Skip to content

They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America

in stock, ready to be shipped
Save 5% Save 5%
Original price $22.00
Original price $22.00 - Original price $22.00
Original price $22.00
Current price $20.99
$20.99 - $20.99
Current price $20.99
“A landmark . . . brilliantly [demonstrates] has that there is far more to black history than the slave trade.”—John A. Williams

They Came Before Columbus reveals a compelling, dramatic, and superbly detailed documentation of the presence and legacy of Africans in ancient America. Examining navigation and shipbuilding; cultural analogies between Native Americans and Africans; the transportation of plants, animals, and textiles between the continents; and the diaries, journals, and oral accounts of the explorers themselves, Ivan Van Sertima builds a pyramid of evidence to support his claim of an African presence in the New World centuries before Columbus.

Combining impressive scholarship with a novelist’s gift for storytelling, Van Sertima re-creates some of the most powerful scenes of human history: the launching of the great ships of Mali in 1310 (two hundred master boats and two hundred supply boats), the sea expedition of the Mandingo king in 1311, and many others. In They Came Before Columbus, we see clearly the unmistakable face and handprint of black Africans in pre-Columbian America, and their overwhelming impact on the civilizations they encountered.

ISBN-13: 9780812968170

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Random House Publishing Group

Publication Date: 09-23-2003

Pages: 336

Product Dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

Series: Journal of African Civilizations

Ivan Van Sertima’s pioneering work in linguistics and anthropology has appeared in numerous scholarly journals. Professor Van Sertima teaches Afro-American studies at Rutgers University.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


. . . and he [Columbus] wanted to find out what the Indians of Hispaniola had told him, that there had come to it from the south and southeast Negro people, who brought those spear points made of a metal which they call guanin, of which he had sent to the king and queen for assaying, and which was found to have thirty-two parts, eighteen of gold, six of silver, and eight of copper.

-Raccolta, parte i, vol. i

African guanines were alloys of gold containing copper for the sake of its odor, for it seems that the Negroes like to smell their wealth. The guanines brought home by Columbus were assayed in Spain and were found to contain the same ratio of alloy as those in African Guinea.

-frederick pohl, Amerigo Vespucci, Pilot Major

On Saturday evening, March 9, 1493, a week after Columbus had been driven by a storm into Lisbon, following his first voyage to the Indies, he sat down to dinner with the Portuguese king at his court in the valley of Paraiso. Don Juan seemed to be in an extremely good mood. He talked to Columbus as to a close friend, with great candor and sweetness, insisting that his guest not stand, bow or accord him any special deference, but sit beside him at table as an equal. The admiral was surprised, deeply warmed by this hospitality, but marveling, nonetheless, at the apparent absence of resentment or envy in the king. All through dinner he looked at Don Juan closely, wondering whether the mask would suddenly slip to reveal the malice Columbus believed was beneath. Had not Don Juan sent three armed caravels to track him down last September as he was setting out on his Atlantic journey? Had not the king given orders that on the islands of Madeira, Puerto Sancto and the Azores, and in the regions and harbors where there were Portuguese, Columbus should be taken? Only last Tuesday Bartholomew Diaz, patron to the king's ship, armed to the teeth, had confronted him, as he lay helpless in the port of Lisbon, his sails split in half by the storm. Diaz had ordered him to leave his ship and render an account to the factors of the king and had pulled back only because Columbus had responded with fighting words, saying he was the Most High Admiral to the Sovereigns of Castile and had to give an account to no one.

Perhaps, thought Columbus, he had overreacted to the event because of the fatigue and terror he had suffered in the storm. After he had formally presented his letters to Diaz, had not Alvaro Dama, the Portuguese captain, come to his caravel in great state, with kettledrums and trumpets and pipes? The king too had received him with the highest honors, as befitted a foreign prince. There was nothing, therefore, to be alarmed about. Diaz had issued a routine challenge to a foreign fleet lying at anchor in his country's port. And the talk of the three caravels last September (for he had never seen them) may have been just alarmist talk. Yet as he sat there, balancing these interpretations in his mind, Columbus felt uneasy and afraid.

He had brought with him some of the Indian hostages he had seized on the island of Guanahani (Watling Island). These strange guests fascinated the Portuguese court. Not since 62 b.c., when the king of the Suevians presented Quintus Metellus Celer, the Roman proconsul in Gaul, with a gift of "Indians" cast up on the shores of Germany by a storm, had men with skin the tint of red sand been seen in Europe.

