A leading historian reconstructs the forgotten history of medieval Africa
From the birth of Islam in the seventh century to the voyages of European exploration in the fifteenth, Africa was at the center of a vibrant exchange of goods and ideas. It was an African golden age in which places like Ghana, Nubia, and Zimbabwe became the crossroads of civilizations, and where African royals, thinkers, and artists played celebrated roles in the globalized world of the Middle Ages. The Golden Rhinoceros brings this unsung era marvelously to life, taking readers from the Sahara and the Nile River Valley to the Ethiopian highlands and southern Africa.
Drawing on fragmented written sources as well as his many years of experience as an archaeologist, François-Xavier Fauvelle painstakingly reconstructs an African past that is too often denied its place in historybut no longer. He looks at ruined cities found in the mangrove, exquisite pieces of art, rare artifacts like the golden rhinoceros of Mapungubwe, ancient maps, and accounts left by geographers and travelersremarkable discoveries that shed critical light on political and architectural achievements, trade, religious beliefs, diplomatic episodes, and individual lives.
A book that finally recognizes Africa’s important role in the Middle Ages, The Golden Rhinoceros also provides a window into the historian’s craft. Fauvelle carefully pieces together the written and archaeological evidence to tell an unforgettable story that is at once sensitive to Africa’s rich social diversity and alert to the trajectories that connected Africa with the wider Muslim and Christian worlds.
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About the Author
François-Xavier Fauvelle is senior fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Toulouse, France, and one of the world’s leading historians of ancient Africa. The author and editor of numerous books, he has conducted archaeological digs in South Africa, Ethiopia, and Morocco.
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The Tribulations of Two Chinese in Africa
East Africa, the Eighth to the Fifteenth Century
In July 751, contingents from the Abbasid Caliphate fighting alongside rebellious Turks tore the Chinese army to pieces on the plain of Talas, near Tashkent, in current Uzbekistan. Thousands of prisoners were transported to the garrison posts of Bukhara and Samarkand, as well as Iraq, where former soldiers turned paper makers, fabric weavers, or jewelers were numerous. Among the prisoners was an officer: Du Huan. We do not know the circumstances that led him to cross the Islamic regions to return to China, but we find him in Guangzhou in 762. He wrote a book, the Jingxingji (Record of travels), unfortunately lost, but a few excerpts have survived in a contemporaneous Chinese encyclopedia.
One of the excerpts tells us about a certain land, Molin, where the people are black. Neither rice nor cereals grow there, nor grass nor trees. The horses are fed with dried fish. It moves on to describe the interior, a mountainous region where Muslims and Eastern Christians live. Here diarrhea is cured by incisions made on the skull. It is perhaps this latter region, if it is different from the first, that was called Laobosa, a name in which some suggest we can recognize al-Habasha, the Arabic term for the lands of the Horn of Africa, which has given us Abyssinia in English. If that is the case, Molin would refer more specifically to the low-lying coastal zones of Eritrea and Sudan. But these are only conjectures; let us simply say that they are compatible with the text. If Du Huan intended to describe what we today call Ethiopia, we would certainly not be surprised that he mentions the presence of Christians and Muslims, who lived there in neighboring communities all through the Middle Ages. But neither would we be surprised if he had actually had Egypt or Nubia in mind; or perhaps North Africa, recently conquered by the Arabo-Muslim armies, where Christian communities, in continuous decline, lived until the twelfth century; or maybe the Arabian Peninsula, where Christians, Jews, and Muslims coexisted long after the rise of Islam; or even Socotra, an island in the Arabian Sea guarding the entrance to the Gulf of Aden.
The fragments from Du Huan's account are perhaps the first testimony of a direct knowledge of Africa in China. But we should not mask their insignificance: to an uncertain geography may be added ethnological details that reveal their Sino-centric bias, and that lose almost all their value when we consider our inability to narrow down, beyond a few thousand kilometers, the region they relate to.
