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date: 21 February 2019

Travelers’ Accounts as Sources

Summary and Keywords

Accounts written by foreigners—especially Europeans—about what they saw in Africa constitute one of the major sources for African history between c. 1450 and c. 1900. Some were published, while others remained in manuscript form. Unlike the ethnographic monographs of the early 20th century, they were generally written in a spontaneous and unsystematic manner, usually with a narrative structure, although in some cases an implicit “questionnaire” seems to have lain behind what was recorded.

Historians of Africa must apply the rules of source criticism to such material. These include an obligation to examine the extent to which the material is really “primary” (rather than derived from sources that already existed and still exist today); what stereotypes and fixed ideas may have shaped the author’s perceptions and writing; how the expectations of the intended readership—including a desire for exoticism or sensationalism—may have influenced the content and style, in some cases even resulting in straightforward fabrication posing as authentic description; and whether the author’s personal background—for example, financial interests, ideology, or gender—could have led him or her to perceive and write about Africa in a certain way. Certain types of data contained in travel accounts, such as quantitative or linguistic information, require cautious analysis. Some travel accounts were accompanied by engravings or other iconographic material, and although it is tempting to use these simply as illustrations, they must be subjected to the same kinds of source criticism as are applied to the written accounts themselves.

Despite these caveats, travel accounts are an indispensable source, whose full potential still remains to be discovered.

Keywords: authenticity, critical editions, illustrations, plagiarism, primary material, quantitative data, readership, source criticism, stereotypes, translation

For reasons which will become apparent, our focus is mainly on the period between the mid-15th century, when the maritime revolution in Portugal led to a significant shift in writing about Africa, and 1900, when most of Africa had fallen under European colonial rule. Compared with historians of Europe, North America, East Asia, or the Middle East, those of sub-Saharan Africa in this period must rely heavily on the writings of non-native visitors. Some of these people might equally be called settlers, since they spent a number of years in one area—most commonly on the coast of West or West Central Africa, in the Cape Colony, or in the Zambezi valley—and a number of them died there. Others drew conclusions from a fleeting visit, in some cases from on board a ship off which they seldom disembarked. Yet since many of the settlers started out as travelers, it is not possible to draw a clear dividing line between these two groups.

Whether traveling or resident, these outsiders produced two main kinds of source (albeit with a considerable overlap): material written primarily in order to convey a message to others and with an eye to posterity (sometimes called “tradition”) and material simply produced in the course of their everyday activities, providing evidence “in spite of itself” and hence less liable to deliberate distortion.1 Published travel accounts on the whole form a genre within the first of these kinds of source. They served primarily to satisfy the curiosity of those who had never been to Africa and knew little about it. To some extent their content and style reflected these readers’ expectations, but they were also shaped by the authors’ own interests, ideologies, and personalities, besides what the latter actually observed.

Travel accounts generally had a narrative structure and were composed in an apparently spontaneous and unsystematic manner, although this might, of course, conceal some “polishing up.” Many also sought to convey ethnographic, zoological, or geographical information, thus combining the narrative first person singular with the objectifying third person plural, often making generalizations in the ethnographic present about “the natives” or “the Blacks.” In some cases an implicit mental questionnaire seems to have lain behind what was recorded. The distinction between pure narrative “accounts” and scientific “descriptions” can only be a relative one: on the one hand a description might, for strategic reasons, be presented as a narrative (or as a series of letters to a fictive correspondent), whilst on the other an account of a voyage might include lengthy descriptive digressions.

We possess only a few travel accounts written by non-Europeans. The early Arabic and Swahili writings about Africa tend to fall rather into the categories of geographies, histories, religious tracts, or chronicles. There are exceptions, such as the 14th-century Arabic account by the Moroccan author Ibn Battûta, which includes important descriptions of Kilwa (on the East African coast) and the kingdom of Mali, apparently based on personal observation. Two centuries later, Leo Africanus, who had likewise grown up in what eventually became Morocco, published an extensive description of Central Sudan upon the basis of his own observations, albeit not in Arabic but in Italian, having grown up a Muslim but later been baptized in Rome. The most famous Swahili travel account was the autobiography of the Zanzibar trader Tippu Tip, who was active in trade, warfare, and politics in the Upper Congo region in the 1880s.2

The vast majority of accounts were written by and for Europeans. Anyone wishing to read them all needs a command of English, French, Dutch, Danish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Latin, and, in a few cases, other languages. In the period between 1450 and 1890 well over 90 percent of the authors were males from Western Europe aged between twenty-five and forty.3 One of the earliest accounts was that of Alvise da Cà da Mosto, a Venetian, who visited the coastal regions of what are now Mauretania, Gambia, and Senegal in 1455–1456 on a Portuguese ship, and who also reported on the Portuguese voyage to Sierra Leone in 1462. His account was first published in Italian in 1507, soon followed by German and French translations. The geographical coverage of European travel accounts remained mainly limited to coastal areas until the mid-18th century, with four principal exceptions: northwestern Angola, the Cape, the Zambezi valley, and a few places in northern Ethiopia. Over the course of the late 18th century there was an increase in the area covered due to long-distance expeditions, but even in 1880, by which time most of southern Africa had received some attention in travel accounts, well over half of sub-Saharan Africa remained terra incognita as far as written descriptions were concerned.4

