[This article does not claim superiority of African peoples over European peoples or other peoples. Nor does it aim to discount the achievements of non-Africans. Its purpose is to highlight some lesser-known achievements of Africans.]
In modern America, we hear of pre-modern black Africans traveling beyond Africa in very limited contexts: they traveled only because they were relocated by non-African (or at least non-black) slave traders or conquerors. Black Africans were brought as slaves to the Americas and to Asia by European and Arab slavers. Earlier still, Africans went to Asia and Europe as soldiers serving European and Asian rulers. These examples of Africans travelling in the control and/or employ of others, when not balanced by other examples of Africans travelling as free agents, contribute to the stereotype of African blacks as a passive people without the curiosity and desire to venture beyond their immediate surroundings.
Some believe Europeans have a decided "natural" edge over Africans because of the supposedly European characteristic of an active mind and a thirst for adventure. Black Africans apparently did not travel to far-off lands on their own initiative, nor did they have the desire to. However, there are certainly many examples of pre-modern black Africans traveling outside Africa as free people; as traders, explorers, conquerors, colonists and ambassadors; as people of initiative and power. Some of these examples are listed below:
Given the proximity of Southwestern Asia and Northeastern Africa, it is hardly surprising that East Africans and North Africans have crossed over to West Asia, and West Asians have crossed over to North and East Africa continuously since ancient times.
In the 2nd century, the Ethiopian king Azbah sent military contingents to South Arabia and apparently settled Ethiopian troops there. Ethiopians again occupied Saba from 335 to 370, further entrenching Christianity in South Arabia. In 524, Ethiopians under King Ella Asbeha again invaded South Arabia, this time as the mainstay of the Axumite, Arabian Christian refugee and Eastern Roman coalition whose purpose was to dethrone the ruling class and allow the return South Arabian Christian refugees. The Ethiopians were victorious.1
After King Ella Asbeha returned to Africa, Abreha, an Ethiopian military officer, seized the South Arabian throne in 532. Abreha extended South Arabian influence to northern and central Arabia and became one of the great personalities in Arabian history.2
African religious and commercial transcontinental and intercontinental travel was booming in the Middle Ages. African Muslims have been making the pilgrimage to Mecca in Asia since Islamic times. By 1400, annual caravans crossed the Sahara in 6 or so well-use routes. They carried merchants and pilgrims and Islamic scholars headed for North Africa and Asia.3
Swahili merchant ships operated along the East African coast all the way from Madagascar to southern Arabia.4 Merchants from East Africa were active in India at least by the 11th century.
During the European colonial era, Portuguese encountered Swahili merchants from Mogadishu, Malindi, Mombasa and Kilwa in Gujarati (Indian) ships in the harbor of Malacca (in modern Malaysia).5
The Sung Shi (History of the Sung Dynasty) record visits to China in 1071 CE and 1081-3 CE of the embassy of Zenjistan. Zenjistan is the Persian form of the Arabic Zenjibar for the East African Coast.6 The leader of the embassy, whose name is recorded in Chinese as Zengjiani, made a considerable impression at the imperial court. On his 2nd visit, he received a large amount of "white gold" in exchange for tribute, and was given treatment due an honored guest. He is said to have taken 160 days to reach China, passing through Sohar in Oman, Kulam-Malay in South India and Palembang in Sumatra.7 Marco Polo of Europe only got to China in 1275 CE, 2 centuries after the Africans.
African envoys were also active in India during this period.
Around 450 BC Herodotus, Greek author of History, wrote of the inhabitants of Colchis (in modern Georgia) : "it is undoubtedly a fact that the Colchians are of Egyptian descent. I noticed this myself before I heard anyone else mention it ... My own idea on the subject was based first on the fact that they have black skins and woolly hair... and secondly, and more especially, on the fact that the Colchians, the Egyptians and the Ethiopians are the only races which from ancient times have practiced circumcision." He also noted the Colchians wove a form of linen identical to that woven in Egypt. Archeologists confirmed that Colchians and Egyptian used the same kind of vertical 2-beam loom.8
Herodotus cited a story told by Egyptian priests about a Pharoah Sesostris, who once led an army northward through Syria and Turkey all the way to Colchis, westward across Southern Russia, and then south again through Romania, until he reached Bulgaria and the Eastern part of Greece. Sesostris then returned home the same way he came, leaving colonists behind at the Colchian river Phasis. Herodotus cautioned the reader that this story came 2nd hand via Egyptian priests, but also noted that the Colchians themselves had legends of an Egyptian colonization.9
Some modern historians regard Herodotus as unreliable, and even Herodotus cautioned the reader that his story is hearsay. But Herodotus' account is not the only claim of an African presence in Eastern Europe. In the late 4th century, Church Fathers St Jerome and Sophronius, wrote of Colchis as the "second Ethiopia" because of its black population.10