If the faintest shadow of his true feelings passed across Don Juan's face during his talk at dinner, it was when he looked at these men. Captives though they were, they became inverted in the king's agitated mind into a triumphant troop, their vigorous young bodies branded already with the rival insignia of the Spanish crown. He saw them as King Ferdinand's little puppets, signaling with their hands and limbs for the lack and loss of words. Some of them had paint on their faces, as puppets do, and their hair was unreal, as is the hair of puppets, as coarse and black as a horse's tail drooping over the eyebrows. Some appeared to the king like dolls, oriental dolls with eyes of hard, black glass, void of all expression. Within the glass of those eyes he saw the lands he too had dreamed about, and about which mariners and traders in his African service had spoken. Had he taken the rumors from Guinea more seriously he would have been sitting there that evening, emperor of two continents. The thought of it tormented him. The deep resentments he felt against Columbus, which for diplomatic reasons he had suppressed, crystallized into a beam of mischievous energy directed at the men of the Indies.

After dinner that evening, while he was talking with Columbus, "he ordered a dish of beans brought and placed on a table near them, and by signs ordered an Indian from among those who were there, to designate the many islands of his country that Columbus said he had discovered. The Indian at once showed Española and Cuba and the Lucayos and others. The king noted it with morose consideration and in a moment, as though inadvertently, he undid with his hand what the Indian had constructed. In a few moments he ordered another Indian to do the same with the beans, and this Indian quickly and diligently showed with the beans what the other Indian had shown, adding more islands and lands, giving the reason in his language for all he had shown, though no one understood it. And then the king, recognizing clearly the greatness of the lands discovered and their riches, was unable to conceal his grief at the loss of such things and cried out loudly and impetuously, giving himself a blow with his fist in the breast: 'O you wretched fool! Why did you let an undertaking of such importance slip through your fingers?' "

The mask had fallen with spectacular suddenness. Columbus's fears were realized. Several members of the court surrounded the king. Some of them attributed his grief to the boldness of the admiral and begged leave to kill Columbus on the spot, destroy all the ships awaiting him in Lisbon, nine leagues from the court, so that news of the discovery would not go back to Castile. But Don Juan said that God would damn his soul to hell for it, and that they should not touch the man.

After this frenzied, whispered session with his advisers, Don Juan resumed his conversations with Columbus as if nothing had happened. His face was flushed, but his manner showed none of the agitation which had driven him to that extraordinary outburst. He made it clear, and with a certain grave candor and graciousness, that regardless of his grief and disappointment at not having been Columbus's patron, "he felt great pleasure, nevertheless, that the voyage had been made and had terminated favorably." The whole Christian world should rejoice at this, Don Juan said. His queen was staying in the monastery of San Antonio near the village of Villafranca on the right bank of the Tagus, less than a day's journey from the court. She too would like to see Columbus and accord him every honor before he left for Spain.

The truth was, having failed to intercept Columbus both on his outward journey and his return, and having no heart now to order his assassination, as some of his advisers had urged, Don Juan quickly reconciled himself to the implications of this breakthrough to the islands and lands west of the ocean-sea. These implications, he knew, could be serious for Portugal. They would call for a repartitioning of the Christian world, a redefinition of the spheres of power and influence assumed by the two great maritime powers.

Before there could be any more Spanish claims to islands and lands within the ocean-sea, he must negotiate the most advantageous terms for the partitioning. He must strive somehow to make Columbus his ally in this, for he would soon be as much a power to be reckoned with as the Sovereigns of Spain. When he returned in triumph, offering up a kingdom beyond the sea to

Isabella and Ferdinand, they would be eating out of his hands, hanging on his every word. The admiral would be virtually a prince of the ocean-sea.

But Don Juan knew that the rights and privileges of a private citizen in and over vast and vague dominions, unless he had the physical force of an army behind him or the spiritual seal of a pope, could vanish in an instant if he lost the favor of the king and queen. He saw clearly the nature of this newfound power and vulnerability, both of which he intended to exploit.

His first ploy, therefore, was to suggest that he could use his influence on behalf of Columbus, if the need were to arise, to see that his agreements with regard to the "discoveries" were honored. Columbus had drafted agreements with the Spanish sovereigns before setting out, making him a partner with the Crown in his prospective discoveries. These agreements (referred to in his diaries as "the Capitulation") had been finalized in his absence and copies of the documents submitted to the Portuguese king. Don Juan said he had looked at these very closely. He understood from his reading of them that the real credit for the "conquest" belonged to Columbus. He was keen to emphasize that this was Columbus' personal conquest, implying that it was well within the power of the admiral even now to bargain over those lands with any foreign prince with whom he might come to an agreement.

