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Africa’s inventions: the Earliest Sea-Faring Vessels

Sometimes the question is asked, "What did Africa ever invent?" We take a look at the earliest Sea-faring vessels.

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The history of maritime and ancient maritime trade between civilizations dates back to thousands of years. An important marine trade route during this era was the Arabian Sea where the coastal sailing vessels began to make an appearance. Different vessels were used for both coastal fishing and travelling.

The maritime trade began on the safer coastal sides and later, with the use of the monsoon winds it evolved until trade that crossed vast boundaries such as the Arabian Sea started to take place.

Nearly 10,000 years ago, the first known vessels came into existence. The early vessels had animal skins or woven fabrics for sails which were affixed to the top of a pole that was set upright in a boat. The sails gave the early vessels range, which allowed the sailors to explore wider regions. As a result, several lands were discovered such as the settlement of Oceania almost 3,000 years ago.

In 3,000 BC, due to the fact that Egypt was a coastal country, having both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea as routes connecting the country with other lands and cultures, Ancient Egyptians were pioneers in ship-building and they were becoming more experienced in navigating the lands around them and conducting various forms of expeditions and trades. The Ancient Egyptians used to assemble wooden planks into a hull, they lashed the planks together using woven straps and they used reeds or grass as a stuffing between the planks to help seal the seams.

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World’s oldest depiction of a stern-mounted steering rudder (1420 BC)

A notable example of their advanced skill (at the time) in building sailboats is the Khufu ship. King Khufu’s ship is a vessel with a length of 44 meters that was buried at the foot of the Khufu’s Great Pyramid in Giza around 2500 BC. In 1954, the vessel was discovered with its structure still intact. However, the first reference made referring to a ship by that term “ship” was Sneferu’s ancient cedar wood ship, which was called Praise of the Two Lands. Reference to this ship was recorded in 2613 BC. It is also known that Egyptians had trade routes reaching the Land of Punt from which they imported spices and other valuable goods. This steady trade network existed all the way into the classical era.

Agatharchides, the Greek historian and geographer wrote about the Ancient Egyptians’ ship-faring, he said:

“During the prosperous period of the Old Kingdom, between the 30th and 25th centuries BC, the river-routes were kept in order, and Egyptian ships sailed the Red Sea as far as the myrrh-country.”

In Ancient Egypt, the first warships were constructed during the early Middle Kingdom and maybe even at the end of the Old Kingdom. However, the first mention of a large heavily armed ship was in the 16th century BC which is found in a text on the tomb of Amenhotep I. The text describes in detail the nature of those warships saying;

“And I ordered to build twelve warships with rams, dedicated to Amun or Sobek, or Maat and Sekhmet, whose image was crowned best bronze noses. Carport and equipped outside rook over the waters, for many paddlers, having covered rowers deck not only from the side, but and top. And they were on board eighteen oars in two rows on the top and sat on two rowers, and the lower – one, a hundred and eight rowers were. And twelve rowers aft worked on three steering oars. And blocked Our Majesty ship inside three partitions (bulkheads) so as not to drown it by ramming the wicked, and the sailors had time to repair the hole. And Our Majesty arranged four towers for archers – two behind, and two on the nose and one above the other small – on the mast with narrow loopholes. They are covered with bronze in the fifth finger (3.2mm), as well as a canopy roof and its rowers. and they have (carried) on the nose three assault heavy crossbow arrows so they lit resin or oil with a salt of Seth (probably nitrate) tore a special blend and punched (?) lead ball with a lot of holes (?), and one of the same at the stern. And long ship seventy five cubits (41m), and the breadth sixteen, and in battle can go three-quarters of iteru per hour (about 6.5 knots)…”

History also records that the ancient land of Nubia and the kingdom of Axum used to trade with India since evidence was found indicating that ships from Northeast Africa sailed back and forth between India and Nubia trading goods. Some evidence even says that their sea voyages also reached Persia, Himyar and Rome. Moreover, the Greeks knew the Aksum to have seaports for their ships from both Greece and Yemen.

The Periplus of the Red Sea also known as the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, is a manuscript that describes ports, landmarks, navigation and trading opportunities from Roman Egyptian ports along the Red Sea coast, The Horn of Africa, the Sindh region of Pakistan and the southwestern regions of India. This manuscript reports that Somalis were trading frankincense along with other items through their northern ports such as Berbera and Zeila with the people of the Arabian Peninsula long before the arrival of Islam in the region. They also used to trade with Egypt, which at the time was Roman-controlled.

The Somali sailors transported their cargo using the ancient Somali vessel known as the Beden or the Beden-Safar. Furthermore, the Swahili people from East Africa had several extensive trading ports lining the coast of ancient East Africa. Zimbabwe alone had extensive trading posts with Central Africa and used to import goods through the Southeast African shore trade of Kilwa (the present day Tanzania).


A miniature, hand crafted Beden ship


A mosaic of a Roman trireme, Tunisia

Later on, in Mohenjodaro, an archeological site in Sindh, a panel was found that depicts a sailing craft. The marine vessels were of many different types and structures which were elaborately described in the ancient Indian text on ship-building, the Yukti Kalpa Taru. The texts describe the technicalities behind the construction of various types of ships and it gives sufficient information on the materials that were used in building ships by describing the qualities of the different types of wood and the stability of each.

The first to make a complete sail around Africa were the Phoenicians, creating the beginning of the modern field of geography. Also, during the Carthaginian civilization, where the city of Carthage (in the present day Tunisia) was the center of that civilization, the Carthaginians wee well-known for their advanced seafaring skills and their innovation in designing ships.

In 3000 BC, a time were some lands didn’t even know about the existence of other civilizations, the inhabitants of different coastal regions in Africa were already voyaging through the seas and following different routes that connected them with the other civilizations that were present at the time. This early exploration of the world around them had a number of great benefits for humanity. The most obvious is that it laid the foundation for future developments and technologies. It also resulted in aiding African globetrotters and geographers to discover the layout of the world early which accordingly turned them into the pioneers of their era.


  • Anderson, Romola; Anderson, R.C. (2003). A Short History of the Sailing Ship. Dover Maritime Series. Courier. p. 212. ISBN 978-0-486-42988-5.
  • Lloyd, Alan B (1977). “Necho and the Red Sea: Some Considerations”. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. 63: 142–155. doi:10.2307/3856314. JSTOR 3856314.
  • “Aksum An African Civilization of Late Antiquity by Stuart Munro-Hay” (PDF). Retrieved 2012-07-09.
  • Aksum by MSN Encarta. Archived from the original on 2009-04-19. Retrieved 2009-04-21.
  • Abdullahi, Mohamed Diriye (2001). Cultures and Customs of Somalia. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-313-31333-2.

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