The Treasures of Africa

The front cover of “Africae Descriptio IX lib. absoluta” by Johannes Leo Africanus.

Johannes Leo Africanus, Africae Descriptio IX lib. absoluta

Published 1632 in Leipzig

On 9 June 1788, twelve influential men gathered in London to do something none of them could afford to do individually: They founded the African Association – and it certainly wasn’t out of any kind of altruistic motivation. They wanted to know, in detail, how one could get hold of the treasures of Africa, the gold, the ivory, the slaves – to name just a few of the most important goods. Every member of the association paid five guineas per year for three years to equip explorers for their travels. In exchange, the members had exclusive access to the explorers’ reports.


Portrait of a Humanist by Sebastiano del Piombo. In a fundamental work on Leo Africanus’s book it was suggested in 1999 that the sitter in this painting could be identified as Leo Africanus.

Why were these twelve men so very interested in the riches of Africa? Well, they had all read the work of the great Muslim geographer al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi (1490-1550). These days, he is better known by the name Johannes Leo Africanus. The book we present to you today is a Latin edition of his groundbreaking work about Africa, published in 1632 in Leiden.

The life of its writer is widely known nowadays thanks to the famous novel by Amin Maalouf. The author had excellent material to work with: Hasan’s life was more exciting than any novel.

Shortly after his birth in Granada in 1490, his family moved to Fez, a city in the region of today’s Morocco, where the young man received an outstanding education. His uncle was a diplomat who took him along on his travels, and soon Hasan himself was serving as a diplomat representing the Sultan of Fez. On his missions, he developed a thorough knowledge of North African cities. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca and travelled all the way to Istanbul.

But in 1518, his ship was attacked close to Crete by Spanish pirates. The diplomat was taken prisoner and was supposed to work on a rowing boat as a slave. But his new owner quickly noticed just how valuable their loot really was. Hasan was presented as a diplomatic gift. This worked well for Pope Leo X, who welcomed an extra source of information for the war against the Ottoman Empire. Leo released Hasan and “persuaded” him to get baptised and to stay in Rome under the new name “Johannes Leo de Medici”.

Leo Africanus established himself in the humanist world as a highly knowledgeable geographer and arabist. Of the various books he wrote, his account of Africa would become the most famous. Until the members of the African Association began conducting their own research on the “dark continent”, the Christian world got all of its information on Africa from this book.


The first edition of Leo’s manuscript was published many years after he had written it. In 1550, the Venetian publisher Giovanni Battista Ramusio included it in his series of various travel reports. Leo’s work comprised nine books in two parts – just under 900 pages which gave, for the first time, substantiated descriptions of the Barbary Coast, whose pirates were giving the Christians so much grief. In this book, the reader could learn about the kingdoms of West and Central Africa, from which came immense quantities of gold. To this day, names like Gold Coast, Slave Coast, and Ivory Coast show what Europe found so fascinating about Africa. And that’s exactly what Leo Africanus was describing. His book was virtually a list of booming trade cities such as Marrakesh, Fez, Tunisia, Cairo, and, of course, the mysterious Timbuktu.

It became “the” definitive standard work about Africa. Because only few academics could understand Italian, Lyon-born Jean Temporal translated it into French. This edition formed the basis for a Latin translation, which was published for the first time in 1556 and already needed to be reprinted in 1558. The Leiden-based publisher Elzevier took over for the book’s 1632 edition, which we have with us now.

John Pory had completed an English translation for the English market a whole generation earlier. This was published in 1600, and it could hardly be considered a coincidence that Shakespeare wrote his Othello in 1603. Thanks to Leo Africanus, Africa was the hot topic on everyone’s lips.

By the way, the African Association’s successor organisation still exists today. It grew into the significantly more well-known Royal Geographic Society. One could assume that the organisation’s motives for exploring the world were originally the same – whether as the African Association or the Royal Geographic Society.


For those who want to practice their Latin by trying to read the book by Hasan ibn Muhammad, or Leo Africanus, Google has put a digitalised version online. The copy used for this version comes from the Leiden University Library in the Netherlands.

The BBC filmed a documentary about Leo Africanus and uploaded it onto YouTube.

If you want to learn more about Leo Africanus, you can find a wealth of information on this website, created by an avid traveller of Morocco.

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