Ancient History & Civilisation


Intriguing stories exist that suggest Carthaginian activities in far more distant parts of Africa too. Greek and Roman authors reported that, over a century before the first recorded Greek voyage into the Atlantic Ocean by Pytheas of Massilia in the second half of the fourth century BC,94 two contemporaneous state-sanctioned Carthaginian expeditions set out to explore its African and European coastlines.95 So little was known about the Atlantic in antiquity that it was generally believed it was part of a giant river that encircled the whole earth.96

The first of these Carthaginian Atlantic ventures, involving a single ship captained by a senior Carthaginian commander named Himilco, is found in a poetical work of geographical instruction written in the fourth century AD by a Roman nobleman, Festus Rufus Avienus, for a young relative. Although it is unlikely that Avienus had read an original Punic text, he probably picked up the information from an earlier Greek account of Himilco’s adventures.97

Avienus recounts that, after passing through the Pillars of Hercules, Himilco’s ship turned north along the western coastlines of the Iberian peninsula and Gaul (modern France). The voyage took four long months, owing apparently to the shallow becalmed seas, vast areas of seaweed, and huge marine monsters which they encountered along the way.98 Eventually the party arrived in what is now Brittany, where lived the Oestrymnians, a trading people who ventured out on to the ocean in their hidebound boats. The Oestrymnians were renowned for their special relationship with the inhabitants of the mysterious tin- and lead-producing Cassiterides islands (variously identified as islands off Spain or in the Gulf of Morbihan, the Scilly Isles or Cornwall).99 Afterwards the party travelled further north, with Himilco visiting both Ireland and Britain before making the return journey to Carthage.

Like the account of Himilco’s northern mission, the second of these reported Carthaginian Atlantic expeditions is found not in a Punic text, but in this case in an anonymous Greek work called the Periplus (voyage) of Hanno, most recently dated to the fifth century BC, but purporting to be a faithful copy of an inscription put up in the temple of Baal Hammon in Carthage itself.100 This expedition was a more substantial affair. A flotilla of sixty-five oared ships with 30,000 men and women, food and other equipment set sail from Carthage under the command of a certain Hanno, and headed west into the Atlantic. First the fleet followed the coast of what is now Morocco and Mauritania, establishing a number of new settlements along the way, before sailing further south along the coast and past a great river, thought to be the river Senegal, where they sometimes met resistance from natives who prevented them from disembarking by throwing stones (while on other occasions they merely ran off and hid).101


Eventually, the author of the Periplus recounts, after twelve days from Carthage the Carthaginians anchored close to a series of large mountains covered with aromatic, colourful trees–most probably the Fouta-Djalon massif in Guinea-Bissau.102 When, a number of days later, they camped in what has been identified as the Niger delta, the crews became very afraid when the evening gloom was lit up by camp fires and the silence broken by the sound of music, the beat of drums and loud shouts in the dark jungle around them.103 After witnessing the strange sight of large torrents of fire emptying directly into the sea (thought to be lava flow from an active volcano), the expedition eventually came to a very high mountain called the ‘Chariot of the Gods’ (identified as Mount Cameroun), where they witnessed yet more volcanic activity, with flames seeming to rise to the stars at night. Later, in the forests of perhaps Gabon, they would come across a large number of what were described as ‘hair-covered savages’ (in reality probably chimpanzees).104 The Carthaginians were unable to capture any male specimens, because of their climbing ability and the ferocity with which they defended themselves; however, they managed to seize three females, whom they were forced to kill owing to their fierce resistance –a later Roman source claimed that their flayed hides were exhibited in the temple of Tanit at Carthage, until the destruction of the city.105 It was now that Hanno was forced to turn back, for lack of supplies, although there is no account of the return journey: the Periplus ends abruptly at this point.106

Although it is impossible completely to guarantee their historical veracity, such voyages fit well with the Carthaginians’ burgeoning reputation for trade and colonization during this period. Although the reported numbers on board must be exaggerated, the account makes it clear that the establishment of emporia and workshops in the coastal regions of what is now western Morocco–an area particularly abundant in sea life and therefore a good place for the establishment of factories producing purple dye, salted fish and garum–was an important component of the voyage.107 As regards metal ores, there were sources of copper in Mauritania and of gold in Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, as well as large quantities of easily accessible tin in the Bauchi region of northern Nigeria.108

There has long been a vigorous academic debate over these accounts of Carthaginian exploration and trade out into the Atlantic. The French scholars Jean-Gabriel Demerliac and Jean Meirat have gone as far as to argue that the voyages were part of a coordinated attempt under the Magonids to control Atlantic trade.109 To prove this theory they have ‘reconstructed’ a carefully planned rotation system whereby smaller, more manoeuvrable, craft were used to carry tin, lead, amber, flax, hides and copper from the northern Atlantic coast, and gold, tin, ivory, hides, jasper, resin, rubber, purple garments and fish products from the southern, before the goods were transferred at Gades into large merchant ships for the journey on to Carthage.110 Moreover, they view Himilco’s expedition as an attempt to arrange the sea transport of tin from Gaul and Britain through an alliance with the Oestrymnians, thereby trumping attempts by the Greek colony of Massilia (Marseilles) to strengthen its own commercial networks in Gaul.111

