Hanno of Carthage and West Africa

Hanno Travels Down the West Coast of Africa

Map of Ancient Africa
Map of Ancient Africa. Clipart.com

Hanno of Carthage (c 5th century B.C.) left a bronze plaque in a temple to Baal as testimony to his voyage down the west coast of Africa to the land of the gorilla people. His bronze 18-line travelogue, or "Periplus," was translated into Greek, and then copied over many times by Greek and, later, Byzantine scribes. Our earliest manuscripts date from the 9th (Palatinus Graecus 398) and 14th (Vatopedinus 655) centuries.

Who Was Hanno?

In the Greek translation, Hanno was called king, which means he was probably a high Carthaginian magistrate known as a suffete.

Hanno's Remarkable Voyage

Hanno says he traveled with about 30,000 men and women in 60 ships with fifty oars each, although 500 people in each ship sounds a bit crowded. He then describes his various stops along the way and his interaction with the natives. Hanno met men as fast as horses from whom he obtained interpreters. They then encountered crocodiles and water horses (hippopotami [hippo=horse and potamus=river]). Next, they quickly passed by a frightening, noisy island in what was called the "Western Horn." After leaving it, they discovered a large hill called the "Chariot of the Gods," which is assumed to be a volcano. Three days later, they were in the "Southern Horn" where they encountered hairy people who were called gorillas by the interpreters.

Hanno's men were unable to capture their stone-throwing men, but could take three of the women. After capturing the gorilla women, the Carthaginians flayed them. That was the point at which, having run out of provisions, Hanno decided to return, bearing the skins with him to put on display.

Estimates on How Far Hanno Traveled

We don't know exactly where Hanno went or how far he traveled.

He probably went at least as far as Sierra Leone and maybe as far as Corisco Bay in Equatorial Guinea. Pliny says Hanno was under orders to circumnavigate Africa, and may have done so -- or at least gone south of the equator. Depending on what he meant by gorilla, he may have gone as far as Sierra Leone where there are chimpanzees, or to the Congo where there are gorillas. Hanno thought they were human, so, as Ciaran Branigan suggests, following W.W. Hyde (Ancient Greek Mariners; London, 1947), perhaps they were a hairy band of pygmies.

Purpose of Hanno's Voyage

From these accounts, it is clear there was at least occasional traffic down the western coast of Africa from the Mediterranean, if not all the way around the other way, from the Red Sea westward through the Straits of Gibraltar. Trade, however, rather than writing history or making maps was the travelers' purpose.

African and Related Pages

The Economy of Carthage
Herodotus
Maps of the Mediterranean