Carthaginian explorations of west Africa — the expedition of Hanno the Navigator

Hanno the Libyan started out from Carthage and passed the Pillars of Heracles and sailed into the outer Ocean, with Libya on his port side, and he sailed on towards the east, five-and-thirty days all told. But when at last he turned southward, he fell in with every sort of difficulty, want of water, blazing heat, and fiery streams running into the sea. — The Campaigns of Alexander, Book VIII, Arrian of Nicomedia

The city of Carthage, later famous for its apocalyptic struggle with the Roman Republic, was founded in about 814 BC as a stop off point for Phoenician ships sailing between their homeland and the western Mediterranean. Positioned perfectly at the centre of the Mediterranean, it would rise to become a great metropolis, dominating the sea and poised to become the greatest city of the Antique world. This article is the 6th in a series, parts 1 and 2, 3, 4 and 5 set some context, but you do not need to have read them first to follow this one.

Phoenician colonisation in the Mediterranean created a long history and culture of exploration and plunging into the unknown. Carthage itself was a colony of Tyre but quickly became the leading Phoenician city and carried on this tradition of pushing the boundaries of knowledge in pursuit of new sources of wealth. To examine the Phoenician and Carthaginian contributions to knowledge of the world in Antiquity, this article will focus on an expedition launched from the city of Carthage. The expedition, carried out sometime in the 6th century BCE, was led by a man called Hanno the navigator and is a record of a voyage down the west coast of Africa.

Although we do not have much direct evidence of what the Carthaginian’s knew and achieved, enough indirect evidence from later Greek and Roman authors exists to allow us to attempt to reconstruct the events. But first we need to understand the context of antique civilisation during this time.

The Phoenician homeland is in what is now Lebanon and parts of Syria, although the Greek historians Herodotus and Strabo claimed that they originally came from what is now Bahrain. A theory supported by the Phoenician city of Tyre itself which long maintained Persian Gulf origins.

Wherever they originally came from, the Phoenician people begin to emerge into the light of history as Canaanite culture developed in the region through the bronze age. Eventually, the region developed into its own distinctive culture sandwiched between the Egyptians and Israelites to their south, the empires of Mesopotamia to their east, the Hittites and Neo-Hittites to the north and the Mediterranean to the west. As a result, room for expansion on land did not exist, indeed the Phoenicians often found themselves subject to conquest or domination by one or other of their neighbours and so began to look to the sea as a source of wealth and power.

As such, a unique sea going society emerged, the people of Phoenicia becoming known as great traders and expert sailors. The development of the Phoenician alphabet, the precursor of the Greek and Latin alphabets, was probably as a result of the need for ease and simplicity when trading, a practical merchant’s solution to a problem.

The height of Phoenician power came between 1200 and 800 BCE; the Bronze age collapse of the great empires of the near east created the perfect conditions for the more modest but powerful trading cities of the Phoenicians to thrive. A league of independent city-state ports emerged which exploited the rich natural resources of Phoenicia to trade with the rest of the antique world, acting as middlemen for the larger states all around them. This led the Phoenicians to strike out west, founding small trading colonies in the western Mediterranean, cities like Gadir, modern Cadiz, founded in 1104 BCE and widely regarded as the oldest city still standing in western Europe, were key to the network of ports and outposts that the small numbers of Phoenicians used to transport goods back home.

One of these cities, founded much later, in 814 BCE, as a resupply point halfway between the east and west, was Carthage, meaning new city.

In myth the city was founded when Dido, Princess of Tyre, fled to the north African coast to escape her brother, King Pygmalion. She persuaded the local Berber King, Iarbas, to a give her a small bit of land as a temporary refuge. The King agreed that she could have as much land as she could cover with an ox hide. Dido proceeded to cut up the hide and use the pieces to surround a hill which would become known as the Byrsa, which means hill, and would eventually become the centre of the new city.

The reality is perhaps not quite as romantic, but the city would quickly grow to become an important commercial hub.