These theories have, however, been hotly contested by other specialists, most recently Victor Bello Jiménez, who point to the lack of accurate geographical knowledge relating to these particular regions in ancient Greek geographical works (on which we are entirely reliant for these accounts, despite the reference in the Hanno text to a Punic inscription in the temple of Baal Hammon at Carthage) and the complete lacunae in archaeological evidence for Carthaginian trade on either the northern or the African Atlantic coasts.112 Others have voiced serious doubts about the veracity of these accounts, arguing that they are full of tropes and clichés commonly associated with Greek fantastical literature.113 Yet, although Jehan Desanges has rightly argued that the Periplus ‘cannot be divested of its Greek mantle without blurring its outlines into utter pointlessness’, the Greek paradigm within which the account is expressed does not necessarily challenge its basis in actual events.114 Seemingly informed descriptions of African topography, fauna and flora cannot be explained away simply as the product of the fertile Greek imagination.

In regard to the lack of material evidence for a Carthaginian presence in West Africa and the northern Atlantic, it would be more surprising if vestiges of such a transitory presence had survived in coastal areas, which are likely to have endured significant topographical changes in the past two and a half millennia. However, a more serious objection lies in the powerful winds and currents that any ship would have to travel against on the way back to the Pillars of Hercules. But, although an extended period of rowing would have been required to get the ship to the Canary Islands, this would not have been an impossible feat.115 And, although by no means conclusive, there is some indication of sporadic use of the Canary Islands for shelter and resupply by sailors.116

It is also clear that West Africa was not completely terra incognita by this period. As early as the seventh century BC, the circumnavigation of the continent had been successfully accomplished by a group of Phoenician sailors, under the aegis of Necho II, pharaoh of Egypt.117 Herodotus also describes an unusual system of barter developed by the Carthaginians so that they could trade with African tribes:

The Carthaginians also relate the following:–There is a country in Libya, and a nation, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, which they are wont to visit, where they no sooner arrive but forthwith they unlade their wares, and, having disposed them after an orderly fashion along the beach, leave them, and, returning aboard their ships, raise a great smoke. The natives, when they see the smoke, come down to the shore, and, laying out to view so much gold as they think the worth of the wares, withdraw to a distance. The Carthaginians upon this come ashore and look. If they think the gold enough, they take it and go their way; but if it does not seem to them sufficient, they go aboard ship once more, and wait patiently. Then the others approach and add to their gold, till the Carthaginians are content. Neither party deals unfairly by the other: for the Carthaginians themselves never touch the gold till it comes up to the worth of their goods, nor do the natives ever carry off the goods till the gold is taken away.118

Another later Greek travel writer, the anonymous Pseudo-Scylax, described how merchants would arrive at Cerne Island, one of the sites mentioned in Hanno’s expedition, from where they would take their merchandise to the mainland by canoe, to show it to the native ‘Ethiopians’. 119 These were described as being extremely tall and beautiful, with beards, long hair and tattoos. They lived in a great city, where they were ruled over by the tallest among them. Their diet consisted of meat and milk, and they drank wine. In war, their forces were made up of horsemen and of javelin-throwers and archers who used firehardened tips. Their drinking bowls, bracelets and decoration for their horses were made of ivory. The Phoenicians/Carthaginians traded perfumed oil, Egyptian stone, and Attic tiles and pitchers, and in exchange received domestic animals and the skins of deer, lions and leopards, as well as hides and ivory from elephants.120

There is no good reason to discount the voyages of Hanno and Himilco as nothing more than products of the baroque fantasies of Greek writers. It nevertheless seems very unlikely that Carthaginian merchants made the long and extremely hazardous journey to West Africa on a regular basis. A more plausible scenario is that the first leg of Hanno’s expedition (which involved the setting-up of new settlements and trading stations along the Atlantic coast of what is now Morocco) was the major aim of the enterprise, whereas the latter stages of the journey, once the flotilla passed Cerne, were solely concerned with exploration and discovery.121 Indeed, these new Carthaginian settlements on the Atlantic coast of Morocco may have been the source of the large quantities of pickled and salted fish, packed in Punic amphorae from that particular region, which began to be shipped to Corinth around 460 BC, from where they were presumably distributed to other destinations in Greece.122

The establishment of these new settlements along the Atlantic coast of Morocco fits the broader pattern of Carthaginian colonization with a particular emphasis on agricultural exploitation during this period. Indeed, Aristotle emphasized the dispersal of surplus, poor inhabitants to colonies as an established method used by the Carthaginian elite to avoid potential political unrest.123

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