LEO AFRICANUS [AL-HASSAM BID MAHAMMAD AL-WAZZAN AL ZAYGATI] A geographical historie of Africa, written in Arabicke and Italian by Iohn Leo a More, … Translated and collected by Iohn Pory

London, [Printed by Eliot’s Court Press] impensis Georg. Bishop, 1600


FIRST EDITION thus. Folio, pp. [viii], 60; 420. [pi] , a-e , A-O , Q-2N . Double page engraved map. Roman letter some Italic. Woodcut printer’s device on title, historiated and floriated woodcut initials, typographical ornaments, “Liber Thomas Smith. pre. 5S-6D– Anno Salutis 1623” at head of second leaf. Title page and verso of last a little dusty, minor marginal soiling at edges of first few leaves, quires A and M a little shorter, rare marginal stain or spot. A very good copy, the map in good dark impression, in handsome contemporary calf, covers bordered with a triple blind rule, spine with blind hatched raised bands, blind ruled in compartments, well rebacked and laid down, holes for ties, a.e.r.

The important first edition in English, translated by John Pory, of this seminal classic of African topography and ethnography. Leo Africanus 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 returning by sea from Istanbul and was captured, perhaps by Knights of Malta, who took him to Rome. There, under the patronage of Pope Leo IX he composed the present description of Africa, first published in Italian in 1550. It was a bestseller, put Leo at the centre of Roman intellectual life and remained one of Europe’s principal sources of knowledge of the Arab-African world for the next 400 years.“It was translated into English in 1600 by John Pory. Pory’s letter ‘To the Reader’ tells the fascinating story of Leo’s life – a tale of complex interaction between Europe and Africa, Islam and Christianity … This book was important in that it was written by a Moorish man and well regarded by scholars. However Pory is aware that some readers at this time might distrust the writings of a ‘More’ and a ‘Mahumetan’ (or Muslim), and he reassures them of Leo’s sophistication: his ‘Parentage, Witte, Education, Learning, Emploiments, Travels, and his conversion to Christianitie’.” (BL).

It is very probable that Shakespeare was influenced by this work in his portrayal of Othello. “Pory’s account of Leo’s marvellous escape from ‘so manie thousands of imminent dangers’ might remind us of Othello’s tale of ‘hair-breadth escapes i’ th’ immanent deadly breach’. Like Leo, Othello tells of being ‘sold to slavery’ and we later learn that Othello was also a former Muslim, now baptised as a Christian. In his description of African people, Leo takes pains to give a balanced perspective, though it seems nonetheless stereotyped and prejudiced. Celebrating their ‘vertues’, he says Africans are ‘Most honest people … destitute of fraud and guile’. But ‘no nation in the world is so subject to jealousie’ (p. 40). In the unpleasant description of their ‘vices’, he says they are ‘very proud and high-minded, and woonderfully addicted unto wrath’. They are also ‘so credulous that they beleeve matters impossible which are told to them’ (p. 41) and promiscuous in wooing ‘divers maides’ before settling on a wife (pp.41–42). It is hard not see these qualities reflected in Shakespeare’s Othello, at least as Iago describes him. Exploiting the stereotypes that define the Moor in Venice, Iago talks of the ‘free and open nature’ that makes Othello think ‘men honest’ when they only ‘seem so’. He tells Roderigo he suspects ‘the lusty Moor’ of sleeping with Emilia, and plans to ‘put him into jealousy so strong’ that his anger will cloud his judgement. Pory’s English translation (1600) was printed in the same year as the Moroccan ambassador’s visit to London to negotiate a military alliance between English and African forces, with the hope of conquering Spain. In his letter to Sir Robert Cecil, Elizabeth I’s secretary, Pory exploits this opportunity to market the book as particularly current, saying ‘At this time especially I thought [it] would proove the more acceptable’. ” (BL).

A handsome copy of this rare and influential first English edition.

ESTC S108481. STC 15481. Luborsky & Ingram. Engl. illustrated books, 1536-1603, 15481. Sabin, 40047.
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