I came across the following passage in Desmond Morris' 1969 book The Human Zoo. In it the author is arguing that sub-saharan Africa contained advanced civilizations prior to the commencement of the cross-atlantic slave trade. Which specific cities (civilizations) and which visitors from the 13th and 14th century may he be referring to?

Let us take just one glimpse at an ancient Negro city in West Africa, as it was seen over three and a half centuries ago by an early Dutch traveller. He wrote:

"The town seemeth to be very great; when you enter into it, you go into a great broad street … seven or eight times broader than Warmes street in Amsterdam … you see many streets on the sides thereof, which also go right forth … The houses in the town stand in good order one close and even with the other, as the houses in Holland stand .. The King’s Court is very great, within it having many great four-square plains, which round about them have galleries … I was so far within the court that I passed over four such great plain, and wherever I looked, still I saw gates upon gates to go into other places …"

Hardly a crude mud-hut village. Nor could the inhabitants of these ancient West African civilisations be described as ferocious, spear-waving savages. As early as the middle of the fourteenth century a sophisticated visitor remarked on the ease of travel and the reliable availability of food and good lodgings for the night. He commented:

"There is complete security in their country. Neither traveller nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence."

  • A series by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Africa's Great Civilizations, recently aired on PBS. It contained quite a bit of information on this subject. Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 15:52

2 Answers 2


Yes, that is true. During the Middle Ages the Berbers living in the Sahara developed trade routes through the desert down to the Niger, giving the Islamic world trade access to sub-Saharan gold, copper and ivory, slaves, and Saharan salt.

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The sub-Saharan termini of these routes prospered along with the routes themselves, developing into progressively richer entities the Ghana and Gao Empires, then the Mali Empire, then the Songhai. During this period Timbuktu and Gao by all accounts grew into relatively large and shockingly prosperous cities. However, all literacy for the area appears to have been in Arabic.

The quote at the end of your quotation is from Ibn Battuta, an Arab traveler* who visited the Mali Empire for several months from 1352-1353. In that particular quote he appears to be referring to the entire country, but he reported visting the capital (Niani), Timbuktu, and Gao.

* - Calling him "a traveler" is actually understating it in roughly the same way it would be understating things to call Einstein "a scientist".

  • As far as I can tell, the first quote in the original question was from an anonymous Dutch traveler whose visited Oedo (the capital of Benin) in 1600. His (her?) account was published first in Dutch and German before being translated into Latin by Gotard Arthus, whose name is attached to the account in most English-language sources. See this 1746 book which gives a summary of the work alongside other early sources. Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 19:12

There were at least two major Sub Saharan civilizations in West Africa between the 12th and 16th centuries: Mali and the Benin Empire.

Mali includes today's Mali, plus Senegal, southern Mauritania and other countries along Africa's Atlantic coast, plus the northern parts of Niger and Burkina Faso During the Middle Ages, it provided about half of Europe's gold.

The Benin Empire (not to be confused with the former Dahomey), was part of modern Nigeria. It was known for artifacts made of ivory and metals such as bronze and iron, as well as a miniature (but still substantial) version of China's Great Wall.

The slave trade diverted trade flows away from these more advanced cultures toward more primitive areas between Mali and the Benin Empire, such as the Ivory Coast and modern Ghana.

  • Tom, were the Zulus not considered advanced? Vaguely remembering Jared Diamond's treatment of them in Guns/Germs/Steel and I got the feeling that he'd classify them as advanced. Maybe I remember incorrectly. Commented Apr 28, 2017 at 3:30
  • @KorvinStarmast: I said that there were "at least two major sub-Saharan civilizations..." the ones that I knew about. I did not rule out the possibility of others, including the Zulus. I may re-visit the question and add more.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Apr 28, 2017 at 3:36
  • Ah, OK, I don't know enough about the "whole immense continent" to contribute an answer. Comment not a criticism, just one of those "I remember this" and maybe you can add it to your answer if you think it fits. Commented Apr 28, 2017 at 3:38

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