Leo Africanus’ uncertain world

A much-needed new translation of one of the great works of the Renaissance, the first book by an African author to appear in print, shines a light on the complex allure of historical decline.

Map of Northern Africa 1602
Map of Northern Africa 1602. Credit: A Ortelius / Alamy

The Cosmography and Geography of Africa by Johannes Leo Africanus (Al-Hasan Ibn Muhammad Al-Wazzan), translated by Anthony Ossa-Richardson and Richard Oosterhoff,  Penguin Classics, 2023.

In a world of complex identities — and ever-closer interactions between Christians, Muslims, and Jews — Leo Africanus is an increasingly attractive figure. Born al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan, in Muslim Granada, just a few years before the culmination of the Reconquista in 1492, he was raised in Fez. As ambassador of the city’s sultan, who belonged to the ruling Wattasid dynasty, he travelled all over North Africa, and visited Timbuktu, Cairo, and Istanbul. In 1518, he was captured by Spanish pirates and presented to Leo X, the first Medici Pope, who was then trying to organise a crusade against the Ottoman Empire. Fifteen months later, he was baptised at St Peter’s and christened Johannes Leo, after his papal guardian.

A scholar trained in the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, following his conversion, Leo corrected a Latin translation of the Qur’an, copied an Arabic version of the Epistles of St Paul, and wrote a biographical dictionary of illustrious Muslims and Jews. He also produced an Arabic grammar, now lost, and worked with the Jewish scholar Jacob Mantino on an Arabic-Hebrew-Latin dictionary that was left unfinished. Most importantly, in 1526, he completed The Cosmography and Geography of Africa.

Written in a simplified Italian, it was, like its author, something of a hybrid, blending geography, history, and travelogue, drawing on both Arabic and European literary models. In 1550, it was published by the Venetian geographer Giovanni Battista Ramusio, making it the first book by a modern African author — and the first about Africa — to appear in print. Six years later it appeared in French and Latin translations, and by 1600 there was an English version, made by John Pory, a disciple of the geographer Richard Hakluyt, and later an MP and member of the first Virginia General Assembly.

The book — and its author — have captivated European readers ever since. As the historian Noel Malcolm has shown, the political philosopher Jean Bodin made use of Leo’s work in writing positively about Islam and the Ottoman Empire. Shakespeare may have used Pory’s translation when constructing the character of Othello. In Moby Dick, Herman Melville quotes ‘John Leo’s’ description of a mosque on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, which has whale bones for its beams and a miraculously large whale rib for its archway. W.B. Yeats was convinced the spirit of Leo had appeared to him at a séance in Wimbledon and that the African scholar was his ‘opposite’. Louis Massignon, the French intellectual who invented the concept of Abrahamic religions, wrote his thesis on Leo’s description of sixteenth-century Morocco. The Franco-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf took Leo as the subject of his first, celebrated work of historical fiction, Lèon l’Africain, published in 1986. And there is a superb 2008 biography by Natalie Zemon Davis, Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds: In search of Leo Africanus, which interprets Leo’s double identity through the prism of the Islamic principle of dissimulation (taqiyya), the trickster tales of the Arabic maqamat genre, and Boccaccio’s Decameron.

The historical significance and intrinsic interest of Leo Africanus’ work make it a worthy addition to the Penguin Classics series, and there has long been a need for a new English translation.  Pory’s version — the basis for the three-volume edition issued by the Hakluyt Society in the 1890s — was itself a translation of Joannes Florianus’ error-strewn 1556 Latin rendering. This new version, by contrast, is based not on the heavily amended edition of Ramusio, but on the sole surviving manuscript of the Cosmography, discovered in 1931 and now held at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Rome. Its translators, Anthony Ossa-Richardson and Richard J. Oosterhoff, have aimed to produce ‘a clear and readable translation for a general audience’.  In this, they have succeeded, and there is much here to entertain, amuse, and inform. That said, The Cosmography is not an easy or straightforward work — notwithstanding the translators’ helpful introduction and endnotes. General readers will benefit from consulting Davis’ biography before jumping straight into the text.

In their introduction, the translators observe that Leo cannot be cleared ‘on historical grounds’ of charges of racism and misogyny. While it is true that his section on ‘the faults and nefarious behaviour of the Africans’ makes for uncomfortable reading (though it is ‘balanced’ by one on their ‘virtues and praiseworthy qualities’), there are more interesting and illuminating ways of reading the text than to judge it by modern values.

One which the translators suggest is to recognise the nostalgia and melancholy that pervade The Cosmography. Like Ibn Khaldun, the great North African historian who was one of his most important models, Leo has a strong sense of living through a period of decline: ‘Marrakesh is one of the grandest and greatest cities in the world,’ begins his description of that city. Yet a few pages later we read that by now its madrasa has barely five students, the remains of the citadel are occupied by pigeons, crows, and owls, ‘the garden is now a place to throw rubbish,’ and birds make their nests in the book cupboards of the old library. ‘So it goes in the world,’ Leo concludes, ‘in which nothing is secure.’ Except, it would seem, the complex allure of Leo Africanus.


Fitzroy Morrissey