(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 5: Who was Africa’s first ambassador to Europe?
Most of us assume that the flow of human beings, ideas, trade and information between Europe and Africa was one-way, and that Africans were a “primitive” people outside of time, living in ignorance and isolation until Portuguese navigators “discovered” them sometime in the 15th century, and then forced them into slavery. That, at least, is how my generation was taught, when we were taught anything at all about Africa and its Africans.
But it turns out that long before English settlers arrived at Jamestown, Va., in 1607, African kingdoms were a lot more sophisticated and highly organized, and those kingdoms’ relations to European visitors and to their monarchs back home much more complicated than we have been led to believe. And, indeed, the flow of contact between Europe and Africa was in both directions. African kingdoms established formal diplomatic relations with European kingdoms, as equal parties, to regulate matters such as trade.
If we think of the Sahara Desert, the Atlantic, the Red Sea, the Nile and the Indian Ocean as highways, those highways had two lanes. Greek and Roman sailors traded as far down the coast of the Red Sea as the Horn and much further south in East Africa using a book, published in Greek in about A.D. 60, as a guide to navigation and trading all along the coast. It was called The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.
Around A.D. 330 the Emperor Ezana of Axum, in present-day Ethiopia, declared Christianity to be the official state religion, which has entailed regular contact between Ethiopian and European clerics ever since. African slaves were found throughout Europe centuries before the Portuguese navigated their way down the coast of sub-Saharan Africa in the 15th century, at least from A.D. 711, when the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula.
One of the great kings of the Empire of Mali, Mansa Qu, the predecessor to the legendary Mansa Musa (who made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324), set sail to explore “the Western Ocean” (the Atlantic) circa A.D. 1312 with a large party, in search of the new worlds that Columbus would encounter almost two centuries later. Mansa Qu and his party never returned, which is how Mansa Musa became emperor, as he explained to the Egyptian court chronicler, al-‘Umari, on his journey.
And, as we have seen in Amazing Fact No. 1, by the time the first 20 African slaves ended up in Jamestown, more than 500,000 Africans had already been shipped to the New World. In other words, both as independent agents and as slaves, black Sub-Saharan Africans experienced a wide variety of contact with Europe and Europeans throughout modernity.
Nevertheless, it comes as quite a surprise to most of us to learn that some independent African kingdoms actually sent their own ambassadors to their European counterparts, and these ambassadors were accorded all the rights and privileges of other nations’ ambassadors.
As the historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton discovered, the king of Kongo sent an ambassador named Chrachanfusus to the court of the King of Portugal as early as 1488. He presented the king with many splendid gifts, including ivory that was “marvelously white and shone,” according to a report by Portuguese chronicler Rui de Pina. Chrachanfusus was baptized and given the name of Joao de Silva. He is the first African ambassador to Europe of whom we have records.