From John Fage’s guide to published “sources”—mostly travelers’ accounts—for West and West Central Africa it appears that just over a thousand books were published between 1450 and 1883. Of these, about 10 percent appeared before 1650, a further 15 percent between 1650 and 1750, 25 percent between 1750 and 1800, and the remaining 50 percent between 1800 and 1883.5 The numbers for southern (mainly South) Africa seem to have been of similar magnitude,6 whereas those for East Africa were very much lower, especially for the period before 1850.7

Explaining African Culture in the Contact Zone

In these accounts, as Wyatt MacGaffey has argued, what purported to be mere narrative and description simultaneously offered—albeit not explicitly—an “explanation of African culture.”8 He illustrates this claim by referring to William Pietz’s study of European accounts of “fetish” in 17th- and 18th-century West Africa, which sought to come to terms with exotic modes of categorization by treating as religion was all rituals that were difficult to recognize.9 Taken together, these accounts may be seen as offering a “totalizing theory about African thinking,” which, as MacGaffey puts it, “originated in the intercultural spaces . . . inhabited symbiotically by Europeans and Africans alienated from their own societies.”10 Despite the fact that many of the travelers who wrote accounts did not stay long in one area (or, indeed, in Africa) we are dealing with what Pratt once called a “contact zone,” where successive generations of Europeans and Africans interacted both as individuals and as groups, developing a “working misunderstanding” of each other’s social organization and way of seeing the world. The result was a “dialogue of the deaf” in which each “side” projected its own categories upon the other.

Readers, Editors, and Publishers

The readership changed over the course of time. In the Netherlands, for instance, despite great excitement about the new worlds that Dutch mariners and merchants were exploring, books on Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries reached only “the small upper crust of book owners,” and it is unlikely that many print runs exceeded 1,000 copies.11 By the mid-19th century, by contrast, an upsurge in middle-class interest made it possible in Britain for David Livingstone’s Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857) (see Figure 1) to sell 70,000 copies within a few months, while Henry Morton Stanley’s In Darkest Africa (1890) sold 150,000.12 (Both works were translated into other languages, thereby reaching an even wider audience.)

Travelers’ Accounts as SourcesClick to view larger

Figure 1. Part of David Livingstone’s handwritten account of his conversation with a “rain doctor,” c. 1850, in what later became Botswana. David Livingstone and the Victorian Encounter with Africa (exhibition catalogue). London, 1996, 154–155.

Note. This is the primary source for his book, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857).

In this period several other travel accounts in English, French, or German reached similar numbers of readers. Yet even figures as high as these barely do justice to the impact such authors had. Parts of what they wrote were summarized in newspapers, used in writing children’s books, or transmitted orally through lectures and in public discourse.

Little research has been done on the ways in which travelers conceived of their readership. Several authors dedicated their book to a ruler, hoping to gain favor with those in authority. Otto Friedrich von der Groeben dedicated one of the two manuscript versions of his account of a voyage to West Africa (1682–1682) to the Great Elector and the other—presumably after the latter’s death—to his son, the Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg, later King of Prussia.13 But it seems likely that by the late 18th century authors were more interested in addressing middle-class readers, be they merchants, clergymen, fellow travelers, or simply educated men and women who were either just curious about foreign lands or interested in participating in debates about the Atlantic slave trade or the Great Chain of Being. Certainly leading figures of the Enlightenment, such as Friedrich Schiller, Immanuel Kant, or Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, are known to have read travel accounts dealing with Africa.

A large number of accounts did not appear as books under the authors’ names but in collections of “voyages and travels” only partly devoted to Africa. Early examples include Giovanni Battista Ramusio’s Navigationi et viaggi (Venice, 1550) and Richard Hakluyt’s The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation (London, 1589). These were followed in the 18th century by multivolume publications such as Abbé François Prévost’s Histoire générale des voyages (19 vols., Paris, 1746–1789), later translated into German.

