Excerpts from 1492 and all that!
Henry the Navigator of Portugal trained and despatched explorers to many parts of the world.
But going south down the African coast had an issue. A headland, Cape Bojador, defined their exploration limit at the time. Its rough seas and the loss of previous ships around its point led to conjecture that there were sea monsters present.
In 1434 one of Henry’s navigators Gil Eanes was the first to pass Cape Bojador which is located in today’s Western Sahara. Although not at all impressive on a map, this place was previously the limit of European geographical knowledge to the south.
Eanes made one attempt and failed, but Henry urged him to try again and on that attempt he did make it around the cape, collecting some exotic plants to prove his achievement. A third trip with Afonso Gonçalves Baldaia in 1435 penetrated some two hundred kilometres further south than the cape. Baldaia would press on further in 1441 to reach Cabo Blanco (a peninsula of Mauritania in Western Sahara).
Portuguese explorers sailed further down the African coast every few years and had reached the Sénégal River by 1444. This meant they had travelled beyond the desert coastline and reached a vital river that passed through the goldfields of Ghana and Mali.
Local traders called it the ‘River of Gold’. Arab cartographers believed it linked with the Niger River to create an east-west single river system which they named the Western Nile.
But this was not the first exploration of the coast. The 1300 Mappa Mundi of Hereford clearly shows the river as Nilus Fluvius. Entertainingly, there is a picture of giant ants digging gold from the river’s sandy bank.
Hanno and the beasts
In fact this river was visited by Hanno II of Carthage back in 450 BCE when he sailed out through the Pillars of Hercules. He took sixty ships and established seven colonies along the west coast of Africa. Carthaginians traded between there and the Mediterranean right up until Carthage was destroyed by the Romans.
In the Gulf of Guinea Hanno encountered an island populated by rough-skinned, very hairy and ferocious people. They were unable to capture a male because they rapidly climbed cliffs and threw stones down at them, but they managed to trap three females. These females fought so strongly that they were forced to kill them, before skinning them and taking them back to Carthage.