The Nart Epic of Abkhazia (on Georgia's northwestern coast) is folklore believed to be thousands of years old. It tells of 100 black-skinned horsemen who visited the Caucasus and liked it so much some of them stayed.11 Dmitri Gulia (1874-1960), a Abkhazian linguist, ethnographer and historian, amassed a large collection of words and names that were similar in the Egyptian, Ethiopian and Abkhazian languages. The names included family names, names of pre-Christian deities, names of rivers and mountains. He also noted customs and folk beliefs Abkhazia seemed to share with Egypt and Ethiopia.12
While the traditional accounts are at times contradictory and do not prove that Africans actually colonized Greece, archeology has provided supporting evidence such as the pyramids in Greece, all built before 2400 B.C. The pyramid of Amphion, excavated by Greek archeologist Theodore Spyropoulos in 1971, contained 4 gold pendants shaped like lilies and topped with papyroid forms -- a typical Egyptian motif. This pyramid towered more than 100 feet. The vaulted passageway inside contained staircases, niches, and a complex floor plan of branching tunnels that Spyropoulos found "quite similar" to the layout of Egyptian tombs. Potsherds from the tomb were dated in the Early Helladic II period (2900-2400) -- a time during which Greece was not believed to have possessed the technology for such a project.13
In 1976, Ivan Van Sertima, a professor of African Studies at Rutgers University, produced a book called, They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America. It examines evidence that West African traders might have crossed the Atlantic centuries before Columbus. The September 1981 issue of Science Digest comments, "The great stone heads of Mexico are by far the most spectacular evidence that, as civilization was dawning in the New World more than 2000 years before Columbus, black people from Africa had already reached these shores..."
El Omari, an Arab writer, records a story in the 10th chapter of his Masalik al-absad, which suggests that Atlantic voyages were made by mariners of West Africa in the time of the emperor Kankan Musa of Mali (early 14th century); stating that the predecessor of Kankan Musa (Emperor Abubakari, brother of Musa) embarked on the Atlantic with "two thousand ships" and sailed westward and disappeared.14
In chronicles of the 16th century Spanish conquest, Spanish historians recorded the presence of a Negro community already living in Central America. Lopez de Gomara wrote in his 1554 Historia de Mexico: "These were the first Negroes that had been seen in the Indies." Peter Martyr d'Anghera wrote of this same community, "The Spaniards found Negroes in this province. They only live one day's march from Quarequa and they are fierce... The natives of Quarequa carry on incessant war with these Negroes".15
In 1975, 2 Negroid skeletons were found in the U.S. Virgin Islands. One wore a pre-Columbian Indian wrist band. They were found in layers dated to about A.D. 1250. In 1974, Polish craniologists revealed that no fewer than 13.5% of the skeletons from the pre-Columbian Olmec cemetery of Tlatilco were Negroid.16
It should be noted that some of the evidence presented by Sertima regarding cultural diffusion from Africa to the Americas have been questioned by natives of the Americas:
Taino Woman writes in They came before Columbus ... and what?!?:
...considering the world’s oldest mummy is Chinchorro, from Chile, and the mummification processes are similar- including the removal of the internal organs and the placing of a mask over the face- the thought that this technology came from Egypt to the Americas doesn’t make sense. The oldest known Egyptian mummy was dated around 3500 B.C. while the Chinchorro mummy was dated at 6000 B.C. Do the math!
J.B., a Lakota, commments:
What is a "craniologist"? Is that like a phrenologist? Either way, most Indians have some negroid features, some caucasoid features. (Mongoloid features, for some reason, are notably absent. But so's type B blood.) We don't all look like the Italians in the movies. LOL
Funny thing about hyperdiffusionism. It's always a word which is spelled kinda similar under different rules of orthography and may involve certain very tortured ideas. Sertima actually used phallic imagery; apparently ancient Mexicans reproduced parthenogenetically.
Of course, the entire hyperdiffusionist argument is that an elite must teach us poor proletarians anything and everything. The spiritual ancestors of the modern neoliberal.]
This was a brief overview of pre-modern Negro Africans traveling the world as free people of choice. Other topics of interest outside the scope of this article:
Many African slaves in Asia reached high public office and even became kings.
Some of these half-Africans became Asian rulers after their Asian fathers.
North African globetrotter Ibn Battuta visited Europe, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa during the 14th century. He traveled more extensively than any European of the Middle Ages, including Marco Polo. The extent of his travels is estimated to have spanned 75000 miles, a distance unsurpassed until the age of steam.
Although modern Australian aborigines and African Negroes are regarded by Westerners to be similar in physical appearance, serogenetic and DNA analysis seems to indicate that Negroes and Australians are the two least related peoples in the world. Genetically the Australians and Melanesians seem closest related to Southeast Asians.17 Arguably, black Asians/Australians may have originated in Africa in prehistoric times, but if we count them as African, we should count most Europeans as Asian because Indo-Europeans purportedly migrated out of Central Asia, and by extension, all humans as African, since we all came out of Africa. But since modern Eurocentric views judge race by phenotype and not genotype, a discussion of black achievement can include non-African black civilizations in order to refute European stereotypes of color=destiny.