Many travelers’ accounts, even if composed while traveling in Africa, were reworked before publication. This applies not only to compilations such as that of Olfert Dapper (1668), where the reader is given only occasional hints concerning the sources used, both published and unpublished, yet which remains nevertheless invaluable because of the primary material to be found there.14 Jean Barbot took three decades to write up his account of West Africa, based on his own observations in 1678–1682, translating it into English and adding more and more information from published sources, thus producing an enormous book that did not see the light of day until long after the author’s death.15 David Livingstone’s most influential book, describing his last journey in Africa, likewise appeared posthumously. Although based on his journals, it was effectively the product of a lay missionary called Horace Waller, who transformed Livingstone’s text and sketches both during his lifetime and after his death, in order, as Dorothy Helly puts it, to “enhance the image of the gentle missionary and martyr to the British civilizing mission.”16 To take just one more example: The bestselling memoirs of the former slave trader Theodore Canot alias Theophilus Conneau, first published in 1854, were written for him by a journalist, Brantz Mayer, who rewrote almost every word and incorporated a large amount of other material from published sources.17 In all such cases we need to try to distinguish between what the author(s) actually wrote—in Africa or after their return home—and what their editors produced for public consumption.

Applying Source Criticism to Travel Accounts

Historians tend to take it for granted that two sources are better than one: We look for additional sources on a given topic in the hope that they may “confirm” what we have already learnt from one source. Yet as Edna Bay has shown with regard to 19th-century visitors to Dahomey, “visitors tended to look for and observe the things their predecessors had seen, and usually accepted their evidence as valid unless it was proved otherwise.” She illustrates this with the case of the so-called Bush King, first described by a missionary in 1856 in connection with an annual cycle of ceremonies and thereafter mentioned repeatedly, at first by other visitors and then, in the mid-20th century, by anthropologists and Dahomeyan scholars. The concept of a Bush King, she notes, fitted “comfortably” with Dahomey’s ideology of doubling, yet oral traditions suggest that there never existed a real person with this office. Historians of Africa should heed Bay’s conclusion that “mere repetition is insufficient justification for the acceptance of historical evidence.”18

Next, we must look out for plagiarism. Much of what purported to be primary material was in fact borrowed from books that had already been published much earlier, perhaps in a different language. Such material does not constitute independent documentation and should be ignored. This need not apply to a whole book, nor was the plagiarism necessarily limited to just one source. Taking the material published between 1500 and 1750 about the Ivory and Gold Coasts as an example, in quite a few cases a large proportion of an account was secondary while pretending to be primary.19 Alternatively, as Robin Law has demonstrated, an author confronted with contradictory statements in the available literature might attempt to “harmonise” them, producing a third version which appeared independent but in reality represented no more than a secondary compromise between two unnamed, previously existing sources.20

Many publications of travelers went through more than one edition, and it would be mistaken to assume that it makes little difference which edition we consult. One might expect a second edition to contain additional information provided by the author, yet in many cases the author was either already dead or had no say concerning the changes. Sometimes, especially in the 17th century, the second or third edition was a pirated version produced by a different publisher. Very often it contained different engravings, in some cases based on mirror images of the originals. Although it is not easy to find more than one edition of a travel account online or in a library, it is advisable to compare editions wherever possible.

One important aspect of the need to identify and use the “original” source concerns the dangers inherent in translation.21 Travel accounts, almost by nature, often provide information that was obtained in a language other than the author’s own—for example from a conversation conducted in a pidgin or an African lingua franca. This filtering becomes all the more serious if we choose to read the account not in the author’s original language but in translation—that is, to use a translation of terms and concepts that had themselves already been translated. Anglophone and francophone scholars today are notorious for their willingness to rely on translations without taking time to ascertain how reliable they are. To take just three examples from West Africa: The English and French versions of two major early Dutch books on Africa—Olfert Dapper’s monumental compilation (1668) and Willem Bosman’s book on the Gold Coast (1704)—have been shown to be almost worthless, yet are cited repeatedly without reference to the originals;22 the same applies to the English and French translations of a 19th-century German book—the account by the missionaries Fritz Ramseyer and Johannes Kühne of their four years’ captivity in Asante (1874).23

Furthermore, travel accounts often incorporate stereotypes and fixed ideas that were current among contemporary Europeans. A good example of an early stereotype, found mainly in early Arabic sources but also in some European ones, is that of “silent trade” or “dumb barter,” conducted between two trading “nations” of the African interior that were supposedly unwilling or unable to communicate with one another except through signs.24 We find a similar inability within travel authors to distance themselves from stereotypes when recording stories about cannibals recognizable by their sharpened teeth, or in 18th-century claims (never substantiated) that the West African coast had been “discovered” by French ships long before the Portuguese arrived.25 As far as the 19th century is concerned, accounts written in the context of Darwinism and the abolition of the slave trade may well have incorporated stereotypes which were more durable than those used in writing about other parts of the world. Some images created by travelers before the 20th century still affect how Africa is viewed from outside.

