|Mansa Abubakari Keita II|
Adapted From “They Came Before Columbus” Chapter 3, The Mariner Prince of Mali, page 39-50, by Ivan Van Sertima
You may have heard of the likes of Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo, Ferdinand Magellan, Hernan Cortes, Amerigo Vespucci, and Francisco Pizarro. But the story of an African explorer, navigator, and voyager to the Americas before all those aforementioned, must be told and remembered always. This is the story of Mansa Abubakari Keita II.
Abubakari Keita II, was the 9th Mansa, a Mande word meaning “emperor” or “king of kings”, of the Mali Empire. Abubakari Keita II was the grandson of Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Mali Empire. As a boy growing up in the royal court of the Keita Dynasty of the Mali Empire, Abubakari Keita II and his younger half-brother Kankan Musa, were privileged to receive the finest education. Coming up, they heard stories about lands across the Atlantic Ocean. While Abubakari Keita II would often dream of Traveling West to sail off into the massive ocean, his brother Kankan Musa dreamed of Traveling East to make pilgrimage to Mecca.
While studying at Sankory University, Abubakari Keita II encountered maps from Muslim geographers, Moorish navigators, and scholars from Timbuktu, who had concluded that the Atlantic Ocean waters which washed the western end of Mali, were not the end of the world. Diplomats from Morocco, North Africa, and scholars from the University of Timbuktu, promoted new ideas about a spherical shaped globe and worlds beyond the sea. While at Sankory University, Abubakari Keita II studied Ocean currents, navigational charts, and learned how to navigate using the stars. Abubakari Keita II heard amazing tales of people from Western Sudan who ventured across the Atlantic ocean some 2000 years earlier.
In the year 1310 AD, in the city of Niani, on the left bank of the Sankarini river, Abubakari Keita II ascended to the throne, and was inaugurated as the ninth Mansa of the Mali Empire. Dressed wearing a golden skullcap and full royal regalia of a velvety red tunic and heavily crinkled silk, and sitting atop a pempi, a three-tiered pavilion pyramid, under the shade of the royal umbrella, surmounted by its golden bird, there was a roll of drums, and trumpets, and bugles sounded to announce his inauguration. The time had come, Abubakari Keita II now had the resources at his disposal to realize his trans-oceanic ambition.
Since ascending the throne of Mali, Abubakari Keita II had but one ambition, to use all his power and wealth to realize the dream that had been growing in him since childhood. The Mali kingdom had been extended down along the Gambia River to the sea. Abubakari had heard many tales of that sea which was known as the world’s end. Abubakari desired to do something different with his regency, something new, something for which there was no precedent. Something too that would keep his spirit quick and young with a lifelong excitement. Abubakari was bored by petty wars; he was master of the largest empire in the world – larger, than the Arabs, larger than the Holy Roman Empire, as large as all the civilized states of Europe. Abubakari was bored by the thought of pilgrimage to Mecca; he was bored by pious duties and by pious men who repeated themselves endlessly. Abubakari surrounded hisself with people of like mind, Scientists, Astronomers, Navigators, and Scholars of Timbuktu, who entertained theories of a sphere-shaped world and dreamed of lands beyond the waters, as men in the 21st century now dream of life on worlds beyond the stars.
Abubakari would spare no expense to build a fleet. Abubakari sent the announcement to Let it be known throughout Mali and beyond:
“To all those who fished and sailed in lakes and rivers and off the sea's great coasts, to all those who know about boats and water currents and wind currents and direction-finding by the map of the stars. To all those who know about Marine Engineering and Nautical Sciences. Let the Somono people come forward, to whom Sundiata had given ‘the monopoly of the water’. Let the Bozo people come forward, who are known as great boatmen of the Niger river. Call unto the boatmen of the Gambia and Senegal rivers. Call unto the people of Lake Chad, where it was said that men still built boats on the principles of the ancient Egyptians. Let it be known that they were all needed at the royal court of the Mali Empire”.
Great debate arose as to what kind of ships should be built. Some of Abubakari’s advisers said the ships should most certainly carry a sail. Other advisers said that the ships should not depend on a sail, saying that they could be stalled for days on the sea if there was no wind. Some advised that the ships should be like the ships the Bantu and Arabs of East Africa were using on the Indian Ocean, which could change from sail to oar, and from oar to sail, so that it would have the double advantage of wind power and muscle power. Some advisers said it was pointless to call on the experience of the river people because the ocean to the west was no river, and it did not behave like an inland lake or stream. Some advisers said that something truly massive would have to be built in order to meet the monstrous moods of the ocean, and river craft would simply be dashed to pieces. Other advisers said big ships sank more easily on stormy water than small ones, because they set up too much resistance to the wind and waves.
Abubakari listened to all the hypothesis, theories, and opinions, but took no chances, he decided that there would be no single design, no one kind of boat. Abubakari gave his blessings to all designs that seemed practical, he was not going to gamble on one man's theory and ignore the rest. Abubakari saw the configuration of his fleet like the political configuration of Mali, he stood at the helm as the central and unifying authority of the most diverse crew of elements on the Sudanic deck of the world. His fleet would be a mirror of his ship of state.
