European Exploration of Africa

Map of Africa

Michael L. Dorn / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Europeans have been interested in African geography since the time of the Greek and Roman Empires. Around 150 CE, Ptolemy created a map of the world that included the Nile and the great lakes of East Africa. In the Middle Ages, the large Ottoman Empire blocked European access to Africa and its trade goods, but Europeans still learned about Africa from Islamic maps and travelers, like Ibn Battuta. The Catalan Atlas, created in 1375, which includes many African coastal cities, the Nile River, and other political and geographical features, shows how much Europe knew about North and West Africa.

Portuguese Exploration

By the 1400s, Portuguese sailors, backed by Prince Henry the Navigator, began exploring the West coast of Africa looking for a mythical Christian king named Prester John and a way to the wealth of Asia that avoided the Ottomans and the powerful empires of South West Asia. By 1488, the Portuguese had charted a way around the South African Cape and in 1498, Vasco da Gama reached Mombasa, in what is today Kenya, where he encountered Chinese and Indian merchants. Europeans made few inroads into Africa, though, until the 1800s, due to the strong African states they encountered, tropical diseases, and a relative lack of interest. Europeans instead grew rich trading gold, gum, ivory, and enslaved people with coastal merchants. 

Science, Imperialism, and the Quest for the Nile

In the late 1700s, a group of British men, inspired by the Enlightenment ideal of learning, decided that Europe should know much more about Africa. They formed the African Association in 1788 to sponsor expeditions to the continent. With the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808, European interest in the interior of Africa grew quickly. Geographical Societies were formed and sponsored expeditions. The Parisian Geographical Society offered a 10,000 franc prize to the first explorer who could reach the town of Timbuktu (in present-day Mali) and return alive. The new scientific interest in Africa was never wholly philanthropic, however. Financial and political support for exploration grew out of the desire for wealth and national power. Timbuktu, for instance, was believed to be rich in gold.

By the 1850s, interest in African exploration had become an international race, much like the Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. Explorers like David Livingstone, Henry M. Stanley, and Heinrich Barth became national heroes, and the stakes were high. A public debate between Richard Burton and John H. Speke over the source of the Nile led to the suspected suicide of Speke, who was later proven correct. Explorers’ travels also helped pave the way for European conquest, but the explorers themselves had little to no power in Africa for much of the century. They were deeply dependent on the African men they hired and the assistance of African kings and rulers, who were often interested in acquiring new allies and new markets. 

European Madness and African Knowledge

Explorers' accounts of their travels downplayed the assistance they received from African guides, leaders, and even slave traders. They also presented themselves as calm, cool, and collected leaders masterfully directing their porters across unknown lands. The reality was that they were often following existing routes and, as Johann Fabian showed, were disoriented by fevers, drugs, and cultural encounters that went against everything they expected to find in so-called savage Africa. Readers and historians believed explorers' accounts, though, and it was not until recent years that people began to recognize the critical role that Africans and African knowledge played in the exploration of Africa.


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Thompsell, Angela. "European Exploration of Africa." ThoughtCo, Jan. 5, 2021, Thompsell, Angela. (2021, January 5). European Exploration of Africa. Retrieved from Thompsell, Angela. "European Exploration of Africa." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).