Columbus was cautious. He had not yet seen the Capitulation, he said. He knew nothing more than that the king and queen of Spain had advised him not to encroach on Portuguese territory during his journeys, not to go to San Jorge de Mina nor to any other part of Guinea, and this had been announced in all the ports of Andalusia before he set sail. This was his way of saying that Spain and her agents fully respected the Portuguese sphere of power and influence, and that the Portuguese were expected to show equal respect for theirs. Columbus also seemed to imply that he needed no one to act as protector or go-between in the matter of any agreements he might enter with the Sovereigns of Castile. To this Don Juan graciously responded that he was certain mediators would not be necessary in this matter.

On the following Sunday and Monday the discussions between the king and the admiral continued. It became clear that Don Juan's real concern was not with the chain of islands Columbus claimed to have discovered in the Gulf of the Ganges. Beyond them, beyond the mainland of Asia (if indeed it were true that Columbus had chanced, as he claimed, upon Asia by way of the west), to the south and southeast, lay another world. The king was certain of this. Africans, he said, had traveled to that world. It could be found just below the equinoctial line, roughly on the same parallel as the latitudes of his domain in Guinea. In fact, "boats had been found which started out from Guinea and navigated to the west with merchandise." He was a fool not to have sent an expeditionary fleet into these waters in spite of persistent rumors and reports. But Portugal already had its hands full in Africa, and it was concentrating its exploratory energies on the eastern route to India.

Columbus listened intently. The information about the Guinea boats was new to him. He had been to Guinea ten years before and had seen the fortress at San Jorge de Mina which Don Juan was then constructing. Little was known of Guinea trade and navigation at that time, for the African world was vast and strange, and the Portuguese had but one consuming interest-gold-in the pursuit of which they had scratched a mere fraction of the Guinea coast. But why was Don Juan telling him all this, and in such a conspiratorial tone? What did he want?

"I want a line," the king said, "drawn across the map of the world from north to south, from pole to pole. This line should be drawn 370 leagues* west of the westernmost islands of the Cape Verde. Let it be the divider between the two Catholic kingdoms. Anything found west of the line goes to you and Spain. Anything found east of the line falls to me and Portugal."

As he sat there, brooding on this proposition, Columbus could hear the rain, driven by fierce winds, wasting its fury along the plains of Paraiso. The clamor of the rain and the wind stirred in him strong memories of Africa. He remembered how, at San Jorge de Mina on the Guinea coast, the rain would sometimes come rushing through the trees, sweeping forward like a violent river that had burst its banks, but beaten from passion into impotence by the high brick walls of the Portuguese fort. He used to feel so lost in those days, dismissed as a dreamer, sustained only by a conviction, passionate as the wind, as persistent as rain, storming insistently the minds of those who thought his schemes "chimerical and foolish." He remembered his last audience with Don Juan before he had decided to try his luck in the Spanish court. The king had stared at him with a bored, tired face, his skin strangely puffed by some unknown sickness, his eyes mocking Columbus with disbelief. Now they sat man to man (or was it prince to prince?). Don Juan was actually seeking his help to bring about a new division and reapportionment of power and possessions in the Christian world. Yes, he would go along with the drawing of the line. Yes, he would present the case with all his newfound power and influence at the Spanish court. But surely not out of gratitude for Don Juan's earlier indifference to his exploratory schemes nor his later attempts (if the rumors were correct) to seize him and his ships as they set out across the western ocean. Columbus now saw his advantage. He could name his price. What that price was no one can tell, but before he left the court on Tuesday morning some bargain over the line must have been struck.

This line, as proposed by Don Juan on the strength of his intelligence from Guinea, was finally settled by the two great powers at the Treaty of Tordesillas more than a year later-on June 7, 1494. This was years before incursions into South America by either Spain or Portugal. The later "discovery" of the continent placed Brazil east of the line, and so within Portugal's domain of influence (see Plate 1). This region of South America is washed by the North Equatorial current which joins the Canaries current off the Senegambia coast of Africa. This current pulls boats caught in its drift toward the shores of the New World with the irresistible magnetism of a gravitational field. It was along this current that the Portuguese captain Alvares Cabral, driven by a storm off the coast of West Africa in 1500, was blown helplessly but swiftly to Brazil.