This brings us to the question of authenticity and the fact that some travelers were simply, as Percy Adams once called them, “travel liars.”26 Whilst in the Renaissance it was common to thrill European readers with stories about monsters in Africa—not least because it helped them to imagine what a world “without God” might look like—some early 18th-century authors combined straightforward ethnographic description with passages which were probably quite fictitious, giving details of exotic rituals or “noble savage” worldviews—presumably because there was a demand for such writing in Europe at this time. The fascination of readers with the “penetration” of the African interior in the early 19th century seduced a few authors into providing “news from nowhere,” extending their own observations in the coastal region by describing an invented journey to the deep interior, replete with ethnographic details.27

Another aspect concerns the “spectacles” through which the authors perceived particular phenomena in Africa—what postmodern critics would call their “positionality.” It is not enough merely to call these “Eurocentric” or “androgynous” and leave it at that. Instead of dismissing such sources wholesale, we must examine the potential bias of the gaze in each case. If, for instance, an author was personally involved in the slave trade at a time when this had become controversial, we should expect different distortions from those to be found in the writings of a slave trader from an earlier period, such as Nicholas Owen (see Figure 2). Catholic missionaries often saw and described African religious practices differently from Protestant missionaries, and so on. Thus the “spectacles” might or might not reflect the author’s nationality, social status, travel purpose, religious affiliation, or gender.

Travelers’ Accounts as SourcesClick to view larger

Figure 2. “Surry, King of Sherbrow.” N. Owen, Journal of a Slave-Dealer. Edited by E. Martin. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1930, 98.

Note. From the diary of Nicolas Owen, an Irish trader who lived in the Sherbro region on the coast of what later became Sierra Leone. On April 1, 1758, he wrote: “I have drawn the King of Sherbrow in his full majesty with his gilt brass crown, sit[t]ing in state over his delight, 2 pots of palm wine; he has likewise 4 of his great lords at his feet as us[u]al, with his trumpeter behind his chair and holding a bottle of brandy as if afreaid [sic] to set it down while he performs his office.”

Finally, we must beware of taking at face value all the details we find in travel accounts. A good example of the need for caution is quantitative information. While many travel accounts contain assertions so vague that one wonders whether the author observed anything at all, others offer very specific information, including concrete numbers. Nowadays some economic historians, working on a global level, are desperate to find clues in early sources concerning, for instance, demography or productivity. Yet, living in a pre-statistical age, few authors of travel accounts expected anyone to take their statements so literally. Moreover, both they and their informants had good reasons to exaggerate or minimize a particular figure. The commonest form of demographic indicator before the mid-19th century was a statement about the size of an army (one’s own, or that of the enemy), from which it is tempting to use a multiplicator (e.g., 8) in order to estimate the total population. Yet as soon as we put some of these statements together, we find enormous discrepancies, which demonstrates the futility of such exercises.28 In general, casual references to numbers in travel accounts have more in common with poetry than they do with statistics.

A second example of the dangers of a literal reading relates to religion. Most missionaries and quite a few other travelers were interested in what “beliefs” a particular group of Africans might hold. Even if they attempted to ascertain this in an objective manner and avoided terms such as “fetish,” “superstition,” “idols,” or “heathen,” the very manner in which they asked questions tended to produce certain kinds of answer, well suited to constructing what in the 20th century became known as “Traditional African Religion.” The Moravian missionary Georg Schmidt, speaking through an interpreter, asked some Khoikhoi living near the Cape of Good Hope in 1737 “whether they knew that a great Spirit dwelt above, who had given them their cattle and all that they had.” Upon being told, “Yes, we know him. He is called Tui-hqua,” Schmidt answered: “This good Spirit is he alone who can save you, and I come hither with no other view than to make you acquainted with him.” Quite apart from the fact that Schmidt’s inquiry constituted what we would call a “leading question,” strongly encouraging his interlocutors to answer in a particular way, one wonders—as Paul Landau has done—upon what basis the interpreter was able to find a Khoe cognate of the German or Dutch term for “spirit.” In the end, Landau adds, not without irony, Schmidt “would tell Khoikhoi more than they already knew about tui-qua.”29 Scholars should beware of assuming that African terms employed by travelers had the same meaning in contexts other than that of the encounter between Africans and Europeans.


When readers open a travel account, the eye is often caught by the illustrations, which serve to enhance the readability of the text and help us to visualize its content.30 Yet here too one must be careful before attributing to an engraving any independent value as a source. Was it actually drawn in Africa or at least based on a rough sketch made there? It would be nice if we could assume this, and certainly there are examples of travelers who clearly took great pains to supplement a text with their own illustrations. One thinks again of the slave captain Jean Barbot—not a skilled artist, but able to produce plausible pen-and-ink sketches of objects and persons whom he encountered on the West Africa coast in 1678–1679; or of his near-contemporary, the Capuchin missionary Giovanni Cavazzi, whose vivid watercolors depicting the history of the Kongo kingdom remained unpublished until the late 20th century but whose engravings, published posthumously in his book of 1687, contain a wealth of plausible information about material culture and other topics.31 To a limited extent this applies also to another Capuchin missionary, Girolamo Merolla (see Figure 3). On the other hand, many authors relied entirely on an artist in Europe who had never been to Africa and evidently had enormous difficulties in illustrating what the text described. Moreover, we find at least as much plagiarism in such illustrations as we do in the texts themselves; stereotyped images of exotic peoples could even be transferred from a book on Asia to one on Africa, especially if they helped to support an argument about degrees of civility.32 Indeed, while we may feel tempted to regard early images published in travel accounts as if they were portraits “drawn from life,” it is essential to bear in mind the way in which early (and to a lesser extent also later) engravers, using dress as a marker, were able to “construct a scale of civility” by means of a series of illustrations of human beings.33