From the Tang (618–907) to the Yuan (1260–1368) dynasty, Chinese sources teem with indirect references to Africa, more precisely to the Horn and the African shores of the Indian Ocean. Generalizations about Chinese knowledge of Africa are often drawn from them, indeed about the incredible extension of Chinese navigation, which, some believe, rounded the Cape of Good Hope or even reached America. In addition, it is excessive to infer from the presence of shards of blue and white porcelain or Chinese coins in numerous East African archaeological sites the regular presence of Chinese merchants in these places. Judging by the form of the names of the lands that figure in the sources, when these names are recognizable, the information could have been obtained from Arab and Persian intermediaries, whose community at Guangzhou is attested from the eighth century. Chinese porcelain thus was transported to East African shores not in seagoing junks, but aboard the sambuks* of the Muslim merchants of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden. Pushed by monsoon winds flowing from the opposite direction, information about Africa made its way to China.
The oldest known direct contacts between China and Africa seem rather late: they took place only under the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). These, then, were official contacts, and they must have been quite spectacular. Indeed, between 1405 and 1433, the imperial eunuch Zheng He, grand admiral of the Chinese fleet and a Muslim, led seven naval expeditions to the Indochinese Peninsula, Indonesia, and the yet more distant Indian, Persian, Arabian, and African shores of the Indian Ocean. It has long been thought that these expeditions were peaceful. The least we can say is that they must have been very intimidating: at least a hundred junks up to two to three times larger — some even more — than the Portuguese galleons at the end of the century, carrying twenty to forty thousand men in total, the majority of whom were soldiers. Their objective was perhaps, as a specialist on the topic wrote, "to go shopping for women for the imperial harem," and to bring back perfumes and unguents, plumage and coats from exotic animals, horns and precious woods. It was also, no doubt, to record information about the sources and supply routes of these luxury items, which had reached China for centuries but were now highly sought after. Finally, it was to force local sovereigns encountered along the way to submit to the emperor, whether they acquiesced in their subordination or not, particularly by making them send emissaries and gifts.
Zheng He reached Africa twice: in 1417–1419 during the fifth voyage and 1421–1422 during the sixth. More precisely, he touched ground at Dju-bo, an unknown location perhaps situated at the mouth of the Jubba River in current Somalia; at Mu-ku-tu-shu (Mogadishu) and Pula-wa (Brava), also in Somalia; and perhaps at Malindi in Kenya. Unfortunately the official reports of these expeditions are among the many documents that have disappeared, destroyed in 1480 during factional struggles between military officers and eunuchs. However, surviving records include several personal accounts of men who served with the admiral; a large map attributed to Ma Huan, the expeditions' Muslim interpreter, depicting the coasts of the visited regions; as well as mentions in the Ming annals. More remarkable are the stone inscriptions carved as thanks by Zheng He himself in two temples dedicated to Mazu, the "Lady of the Celestial Palace," goddess of the sea and protector of sailors, near the Yangtze estuary from whence the expeditions set sail.
But, despite this near abundance, Africa is again unlucky: we learn little from Zheng He's voyages, and what we do learn does not measure up to the minor miracle of the very existence of Chinese documentation. In other words, just because they came from far away does not mean that the Chinese had any reason to leave more thorough descriptions than others. Regarding Mogadishu, for example, we are told that the houses have four or five floors, and that the inhabitants are quarrelsome and practice archery. Concerning Dju-bo: "They live in solitary and dispersed villages. The country is situated in a remote corner of the west. The walls are made of piled up bricks and the houses are masoned in high blocks. The customs are very simple. There grow neither herbs nor trees. Men and women wear their hair in rolls; when they go out, they wear a linen hood. The mountains are uncultivated and the land is wide; it rains very rarely. There are deep wells worked by means of cog-wheels. Fish are caught in the sea with nets." The description is meager, but we will have to be content with it.
