Ships and Sailing in Ancient Africa
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African Ships

rock carving of person in boat
A person in a boat (Barramiya, Upper Egypt, ca. 4000 BC)

June 2016 - People were probably using boats before the first people left Africa. At Blombos Cave in South Africa, people were fishing about 70,000 BC, and by the time people got to Southeast Asia about 40,000 BC they certainly had boats.

The earliest pictures of African boats are from about 4000 BC, when they appear in Egyptian rock carvings. Probably some of these early African boats had sails - at least, their neighbors in the Arabian peninsula already did. They may have been made of bundles of papyrus reeds, like some early West Asian ships and like Californian Native boats, because wood was too expensive.

ship with sails bunched up (in a battle)
Brailed sails on Sea People's ships
(Medinet Habu, ca. 1200 BC)

As early as the Old Kingdom, though, Egyptians were importing cedar wood from Phoenicia (Lebanon) to build big wooden ships that could sail on the Mediterranean and in the Red Sea. By 1200 BC, if not before, Egyptian sailors used brailing - bunching up the sail with ropes - as a quick way to use less sail when wind conditions changed.

But as Egypt got poorer, the center of African sailing shifted further west to Carthage, where many Phoenicians immigrated around 800 BC. Phoenicians were devoted sailors, and they brought their ships and knowledge of ship-building with them to Carthage. Around 600 BC, according to Herodotus, the Pharaoh of Egypt sent a Phoenician fleet of ships to sail around Africa, which they may have achieved, starting down the coast of East Africa and returning up the Atlantic coast. During the 400s BC, Carthaginian expeditions down the Atlantic coast of Africa may have reached as far south as Cameroon (about halfway down).

Map showing sargasso sea in the Atlantic ocean near Bermuda
Sargasso Sea

Himilco the Navigator, a Carthaginian man who lived during the 400s BC, explored the Atlantic coast of Europe as far north as northern France, probably looking for tin to use in making bronze. Himilco reported finding lots of dangerous seaweed, too, so he may have sailed as far west as the Sargasso Sea (a part of the Atlantic Ocean that's full of seaweed).

dark-skinned men and boys sail a ship with light-skinned passengers
Abu Zayd sailing (inside the boat looking out)
Maqamat of al-Hariri
Bibliothèque nationale de France, manuscript Arabe 5847,
Folio 119 Verso: maqama 39.

About 130 BC the Ptolemies sent out an explorer named Eudoxus who figured out how to use the monsoon winds to sail to India, greatly expanding African trade with India and making East Africa much richer. Eudoxus then tried twice to sail around Africa down the Atlantic coast, but failed (and probably died). In 335 AD, Ethiopian ships carried Aksumite soldiers over to Yemen, which they conquered and occupied. Medieval Ethiopian traders reached Iran, India, Sri Lanka, and as far as Malaysia. Beginning about 1000 AD, when Iranian traders colonized the port of Kilwa, Kilwa's ships also carried African traders and conquerors all over the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. But, like Indian ships, African ships used square sails, not the lateen sails of the Mediterranean Sea.

Learn by doing: go out on a sailboat
Sailing in West Asia

Bibliography and further reading:

More about African Mathematics
Science in Islamic Africa home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 29 March, 2017