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The Traders are Kidnapping Our People- King Leopold's Ghost

When Europeans began imagining Africa beyond the Sahara, the continent they pictured was a dreamscape, a site for fantasies of the fearsome and the supernatural. Ranulf Higden, a benedictine monk who mapped the world about 1350, claimed that Africa contained one-eyed people who used their feet to cover their heads. A geographer in the next century announced that the continent held people with one leg. three faces, and the heads of lions. In 1459, an Italian monk, Fra Mauro, declared Africa the home of the roc, a bird so large that it could carry an elephant through the air.

When Europeans began imagining Africa beyond the Sahara, the continent they pictured was a dreamscape, a site for fantasies of the fearsome and the supernatural. Ranulf Higden, a benedictine monk who mapped the world about 1350, claimed that Africa contained one-eyed people who used their feet to cover their heads. A geographer in the next century announced that the continent held people with one leg. three faces, and the heads of lions.

In 1459, an Italian monk, Fra Mauro,declared Africa the home of the roc, a bird so large that it could carry an elephant through the air.In the Middle Ages, almost no one in Europe was in a position to know whether Africa contained giant birds, one-eyed people, or anything else. Hostile Moors lived on Africa's Mediterranean coast, and few Europeans dared set foot there, much less head south across the Sahara. And as for trying to sail down the west African coast, everyone knew that as soon as you passed the Canary Islands you would be in the Mare Tenebroso, the Sea of darkness.

In the medieval imagination [writes Peter Forbath], this was a region of uttermost dread.... where the heavens fling down liquid sheets of flame and the waters boil... where serpent rocks and ogre islands lie in wait for the mariner, where the giant hand of Satan reaches up from the fathomless depths to seize him, where he will turn black in face and body as a mark of God's vengeance for the insolence of his prying into forbidden mystery.  And even if he should be able to survive all these ghastly perils and sail on through, he would then arrive in the Sea of Obscurity and be lost forever in the vapors and slime at the edge of the world.

It was not until the fifteenth century, the dawn of the age of ocean navigation, that Europeans systematically began to venture south, the Portuguese in the lead. In the 1440s, Lisbon shipbuilders developed the caravel, a compact vessel particularly good at sailing into the wind. Although rarely more than a hundred feet long, this sturdy ship carried explorers far down the west coast of Africa, where no one knew what gold, spices, and precious stones might lie.But it was not only lust for riches that drove the explorers. Somewhere in africa, they knew, was the source of the Nile, a mystery that had fascinated Europeans since antiquity.

They were also driven by one of the most enduring of medieval myths, the legend of Prester John, a Christian King who was said to rule a vast empire in the interior of Africa, where, from a palace of translucent crystal and precious stones, he reigned over forty-two lesser kings, in addition to assorted centaurs and giants.No traveler was ever turned away from his dinner table of solid emerald, which seated thousands.

Surely Prester John would be eager to share his riches with his fellow Christians and to help them find their way onward, to the fabled wealth of India.Successive Portuguese expeditions probed ever farther southward. In 1482, an experienced naval captain named Diogo Cao set off on the most ambitious voyage yet. As he sailed close to the west African coast, he saw the North Star disappear from the sky once his caravel crossed the equator, and he found himself much farther south than anyone from Europe had ever been.

One day Cao came upon something that astounded him. Around his ship the sea turned a dark, slate-tinged yellow, and brownish-yellow waves were breaking on the nearby beaches. Sailing towards the mouth of an inlet many miles wide, his caravel had to fight a current of eight to nine knots. Furthermore, a taste of the water surrounding the ship revealed that it was fresh, not salt.

Cao had stumbled on the mouth of an enormous silt-filled river, larger than any a European had ever seen. The impression its vastness made on him and his men is reflected in a contemporary account. For the space of 20 leagues [the river] preserves its fresh water unbroken by the briny billows which encompass it on every side; as if this noble river had determined to try its strength in pitched battle with the ocean itself, and alone deny it the tribute which all other rivers in the world pay without resistance.

Modern oceanographers have discovered more evidence of the great rivers strength in its "pitched battle with the ocean" : a hundred-mile- long canyon, in places four thousand feet deep, that the river has carved out of the sea floor.Modern oceanographers have discovered more evidence of the great rivers strength in its "pitched battle with the ocean" : a hundred-mile-long canyon, in places four thousand feet deep, that the river has carved out of the sea floor. 

Cao went ashore at the river's mouth and erected a limestone pillar topped with an iron cross and inscribed with the royal coat of arms and the words "In the year 6681 of the World and in that of 1482 since the birth of our Lord jesus Christ, the most serene, the most excellent and potent prince, King Joao II of Portugal did order this land to be discovered and this pillar of stone to be erected by Diogo Cao, an esquire in his household.

"Cao went ashore at the river's mouth and erected a limestone pillar topped with an iron cross and inscribed with the royal coat of arms and the words "In the year 6681 of the World and in that of 1482 since the birth of our Lord jesus Christ, the most serene, the most excellent and potent prince, King Joao II of Portugal did order this land to be discovered and this pillar of stone to be erected by Diogo Cao, an esquire in his household."

Reference: King Leopold's Ghost: Adam Hochschild

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