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I'm curious about the history of two West African Archipelagos, specifically the Cape Verde islands and São Tomé and Príncipe. These islands were both uninhabited prior to the arrival of Europeans despite being very close to the African continent. We can contrast this with the situation in East Africa, where Zanzibar, Comoros & Socotra were all inhabited before their re-discovery by Europeans; even the Seychelles have tombs which point to evidence of pre-habitation. This doesn't seem to be a matter of ocean current, since the Guinea Current runs directly through both island chains.

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    An interesting question. Usually fairly difficult to answer why something didn't happen. It didn't happen, so the best we can do is offer hypothesis about the factors which reduced the probability of that event happening. What other research have you checked?
    – MCW
    Aug 25 at 20:13
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    I've mostly read about the Austronesian voyages in the pacific and how they interface with the ocean gyres, hence my guess that currents might prevent such a discovery. Aug 25 at 21:37
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    A lot of the West African coast is fairly mountainous/elevated, which presumably hindered the ability/desire for seafaring, though this is just a guess I'd add to the other answers.
    – ajd138
    Aug 26 at 19:14
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    Your map is pretty pointless if it doesn't show the locations of the Cape Verde islands or São Tomé and Príncipe.
    – TonyK
    Aug 26 at 21:02
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    How is a current going through the island chain a good thing? Something being a one-way trip tends to make people less willing to make it. Currents are useful only if there are winds going the other way, the currents make a small circuit, or there's a civilization that can engage in long-distance navigation to get to currents going the other way. Aug 27 at 3:45

2 Answers 2

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First off, I'd ask you to look at my answer to a similar question about Madagascar and New Zealand. In particular it points out that historically uninhabited landmasses got populated by humans in one of 3 ways.

  1. By hunter-gatherers, walking there when the sea level was much lower at the end of the last glaciation
  2. By hunter-gatherers hopping there from nearby islands or landmasses using their small coastal craft.
  3. By farming people with ocean-going vessels (usually Austronesians).

In fact, one could probably extend #3 to say that pretty much every culture making use of method #3 above prior to the Renaissance was either Austronesian or Norse. There's probably some exceptions, but none come immediately to mind. A farming culture might have the capability of devoting enough resources and specialists to support open-ocean navigation and colonization, but still most cultures have better things to do.

So of the islands on the East side of Africa you mentioned:

  • Zanzibar is only about 25 kilometers from the coast of Africa, so quite easy to stumble over in a coastal craft.
  • Socotra has a series of small islands between it and the mainland.
  • The Comoros and Seychelles are both thought to have been discovered by our old friends the Austronesians.

The West side of Africa islands you mention on the other hand are all hundreds of KM from the African coast, and the Austronesians and Norse are quite inconveniently far away (and would have to go way out of their preferred latitudes to get there).

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    Excellent answer, I didn't notice that island chain leading to Socotra, well spotted. Surprising that so few cultures developed ocean-going vessels. Aug 25 at 21:39
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    @user2944352 - Well, arguably some Mediterranean cultures did, and I suspect Indian Ocean traders (largely Semetic peoples) probably did as well, but they weren't doing a lot of exploring. They had money to make, and there wasn't a lot in the wide open ocean to discover along their routes.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 25 at 22:27
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    The Bronze Age settlement of the British Isles is a good example and the later Iron Age and Roman settlements of the same. There were ocean going vessels at least by the Iron Age, little physical remains but likely in the same shipbuilding tradition that the later Scandinavians used. There are also the hermit settlements in Iceland from medieval Ireland. Aug 25 at 22:42
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    In the middle ages, before the europeans, the east African coast was also navigated by Arabs, both for slaves and trade. Even that chinese admiral appears to have reached east Africa. Also, the Azores (or even Madeira) may have been first discovered by the portuguese. Anyway, if all knowledge was lost and it was empty, any earlier settlement is just a curiosity...
    – Luiz
    Aug 25 at 22:44
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    @user2944352 I'd say it is surprising that so many did, at all. It's the equivalent of today's space ships: Crazy, crazy dangerous, into the unknown for unclear gains. Probably toxoplasmosis ;-). Aug 26 at 13:23
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The Sahara

The Cape Verde islands are at the Southern edge of the Sahara and fairly far out to sea - traveling to the islands would require a multi-day deep sea journey of the kind that were rare prior to the age of sail.

The closest Africa comes to the Cape Verde islands is about 400 miles to Dakar. Checking Google Maps, you can see that Dakar is a dry location, unsuitable for the large trees you would need for ocean going vessels. The closest forested area to the Cape Verde islands is the mouth of the River Gambie - about 450 miles from the islands.

Importantly, Gambia is South of islands, so the Guinea Current works against any potential explorer from this direction.

Any explorer from coming from Gambia would need to travel 450 miles out to sea - for no apparently gain - going against the prevailing current. It's not hard to see what this did not occur.

From the North

From Casablanca in Morocco, it is nearly 1,500 miles to the Cape Verdes. From the "father of danger" Cape Bojador referenced in this question, it's still 800 miles. These represent multi-day, deep ocean voyages with no hope of resupply from the African coast. Lack of food and water would be serious obstacles.

The inability to fight the currents to return home and report a successful crossing were also significant obstacles. If no one returns to tell tales of successful trading or fishing, it discourages people from following in the future.

So the inhospitable coast near the Cape Verde, their distance from land, and the prevailing currents all made it difficult for explorers to find the islands.

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    A decent answer. A great answer would also address the importance of prevailing wind directions, since we are talking an era when few boats could make significant head-way closer than75 to 80 degrees off the wind - and that only in ideal conditions with either no current or a favourable current. Even in the late 16th century, the galleons and carracks of the Spanish Armada was helpless against a strong headwind and forced to simply run before it until it relented or changed direction. Aug 26 at 16:49
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    Good points both about the direction of the current and the lack of resources in the Sahara, though that would perhaps not rule out discovery by someone starting south of the river Gambie and continuing to sail south via the Guinea Current to São Tomé. I suspect the lack of ocean going vessels mentioned in T.E.D.'s answer might account for this. Aug 28 at 2:13

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