a page of a ms of 1483 of his work


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Pliny the Elder (Natural History (23-79AD)

Taken from: Natural history by Pliny (the Elder.)


Pliny does not say anything about east Africa. There is however a small passage about taxes that needed to be paid in ancient times as well as a quiet accurate description on how pygmies (even today) hunt elephants that are worth knowing.


In his book over trees:
Herodotus assigned it (the ebony tree) to Ethiopia. And said that every three years the Ethiopians had to pay as tribune to the king of Persia 100 billets of timber of that tree, together with gold and ivory. Moreover, I must not forget (since that author had put it down expressly) that the Ethiopians in the same way were bound to pay twenty great and massive elephant teeth. So highly was ivory estimated then, namely in the year 310 after the founding of Rome.
In his book over animals:
The Troglodites, a people bounding upon Ethiopia, who live only upon Elephants flesh, use to clime trees that be near the tracks of the elephants, from there (letting all the heard to pas quietly under the trees) they leap down upon the buttocks of the last with his left hand takes fast hold upon his tail, and puts his feet and legs fast in the flank of the left side, and so hanging and bending backward with his body, he cuts the ham-strings of one of his legs with an axe or knife that he has for that purpose in his right hand: which done, the Elephant begins to slack his pace, by reason that one of his legs is wounded: the man then jumps to get away and for a farewell he cuts likewise the other ham: and all this does in a trice with wonderful agility and nimbleness. Others have a safer way than this, but it is more subtle and deceitful: they set or stick in the ground a great way off, mighty great bows ready bent; to hold these fast, they chose certain tall, lusty, and strong fellows, and as many others as sufficient as they, to draw with all their might the said bows against the other, and so they let flee against the poor Elephants as they pass by, javelins and bore-spears, as if they shot shafts, and stick them therewith, and so follow them by their blood. Of these beasts, the females are much more fearful than the male kind.

Note this passage is important because it is the only indication in literature that the hunter-gatherers before the coming of the Bantu lived in a much larger part of Africa

The following verses are important because in it he uses the word Azanium (Azania). He is one of the only few classical authors to use the name.

The one which lies to the east is called the Persian Gulf, and is two thousand five hundred miles in circumference, according to Eratosthenes. Opposite to it lies Arabia, the length of which is fifteen hundred miles. On the other side again, Arabia is bounded by the Arabian Gulf. The sea as it enters this gulf is called the Azanian Sea. The Persian Gulf, at the entrance, is only five miles wide; some writers make it four.


Opposite to this place, in the main sea, lies the island of Ogyris, famous for being the burial-place of king Erythras; it is distant from the mainland one hundred and twenty miles, being one hundred and twelve in circumference. No less famous is another island, called Dioscoridu, and lying in the Azanian Sea; it is distant two hundred and eighty miles from the extreme point of the Promontory of Syagrus.


After passing this place we come to the Azanian Sea, a promontory by some writers called Hispalus, Lake Mandalum, and the island of Colocasitis, with many others lying out in the main sea, upon which multitudes of turtles are found. We then come to the town of Suche, the island of Daphnidis, and the town of the Adulitæ, a place founded by Egyptian runaway slaves. This is the principal mart for the Troglodyte, as also for the people of Æthiopia: it is distant from Ptolemais five days' sail. To this place they bring ivory in large quantities, horns of the rhinoceros, hides of the hippopotamus, tortoise-shell, sphingiæ, and slaves.


When talking about Cinnamon.

Cinnamon has probably been known in the Mediterranean since the second millennium BC. Herodotus describes it as being used in mummification and Ezekiel mentions it as one of the commodities handled by the Tyrian trading network. Classical authors are unanimous in regarding it as a product of Africa and it was not handled by the routes described in the Periplus except in so far as it was injected into them at Opone (Mogadishu) and Mosullan (Berbera) from the East African coast. In fact however in classical times, cinnamon was only produced in Southern China, and northern South East Asia, its later center of production in Ceylon not then having been developed. A passage in Pliny the Elder explains that cinnamon was brought to Africa by merchant sailors. These sailors were Indonesians who would influence the east coast of Africa for many centuries and whose descendants still live in Madagascar.


The wild cinnamon tree's origin is in the eastern Himalayas. At least from the early bronze age it became a cultivated plant in China. The Indonesians exported it to Java paying for it with cloves from the spice islands. In Java they later also started cultivating it. From there they brought it to east Africa passing by the southern tip of India. So starting another place where later cinnamon would grow.   


Those old tales were invented by the Arabians to raise the price of their goods. There is an accompanying story that under the reflected rays of the sun at midday an indescribable sort of collective odor is given off from the whole of the peninsula, which is due to the harmoniously blended exhalation of all those aromas, and that the first news of Arabia received by the fleets of Alexander the Great were these odors, wafted out by the sea.

All these stories are nonsense. In fact cinnamon which is the same thing as cinnumum, grows in "Ethiopia", which is linked by intermarriage with the cave dwellers. These buy it from their neighbors and bring it over vast seas on rafts which have no rudders to steer them, no oars to push them, no sails to propel them, indeed no motive power at all but man alone and his courage. What is more, they take to sea in winter, around the solstice, which is when the east winds blow their hardest. These winds drive them on the proper course across the bays. When they have rounded the cape, a west-north-west wind will land them in the harbor called Ocilia so that is the trading place they prefer. They say that their traders take almost five years there and back, and many die. On the return journey they take glassware and bronze ware, clothing brooches and necklaces: so there is one more trade route that exists chiefly because of women follow fashion.