By Tomas Pueyo in Unchartered Territories: Europe is geographically much closer to Africa than America. Northern Africa has been part of the Eurasian culture since Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, over two millennia ago.
But the colonization of America by Europeans began just before the 1500s, while they colonized Africa mostly after 1870, during a period of about 40 years called the Scramble for Africa that saw Europe’s colonization of Africa go from about 10% of its territory to about 90%. For 350 years, Europeans didn’t conquer the continent next door, crossing the Atlantic instead. Why? For centuries, there was the Sahara barrier.
If you follow Uncharted Territories, you know that the Sahara is where it is because of the Horse Latitudes. Beyond Northern Africa, you need to pass the Sahara to get to any fertile land. There are only three paths through the Sahara: by sea to the west, by sea to the east, or by land.
The path to the west of Africa had several disadvantages compared to the east: it was open ocean rather than a closed sea, it took a very long time to cross the dry part of the Sahara section without easy stops, and it didn’t have as much civilization as the east, which meant more support for travelers. Traveling by sea through the east of Africa was easier, but still very hard.
There was no Suez canal to communicate by boat the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, it was hard to build and transport fleets from one to the other, the trade route was not as populated as the Mediterranean or India… Trade was possible, invasion nearly impossible. Crossing the Sahara by land was impossible. The desert is massive. Miles and miles of nothing. The distance to cross it was just too great. The only way through it was through the Nile, but even then the Nile was not navigable as you entered the Sudan area.
So this is why, for centuries, Subsaharan Africa was out of reach to Europeans: their armies couldn’t cross the Sahara by land or through either coast. But why was it out of reach once ships could sail all the way to America? Couldn’t armies just sail past the Sahara, too? It’s not like Europeans didn’t travel to Africa. As Spain and Portugal had nearly finished the Reconquista against Muslims in the 1400s, Portugal didn’t have any more room for growth. So it looked to the sea. Portuguese sailors began exploring the coast of Africa and the Atlantic archipelagos around 1418, thanks to new maritime technologies such as the caravel. Soon, Europeans had a much better sense of Africa than of America. More here.
DESPARDES COMMENT: One corollary -Arab traders and scholars had introduced the notion of an extraordinarily wealthy land called “India” whose palaces were filled with bejeweled nobility. Europeans simply had to find this semi-mythical land. Italians, Spaniards and Portuguese began crossing the Med into the Oceans in search of India and Indians. Two explorers found what they called “Red Indians” in the “New World” before the Pope issued a Papal Bull dividing the new discovery between Spain and Portugal, both Catholic kingdoms. But yes, geography protected Africa for a while.