The great boat building operation began along the Senegambia seacoast of Mali. Troops were withdrawn from wars and from other minor campaigns, to focus their energies on the ambitious shipbuilding campaign. Blacksmiths, carpenters, boat captains, magicians, diviners, scholars from Timbuktu, gold merchants, potters, porters, weavers, and jewelers, were all assembled to contribute to the shipbuilding effort. Caravan guides, who used the compass and navigational instruments to plot their paths across “the sandy sea” of the Sahara, were called upon to serve as navigators across the ocean waters of the Atlantic. While the building of the boats progressed, a number of megalith structures were erected, stone observatories, such as ancient seafaring nations used for astronomical calculations, the ruins of which survive today as indications of the science of that time and the activities of that place.
Abubakari specified that each boat built for the ocean voyage should be accompanied by a supply boat, which stored gold and other items for trade, along with enough food to last its company for at least two years. Two hundred master boats and two hundred supply boats were built. As the task neared completion, Abubakari encamped on the seacoast to watch the final stages of the operation, It was the scene an Egyptian pharaoh must have witnessed during the erection of a pyramid, Abubakari felt pride at the thought that he was the only king in the world at that time who was wealthy enough and at peace enough, to divert such a vast labor force from military and agrarian duties to a scientific exploration.
The fleet of 200 ships departed in the year 1310 AD. When the ships departed, their absence was long, and Abubakari could not find peace, he was obsessed to learn of the outcome of the expedition that he had hurled across the spaces of the ocean, he could think of nothing else. Early one morning the following year, a captain of one of the ships had returned, and was waiting outside the gates of the palace to talk to Mansa Abubakari II. The captain of the boat said that they sailed for a long while, until they came to what seemed to be a strong current flowing in the open ocean. The other ships sailed on, but as they came to that strong current they were swiftly pulled out over the horizon of the ocean until they disappeared. The captain said that he did not know what became of the ships because the waters were strong and swift and he was afraid and turned back and did not enter the current.
This news made Abubakari more fixed in his obsession; some said he even bordered on madness. Abubakari went with his royal court to the plain at the western edge of Mali where the first fleet had been built and had disembarked. Like the pyramid builders of dynastic Egypt, Abubakari began to recognize his whole empire around a single massive project. He assembled a vast army of craftsmen, and scaled up the ship building operation, this time to send a massive armada of 2000 ships to explore across the ocean. Paired men and women were being chosen for the new expedition, and fears were expressed by Abubakari’s subjects that in his madness he would sacrifice hundreds of people to the voyage across the ocean.
But, Abubakari was unwavering, he never looked back. Abubakari stayed amongst the ship builders and never returned to the royal court at Niani. This time, Abubakari wanted to lead the expedition hisself; he had a special boat built, with a throne on the stern deck, shaded by the bird-emblazoned parasol, and he would commandeer the fleet by means of the talking drum. In the year 1311 AD, Mansa Abubakari Keita II abdicated the throne, and conferred the power of the regency to his brother Kankan Mansa Musa, on the understanding that he was to assume the throne if, after a reasonable lapse of time, Abubakari did not return. Mansa Musa told Mansa Abubakari Keita II that if he did succeed to the throne, he would choose his way to make his mark upon the world: to lead a massive train of caravans traveling East across the desert on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Then one day, in the year 1311 AD, dressed in a flowing white robe and a jeweled turban, Abubakari Keita II took leave of Mali. He gave up the throne in the name of science and discovery, and set out with his fleet to travel west across the Atlantic Ocean, never to return to Mali. In the year 1312 AD, Abubakari’s fleet of ships landed and settled on the coast of present day Brazil in a place known as Recife. The other name they gave this site is Purnanbuco, which comes from Boure Bambouk, the Mande name for the rich gold fields that accounted for much of the wealth of the Mali Empire. Other cities in South America near the area they settled which they gave Mande names were Mandinga Port, Mandinga Bay and Sierre de Mali. This was a West African colony in the Americas established by the 2200 ships which disembarked from the Mali Empire under the rule and helm of Mansa Abubakari Keita II.
The European explorer, Christopher Columbus, even made mention of the African presence in the Americas in his logs. Columbus stated that the purpose of his third voyage was to test the claims of King John the second of Portugal, that "canoes had been found which set out from the coast of West Africa and sailed to the Americas". Columbus also stated he heard claims of the native inhabitants of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, that black people had come from the southeast who were trading with spears that were made of a gold metal alloy developed in west Africa. Columbus's son, Ferdinand, said his father told him that he had seen black people north of what is now Honduras. The scholarly art historian, Count Alexander Von Wuthenau, also discusses fourteenth century carvings and sculptures that were found in the Americas which show women and men wearing turbans, clearly African with tribal marks cut on their cheeks, indicating that the people came from Mali.
Africans arrived in the Americas long before Columbus. Three currents can carry Africans to the Americas: one current off the Cape Verde islands, one current off the Senegambia coast, and one current off the southern coast of Africa. Africans were the first to navigate the ocean waters, and the science of Celestial Navigation and Astronavigation is the means by which the four corners of the world were explored; Africans navigated the 7 seas, by way of the 7 heavens.