A Geographical Historie of Africa (1600) was the authoritative work on the geography of Africa at the time and was significant in shaping the idea of Africa for early modern Europeans. It is also thought to have influenced Shakespeare in his depiction of Othello’s virtues and vices.
The book was first written in 1550 by a Moorish traveller and linguistic scholar known as John Leo Africanus (c. 1485–c. 1554), in Arabic named al-Ḥasan ibn Muḥammad al-Wazzān al-Zayyātī. 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. Leo was born in Granada where the Moors had ruled until 1492. He was then educated in Fez, and travelled widely in Italy and North and West Africa. In the Mediterranean he was taken captive by Christian pirates and, having shown his exceptional learning, he was given as a slave to Pope Leo X. The Pope later freed him and persuaded him to be baptised as a Christian, though he seems to have died a Muslim in Tunis.
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’.
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’ (1.3.136). Like Leo, Othello tells of being ‘sold to slavery’ (1.3.137–38) and we later learn that Othello was also a former Muslim, now baptised as a Christian (2.3.343).
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’ (1.3.399–400). He tells Roderigo he suspects ‘the lusty Moor’ of sleeping with Emilia (2.1.295), and plans to ‘put him into jealousy so strong’ that his anger will cloud his judgement (2.1.301).
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’.