The Life And Travels Of Leo Africanus

The diplomat and traveler now known as Leo Africanus was born Hasan Ibn Muhammad al-Wazan al-Fasi (حسن ابن محمد الوزان الفاسي‎) in the early 1490s in Spanish Grenada; of the exact date we are not certain.  This period was not a favorable one to be an Andalusian Arab in Spain, as the last vestiges of the old caliphate were being pushed off the Iberian peninsula by the nascent Castilian kingdom.  When Granada passed into Christian hands, Leo’s family found it expedient to move to Fez in Morocco, and there he received a good education.

He completed his studies as a teenager and managed to get himself appointed a secretary, with a salary of three gold dinars per month, to a merchant enterprise that sent caravans all over north Africa and the Middle East.  Together with his uncle, he visited various commercial centers in the region, and was even based in Timbuktu for about four years.  Travel in those days–as now–was fraught with danger, and Leo learned first-hand how local leaders could be just as rapacious as bandits in extorting bribes and ransoms from travelers perceived to be wealthy.  It is difficult to plot the precise course of his travels during this period, as we only know what he prefers to tell us; and this, in the fashion of a true diplomat, is often less than candid.  But it is clear enough that he visited Constantinople, Egypt, Arabia, and likely made the obligatory pilgrimages there.

His importance to history begins in 1518 when his ship was captured in the eastern Mediterranean by Spanish raiders.  This era was one of heightened naval warfare between the Spanish and Italians on one hand, and the Ottoman Turks on the other; but religion determined which camp a person belonged to, and any Christian or Muslim caught by the other side could expect to be sold into servitude, either as a servant or galley-slave.  Leo was on his way to Rome, but at some point he must have deeply impressed his captors with his erudition and knowledge of the remote places in Africa, such as the Berber regions of the Atlas mountains and Timbuktu.

Of course he was literate in Arabic, but he probably by this time also knew at least the rudiments of Latin and Spanish.  It is also highly likely that he could speak Turkish and some of the Berber dialects.  In any case, there is no doubt that he was extremely adept at languages, and knew how to talk to people.  Someone with his background would have been highly valuable both to the Spanish and the Holy See; in today’s jargon, he would be considered an “intelligence asset.”

At some point during his stay in Rome, he secured an audience before Pope Leo X, a man of broad learning and wide interests.  The fact than an Andalusian Arab was able to accomplish such a feat at that time is clear evidence either of his extreme value or his persuasive skills.  The most likely explanation stems from the alarm felt in Rome at the unstoppable advance of the Ottomans, who were poised to attack Rome itself.  Someone who could bridge both cultures would have been in high demand.  In any case, he must have said the right things to the papal legates, for the pope set him free, provided him a pension, and arranged for his conversion to Christianity.

Title page of Leo Africanus’s “Description of Africa,” published in 1550.

For several years he traveled up and down the length of Italy, perfecting his mastery of Italian.  When Leo X died in 1521, Leo Africanus found himself without an advocate in high places, and he realized it was time to lie low for a while.  He may have helped support himself by teaching the rudiments of Arabic and medicine (Western medicine would not surpass Islamic medical knowledge until later).  He must have been working on his travel masterpiece all this time; with the support of the papacy, he published his travel memoirs in 1550 under the Italian title Della descrittione dell’Africa et delle cose notabili che iui sono, per Giovan Lioni Africano.  The original manuscript was written in Leo’s native language of Arabic, and then dictated in an Italian that was far from polished.  The Arabic original has apparently been lost; we are told that it was once located in the private library of Vincenzo Pinelli (1535-1601), but, if so, it has since disappeared.

The book was extremely popular for its time, as it dealt with remote regions in Africa that were almost totally unknown to Europeans.  The book went through many editions and was translated into Latin, French, and English; like his famous predecessor Ibn Battuta, Leo Africanus has come under suspicion for not actually having visited every place he describes, or for embellishing his descriptions with hyperbole.  The modern verdict is that Leo is a reliable chronicler, who knew what he was talking about and had  been to most of the places described in his account.  He may have incorporated descriptions and details from other travelers, but this was in keeping with the practice of the time.  It is also likely that he intended his book to be a general geographic survey, rather than a strict travel itinerary.  Here, for example, is an interesting and valuable description of the destruction wrought by locusts in the West African kingdom of Guinea:

The countrey [Guinea] in most places is destitute of trees that beare fruite: neither have the greatest part of the inhabitants any haire on their bodies, save onely a thicke tuft growing upon their heads…Unto these naturall miseries of the place, you may add the insupportable mischiefs which are here done by the locustes: for albeit these creatures do infinite harme likewise in all the inner parts of Africa; yet seemeth it that this countrey of Ghinea is their most proper habitation; whither they do often resort in such innumerable swarms, that like a mightie thicke cloud they come raking along in the skie, and afterward falling downe, they cover the face of the earth, devouring all things that they light upon.

Their comming towards any place is known two or three daies before by the yellownes of the sunne. But in most places where they haunt, the poore people are reuenged of them by killing and driyng them in the aire for their foode:  which custom is commonly vsed by the Arabians and Ethiopians; and the Portugals also haue found vessels full of them vpon the coast of Cambaia, where they do the like mischiefs. They which have eaten of them affirme that they are of a good taste, and that their flesh (so much as it is) is as white as that of a lobster. These may seem to be all one with those grasshoppers which God sent to plague Egypt; and the same kinde of locustes, which the holy prophet John the Baptist fed vpon in the wilderness. [Trans. by John Pory]

Of Leo’s later life we know little.  His value to the Italian authorities probably waned as the threat from the Ottoman Turks declined; and after the publication of his magnum opus in 1550, there was no real reason for him to maintain a high profile.  We may surmise that he lived out his final years in Italy, teaching Arabic to learned Italians and reminiscing about his earlier years.  It has also been conjectured–without any hard evidence–that Leo left Rome after its famous sacking in 1527 by Charles V and ultimately returned to Morocco.  We simply do not know; we do not even know if he ever married or remained a bachelor.

We do know that he was resourceful, intelligent, and possessed of a keen ability to ingratiate himself with those around him.  These are admirable skills in a diplomat or merchant; and even if we cannot plot the precise trajectory of his later life, we can be sure that he would have found some way to survive in style.  One historian has given perhaps the definitive statement on his character:

Perfectly at home anywhere, and always “lovingly” entertained, ready to, be African or Granadian, Moslem or Nazarene, as best suited the circumstances of the case, keen to note every thing, and capable Of telling what he had seen in a pleasant fashion, to trader or lawyer, soldier or judge, diplomatist or priest, each in his turn, with equal readiness, Leo Africanus must have been a pleasant companion to travel with, and of all men the best fitted to traverse the interior of Africa.  [Dr. R. Brown]

His importance to the history of exploration lies in the fact that he provided, long before the great age of African exploration in the 19th century, coherent and reasonably reliable accounts of Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa.  His career also attests to the inherent value of men who can bridge the distance between two different cultures, and can serve as a living conduit between the two.


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