Travelers’ Accounts as SourcesClick to view larger

Figure 3. Women of the Kongo kingdom engaged in agriculture. G. Merolla, Breve e succinta relatione del viaggio nel regno di Congo nell’Africa Meridionale, fatto dal P. Girolamo Merolla da Sorrento, sacerdote Cappucino, missionario apostolico. Naples: Francesco Mollo, 1692, plate 15.

Note. As depicted by Girolamo Merolla, a Capuchin missionary who lived in Sogno, a coastal province of Kongo, from 1683 to 1688.

The situation changed somewhat in the second half of the 19th century, when photography was still in its infancy but it was nevertheless possible to publish an engraving based upon a photograph. Sometimes both the photograph and the published engraving have survived, but in other cases it is worth examining whether an engraving in a book might have been derived from a photograph that has since been lost. Paul Jenkins has argued this with regard to the portrait of Ali Eisami Gazirma, a Kanuri man who was living in Sierra Leone in 1852.34

The decision on what to illustrate shifted over the course of time. Leaving aside the work of “armchair engravers” and illustrations derived from earlier publications, in the 17th century it was common to draw European forts as seen from the sea, flora and fauna (especially fish caught at sea), items of material culture collected as curiosities, as well as scenes depicting various “types” of Africans and their activities, as mentioned in the text. By the 19th century technical advances made it possible for an author such as T. Edward Bowdich to illustrate his Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee (1819) with lavish color engravings, one of them (a fold-out picture of “The First Day of the Yam Custom” being no less than 27.5 inches wide. Only a few 19th-century travel accounts, however, used color illustrations, and the majority still contained no illustrations at all. Those that did tended to show a slightly wider range of African activities than in previous centuries, albeit in many cases tailored to convey a polemic message. Publications by missionaries, of course, tended to differ from those of other travelers, not least in the scenes of African life that they offered via both text and image.

Maps constituted another element in many travel accounts, especially those covering a wide area. While such maps purported (at least implicitly) to be the result of observation and research conducted by travelers, in reality they usually drew upon two additional sources: earlier maps published by other Europeans and what Thomas Bassett has called the “cartographic encounter” between travelers and Africans.35 Thus, in spite of their European frame of reference, the maps published in travel accounts should be recognized as “potential depositories of African spatial knowledge,” replete with misunderstandings and ambiguities that deserve attention.36


Toward the end of the 19th century, travel accounts began to lose some of their hold on the public imagination, although they, of course, continue to appear to this day. There were several reasons for this decline in status. First, the invention of photography and subsequent advances in photographic technology probably constituted a challenge to the claim of the written word to offer the best representation of the Other. Second, travel itself gradually lost something of its mystique with the introduction of the steamship and later with the transformation of most of the African continent into a set of European colonies. Third, whereas in the mid-19th century missionaries such as David Livingstone, Ludwig Krapf, or Johann Rebmann had combined evangelization work with long-distance exploration, by the end of the century most Protestant missionary societies and Catholic missionary orders had established their own “fields,” consisting of a number of stations in one particular region. Here one or more missionaries resided, seeking to develop close relations with a particular community rather than explore further afield.

Finally, the study of Africa, its cultures, and its languages was becoming professionalized and institutionalized.37 Although research expeditions were still sent to Africa in the early 20th century with the aim of providing more professional documentation, such as those of Adolf Friedrich, Duke of Mecklenburg (1907–1908, 1910–1911) or Marcel Griaule’s ethnographic-linguistic expedition from Dakar to Djibouti (1931–1933), stationary fieldwork on a single “tribe,” such as Griaule’s own work on the Dogon, became increasingly fashionable and a large number of ethnographic monographs devoted to such tribes appeared.38 For functionalist anthropologists of the interwar period—and by no means only for them—it was important not to travel but to remain in one place, mastering the language, observing and participating over a lengthy period in order to understand how a tribe’s religion, economy, kinship system, “customary law,” and political organization all fitted together, producing a “tribe” that seemed to be essentially different from other tribes. Such matters had been frequently touched upon in travel accounts too, but not in such a systematic manner.

