Leo’s Silences

Robert Irwin

  • Trickster Travels: A 16th-Century Muslim between Worlds by Natalie Zemon Davis
    Faber, 448 pp, £20.00, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 571 20256 0

At a seance in Hampstead in June 1914, W.B. Yeats was contacted by a spirit guide, who announced that he was Leo Africanus and professed to be affronted that the poet hadn’t heard of him. Over the next seven years, a curious relationship developed between Yeats and the daimon, who presented himself as Yeats’s opposite. Yeats, who saw himself as cautious and sedentary, discovered that Leo was bold and adventurous. A letter from ‘Leo’ to Yeats begins: ‘In my life I travelled over much of the known earth. I . . . was often in danger, & all but always in solitude, & became hard and keen like a hunting animal.’ Here Leo’s daimon is adapting and echoing the words of John Pory, who in 1600 published an English translation of the historical Leo’s La Descrittione dell’ Africa: ‘How many desolate cold mountains and huge drie, and barren deserts passed he? How often was he in hazard to have been captived, or to have had his throte cut by the prowling Arabians, and wild Mores? And how hardly manie times escaped he the Lyons greedie mouth and the devouring iawes of the Crocodile?’

Yeats can’t not have heard of Leo, one of the most famous geographers of the Renaissance. The much esteemed 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica had an entry about him in which he was described as, among other things, a poet, and Pory’s translation had been reissued by the Hakluyt Society in 1896. Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan, as Leo was first named, was born in Muslim Granada a few years before the city fell to the armies of Aragon and Castile in 1492. He grew up in Fez and, after some years working as a notary to a hospital, was sent by the Watassid sultan of Fez on various diplomatic missions to African rulers. In 1518, on his way back from Cairo, his ship was intercepted by Christian pirates and he was brought as a captive to Rome. There, he converted to Christianity at the hands of Pope Leo X and was baptised as Joannes Leo. In Rome he taught Arabic to the great Hebraist Cardinal Aegidius of Viterbo, and worked with the Jewish physician and translator Jacob Mantino on an unfinished Latin-Arabic-Hebrew vocabulary. Leo seems to have written several books, though most have not survived. His most important work was certainly The Description of Africa, completed in 1526.

Leo’s geography deals chiefly with Islamised North Africa and he provides a particularly detailed account of the buildings, population and religious and cultural practices of Fez. The subsequent printing of this work in 1550, in Giovanni Batista Ramusio’s compendium of travel writings, Navigazioni e Viaggi, was a turning point in European knowledge of Africa. Western writers, drawing on the work of Pliny the Elder, Strabo and other classical sources, had tended to present Africa as a wasteland, sparsely populated by savages and wild beasts. Leo’s account of North Africa filled what had mostly been a terra incognita with cities (in the 16th century, Fez had a larger population than Rome), universities (or madrasas) and villages. Now the wasteland of savages and wild beasts was shifted further south to sub-Saharan Africa. Leo’s information about places south of Timbuktu was slight and unreliable.

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