Leo Africanus: The Man with Many Names
Published Online (2001)
The sixteenth-century Andalusi adventurer Leo Africanus was a household name amidst European geographers for almost three centuries. He was unanimously respected as the most authoritative source for the political and human geography of the Barbary Coast and Sudanic Africa, until the beginning of European exploration and expansion in the African continent proved his knowledge outdated. In the European historiography of Sudanic Africa, Leo’s influence lasted for much longer. One important reason for his persistent popularity was that no rivalling sources were available, save the description of Africa written by his Christian countryman, Luis del Mármol Carvajal (c.1520–1600), who was unjustly labelled by the seventeenth-century scholars a mere copyist of Leo Africanus. The Portuguese had successfully mapped the coasts of Africa already by the early sixteenth century, but they had not been able to penetrate the interior of the continent. Their advance was checked by local resistance and lethal endemic diseases. Moreover, sub-Saharan Africa was largely forgotten after Europeans had found their way to the wonders and treasures of the New World and India.