Discussion of the Literature

The Contribution of Literary Scholars

Literary scholars have shown considerable interest in travel accounts since Mary Louise Pratt published her seminal article “Scratches on the Face of the Country; Or, What Mr. Barrow Saw in the Land of the Bushmen” (1985), to be followed by her book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992).39 Besides contrasting the masculine “lord-of-all-I-survey” approach of Richard Burton in the 1850s to 1860s with the way in which his compatriot Mary Kingsley, the “lady of the swamps,” wrote about West Africa three decades later, Pratt deals with the ethnocentric, reductive, and “othering” language employed in the early 19th century by John Barrow in “textualising” the landscapes and inhabitants of southern Africa and by Mungo Park in his “sentimental” description of his encounters in the interior of West Africa. Pratt focuses on the penchant of 19th-century European writers and their readers for descriptions that focused on African “manners-and-customs,” presenting these as if they were a factual representation of unchanging reality.

The work of Pratt and those who have trodden in her footsteps by analyzing “discursive configurations” is of importance for historians of Africa and can certainly help us to “read between the lines” when dealing with travel accounts.40 Nevertheless, there are limits to what such an approach can achieve and a danger that they may induce historians to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Travel accounts still deserve straightforward source criticism (Quellenkritik), which it is a historian’s duty to apply with sensitivity.

Case Studies

Early discussions concerning the wide variety of sources to be used when studying African history tended to pay little attention to travel accounts, because these were considered both relatively unproblematic and less exciting that other genres of sources. A pioneering attempt to remedy this situation was made in a collection of essays published in the journal Paideuma in 1987, entitled European Sources for Sub-Saharan Africa before 1900: Use and Abuse.

Apart from this the literature has wisely focused on case studies, each of which has shed light on a matter of more general interest. The great majority of these have appeared in the journal History in Africa, which has been published annually since 1974. Topics dealt with have included problems arising in the identification of primary material, the dangers of relying upon translations, questions of authorship, and genres of travel writing. Several have also discussed travel accounts in which a substantial portion of the text bore no relation whatever to observed reality.

Source Editions

Travel accounts present themselves to us in very different forms. In many cases all we have is an old book in the library, published long ago by the traveler concerned, or an article published in a 19th-century journal, such as Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen or Le Tour du Monde. Sometimes we are able to locate a manuscript, either of an account that was never published or else existing alongside a published account, enabling us to compare two versions and see how much was changed.41 If we are lucky, there may also exist a scholarly edition of the source concerned, although the extent to which editions of travel accounts are accompanied by a truly scholarly apparatus varies enormously.42

Several series of such editions have a long and venerable tradition. In Britain the Hakluyt Society has been producing editions of “voyages and travels” since 1846, including many on Africa. The older ones have been overtaken by subsequent research, but the series remains remarkable. The Dutch counterpart, founded in 1908, is the Linschoten-Vereeniging, which publishes similar editions but limits these to Dutch travelers, whereas the Hakluyt Society’s coverage is universal. This was followed in South Africa by the founding in 1918 of the Van Riebeeck Society, which has published a volume of primary material (mainly travel accounts) on southern Africa annually since then. In the 1960s the International Union of Academies launched a project entitled Fontes Historiae Africanae, intended to run parallel to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO’s) projected General History of Africa. By the late 1980s Fontes had almost lost its international character, but the British Academy and—to a lesser extent—some other national academies continue to produce source editions within this framework. Other critical editions appear with individual publishers, and the publisher Brill has since 2003 published a series entitled Sources for African History. Such editing work remains, as one of the leading pioneers called it more than three decades ago, “the task ahead.”43

Primary Sources

Travelers’ accounts constitute a particular kind of primary source. It is barely possible to delimit where the primary sources relevant for such accounts may be found. As has been shown, a large proportion of early European books on Africa consisted of travel accounts, and almost every archive that contains material on Africa before the 20th century includes some travel accounts. Besides the national archives of the major colonial powers (above all Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Portugal; to a lesser extent the Netherlands and Spain) this includes the archives of Protestant missionary societies and Catholic missionary orders, as well as those of geographical societies and anthropological/ethnological societies. A number of finding aids were published in the 1960s and 1970s, such as UNESCO’s Guides to the Sources of the History of Africa series and the Athlone Press’s Guides to Materials for West African History in European Archives series. In all such cases, of course, travel accounts are merely one element within a broader coverage.

Online databases such as (for French travel accounts) Gallica are increasingly useful, as are databases devoted to particular travelers, for instance the “In His Own Words” section of Livingstone Online.

