The prestigious history of Sailing in Africa; Official history makes us believe that among all the peoples of the world, Blacks were the only ones who never sailed. Due to their inferiority, they never set foot outside Africa. We will further see that this is totally untrue because not only did Africans have fleets but also their ability to cruise waters was indeed manifest.

According to African-American historian David Imhotep, human sailing existed more than 120,000 years ago. We go back to a period where all modern human beings that populated Earth were black and lived in Africa. It is this prehistoric sailing that allowed Africans to cross the Atlantic Ocean to populate the Americas 65,000 years ago. It is also through this navigation that the African arrived in Australia 50,000 years ago.

This article will focus more on African navigation since what may be called the historical period, that is to say since the first Egyptian pharaonic dynasty.

Sailing in Pharaonic era (3300 B.C to 300 A.D)

Egyptian sailing

Until past decades and maybe today, the Buduma people located around Lake Chad used to make papyrus reed boats. Those boats were the first ones to be used by ancient Egyptians before the advent of Pharaonic dynasties. It will never be said enough that Egypt was the outcome and the achievement of all gathered experiences in Africa during 170,000 years.

It is under Pharaoh Snefru’s reign of the fourth dynasty that boat construction improved. Ancient Africans used to buy cedar from Middle East’s Blacks (Phoenicians). They used it to build boats as long as three-wagon trains.

Pharaoh Snefru in the center

Snefru ordered the construction of 60 thirty-meter-long boats in a single year, then 3 fifty-one-meter-long ones. This is approximately three times longer than the Santa Maria, the boat used by Christopher Columbus to reach America.

Pharaoh Sahuré of the fifth dynasty was the first one to order a trip to the Holy land of Punt just like Pharaoh Hatshepsut of the eighteenth dynasty later.

Determined to know God’s land in order to receive blessings during her reign, Hatshepsut ordered –in what she considered to be the greatest achievement of her life – the sailing of five 20-meter-long boats from Aabju (Abydos). Those vessels commanded by a Sudanese reached the red sea from a Nile canal. From there, they arrived in Punt which Mr. and Mrs. Diop thought to be Zimbabwe and its surroundings because that is where Djehuty-Mesu’s royal cartridge was found.

It is worth mentioning that Djehuty-Mesu was the heir to the throne, rightful successor of Hatshepsut and master of Punt at the time.

In 1969, Norwegian anthropologist and archeologist Thor Heyerdahl tried to prove that even the primitive Egyptian boat, made of papyrus could cross the Atlantic Ocean.
Built by the peoples of Lake Chad, the first boat (Ra) left Morocco and sank after 5,000 kilometers around the West Indies.
In 1970, a second improved boat, the Ra II left Morocco and reached Barbados. This showed that Egyptians could truly cross the Atlantic.
Pharaoh Khufu’s boat; Its length is 43 meters. It cannot travel by sea. It must have probably been used for religious ceremonies
Engraving of Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s expedition to Punt
Der el Bahari Temple
Reconstitution of a boat from the Punt expedition by the University of Boston

Carthaginian navigation

Black Phoenicians founded the republic of Carthage in 814 B.C, in current Tunisia. Phoenicians were the greatest sailors in African antiquity. They were the first people who brought civilization to Europe. They were also the masters of the Mediterranean, which they cruised on behalf of their Egyptian brothers.

They left their mark in Great Britain where they used to take raw materials for their infrastructures or the African spirituality cult. Engravings found in Mexico proved that it is a Phoenician who steered a boat in which the Sudanese – masters of Egypt by then – landed in America around 700 B.C.

Concerning the Phoenician navigation of Carthage, it reached its apogee during a period of wars between the Carthaginians Amilcar and Hannibal and the Roman Empire. The Carthaginians had 350 boats at a given point, among which thirty-six-meter-long triremes handled by 170 oarsmen. The most mind-blowing boats in their fleet were the quinqueremes. They were handled by 5 rows of 270 oarsmen arranged in a two-storey structure and carrying 120 soldiers. Blacks’ quinqueremes could carry 400 people at most.

3D reconstitution of Carthage’s harbor in present day Tunisia
Unknown author

Sailing in Imperial era (300 A.D. – 1500)

Sailing on the East Coast

Blacks in the rich Swahili civilization (Tanzania-Kenya) had the Mtepe. It was a boat weighing over 70 tons and large enough to cross the Indian Ocean in order to gift an elephant to the Chinese in the 13th century. There are still many Swahili names designating all types of boats.

It is important to mention that the astounding wealth of Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe (The Monomotapa Empire) needed an important fleet for commerce with Madagascar, the Arab world, China, India, South-East Asia and Australia.

Ancient Mozambicans, very haughty and dressed in silk, were thus not impressed at all by the boats of the Europeans who came in the 16th century. The sailing techniques of the East Coast were greatly influenced by the Arabs who were the political rulers of the world by then. They were at that time mostly responsible for shipping goods on the Indian Ocean.

The Mtepe

Sailing in imperial Morocco

Since the historical science gave back ownership to the Blacks over Northern Africa before its whitening around the 8th century, all what happened there, including the brilliant civilization of Imperial Morocco, belongs therefore to African historical legacy.

Sailing in Imperial Morocco took its full magnitude under the reign of the black Almoravid king Yusuf Ibn Tachfin. He fought against Spain’s Christians and had an important fleet that could sail the whole Mediterranean. The presence of Moroccan boats is manifest on the coasts of Syria and Palestine where they used to fight Christians.

It is during the following dynasty of black Almohads that Moroccan sailing reached its climax. Abd Al Mu’min, the first king of that dynasty, had a fleet of 400 boats. These boats were anchored in different Almohad harbors in Maghreb, Libya and Spain; all these territories were ruled by black Moroccans. The Almohads became the masters of the Mediterranean to the point that Egypt requested to be one of their protectorates, to benefit from their powerful fleet.

Maghreb’s Black dignitaries playing chess in Spain;
Source: The Golden Age of the Moor, Ivan van Sertima, page 29

There is no available description of the boats used by those two dynasties. But the Arab fleet – which was the world’s most powerful one – had boats ten times bigger than Christopher Columbus’s. Given the Arab influence over Maghreb, this allows us to imagine what the Imperial Morocco’s boats looked like.

Sailing in West Africa

River Niger and its magnificent civilizations also knew an important naval experience. During the era of the Empire of Mali, the Bozo people manufactured cargo boats that could ship tons of goods. During the downfall of these civilizations with the destruction of the Songhai by the black King of Morocco Ahmad Al Mansur, the Askia (Emperor) ordered the evacuation of the capital city Gao with the aid of 3,000 boats.

The Portuguese Cadamosto sailing the Gambia River in the 15th century, faced the defensive attack of Black people arranged in groups of 30 in big boats carved in only one wood trunk.

But it is especially with Mansa Abubakari II of Mali that 200 then 2,000 boats were built in Senegambia for their voyage to America in 1311. Christopher Columbus himself recorded the testimonies of Portuguese navigators who said to him that there were boats which left Africa for America [1]. Furthermore, Indians from Haiti told him that black traders came to them with big boats to trade spears called Goana/Guanin [2].

Columbus had one of these spears analyzed in Spain, and it turned out to be made of a metal formed of 18 parts of gold, 6 of silver and 8 of copper, absolutely identical to those of West Africa, metal that the Mandingoes called Ghana/Ghanin

Mansa Abubakari Keita II crossing the Atlantic Ocean at the helm of his fleet of papyrus reed boats (Illustration by Khephra Burns)

In short, Africa had a considerable naval experience during Pharaonic and imperial eras. And it is thanks to this technique that it could cruise the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean.


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