Kwasi Konadu

Timbuktu and Trade

African History 360Kwasi KonaduComment

Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi (ca. 1465-1550s) was born in the city of Granada (Islamic Spain). After he and many Muslims were forcibly expelled from Spain in 1492, he and his family resettled in North Africa, where he studied and traveled extensively, including a visit to Timbuktu. Captured and given to Pope Leo X as a young man, he was baptized Johannis Leo de Medici(s), rendered more popularly as Leo Africanus. He wrote a general history of Africa, which is to say “Africa known to European,” and this included a description of Timbuktu. Timbuktu was a major trading town and intellectual center, inclusive of the University of Sankoré, then part of the Songhay Empire when al-Fasi wrote. The following is an excerpt on Timbuktu by al-Fasi, translated from the original Arabic into early seventeenth century English. That translation contained footnotes marked by asterisks (*), and I have used parentheses to clarify and at times complete sentences.

Of the kingdom of Tombuto [Timbuktu]

This name was in our times (as some think) imposed upon this kingdom (*[Timbuktu] was conquered by the king of [Morocco] 1589. from whence he hath for yearly tribute mighty sums of gold) from the name of a certain town so called, which (they say) king [Mansa] Suleiman founded in the year of the [Hijra] 610 [ca. 1232].[1] And it is situate[d] within twelve miles of a certain branch of Niger [river], all the houses whereof are now changed into cottages built of chalk, and covered with thatch. Howbeit there is a most stately temple to be seen, the walls whereof are made of stone and lime; and a princely palace also built by a most excellent workman of Granada. Here are many shops of artificers, and merchants, and especially of such as weave linen and cotton cloth. And hither do the Barbary-merchants bring cloth of Europe.[2] All the women of this region except maid-servants go with their faces covered, and sell all necessary victuals. The inhabitants, & especially strangers there residing, are exceeding rich (*the king of [Timbuktu] his daughters married into two rich merchants), insomuch, that the king that now (*1526) is, married both his daughters into two rich merchants. Here are many wells, containing most sweet water; and so often as the river Niger overflows, they [carry] the water thereof by certain [bridges] into the town. Corn, cattle, milk, and butter (*great scarcities of salt in [Timbuktu], which commodities might be supplied by our English merchants to their unspeakable gain.) this region yield in great abundance: but salt is very scarce here; for it is brought hither by land from Tegaza [Taghaza], which is five hundred miles distant.[3] When I myself was here, I saw one camel load of salt sold for 80 ducats.

The rich king of [Timbuktu] hath many plates and scepters of gold, some whereof weigh 1300 pounds: and he keeps a magnificent and well-furnished court. When he travels any whither he rides upon a camel, which is lead by some of his noblemen; and so he doth likewise when he (*reverence used before the king of [Timbuktu]) goes to warfare, and all his soldiers ride upon horses. Whosoever will speak onto this king must first fall down before his feet, & then taking up earth must sprinkle it upon his own head & shoulders: which custom is ordinarily observed by them that never saluted the king before, or come as ambassadors from other princes. He hath always three thousand horsemen, (*poisoned arrows) and a great number of footmen that shoot poisoned arrows, attending upon him. They have often skirmishes with those that refuse to pay tribute, and so many as they take, they sell onto the merchants of [Timbuktu]. Here are very few horses bred, and the merchants and courtiers keep certain little nags which they use to travel upon: but their best horses are brought out of Barbary.

And the king so soon as he hears that any merchants are come to town with horses, he commands a certaine number to be brought before him, and choosing the best horse for himself, he pays a most liberal price for him. He so deadly hates all Jews, that he will not admit any into his city: and whatsoever Barbary merchants he understands to have any dealings with the Jews, he presently causes their goods to be confiscate[d]. Here are great store of doctors, judges, priests, and other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the kings cost and charges. And hither are brought diverse manuscripts or written books out of Barbary, which are sold for more money [than] any other merchandize. The coin of [Timbuktu] is of gold without any stamp or superscription: but in (*shells used for coin like as in the kingdom of Congo) matters of small value they use certain shells brought hither out of the kingdom of Persia, fewer hundred of which shells are worth a ducat; and six pieces of their golden coin with two third parts weigh an ounce. The inhabitants are people of a gentle and cheerful disposition, and spend a great part of the night in singing and dancing through all the streets of the city; they keep great store of men and women slaves, and their town is much in danger of fire; at my second being there half the town almost was burnt in five hours space. Without the suburbs, there are no gardens [or] orchards at all.

Sources: Leo Africanus, A geographical historie of Africa, written in Arabicke and Italian by John Leo a More, borne in Granada, and brought up in Barbarie.... Translated and collected by John Pory (London: Impensis G. Bishop, 1600), 287-88 (English spelling modernized). Leo Africanus, History and Description of Africa, trans., John Pory (London: Hakluyt Society, 1896).

[1] hijra refers to the “flight” of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina, thus associated with the start of the Islamic calendar.

[2] Barbary referred to the middle and western coastal regions of North Africa.

[3] Taghaza was an important salt-mining center, northern Mali, especially for rock salt.