But the key point lies elsewhere. Seven centuries after the voyages of Du Huan, Zheng He's expeditions brought to a close the epoch the first had opened. It was a period characterized by a curiosity averse to risking the adventure of formal contact but always concerned about keeping itself informed, albeit from uncertain sources. The expedition of 1421–1422 was the last contact between China and Africa until the modern era; above all, it signified a return to indifference. We have rambled on about the financial costs of such expeditions to explain their suppression; we have philosophized on China's withdrawal into itself. But what these relations illustrate — precisely because the improbable pairing of Africa and China, despite their geographical separation, is the manifestation of its intensity — is the force of the interconnection of the medieval Islamic world. Let us take the Chinese episodes in Africa for what they were: light contacts. But when placed in the context of increased indirect exchange between Africa and China from the eighth to the fifteenth century — as revealed through references to Africa in Chinese sources as well as archaeological evidence of Chinese artifacts on African shores — they attest to the dynamism of a universe that became the intermediary between worlds so very distant in space and culture.
Or, to put it differently, it was a universe that prospered from having made itself, deservedly, the intermediary between these worlds. For if Islam was able to connect China and East Africa, it was by creating a vast commercial system, brought together less by language and religion than by law and money.
De Huan's story is told by Wolbert Smidt, "A Chinese in the Nubian and Abyssinian Kingdoms (8th century)," Chroniques yéménites 9 (2001): 17–28. Several Chinese sources from the Middle Ages are presented in Friedrich Hirth, "Early Chinese Notices of East African Territories," Journal of the American Oriental Society 30 (1909): 46–57. The short work of Jan Julius Lodewijk Duyvendak, China's Discovery of Africa (London: Arthur Probsthain, 1949), the text of two lectures given at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1947, remains the best and most sober presentation of these texts in a Western language; the quotation on "shopping" is taken from p. 27, the quotation on Dju-bo from p. 30. In "The True Dates of the Chinese Maritime Expeditions in the Early Fifteenth Century," T'oung Pao 34 (1939): 341–412, Duyvendak had earlier established the dates and routes of the eunuch's various expeditions. The work of Teobaldo Filesi, China and Africa in the Middle Ages, trans. David L. Morrison (London: F. Cass, 1972), has been criticized for putting too much stock in the idea of a direct relationship between Africa and China; interested readers can easily access reviews of the book. More generally, John Shen, "New Thoughts on the Use of Chinese Documents in the Reconstruction of Early Swahili History," History in Africa 22 (1995): 349–358, critically analyzes available translations of Chinese sources and how historians of Africa have used them. Sally Church's entry for "Zheng He," in The Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures (Berlin: Springer, 2008), is useful. So is Geoff Wade, "The Zheng He Voyages: A Reassessment," Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series 31 (2004): 37–58, which recalls the military pomp of these expeditions. More recently, see Robert Finlay, "The Voyages of Zheng He: Ideology, State Power, and Maritime Trade in Ming China," Journal of the Historical Society 9 (2008): 327–347. For Zheng He's map, see chiefly Mei-Ling Hsu, "Chinese Marine Cartography: Sea Charts of PreModern China," Imago Mundi 40 (1988): 96–112. On the "Sino-centrist" readings of the sources relating to Zheng He's expeditions and the hypothesis of a Chinese discovery of America in 1421, see the vigorous corrective by Robert Finlay, "How Not to (Re)Write World History: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of America," Journal of World History 15 (2004): 229–242. Finally, for Arab ships and expeditions in the Indian Ocean, George F. Hourani, Arab Seafaring (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995, 1st ed. 1951) is always useful.CHAPTER 2
In the Belly of the Sperm Whale
East Africa, Beginning of the Tenth Century
Ambergris is a marine secretion, the best variety of which comes from the Sea of Zanj. It is pale blue, pieces of it are as big as ostrich eggs, and whales that swallow it die from it. Fishermen who harpoon these animals thus obtain the precious product. At least, that is how al-Masûdî imagined the origin of this merchandise, anbar in Arabic, from which we get "ambergris" or "gray amber" in English (to distinguish it from amber, fossilized resin, from which beads and gemstones are made).