When Phoenicia was conquered by the growing Persian Empire in 539 BCE, the power and prestige of the leading cities, Tyre and Sidon, would begin to fall. Many Phoenicians fled west and the colonies, which were always fairly independent of their mother cities, became fully free.

The circular harbour of Carthage

The expanding city of Carthage would rise to fill the power vacuum left by Tyre in the Phoenician system, growing into the leading Phoenician city state and taking control over the colonies of the west. By the end of the 6th century BCE Carthage would be well established as the greatest city of the west, with her fleets controlling the key trade routes crisscrossing the Mediterranean.

Carthage would establish new colonies, repopulate old Phoenician ones, come to the defence of other Punic cities under threat from natives and Greek colonists, as well as expand her territories by conquest. While some Phoenician colonies willingly submitted to Carthage, paying tribute and giving up their control of foreign policy, others in Iberia and Sardinia resisted Carthaginian efforts.

Carthage, unlike Rome, did not concentrate on conquering lands adjacent to the city prior to embarking on overseas ventures. Her dependence on trade and focus on protecting that trade network saw the evolution of an overseas hegemony before Carthage pushed inland into Africa.

Rivalry with the Greek colonists, mainly in Sicily, always more numerous than the Phoenicians, would characterise this period as Carthage jealously guarded its hegemony and control of trade and resources.

It was in this context that Hanno’s expedition took place.

Hanno’s expedition in the early 6th century BCE was a continuation of the illustrious past of Phoenician exploration.

The eighteen lines which survive of Hanno’s account are the longest known text by a Punic author, reportedly written on the wall of the temple of Baal in Carthage and translated into Greek by a scribe. Currently there are only two copies of the text, dating to the 9th and 14th centuries CE, one in the University of Heidelberg and the other divided between the British Museum and the Bibliothéque Nationale. These texts, however, are not the originals, but abridged translations made by Greek and Byzantine clerks.

Other than our sources for this expedition, we do not know anything about Hanno, who he was or what else he did. Hanno had been ordered by Carthage to found and reinforce Phoenician colonies along the African coast, before moving on to explore further the coast of north west Africa. As a trading city, the lifeblood of Carthage was its knowledge and control of markets. The type of expedition carried out by Hanno was of vital interest to the Carthaginian state and, although exceptional in its scope, was far from unusual.

The expedition left Carthage with 60 ships and a reported 30,000 men, but like many ancient sources these numbers are probably an exaggeration. They sailed beyond the pillars of Hercules, what is now Gibraltar, and out into the Atlantic. The account goes on to detail Hanno’s success in his initial mission founding several colonies along the coast of what is now Morocco, reaching down as far south as the Canary Islands and beyond.

At a place the Carthaginians named Kerne, a final colony was settled. “Kerne” renders in Phoenician Chernah, which means “last habitation”. It has variously been located at an islet called Herne in the Rio de Oro bay, close to Ad Dakhla or one of the islands in the Bay of Arguin on the Mauretanian coast. However, these suggestions all have flaws, not least the distances involved simply don’t add up.

From Kerne, the expedition headed south for 12 days. This is where Hanno really plunged into the unknown. Travelling approximately 100 km a day, 12 days would bring the expedition to somewhere near Guinea. A mark of how far Hanno had stepped into the unknown is shown when he reports that the interpreters he picked up along the way could no longer understand the local languages. This suggests that they may have entered the regions where Kru languages were spoken, in modern Sierra Leone.

The expedition anchored by “Some big mountains” which were “covered with trees whose wood was aromatic and colourful”, possibly Cape Mesurado, close to Monrovia, Liberia. We get a sense of the intention and mind set of the Carthaginians, noting the aromatic trees, a potentially valuable trade good.

After exploring the area, Hanno continued for another 5 days along the coast, stopping in a bay Hanno named the “horn of the west”. This location was mentioned in several texts of antiquity, but as a promontory, it was most likely Cape Three Points in modern Ghana.

An episode with fires and music coming from a mysterious island, likely in the Niger delta, and a land inaccessible because of the heat, encouraged the fleet to sail on by.