Further Reading

Donelha, André Descrição da Serra Leoa e dos Rios de Guiné do Cabo Verde (1625)/An Account of Sierra Leone and the Rivers of Guinea of Cape Verde (1625). Edited by Avelino Teixeira da Mota. Lisbon: Junta de Investigações Cientificas do Ultramar, 1977.Find this resource:

Heintze, Beatrix, and Adam Jones, eds. “European Sources for Sub-Saharan Africa before 1900: Use and Abuse.” Special issue, Paideuma 33 (1987).Find this resource:

Jones, Adam Zur Quellenproblematik der Geschichte Westafrikas 1450–1900. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1990.Find this resource:

Pratt, Mary Louise Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 1992.Find this resource:

Rauchenberger, Dietrich Johannes Leo der Afrikaner: Seine Beschreibung des Raumes zwischen Nil und Niger nach dem Urtext. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1999.Find this resource:

Speake, Jennifer, ed. Literature of Travel and Exploration: An Encyclopedia. 3 vols. New York: Routledge, 2013.Find this resource:

Thornton, Robert “Narrative Ethnography in Africa, 1850–1920: The Creation and Capture of an Appropriate Domain for Anthropology.” Man n.s., 18 (1983): 502–520.Find this resource:


(2.) Wilfred H. Whiteley, ed., Maisha ya Hamed bin Muhammed el Murjebi yaani Tippu Tip: Kwa maneno yake mwenyewe (Kampala: East African Literature Bureau, 1974).

(3.) Exceptions for West Africa include Anna Maria Falconbridge (1795), Hannah Kilham (1828, 1832, 1837), Elizabeth Melville (1849), Sarah Lee/Bowdich (1835, 1847, 1856), and Anna Hinderer (1872).

(4.) Adam Jones, “The Dark Continent: A Preliminary Study of the Geographical Coverage in European Sources, 1400–1880,” in “European Sources for Sub-Saharan Africa,” 19–26.

(5.) John Donnelly Fage, A Guide to Original Sources for Precolonial Western Africa Published in European Languages for the Most Part in Book Form (Madison: African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1987); and Stanley B. Alpern, A Guide to Original Sources for Precolonial Western Africa: An Updated and Expanded Supplement to Fage (1994) (Madison: African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2006).

(6.) For edited extracts from the earliest travel accounts of South Africa see Rowland Raven-Hart, Before Van Riebeeck: Callers at South Africa from 1488 to 1652 (Cape Town: C. Struik, 1967); and Rowland Raven-Hart, Cape Good Hope 1652–1702: The First Fifty Years of Dutch Colonisation as Seen by Callers (2 vols., Cape Town: A. A. Balkema, 1971). For the 18th century see Siegfried Huigen, Knowledge and Colonialism: Eighteenth-Century Travellers in South Africa (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009).

(7.) See the bibliographies in Roland Oliver and Gervare Mathew, eds., History of East Africa (Vol. 1) (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), 461–472; and Donald Simpson, Dark Companions: The African Contribution to the European Exploration of East Africa (London: Paul Elek, 1975), 201–206.

(8.) Wyatt MacGaffey, “Dialogues of the Deaf: Europeans on the Atlantic Coast of Africa,” in Implicit Understandings: Observing, Reporting, and Reflecting on the Encounters between Europeans and Other Peoples in the Early Modern Era, ed. Stuart B. Schwartz (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 249–267.

(9.) William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish,” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 9 (1985): 5–17; 13 (1987): 23–45; 16 (1988): 105–124.

(10.) MacGaffey, “Dialogues of the Deaf,” 251.

(11.) Ernst van den Boogaart, “Books on Black Africa: The Dutch Publications and Their Owners in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in “European Sources for Sub-Saharan Africa,” 115–126, esp. 117–124.

(12.) Patrick Brantlinger, “Victorians and Africa: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent,” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (1985): 166–203, esp. 176.

(13.) Ulrich van der Heyden, “Neue Funde zur Ergänzung des Editionsgeschichte von Otto Friedrich von der Gröbens Orientalischer Reisebeschreibung,” Leipziger Jahrbuch zur Buchgeschichte 25 (2017): 269–272.

(14.) Adam Jones, “Decompiling Dapper: A Preliminary Search for Evidence,” History in Africa 17 (1990): 171–209.

(15.) P. E. H. Hair, Adam Jones, and Robin Law, eds., Barbot on Guinea: The Writings of Jean Barbot on West Africa 1678–1712 (2 vols.) (London: Hakluyt Society, 1992).

(16.) Dorothy Helly, Livingstone’s Legacy: Horace Waller and Victorian Myth-Making (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1987).

(17.) Adam Jones, “Theopile Conneau at Galinhas and New Sestos, 1846–1841: A Comparison of the Sources,” History in Africa 8 (1981): 89–106.

(18.) Edna Bay, “On the Trail of the Bush King: A Dahomean Lesson in the Use of Evidence,” History in Africa 6 (1979): 1–15.

(19.) Adam Jones, “Semper Aliquid Veteris: Printed Sources for the History of the Ivory and Gold Coasts, 1500–1750,” Journal of African History 27 (1986): 215–235.

(20.) Robin Law, “Problems of Plagiarism, Harmonization and Misunderstanding in Contemporary European Sources: Early (pre-1680s) Sources for the ‘Slave Coast’ of West Africa,” in “European Sources for Sub-Saharan Africa,” 337–338.

