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“The Torrid Zone”: Highlights from African History and Culture, 1540-1921

Posted on 11/30/2015

The November release of African History and Culture, 1540-1921: Imprints from the Library Company of Philadelphia includes a 17th-century magnum opus and a turn of the 18th-century scholar’s compilation of hundreds of works, both of which attempt to describe their entire known worlds. Also in this release is a history of trade with Africa which contains the texts of several ancient treaties.

Cosmography, in Four Books: Containing the Chorography and History of the Whole World, and All the Principal Kingdoms, Provinces, Seas, and Isles Thereof (1670)

By Peter Heylyn

In this ambitious 17th-century work English scholar Peter Heylyn attempts to give a detailed account of nearly every aspect of the world. Writing about Africa, he describes the origins of the continent’s name:

By the Grecians it is called most commonly Lybia…part of it taken for the whole; by the Ethiopians, Alkebulam; by the Indians, Besecath. But the most noted name thereof is Africa, which Josephus out of Cleodenus and Polyhistor, deriveth from Epher, or Apher, one of the Nephews of Abraham, by Midian the Son of Keturah. The Arabians, by whom it is called Ifrichea, derive it from the Verb Faruch, signifying to divide; because more visibly divided both from their own Country, and the rest of the World, than any other part thereof which was known unto them.


He also includes accounts better cataloged as exotica:

Africa “is situate[d] for the most part under the Torrid Zone, the Equator crossing it almost in the very midst: and for that cause supposed by many of the Ancients not to be inhabited at all, or but very thinly, in the middle and more Southern parts of it; or if at all, with such strange people, as hardly did deserve to be counted men. Pomponius among others was of this opinion, guessing the inward parts thereof to be taken up by such strange Brutes, as the Cynophanes, who had heads like Dogs; 2. The Sciapode, who with the shadow of their foot, could, and did use to hide themselves from the heat of the Sun; 3. the Gamosaphantes, a naked people, ignorant of the use of weapons, and therefore fearfully avoiding the fight of men; 4. The Blemmy, who being without heads, had their eyes and mouths in their Breasts; 5. The Egypani, who had no other human quality to declare them to be men, but the shape and making of their bodies.

Heylyn goes on to tell of other parts of the world yet unknown to most Europeans, offering what appears to be one of the first descriptions in print of Australia, or Terra Australis Incognita, as well as Terra del Fuego and points beyond.


A Complete Collection of Voyages and Travels (1705)

By John Harris

In 1705 John Harris published this collection of over “four hundred of the most authentic writers…that have published histories, voyages, travels, or discoveries…relating to any part of Asia, Africa, America, Europe, or the Islands thereof, to this present time.” Included among the magnificent illustrations and adventures compiled by Harris is this account of the construction of the Egyptian pyramids:

These three Pyramids were not erected by the Israelites, under the Tyranny of the Pharaoh’s, as Josephus and some modern Writers affirm; for the Scripture says expressly, that the Slavery of the Jews consisted in making and burning of Brick, whereas all these Pyramids consist of Stone. The first and greatest of these pyramids was built, says Herodotus, by Cheops…who succeeded Rhampsintus in the Kingdom of Egypt. He adds, that the Stones were dug out of Quarries of an Arabian Mountain, and from thence carried to the Nile: That there were employed in the Work ten Myriads of Men, every three Months a Myriad: that the whole Pyramid was finished in 20 Years, whereof ten were spent in conveying the Stones to the place of Building.





Reflections on the Politics, Intercourse, and Trade of the Ancient Nations of Africa (1832)

By Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeren

Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeren studied philosophy, theology, and history at the University of Gottingen. His pioneering approach to studying the ancient world was to focus on economics and financial systems rather than political events. Even while discussing an Egyptian oasis, Heeren turns to its economic aspects:

On the south of the temple, at the distance of a full quarter of an hour’s walk, arises, in a delightful grove of dates, the fountain of the sun, formally sacred to Ammon. It forms a small pool about thirty paces in length and twenty wide. It is said to be six fathom deep; but it is so clear that the bottom is seen, from which bubbles continually arise like those of a boiling caldron.

And he adds:

The early and high cultivation of the oasis is still shown by its rich produce of dates, pomegranates, and other fruits. The date is the most cultivated, and is obtained in vast quantities and of very fine flavor. In favorable seasons, say the inhabitants, the whole place is covered with this fruit; and the yearly produce amounts to from five to nine thousand camel loads of three hundred pounds each. The annual tribute is now also paid in dates.

For more information about African History and Culture, 1540-1921, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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