Chapter 10 of The Spirit of the Laws Volume 2

The Circuit of Africa

September 23, 2021

Before the discovery of the compass, four attempts were made to sail round the coast of Africa.

  1. Necho and Eudoxus of the Phoenicians fled the wrath of Ptolomy Lathyrus
  • They set out from the Red sea, and succeeded
  1. Sataspes was sent by Xerxes from Gibraltar and failed
  2. Hanno was sent by the Carthaginians also set from Gibraltar and failed

They aimed to discover and go around the cape of Good-hope. Those who set out from the Red sea, found this cape nearer by half, than it would have been in setting out from the Mediterranean.

The shore from the Red sea is not so shallow as that from the cape Gibraltar.

The discovery of the cape by Hercules’s pillars was due to the invention of the compass. It let them leave the coast of Africa and go into the vast ocean to sail towards the island of St. Helena or towards Brazil.

It was therefore possible for them to sail from the Red sea into the Mediterranean, but not from the Mediterranean to the Red sea.

Thus, without the hope of being able to go around, it was most natural to trade to the east of Africa by the Red sea, and to the western coast by Gibraltar.

The Greek kings of Egypt first discovered the Red sea. It starts at the bottom in the town of Heroum as far as Dira now called Babelmandel.

From thence to the promontory of Aromatia, situate at the entrance of the Red sea,> * the coast had never been surveyed by navigators= and this is evident from what Artemidorus tells us,> † that they were acquainted with the places on that coast, but knew not their distances= the reason of which is, they successively gained a knowledge of those ports by land, without sailing from one to the other.

Beyond this promontory, at which the coast along the ocean commenced, they knew nothing, as we learn> ‡ from Eratosthenes and Artemidorus.

Such was the knowledge they had of the coasts of Africa in Strabo’s time, that is, in the reign of Augustus.

But after the death of Augustus, the Romans found the two capes Raptum and Passum.

Ptolemy the geographer flourished under Adrian and Antoninus Pius. The author of the Periplus of the Red sea, whoever he was, lived a little after. Yet the former limits known Africa to cape Prassum, which is in about the 14th degree of south latitude; while the author of the Periplus confines it to cape Raptum, which is nearly in the 10th degree of the same latitude.

In all likelihood, the latter took his limit from a place then frequented, and Ptolemy his from a place with which there was no longer any communication.

What confirms me in this notion is, that the people about cape Prassum were anthropophagi. Ptolemy notices many places between the port or emporium Aromatum and cape Raptum, but leaves an entire blank between the capes Raptum and Prassum.

The great profits of the East-India trade must have occasioned a neglect of that of Africa. In fine, the Romans never had any settled navigation; they had discovered these several ports by land expeditions, and by means of ships driven on that coast; and, as at present, we are well acquainted with the maritime parts of Africa, but know very little of the inland country;> ∥ the ancients, on the contrary, had a very good knowledge of the inland parts, but were almost strangers to the coasts.

The Phœnicians sent by Necho and Eudoxus under Ptolemy Lathryus, had made the circuit of Africa= but at the time of Ptolemy the geographer, those two voyages must have been looked upon as fabulous, since he places,> ** after the Sinus Magnus, which I apprehend to be the gulph of Siam, an unknown country, extending from Asia to Africa, and terminating at cape Prassum, so that the Indian ocean would have been no more than a lake. The ancients, who discovered the Indies towards the north, advancing castward, placed this unknown country to the south.


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