Balthasar Springer describes “the land of the moors” (1509)

Balthasar Springer (also Sprenger) took part in one of the earliest circumnavigations of Africa, sailing to India with a Portuguese fleet only a few years after Vasco da Gama first completed the trip. A born Tiroler, he was a representative of an Augsburg trading house looking for other trading partners than the Italian city-states. The trading firm developed close ties with Portugal, and this led Springer to receive a commission from the Portuguese King Manuel I to carry out a trading mission into the Indian Ocean. In 1505-1506 he visited numerous cities in East Africa and India and became famous for publishing his travel diary in 1509. Through this mission and his travel diary, Springer shows two means by which Central Europeans took part materially and virtually as Europeans engaged in global trade and conquest.

Springer’s travel report was one of the first in German to describe such distant lands. His detailed ethnographic descriptions, supplemented by high-quality woodcut illustrations by the well-known artist Hans Burgkmair, offered new observational details about lands that were otherwise shrouded in the mists of legend and fantasy. At the same time, the focus on the strange and the use of labels like “savage” illustrate how the direct encounter with unfamiliar peoples and customs, many of whom impressed travelers with their sophistication, had begun to occasion discussions over the definition of “civilization” and Christian Europe’s place in the world.

In this excerpt, he describes his encounters with the supposedly simple “savages” of the West African coast, who impressed with their gold but otherwise earned the travelers’ scorn. It seems that they did not present the challenge posed by the “heathens” (Muslims) of East Africa.

Jeff Bowersox


In the name of the holy indivisible Trinity, of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen, through whom all things, heaven, earth and deep underground were created and ordered and without whom no good beginning, course, nor holy end can be found, will I, Balthasar Sprenger [Springer] of Fyls [Vils], with the grace and help of the same, [describe] the wonderful newly found lands, kingdoms, islands, and regions along with the people and animals living there and the fruits growing there, as I have seen them by water and by land. Together with the ambassadors of His Highness the King of Portugal, called Emanuel, and of their excellencies the merchant lords of the Fugger, Welser, Hochstetter, Hirschvogel, those in their courts and other companies, have fought and helped to defeat them with our power.

On the seventh of April we sailed past the cape and into the land of the moors, and case our anchor three miles from a market named Byssegicks [Bezeguiche], where the king of the moors resided. The people used hollowed out trees as ships, and they came out in them to fish. Their leaders came to us in two of these boats. Because they spoke good Portuguese, we could understand each other well in all matters. Also in this kingdom and on the islands, it is strange to say, we saw people of both sexes mingling without shame like wild animals. some covered only their privates, others ran around entirely naked, and all were black as the moors, as we called them. In fact, here begins the land of the moors. Their residences and houses are like the huts that the poor villagers among our people erect around their ovens. The local residents put down their houses wherever they feel like living.

On the islands and on the mainland there is a surfeit of animals, it is small and fat. One can produce a lot of cheese and good sugar, which grows everywhere in this area. Ultimately we [ran into] many savage people and [had] many adventures. Especially worthy of mention is the considerable gold that the Portuguese king will use to mint his gold coins. The residents of these islands cannot process it themselves. Among this people, no one needs or carries money, rather what is valued are only odd adventurous things like mirrors, measuring rings, long blue crystals, etc. and the sort of miscellany that is unusual for them. And if such goods are brought to them, then for them they give item for item, what they have and what grows for them, piece for piece, according to how much they value these things. The tree growth there is everywhere of overwhelming size. The land of the aforementioned islands extend over a thousand and four hundred miles. On the eleventh of April the King sent his son to our ship. We could only mock the great honor that he was granted by his courtiers and attendants

Vom König Bissegitz geht es noch 14 Meilen in das Landesinnere, dann beginnt ein anderes großes Königreich, viele hundert Meilen lang und heißt König[reich] von Genneya [Guinea]. Es ist ein Land mit bösen Menschen und fauliger Luft.

If you travel from Bisegitz [Bissagos] to the Cape of Good Hope, there begins another land also inhabited by moors or Blacks. The residents of these lands are a half-savage people. If you visit them, they will give you an ox or a sheep for a small shell or a knife. There are in this land many [wild] animals and much cattle. The people do not take money. All go around naked, only their privates do they cover with wooden or leather strips and the boys bind their little willies upward. Otherwise it is a pleasant land with good water and nice-smelling herbs. There is so much sand there that men and women walk on broad leather pieces, something like large slippers. Quite a few of them drape themselves in clothing made of animal skins, as in our countrz one might wear a short coat. Many of them have piled up their hair with rubber and pitch and for special decoration stick in numerous and expensive precious stones. They have a fast, almost amazing language, and their residences are underground.

Source: Balthasar Springer, Die Meerfahrt, edited by Andreas Erhard and Eva Ramminger (Innsbruck: Haymon Verlag, 1998), 40-45. ©Andreas Erhard and Eva Ramminger. Translated into English by Jeff Bowersox.

The original can be found here: Balthasar Springer, Die Merfart vn erfarung nüwer Schiffung vnd Wege zu viln onerkanten Jnseln vnd Künigreichen von dem großmechtigen Portugalische Kunig Emanuel Erforscht funden bestritten vnnd Jngenomen (Oppenheim, 1509), Bayerische Staatsbibliothek VD16 S 8379.

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