and never came out. I sailed backwards to escape this current.' But the Sultan would not believe him. He ordered two thousand boats to be equipped for him and for his men, and one thousand more for water and victuals. Then he conferred on me the regency during his absence, and departed with his men on the ocean trip, never to return nor to give a sign of life

 this too literally, but rivers and whirlpools in mid-ocean sound a lot more like the Bay of Arguin than anywhere in the mid-Atlantic. And, on the one hand, we'd have to radically revise our understanding of the maritime industries of the Guinea coast to accommodate a succesful expedition to South America; and on the other we'd be taking a very low estimate of the native intelligence of an emperor of Mali (a job that seems to call for a fairly strong grip on reality) to imagine Abubakari throwing his life away on a quixotic voyage west when the northwards route towards Sale and Andalusia actually mattered. Mansa Musa, who concentrated his efforts on conquering Gao and Timbuktu, had a more realistic agenda. In retrospect, though, it is to be regretted that he did not make a greater effort to follow up on Abubakari's efforts. 

All this interest from north and south leaves the centre suspiciously vacant. The slavers' narrative focusses on the "naked" pastoralists of the littoral. Fishers are absent until we arrive at the Arguin, and understandably so given the lack of anchorages along 800km of surf-pounded sand. Those were in the Canaries.

Or were they?

The Hollanders do make both a profitable and a pleasant trade of this Summer fishing. For there was one of them that having a gallant great new Buss of his own, and he having a daughter married unto one that was his Mate in the Buss: the Owner that was Master of this Buss did take his wife with him aboard, and his Mate with his wife; and so they did set sail for the North seas, with the two women with them, the mother and the daughter. Where, having a fair wind, and being fishing in the North seas, they had soon filled their Buss with herrings; and a Herring-Yager cometh unto them, and brings them gold and fresh supplies and copeth [bargaineth] with them, and taketh in their herrings for ready money, and delivereth them more barrels and salt; and away goeth the Yager for the first market into Sprucia [Prussia]. And still is the Buss fishing at sea, and soon after again was full laden and boone [bound] home: but then another Yager cometh unto him as did the former, and delivering them more provision of barrels, salt, and ready money, and bids them farewell. And still the Buss lieth at sea, with the mother and daughter, so long, and not very long before they had again all their barrels full; and then they sailed home into Holland, with the two women, and the Buss laden with herrings, and a thousand pounds of ready money[4]

The same author (Tobias Gentleman) in 1614 estimated the cost of fitting out a Dutch herring buss for three voyages (four months) in Summer (including wages for the crew at £88, barrels for 100 last[5] of herring at £78, beer at £42, bread at £21, butter and bacon at £18, peas at £3, billet at £3, and wear and tear on ship and nets at £100) at £435. One hundred last of herring (at £10) would bring £1000 in his opinion, for a clear profit of £565.[6] In his pamphlet (in which he holds up the Dutch fisheries for English emulation) he states that at the end of May a fleet of a thousand busses would sail, with 20,000 sailors aboard. They would sail to Shetland, but wait till after 14 June (herring being unfit for consumption before that) before starting to follow the shoals. He estimates the value of the catch at more than a million pounds sterling.[7] 

I think we've come around to being a bit skeptical of the details of Tobias Gentleman (which is apparently a real name)'s account, but the logistics aren't inherently implausible. We haven't the slightest clue how the sardine fishery of coastal Morocco was organised in the 1300s, but we know for sure of at least one sealer along this coast. Yes, the Portuguese come a century after Abubakari, but he is, in turn, a good century after our Andalusian wanderers and our Almoravid marabouts, and a fishery from Moroccan ports is the best explanation for why there wasn't one based in the Canaries.

In conclusion, there's a lot to say about the naval architectural side of this story, and a great deal of work for your marine archaeologists. I may or may not be able to report on progress there next time. 


  1. Great post. Did I show you this?

    [oh god I've given Lund a SQUIRREL! just when he was getting somewhere]

  2. Nope, cool. Now, cod, herring, old news. What about sardines?

  3. Lameen, I think I deleted a comment from you while cleaning up my spam just now!

  4. It wasn't a very exciting comment, I'm afraid! Just saying this was an interesting and thought-provoking post, and I rather like the idea that Abubakari's oceanic interests were focused more northwards than westwards. Some Andalusis were aware of the Canary Islands, so he might have heard rumors of those as well...