(21.) Beatrix Heintze, “Translations as Sources for African History,” History in Africa 11 (1984): 131–161.

(22.) P. E. H. Hair, “Barbot, Dapper, Davity: A Critique of Sources on Sierra Leone and Cape Mount,” History in Africa 1 (1974): 25–54; and Albert van Dantzig, “English Bosman and Dutch Bosman: A Comparison of Texts,” History in Africa 2–11 (1975–1984).

(23.) Adam Jones, “Four Years in Asante: One Source or Several?” History in Africa 18 (1991): 173–203.

(24.) P. F. de Moraes Farias, “Silent Trade: Myth and Historical Evidence,” History in Africa 1 (1974): 9–24.

(26.) Percy G. Adams, Travelers and Travel Liars 1660–1800 (Los Angeles: Dover, 1962).

(27.) Marion Johnson, “News from Nowhere: Duncan and ‘Adofoodia,’” History in Africa 1 (1974): 55–66; and T. C. McCaskie, “Drake’s Fake: A Curiosity concerning a Spurious Visit to Asante in 1839,” History in Africa 11 (1984): 223–236.

(28.) Jones, Zur Quellenproblematik, 125–129.

(29.) P. Landau, “‘Religion’ and Christian Conversion in African History: A New Model,” Journal of Religious History 23 (1999): 8–30, quote at: 26–27. For a slightly different account by George Schmidt of his conversations about ‘religion’ see Das Tagebuch und die Briefe von Georg Schmidt, dem ersten Missionar in Südafrika (1737–1744), ed. B. Krüger and H. Plüddemann (Bellville: Die Wes-Kaaplandse Instituut vir Historiese Navorsing, 1981), 44, 56.

(30.) Many of those published before 1720 are reproduced in facsimile in Walter Hirschberg, ed., Schwarzafrika (Graz: Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, 1962).

(31.) Jean Barbot, “Journal d’un voyage de traite en Guinée, à Cayenne et aux Antilles, fait par Jean Barbot en 1678–79,” in ed. Gabriel Debien, Marcel Delafosse, and Guy Thilmans. special issue, Bulletin de l’IFAN B.40 (1978): 235–395; and Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo, Istorica descrizione de’ tre regni Congo, Matamba et Angola (Bologne, 1687).

(32.) Ernst van den Boogaart, “De Brys’ Africa,” in Inszenierte Welten/Staging New Worlds: Die west- und ostindischen Reisen der Verleger de Bry, 1590–1630/De Brys’ Illustrated Travel Reports, 1590–1630, ed. Susanna Burghartz (Basel: Schwabe, 2004), 95–148.

(33.) Ernst van den Boogaart, Civil and Corrupt Asia: Image and Text in the Itinerario and the Icones of Jan Huygen van Linschoten (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 14.

(34.) Paul Jenkins, “Four Nineteenth-Century Pictorial Images from Africa in the Basel Mission Archive and Library Collections,” in Missionary Encounters: Sources and Issues, ed. Robert Bickers and Rosemary Seton (Richmond, UK: Carson Press, 1996), 95–113.

(35.) Thomas Bassett, “Indigenous Mapmaking in Intertropical Africa,” in Cartography in the Traditional African, American, Arctic, Australian, and Pacific Societies, ed. David Woodward and G. Malcolm Lewis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 24–48.

(36.) Adam Jones and Isabel Voigt, “‘Just a First Sketchy Makeshift’: German Travellers and their Cartographic Encounters in Africa, 1850–1914,” History in Africa 39 (2012): 9–39.

(37.) See especially Sara Pugach, Africa in Translation: A History of Colonial Linguistics in Germany and Beyond, 1814–1945 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012); and Helen Tilley with Robert J. Gordon, eds., Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism and the Politics of Knowledge (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2007).

(38.) Jan Vansina, “The Ethnographic Account as a Genre in Central Africa,” European Sources for Sub-Saharan Africa before 1900, ed. Heintze and Jones, 433–444.

(39.) Mary Louise Pratt, “Scratches on the Face of the Country; Or, What Mr. Barrow Saw in the Land of the Bushmen,” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (1985): 119–143; and Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992).

(40.) For late-19th-century travel accounts see also Tim Youngs, Travellers in Africa: British Travelogues, 1850–1900 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1994).

(41.) For a complicated example see Jones, “Four Years in Asante.”

(42.) For a review of early such work see Adam Jones, Raw, Medium, Well Done: A Critical Review of Editorial and Quasi-Editorial Work on pre-1885 European Sources for Sub-Saharan Africa, 1960–1986 (Madison: African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1987).

(43.) P. E. H. Hair, “The Task Ahead: The Editing of Early European-Language Texts on Black Africa,” in “European Sources for Sub-Saharan Africa,” 29–51.