Johannes Leo Africanus and the Recorded Legacy of Timbuktu

Title page of A Geographical Historie of Africa by
Johannes Leo Africanus (1600)

Johannes Leo Africanus (c. 1494 - 1554) was a Moorish diplomat, traveler, historian, and writer best known for his book Description of Africa (Descrittione dell’Africa) which described North African geography, including the famed city of Timbuktu (Timbuctoo) in Mali, West Africa.

In about 1494, Leo Africanus was born in Granada, a city at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Spain. This was a major city on the Spanish (Iberian) peninsula. It had been conquered by the Moors of Africa for nearly 800 years. After Leo Africanus' birth, his family moved from Spain to Fez, Morocco in North Africa. In Morocco, he studied at the University of Al Karaouines and started the intellectual journey that would lead him on diplomatic missions across Africa and Europe. This included the Maghreb (Also Maghrib, Berber: Tamazgha, Arabic: بلدان المغرب ,) and the Timbuktu region (c. 1510), then part of the Songhai (Songhay) Empire.

Fifteen kilometers north of the Niger River, Timbuktu is a historic city whose very name conjures a sense of mystery. Known as the City of Wisdom, the legacy of the muslim king Mansa Musa and the recorded history of the Songhai and Mali Empires are part of Timbuktu's rich historical heritage.

The Kingdom of Mali

By the 11th Century, Mali's rulers had been converted to Islam in the West African region of Timbuktu, a city in the Tombouctou Region of Mali. Three centuries later, commentators note from Arab travelers that the religion of Islam practiced in this region of Africa is somewhat Africanized from that practiced by their Arabian brethren. Mansa Musa was known in his time as the richest king in Africa because of the wealth he acquired in his Empire's wide network of commercial trade.

Untitled woodcut map of Africa from Leo Africanus,
Historiale description de l'Afrique, tierce partie dv monde

Illustration f Mansa Musa depicted holding
a gold nugget (cir. 1375 Catalan Atlas)

The earliest full account of Timbuktu came from Africanus in the 16th Century. He described the city's splendent court life, its scholars, noted as "bountifully maintained at the king's cost." Timbuktu had a reputation for its learned universities, pomp royal palace ceremonies, architectural glories, and busy markets that included international traders.

Once a central center of Islamic teaching in Africa, Timbuktu’s architectural glories, including many mosques, have been reclaimed in part by the desert. By 1828, French adventurer René Caillié's pilgrimage to Timbuktu found the city ravished by the raids of neighboring tribes. Populated by the Fulani, Mande, Songhai, and Tuareg, the people and the historical romance of scholarship and trade within Timbuktu remains.

Video of lost libraries of Timbuktu - City of Scholars (BBC)

George Washington Carver: Scientist and Inventor

Picture of George Washington Carver (1864-1943)
taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1906
“I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.” ~ George Washington Carver
The peanut butter packaged and sold by such American brands as Skippy was invented by George Washington Carver. In U.S. society, George Washington Carver is the first person of record to make oil out of the peanut. This is the same peanut oil that can be found on many grocery store shelves today. While many people know about these innovations, they do not know that Carver created from the peanut, pecan, and sweet potato hundreds of inventions.

Dr. Carver works included the development of agricultural derived adhesives, gasoline fuel, shaving cream, shampoos, hand lotions, insecticide, glue, bleach, sugar, synthetic rubber, and other innovations from natural agricultural resources. He devoted his life to understanding nature and the alternative uses of a simple plant. He is reported to have extracted medicines from weeds and through the separation of fats, oils, gums, resins and sugars, he found over 300 new uses for the peanut alone.

Photo of the George Washington Carver National Monument, a unit of the National Park Service located about two miles west of Diamond, Missouri. Depicting Dr. Carver as a young boy, this statute was founded on July 14, 1943 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt who dedicated $30,000 to the monument. It was the first national monument dedicated to an African-American and first to a non-President.
In 1864 (exact birth date unknown), George Washington Carver was born into the institution of slavery near Diamond Grove, Missouri. He was kidnapped from his mother by slavers as a baby. As a slave, his early weak condition in body made him of no use in the field. Carver worked in a domestic capacity and gardening became a part of his work. On the plantation he was known as the 'Plant Doctor." Despite the challenge of his birth, Carver applied and was admitted to Highland College in Highland, Kansas from his application submission that did not mention or request his race. When he arrived at Highland College its president, learning then of his skin color, withdrew the college's acceptance.

George Washington Carver in his laboratory.

At that point in his life, instead of college, Carver went into business. He opened a laundry and subsequently worked as a cook in Winterset, Iowa. Saving his money, Carver was the first person of African descent to be admitted to Simpson College in Iowa. He eventually transferred to Iowa Agricultural College (Iowa State College). There he earned a Bachelors and Masters of Science degrees in agricultural and bacterial botany. Carver became the first black teacher at Iowa State College.