Similar ideas were common currency among Arabic geographers and pharmacologists. Al-Idrîsî, in the twelfth century, related that the caliph Hârûn al-Rashîd (r. 786–809) had his agents rush onto the beaches of Yemen to investigate the origins of the ambergris that washed ashore after a storm. The curious story of ambergris spurting from the bottom of the sea only to be ingested by whales in fact corresponds to a series of accurate observations: fishermen encountered ambergris floating on the sea and occasionally gathered it on the beach, but they also found it in the intestines of certain cetaceans; it seemed to be a tuber that always incorporated the remains of marine animals. In reality, ambergris is produced only in the intestines of one variety of cetaceans, the sperm whale, and among only a tiny fraction of the population. It is a concretion that forms around undigested objects, particularly the horned beaks and mandibles of the cephalopods (octopuses, squids, etc.) on which the mammal feeds. Opportunely harvested or removed from cadavers in pieces of a few dozen grams to a few dozen kilograms — sometimes several hundred — ambergris is compact and friable in texture, waxy, and of speckled gray color. Fresh, it possesses a strong fecal odor, but when exposed to the oxidizing action of seawater and air, it acquires the persistent scents of tobacco, wood, and iodine. It can be burned like incense; it can serve as an unguent. Medieval Arab authors and later Europeans were also acquainted with its medicinal and alimentary uses. Sperm whale ambergris contains various toxic alcohols, a fact that might have led to the belief among such authors that cetaceans died from it. Along with musk and civet, ambergris or its synthetic equivalent is still one of the principal animal extracts used as a perfume fixative; we still credit it with the medicinal and aphrodisiac properties first discovered by the Arab druggists of the Middle Ages.
Of all the Arab writings that evoke the lands bordering the Sea of Zanj (i.e., the portion of the East African coast extending from southern Somalia to northern Tanzania), those of al-Masûdî, active during the first half of the tenth century, are some of the few based on direct observation. Undoubtedly quite wealthy to be able to devote his life to travel, he has left us with an exceptional picture of the world as it was during the first half of the fourth century of Islam: an encyclopedic survey of geographic, natural, and ethnographic knowledge entitled The Meadows of Gold (Murudj al-dhahab), his principal work. Certainly profiting from favorable monsoon winds during his voyage from India, he visited the land of Zanj and the island of Qambalû before returning home to Iraq.
This, then, was the land of Zanj in 916: a long band of dry lands some seven hundred parasangs (around four thousand kilometers) in length, home to populations that used harnessed oxen as mounts; cultivated millet and banana trees; hunted elephants by poisoning their watering holes; dined on millet, meat and honey, and coconut; recognized kings who bore the title of mfalme; and had a sovereign god whom they called Maliknajlu, "the Great Lord." They unquestionably spoke a language of the Bantu family — the mother language of the Swahili spoken today in this part of Africa — and one that had already incorporated an Arabic word, malik (king). Yet their society was not yet Muslim. To the south, we do not know exactly where, extended the borders of another land, called Sofala, where the Wak-Wak lived, but we do not know who they were. It was from this land that gold "and other marvels" came. But we cannot locate it: it was without a doubt the Zanj themselves who trafficked there, and in all likelihood they are the source of all the information that exists about it.
