Abubakari II (1300s), also known as Abu Bakr II or Mansa Bakari II, was a ruler of the Mali Empire, brother of Mansa Musa. In 1311, he set out west across the Atlantic Ocean, 181 years before Columbus.
The Mali Empire in West Africa was extremely rich, as his brother’s journey to Mecca in 1324 made clear to Arab writers. It also made clear that Malians could supply a huge expedition to cross vast distances. They had compasses and nautical instruments.
Abubakari, unlike his brother, had little interest in Mecca. He was barely Muslim. Instead he wanted to cross the ocean. Just as the US spent part of its huge wealth to build Apollo rockets to go to the Moon, so he built ships to cross the ocean.
The leading minds of Timbuktu were divided over whether it was possible. Some said the Earth was round like a ball, so there had to be another side to the ocean. In fact, if you went far enough west, over land and sea, you would wind up where you started from. Others thought the idea laughable.
Abubakari’s first expedition was made up of hundreds of ships with enough supplies for two years. It set out from the coast near the Senegal River. He did not go on this expedition, but instructed it not to return till it reached the end of the ocean or was in danger of running out of supplies.
During the long wait for its return, he had a dream: He saw a flock of blackbirds flying across the sky. One of the birds fell to earth and cracked open, spilling out seawater. The other birds turned into a cloud in the distance and disappeared.
Not much later one of the seamen returned. He said there was a river in the ocean. The other ships were carried away by it and disappeared in the distance. He was too afraid to follow and turned back. He was the only one ever to return from the expedition.
Abubakari’s second expedition was much bigger. This time he would lead it himself. He left the empire in the care of his brother, Mansa Musa.
He never returned.
That is the story told by Arab writers and the Malian griots who keep the royal history.
So did he make it? Did any African cross the Atlantic Ocean before Columbus?
When Columbus arrived in the Americas he found that:
“The Indians of this Española [Hispaniola] said there had come to Española a black people who have the tops of their spears made of a metal they call gua-nin ...”
Chemical analyses of those spear points show that they probably came from West Africa.
In 1975, the Associated Press reported a grave found in Hull Bay in the Virgin Islands that the Smithsonian dated to 1250. It contained a nail, a vessel of Indian design from before the time of Columbus and two men with Negroid skeletons. They had “dental mutilation characteristic of early African cultures” – unlike the Blacks slaves that came later.
Thanks to all the comments about this on other threads and those who emailed me about it.
– Abagond, 2015.
Sources: “They Came Before Columbus” (1976) by Ivan Van Sertima; BBC (2000); “Lies My Teacher Told Me” (2007) by James Loewen; “Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century” (1997) edited by Joseph Ki-Zerbo and Djibril Tamsir Niane; “Africans and their History” (1998) by Joseph E. Harris, Ph.D.