Historicale description de l’Afrique.

Antwerp, Jean Bellere, 1556.


8vo., ff. (xvi) 412 (xxiv). Italic letter, 15 approximately half-page woodcuts in text, including north African fighting tribesman, one mounted camel, another of a horse, the costumes of their women, marriage ceremonies and a eunuch of the Queen’s guard, woodcut initials and ornaments, Plantin’s ‘vitis vera Christus’ device to verso of last. A very good, clean copy in straight grained crimson morocco c. 1800, spine, compartments and borders gilt, blue silk endpapers and marker, unsigned, but in the style of Bozerian, all edges gilt. Bound for William Beckord, his sale lot 2935.

A particularly fine example of the second French edition of this seminal classic of African topography and ethnography. Leo Africanus, or more properly al-Hassam bid Mahammad al-Wazzan al Zaygati (or al-Fasi), was an early C16 traveller who recorded in great detail the life of many remote North African kingdoms. He was born in Granada but in the 1490s his family moved to Fez in Morocco where Leo ultimately entered the service of the Sultan who sent him on commercial and diplomatic missions across Northern and Western Africa.

In 1518 he was captured as he was returning by sea from Istanbul, and was taken to Rome, probably by the Knights of Malta. There, under the patronage of Pope Leo IX, he composed the present description of Africa, first published in Italian in 1550. It was a best-seller which put Leo at the centre of Roman intellectual life and which remained one of Europe’s principal sources of knowledge of the Arab-African world for the next 400 years. Napoleon is said to have relied on a French translation.

Leo wrote extensively about the Kingdom of Mali, the cities and Kingdoms of Gao and Timbuktoo, and the Kingdom of Borno. He described the valley of the Niger and the Egyptian Nile. His extensive account of Sudan is particularly important because the region had just been raised to its political and economic zenith by the conquests of Askia Mohammed (1483-1526). “His accounts clearly show that regional and international trade played a dominant part in the economic life of the entire Maghrib. The rich city of Timbuktu, the large armies of the kings, the wide varieties of goods sold by merchants, or the intellectual and cultural life of the Muslim inhabitants of the Songhai Empire were all described in fascinating detail. Cartographers in Europe redrew the maps of Africa in light of Leo’s documentary.” Hakluyt Society Edition D. Robert Brown, translator John Pory.

William Thomas Beckford (1760-1844), extraordinarily wealthy novelist, critic, travel writer, and bibliophile is now remembered as the author of Vathek and builder of Fonthill. He acquired intact the library of Edward Gibbon, which formed the basis for his own extensive collection. It was dispersed over two years in 1882-84.

Not in BM. STC C16 Fr., Brunet iii 981 “Édition peu commune.” Not in JFB. Gay 258.


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