Leo Africanus

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[pp. 772-774]


(about 1526 A.D.)

Al-Ḥasan b. Moḥammed al-Wazzān. An African slave who fled from Tombuctu to the Mediterranean coast, became a Christian and took the name of John Leo. He wrote, or more probably dictated, a book of memoirs written in debased Italian.

EB (q.v.); EI (q.v.)

Engl, transl.: Pory-Brown, A History and Description of Africa, Hakluyt Society, no. 92, London 1896; French transl.: A. Épaulard, Description de L'Afrique, Paris 1956, 2 vols.

T.: Épaulard J: 1

[The Nūba and Their Kingdom]

The kingdom of Nubia borders on the above mentioned kingdom [Gaoga], i.e. with the western deserts. It stretches along the Nile southwards till the country of the Gorhan<ref>The Bayūda Desert. Cf. Monneret, Storia, p. 65.</ref> On the north, it borders on the lands of Egypt. It is not possible to sail from Nubia down to Egypt because the water of the Nile spreads out on the plains and is so shallow that men and beasts can wade across the river. In this kingdom there is a capital town which is called Dangala [sic!]. It is well built and consists of about 10,000 homes [Fr.: ‘Foyers’], but the houses are all miserable, built with poles and mud. The inhabitants are wealthy and civilized people because they carry out the commerce of cloth, arms and other goods in Cairo and everywhere in Egypt. In the rest of their kingdom, there are only villages on the banks of [p. 773] the Nile, which are inhabited by farmers. There is plenty of grain all over Nubia: there is also sugar [cane], but they do not know how to cook it, so that the sugar is black and nasty. At Dangala one can easily find civet and sanghotree [sangho, false ebony, Dalbergia Melanoxylon]; ivory is plentiful because many elephants are captured. One can also buy very powerful poisons, a grain of which, divided into ten men, is sufficient to kill them within a quarter of an hour; if the grain is taken all by one man, this will die within the time of one "Our Father". This poison is worth 100 ducats the ounce. It is not sold to foreigners, unless they undertake by an oath that they will not use it within the country of Nubia. The buyer pays to the sovereign a royalty equalling the price of the poison itself. For this reason nobody can secretly sell any quantity because there is death penalty.

The king of Nubia is always at war, sometimes with the Gorhan, who belong to a race similar to the Gypsies, [Ital. Zingari], and live a wretched life in the desert, nobody understanding their tongue: some other times they are at war with another race which lives in the desert east of the Nile.

This desert extends up to the Red Sea towards the frontier of Suakin. These people speak a language which, in my opinion, is mixed with the Chaldean and is very similar to that which is spoken at Suakin and in Upper Ethiopia, where there is the seat of Prester John. This race is called Buja.

They are worthless people, badly clothed and poor: they live on milk and the meat of their camels and wild game. Sometimes they receive a subsidy from the Lord of Suakin or that of Dongola.

[p. 774] In the past, they [Buja] had a great town on the Red Sea, called Zibid [i.e. 'Aydhāb], where there was a port directly facing the port of Ziden (Jedda), which is 40 miles away from Mecca.

But, about 100 years ago, these people attacked a caravan which carried goods and foodstuffs to Mecca. The Sultan of Egypt was enraged and sent a fleet on the Red Sea, which took the town of Zebid (‘Aydhāb) and destroyed it. At that time, the town and the port were fetching 200,000 saraf<ref>Equivalent to 2,400,000 gold francs. [Editor’s note].</ref> of revenue, a year. The Buja fled and sought shelter at Dongola and Suakin where they could scarcely earn their livelihood. But, later on, the Lord of Suakin, aided by the Turks armed with fire arms [Fr.: ‘escopettes’. It.: ‘schioppetti’, very short carbine] and bows, inflicted on them a heavy defeat, so that in one encounter over 4000 were killed out of these rascals who go naked; one thousand were taken back to Suakin and slaughtered there by [their] women and children.

This is all that I could briefly write about the country of the Blacks. One cannot give more detailed information because each of these 15 kingdoms is similar to the others in landscape, culture, habits and ways of living. They are ruled by four sovereigns [i.e. those of Tombuctu, Bornu, Gaoga, and Nubia]. (Epaulard II, pp. 483 - 484).