4

There has been debate over the years about whether the Phoenicians and Egyptians circumnavigated Africa. An expedition beginning in 2008 set out to prove just that, with a Phoenician-inspired ship. While the voyage was in theory possible, there isn't enough evidence to prove that it actually happened.

So, when was the first confirmed circumnavigation of Africa? The Wikipedia article for this might look thorough, but it doesn't actually say when Africa was first circumnavigated. It only mentions the [unconfirmed] voyage in antiquity, and the 2008 project. One source says Vasco da Gama circumnavigated Africa around 1500, but that's the only reference I can find, so I can't tell if it's accurate.

  • 3
    When you say "circumnavigated" do you mean "one man in one ship sailing in a closed curve which contains Africa" or "sailed from known territory on one side of Africa to known territory on the other side" or something in between? – Mark Olson Dec 16 '18 at 2:01
  • 9
    Prior to the Suez Canal, circumnavigating Africa wasn't possible. Vasco da Gama's voyage was the first confirmed sailing around the southern tip of Africa, but his goal was to reach India: Africa was just an obstacle: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasco_da_Gama – jamesqf Dec 16 '18 at 2:10
  • @MarkOlson Absent a 16th century Suez Canal, I guess then it would have to be the 18 survivors of Magellan's voyage in the Victoria. – Spencer Dec 16 '18 at 2:32
  • 2
    If one person travelled around Africa using two or more ships, that would count also I think. (But the question is a bit pointless. We have Herodutus, and you can choose to believe or not, there will not be any more information.) – Tomas By Dec 16 '18 at 18:52
  • 2
    @jamesqf A decade before Vasco da Gama's voyage, Bartolomeu Dias had already reached the Indian Ocean. Dias made things much easier for Gama. – Rodrigo de Azevedo Mar 17 at 9:31
8

The Egyptian/Phoenician circumnavigation of Africa you refer to is recorded by Herodotus:

For Libya shows clearly that it is encompassed by sea, save only where it borders on Asia; and this was proved first (as far as we know) by Necos king of Egypt. He, when he had made an end of digging the canal which leads from the Nile to the Arabian Gulf, sent Phoenicians in ships, charging them to sail on their return voyage past the Pillars of Heracles till they should come into the northern sea and so to Egypt. So the Phoenicians set out from the Red Sea and sailed the southern sea; whenever autumn came they would put in and sow the land, to whatever part of Libya they might come, and there await the harvest; then, having gathered in the crop, they sailed on, so that after two years had passed, it was in the third that they rounded the Pillars of Heracles and came to Egypt. There they said (what some may believe, though I do not) that in sailing round Libya they had the sun on their right hand.12

Book 4, chapter 42

And there's a footnote by the editor of the 1921 Loeb Classical Edition, from which this translation came:

12The detail which Herodotus does not believe incidentally confirms the story; as the ship sailed west round the cough, the sun of the southern hemisphere would be on its right. Most authorities now accept the story of the circumnavigation.

Historians today don't always take Herodotus at face value. According to livius.org, 2nd Century CE geographer Cladius Ptolemy didn't believe it was possible. The Nile Canal was closed in 767 by Caliph Al-Mansur to put down a rebellion and it silted up. So no other circumnavigation of Africa and only Africa was possible until the Suez Canal opened in 1859.

You can believe Herodotus or not; it's the only chance before 1859.

Except there's a technicality.

In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan set out with 5 ships and 250-270 men. After three years and several mutinies and battles, and much hardship and starvation, a single ship, the Victoria, managed to return to Spain with captain Juan Sebastian Elcano, Italian historian Pigafetta, and 16 others. As a consequence of the first known circumnavigation of the Earth, these guys managed to circumnavigate not only Africa, but also Europe, Asia, and the Americas. That's what happens when you sail a closed loop on the Earth, you're likely to circumnavigate something.

Note: There appear to be some people interpreting a mere passage around the Cape of Good Hope as a "circumnavigation" of Africa. That is clearly not the intent of the OP, and a mischaracterizaton of what the Victoria did. By Sailing all the way around the Earth, Elcano, Pigafetta, and their companions completed a closed loop with Africa inside. That's a circumnavigation.

  • 3
    I have to disagree, based on the meaning of circumnavigate. Magellan's voyage sailed around the southern tip of Africa (and South America), but it didn't go around the north back to its starting point. – jamesqf Dec 16 '18 at 17:40
  • 1
    @jamesqf That's just an argument over what the definition of "circumnavigation" is. – Spencer Dec 16 '18 at 19:36
  • 1
    @jamesqf You find a definition in one of those handy dictionaries that forces a trip through the Mediterranean and we'll talk. – Spencer Dec 17 '18 at 9:59
  • 1
    @RodrigoDeAzvedo Do you really think that any of those things can be considered a circumnavigation of Africa, as posed in the question? The Portuguese would have sailed back to Portugal the way they came, around the southern tip. – Spencer Mar 17 at 12:31
  • 1
    If just swimmed in a closed loop around a ban. You might say I circumnavigated the ban, but you might also say I circumnavigated the whole Earth (including Africa) but the ban. – Evargalo Mar 27 at 12:32

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.