Because of the skills developed in their trading voyages, Phoenicians were in demand as navigators and sailors under contract to other nations. Sometime between c. 425 and 480 BCE, the Phoenician colony of Carthage sent a leader named Hanno on a voyage around Africa on behalf of his own people, predating Portuguese exploration of that continent by 2,000 years. According to Pliny the Elder, Roman admiral and encyclopedist, Hanno was a contemporary of Himilco, the Phoenician explorer whose voyage around Iberia and north to the British Isles was intended to open up a western route for trading in tin.

The Phoenicians had established Carthage on the north coast of Africa, and wanted to extend their trade routes beyond the existing limits. Hanno was ordered to take 60 ships with 30,000 men and women to establish several colonies on the coast of Morocco. In addition to founding several cities on his route, he founded a colony on a small island off the Mauritanian coast. When his original mission was completed, he continued his journey south around the coast of Africa. Some sources believe he reached the coast of Gabon, returning home when supplies ran low. According to Pliny the Elder, Hanno circumnavigated the African continent and reached the borders of Arabia. His account of his journey and description of gorillas, reveal that he did indeed travel below the equator. The only remaining record of Hanno’s voyage lies in the 18 lines of the inscription he dedicated to the Carthaginian god, Chronos. In the fifth century, it was translated into Greek.

A modern translation:

  1. The Carthaginians ordered Hanno to sail out of the Pillars of Herakles and found a number of Libyphoenician cities. He set sail with sixty fifty-oared ships, about thirty thousand men and women, food and other equipment.

  2. After sailing beyond the Pillars for two days, we founded our first city, called Thymiaterion. Below it was a large plain.

  3. Sailing westward from there, we arrived at Soloeis, a Libyan promontory, covered with trees.

  4. Here we dedicated a temple to Poseidon. Sailing to the east for half a day, we reached a lake. It was not far from the sea, and was covered with many long reeds, from which elephants and other wild animals were eating.

  5. After our visit to the lake, we sailed on for one day. By the sea, we founded cities, called Karikon Teichos, Gytte, Akra, Melitta and Arambys.

  6. Continuing our voyage from there, we reached the Lixos, a large river flowing from Libya. The Lixites, a nomadic tribe, were pasturing their cattle beside it. We remained with them for some time and became friends.

  7. Beyond them, hostile Ethiopians occupied a land full of wild animals. It was surrounded by the great mountains from which the Lixos flows down. According to the Lixites, strange people dwell among these mountains: cavemen who run faster than horses.

  8. When we had got interpreters from the Lixites, we sailed along the desert shore for two days to the south. After sailing eastward for one day, we found in the recess of a bay a small island, which had a circumference of five stades. We left settlers there and called it Kerne. We calculated from the journey that this island lay opposite Carthage, for the time sailing from Carthage to the Pillars and from there to Kerne was the same.

  9. Sailing from there, we crossed a river called Chretes, and reached a bay, which contained three islands, bigger than Kerne. After a day’s sail from there, we arrived at the end of the bay, which was overhung by some very great mountains, crowded with savages clad in animals’ skins. By throwing stones, they prevented us from disembarking and drove us away.

  10. Leaving from there, we arrived at another large, broad river teeming with crocodiles and hippopotamuses. Returning from there, we went back to Kerne.

  11. From there we sailed to the south for twelve days. We remained close to the coast, which was entirely inhabited by Ethiopians, who fled from us when we approached. Even to our Lixites, their language was unintelligible.

  12. On the last day we anchored by some big mountains. They were covered with trees whose wood was aromatic and colorful.

  13. Sailing around the mountains for two days, we came to an immense sea beyond which, on the landward side, was a plain. During the night we observed big and small fires everywhere flaming up at intervals.

  14. Taking on water there, we continued for five days along the coast, until we reached a great bay which according to our translators was the Horn of the West. There was a large island in it, and in it a lagoon [which was salt] like the sea, and on it another island. Here we disembarked. In daytime, we could see nothing but the forest, but during the night, we noticed many fires alight and heard the sounds of flutes, the beating of cymbals and tom-toms, and the shouts of a multitude. We grew afraid and our diviners advised us to leave this island.

  15. Quickly, we sailed away, passing along a fiery coast full of incense. Large torrents of fire emptied into the sea, and the land was inaccessible because of the heat.

  16. Quickly and in fear, we sailed away from that place. Sailing on for four days, we saw the coast by night full of flames. In the middle was a big flame, taller than the others and apparently rising to the stars. By day, this turned out to be a very high mountain, which was called Chariot of the Gods.

  17. Sailing thence along the torrents of fire, we arrived after three days at a bay called Horn of the South.

  18. In this gulf was an island, resembling the first, with a lagoon, within which was another island, full of savages. Most of them were women with hairy bodies, whom our interpreters called ‘gorillas.’ Although we chased them, we could not catch any males; they all escaped, being good climbers who defended themselves with stones. However, we caught three women, who refused to follow those who carried them off, biting and clawing them. So we killed them and flayed them and brought their skins back to Carthage. For we did not sail any further, because our provisions were running short.

The Periplus of Hanno: A Voyage of Discovery Down the West African Coast, By a Carthaginian Admiral of the Fifth Century B.C. by Wilfred Schoff, provides a translation of the 18 lines left by Hanno describing his voyage. It also provides possible locations for the areas described by Hanno as he cruised the African coast.