One or two days from the coast of Zanj one found Qambalû, perhaps the island of Pemba, just off the extreme northern coast of current Tanzania. There, al-Masûdî tells us, lived a mixed population of idolaters and Muslims, the latter priding themselves on their own royal family. This was certainly the early days of the Swahili civilization that would develop and spread from the beginning of the second millennium: a civilization that was at once African, Muslim, seafaring, and commercial. A Muslim traveler or merchant was certain to be warmly welcomed there, and to meet interested business partners ready to play the role of intermediaries with the continent. Is it certain that al-Masûdî visited Zanj? We cannot know for sure. But it is doubtful that he could prudently have gone without taking precautions — some tribes are cannibals, he says — or that the people of Qambalû would have been eager to let this illicit commerce take place. It was they alone, no doubt, who brought back leopard skins, supposedly the largest ever, which were used as saddles in the Arab world; tortoiseshells, more sought after than horns for the production of combs and other accessories; pieces of ivory larger than those found in India; and of course the best ambergris ever.(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
Note on Conventions, ix,
Introduction: Africa in the Middle Ages, 1,
1 The Tribulations of Two Chinese in Africa East Africa, the Eighth to the Fifteenth Century, 16,
2 In the Belly of the Sperm Whale East Africa, Beginning of the Tenth Century, 22,
3 Aspects of a Border Qasr Ibrîm, Lower Nubia, from the Seventh Century, 28,
4 Diplomatic Back-and-Forth at the Court of George II of Nubia Faras and Dongola, Present-Day Sudan, Last Quarter of the Tenth Century, 36,
5 "Does anyone live beyond you?" Central Sahara, Seventh to the Ninth Century, 44,
6 For Forty-Two Thousand Dinars Aoudaghost, Present-Day Mauritania, Middle of the Ninth Century, 50,
7 A Tale of Two Cities: On the Capital of Ghâna The Aoukar, Present-Day Mauritania, around 1068, 56,
8 Ghâna, One Hundred Years Later Banks of a River in the Sahel, between 1116 and 1154, 64,
9 The Conversion Effect Various Parts of the Sahel, Eleventh to Twelfth Century, 69,
10 The King of Zâfûn Enters Marrakesh Morocco and the Western Sahel, around the Second Quarter of the Twelfth Century, 75,
11 The Rich Dead of the Tumuli Ethiopia, Mali, Senegal, between the Ninth and the Fourteenth Century, 81,
12 Aksum, the City That Made Kings Northern Ethiopia, around the Twelfth Century, 89,
13 The Treasures of Debre Damo Northern Ethiopia, until the Twelfth Century, 94,
14 One Map, Two Geographies Horn of Africa, before the Middle of the Twelfth Century, 100,
15 The Case of the Concubine Aydhâb, Berbera, Present-Day Coastal Sudan and Somaliland, December 1144, 105,
16 Sijilmâsa, Crossroads at the Ends of the Earth Southeastern Morocco, from the Twelfth to the Fourteenth Century, 111,
17 The Land Where Gold Grows like Carrots The Sahel, from the Tenth to the Fourteenth Century, 119,
18 Phantom Mines Present-Day Zimbabwe Highlands and the West African Savanna, around the Thirteenth Century, 125,
19 The Land of Sofala Coasts of Present-Day Tanzania and Mozambique, End of the Thirteenth to the Beginning of the Fourteenth Century, 131,
20 The Golden Rhinoceros Northeastern South Africa, Thirteenth Century, 135,
21 The Stratigraphy of Kilwa, or How Cities Are Born Coast of Present-Day Tanzania, from the Tenth to the Fifteenth Century, 143,
22 The Camels of Madagascar, or Marco Polo's Africa Somalia and Madagascar, End of the Thirteenth Century, 149,
23 The Work of Angels Lalibela, Ethiopian Highlands, around the Thirteenth Century, 154,
24 The Sultan and the Sea Coast of Present-Day Senegal or Gambia, around 1312, 160,
25 Ruins of Salt Taghâza, Extreme North of Present-Day Mali, from the Eleventh to the Sixteenth Century, 169,
26 The Customs of Mâli Oualata, Present-Day Mauritania, around 17 April 1352, 175,
27 A Wreck in the Sahara Central Mauritania, the Eleventh, Twelfth, and Thirteenth Centuries, 183,
28 The Golden Orb Kingdom of Mâli, Fourteenth Century, 190,
29 The King's Speech In Mâli City, Capital of the Kingdom of Mâli, from June 1352 to February 1353, 200,
30 The Production of Eunuchs in Abyssinia Ethiopia and Somaliland, around 1340, 209,
31 Inventory at Great Zimbabwe Present-Day Zimbabwe, Fourteenth to Fifteenth Century, 215,
32 Next Year in Tamentit, or the (Re)discovery of Africa Tuat Oasis, Central Algeria, Second Half of the Fifteenth Century, 222,
33 Africa's New Shores The Coasts of Present-Day Mauritania, Senegal, and Gambia, 1455, 232,
34 Vasco da Gama and the "New World" Indian Ocean, 1498, 240,
Further Reading, 255,