The location of Mount Cameroon

After 4 more days sailing, while observing a coast lit by fire at night, a mountain named the chariot of the gods was sighted. Although much disputed, it is possibly Mount Cameroon. The native name happens to be Monga-ma Loba or the “Seat of the Gods”.

Hanno’s final destination was 3 days further sailing away. Reaching a bay, he calls the “horn of the south”, the bay appears to be Corisco bay, the promontory may be the peninsula on which Gabon’s capital Libreville is situated.

On an island in this bay, a curious account of an encounter with the “locals” is given:

“In this gulf was an island, resembling the first, with a lagoon, within which was another island, full of savages. Most of them were women with hairy bodies, whom our interpreters called “gorillas”. Although we chased them, we could not catch any males: they all escaped, being good climbers who defended themselves with stones. However, we caught three women, who refused to follow those who carried them off, biting and clawing them. So we killed and flayed them and brought their skins back to Carthage

This account can’t be entirely accurate, Gorillas do not swim and are not known for throwing stones or living in big groups like those described. It must, therefore, have taken place on the mainland, possibly somewhere on the Libreville peninsula.

After this, with the expedition running short of supplies, Hanno sailed for home.

This fascinating episode was certainly well known in Classical Antiquity, being mentioned by Herodotus and Arrian. Pliny the elder reports that the gorilla furs were exhibited in the temple of the goddess Tanit until Carthage was destroyed by the Romans. Pliny even claims that Hanno circumnavigated Africa, from Gadir (Cadiz) to Arabia.

Pliny the Elder

Unfortunately, due to a combination of Carthaginian secrecy about their trade routes, our lack of Carthaginian sources, only the second-hand accounts of Greeks and Romans, and the Roman suppression of all things Carthaginian after their conquest of the city, our knowledge of this fascinating episode of history is limited at best.

The Carthaginians were determined to maintain control of Atlantic trade and so probably left out or obscured the details of these expeditions, allowing the Mediterranean world to know enough to be awed by these achievements, but unable to replicate them and challenge Carthage’s dominance of trade.

These ambiguities have led to much dispute over the route and extent of the expedition. Most agree Hanno reached Senegal, some agree that he went as far as Gambia. The farthest limit of exploration is contested. The main source of disagreement rests on whether the mountain Hanno describes is Mount Cameroon, some argue it is too distant, or Mount Kakulima in Guinea.

Although the details we have of this expedition are limited, and we have even less when it comes to other Carthaginian expeditions, such as that of Himilco at roughly the same time along the coast of north western Europe, it does give us a good insight into what was known of the western boundaries of Antique civilisation, if only through the rough locating of named places and the reaction of Greek and Roman scribes to the reports. Unfortunately, due to things like Carthaginian secrecy it is impossible tell which details are real, which are exaggeration, and which are complete fabrication.

Whatever the truth, the expedition of Hanno the navigator is a tantalising insight into Carthaginian culture and society, and a fascinating episode of history, if only glimpsed through the spying glass of the Greco-Roman world.

What it does show is the physical limits of knowledge, but also that antique civilisation had the ability and curiosity to pursue these kinds of missions of exploration. When the mantle of power was wrested from Carthage in the west by Rome, the spirit of exploration endured, pushing Rome to explore the world in its own fashion.

The preservation of this short account out of all the vast knowledge of the Carthaginian world that must have existed before the Romans tore down the city is in itself a testament to its value.

the fall of Carthage

Before moving on to look at how the Romans would exploit and expand on the knowledge of the world that they would inherit when they captured the hegemony of the west, the next article will explore what the Greek colonists of the west discovered and knew of their world.

Main Sources

Cartwright, Mark. “Hanno: Carthaginian Explorer.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 22 Jun 2016. Web. 08 Aug 2020.

Translated by Robin Waterfield, Herodotus, “The Histories”, Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1998

Robin Lane Fox, “The Classical World; An epic history of Greece and Rome”, Penguin Books, London UK, 2006

Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt, Arrian, “The Campaigns of Alexander”, Penguin Classics, Penguin Books, London, UK, 1971



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Lewis D'Ambra

Lewis D'Ambra

I write about history and its echoes and lessons for the present.