George Washington Carver (center, front row) poses with fellow
Tuskegee Institute staff members in 1902 (now known as Tuskegee University)

Upon the invite of Booker T. Washington, Dr. Carver relocated to Alabama's Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (Tuskegee Institute, now known as Tuskegee University). At Tuskegee, Carver spearheaded the university's Agricultural Department, a dynamic agricultural research department that he served for more than 50 years. There was much farming innovation developed out of Tuskegee during the course of Carver's leadership. This included translating scientific theory into great practical assistance to local farmers, including former slaves, who sought self-sufficiency through farming. Carver assisted many southern farmers, black and white, in producing additional products from their staple crops in an effort to increase family farm income.

Illustration of George Washington Carver by Charles Alston (1943)

Carver's work was a course in sustainable development. His legacy is the original green. This included providing American farmers training in soil fertilization and crop rotation innovations. He introduced southern farmers to new soil enriching plants such as the peanut, pecan, and the sweet potatoe. This diversified the agricultural tradition of farmers in the U.S. southern states whose agricultural economy was based predominantly on cotton production. Carver's work in agricultural recycling is significant in that he introduced southern farmers to practical innovative uses for farm waste. Tuskegee Institute research during this time included scientific works in chemistry, nutrition, plant pathology, and genetics.

Painting of George Washington Carver,
by Betsy Graves Reyneau, oil on canvas (1942)
“Reading about nature is fine, but if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books, for they speak with the voice of God.” ~ George Washington Carver
“All mankind are the beneficiaries of his discoveries in the field of agricultural chemistry," stated the late U.S. President Franklin T. Roosevelt. "The things which he achieved in the face of early handicaps will for all time afford an inspiring example to youth everywhere."

George Washington Carver stamp issued on January 5, 1948 by the United States Postal Service

George Washington Carver received three formal U.S. patents from his peanut inventions. His works, however, includes 118 applications for inventions derived from sweet potatoes, cowpeas, soybeans, and pecans. His sweet potato inventions included 73 dyes, 17 wood fillers, 14 candies, 5 library pastes, 5 breakfast foods, 4 starches, 4 flours, 3 molasses’s, vinegar and spiced vinegar, dry coffee and instant coffee, candy, after-dinner mints, orange drops, and lemon drops.

The National Peanut Board reports Dr. Carver's works to include food products that ranged from "peanut lemon punch, chili sauce, caramel, peanut sausage, mayonnaise and coffee. Cosmetics included face powder, shampoo, shaving cream and hand lotion. Insecticides, glue, charcoal, rubber, nitroglycerine, plastics and axle grease are just a few of the many valuable peanut products discovered by Dr. Carver.”

An African American worker at the Richmond Shipyards, Richmond, California, USA (April 1943) rushing the SS George Washington Carver ship to completion. Black skilled workers played an important part in the construction of the SS George Washington Carver, the second Liberty Ship named for a person of African descent, in the Richmond Shipyard No. 1 of the Kaiser Company (California).
Statute of George Washington Carver

Black Cowboys in America

Black cowboy with horse (cir. 1890),
Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library

The black cowboy redefined the perception of what it means to be an American-born cowboy. For the black cowboy, being a cowboy became more of a way of independent family farm living that centered around family, outdoors cooking (lots of smoke outs and bar-b-ques on these farms), and maintaining a stable of horses alongside other farm raised animals.

Actor Steven Williams with Madison "Nat Love" Walker
at a Single Action Shooting Society meeting

Some years back in Chicago, I was privileged to watch a traveling black rodeo show and was invited to a cookout afterwards. Below are some of the pictures I took.

Black cowboys performance at a rodeo on
the southside of Chicago
(cir. 1990 © Photo by Vanessa Cross)

One activity especially revered by black cowboys is highly skilled horse sportsmanship that is the historical trademark of cowboy culture.

Black cowboys perform a horse show at
Chicago rodeo presentation
(cir. 1990 © Photo by Vanessa Cross)

Black cowboy at a cookout at his homestead in
southern Cook County, Illinois
(cir. 1990 © Photo by Vanessa Cross)

Cowboy and his wife in Illinois
(Cir. 1990 © Photo by Vanessa Cross)

There are a number of books in print with the historical accounts of the legacy of the black cowboy and his family. The Black American West Museum is also a great resource for viewing original documents and things related to the history of blacks in the western United States. The museum is located in Denver, Colorado. Established in 1971 by Paul W. Stewart, it is a storehouse of photos, letters, prints, and other historical records and items left behind by blacks from the early American west. This includes records of cowboys, ranchers, homesteaders, miners, and much more.

~ Vanessa


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