Christian influence in the northern savanna areas of tropical Africa is even older than Portuguese influence.  It came from three sources: 1) early North African Christianity, 2) medieval Nubia, and 3) European Christians who crossed the desert, beginning in the 17th century.

5.1  Early Saharan and Nubian influence

            Evidence of archaeology and Christian symbols

Early North African Christianity penetrated the nomadic Berbers very extensively, even if not always deeply, and after the Muslim conquest many Christians took refuge in the desert.  As a result Tamashek vocabulary still contains Christian terminology, for instance the word for an angel.  The “Agadez cross” and similar crosses from other Tuareg towns are likely of original Christian inspiration.  The “Northern knot” of Nigeria, in its various styles, fits clearly into this cross series. Its depiction on the floor of the ruin of St. Augustine's cathedral church in Hippo, Algeria (now removed to Pavia), demonstrates this.

The "northern knot" of the Hippo church floor (Thanks to Fr. Ramymond Hickey OSA for sending me the photo)

The Oba's messenger (Dark, n. 94)    Nubia, like Ethiopia, received Christianity before the time of Islam.  It maintained its independence for many years against Arab invaders in what is now southern Egypt and Northern Sudan, i.e. from Aswan to Khartoum.  Unlike mountainous and insular Ethiopia, which confined Christian evangelization to the limits of imperial expansion, Nubia spread its influence over the savanna plains to the west.  Ruins of churches and monasteries are found in Darfur and the Chad Bar al-Ghazâl region.1  Ruins of burnt brick construction of Nubian inspiration are found as far as Borno.2  The Nubian formée cross found its way to Borno,3 and as far as Benin city before the Portuguese arrived.  João de Barros, describing the time of discovery, says that when a new king accedes in Benin an eastern king called Ogané sends him emblems of authority, including a brass cross to be worn around the neck, similar to that worn by the knights of the Order of St. John.  A similar but smaller cross was given to the Benin ambassador which he wore around his neck and which gave him certain privileges while in Ogané’s kingdom.4  The messenger with this cross is always depicted at the bottom of the carved elephant tusks of Benin, as displayed in the Lagos and Benin museums.  De Barros thought that Ogané was “Prester John} of Ethiopia.  In modern times he has been variously identified with the Oni of Ife5 or the Alafin of y.6  A. Ryder argues for a more northerly identification, along the Niger or Benue, perhaps Idah.  The fact that these crosses are not mentioned again after 1540 suggests a rupture between Benin and Ogané’s kingdom as a result of Benin’s war with Idah and expansion to the north.7

            Evidence of traditions and reports

The connection between Nubia and Benin can be filled out by writers such as Leo Africanus, who writing about his travels around 1512-14 said that the Gaoga people (somewhere in the Chad/Darfur region)8 practised Christianity and that the founder of the Mandara kingdom (around Marwa in Cameroon) was a Christian.9  The same assertion is found in the Mandara Chronicle,10 and Denham heard some Mandarans referred to as Christians in 1823. 11

At the beginning of the 18th century reports were reaching Tripoli that the kingdom of Kwararafa (the Jukun on the Benue) was Christian.12  Richard Gray attaches some importance also to the existence of Maltese (formée) crosses on the garb of the Jukun king, as reported by Meek.13  The break-up of the Kwararafa federation in the 18th century, however, has left all tradition die out concerning the once powerful Jukun kingdom that was the terror of Katsina and Kano.  The only tradition surviving is that of the Kisara migration from Egypt to the Sudan (Nubia) and then west to the Benue and Niger valleys.14  Some authors would like to see the Kisara migration as one of Christian Nubians,15 but this is disputed.16

Further up the Benue the Batta and Chamba (or Bachama) peoples also hold to a Kisara legend and claim that they originate from Sokoto or Gobir people.  The validity of this claim has likewise been challenged.17  Even so, a similar claim was made for the Gobir people by `Abdalqâdir ibn-al-Muafâ in his Rawat al-afkâr (written in 1824 or 1825)18 that they originated from the Copts of Egypt.19  It matters little whether these legends are historically true or not.  They only serve to confirm the penetration of Christian cultural influence from Nubia into northeastern Nigeria and along the Benue-Niger to Benin.

The Nubian kingdoms reached the height of their power between 800 and 1000.  In Egypt the growing influence of Turkish slaves (Mamlûks) displaced many Arabs, who drifted into Nubia.  When the Mamlûks took power in Egypt in 1251 the drift of Arabs turned into a flood.  The northern Nubian kingdom fell to Muslim rule in 1297, although Christianity survived there about a century longer.  The southern kingdom of Alwa held out until around 1500.  In 1525 Fr. Álvares SJ received a letter in Ethiopia asking for Portuguese help against the Arabs; this shows that Christianity was still alive.  But before long the only Nubians who retained their Christian faith were those who migrated to Egypt.

5.2  Europeans who crossed the Sahara

Piracy on the seas, so rife in the 17th century, put many Europeans into the hands of North-Africans and a fair number of North-Africans into the hands of Europeans.  Most European captives were kept in North Africa, but a few were taken south across the Sahara.  In the late 1630s a group of European renegades (captives who became Muslim) was sent from Tripoli to Borno to instruct the Borno soldiers in the use of firearms.  In 1655 another group was sent.20  These Europeans did not preach Christianity, but inevitably they spread some knowledge of it.  Their presence may have contributed to the later rumours of the existence of Borno or Kwararafa Christians.  Yet some religious men did come and preach the Gospel.  One of these was Pieter Fardé.

            Pieter Fardé OFM in Agadez and the north of Nigeria (1686-88)

Pieter Fardé, a Belgian Franciscan brother, was sent by his superiors in 1686 to work in the Holy Land.  The story of his travels is contained in seven of his own letters and in a few other documents.21  As he left Amsterdam in August he heard that from April to June the Algerians had captured some twenty Dutch ships and taken 2,000 Dutchmen into captivity.  Five miles off Cape St. Vincent on the Portuguese coast the convoy of three Dutch ships was given chase by pirates.  There was a battle, broken up only by a storm, and the wreck of the single surviving Dutch ship limped its way to São Miguel in the Azores for repairs.  A month later, on 10 September, the ship started off again, reaching Cadiz on 4 October, and on the same day continued on towards the Holy Land.  On 19 October, off Crete, pirates attacked and the ship caught fire.  Everyone jumped into the sea, only to be picked up by the pirates and brought to `Annâba in Algeria.

Pieter and another man named Daniel van Breuckel were sold to a man returning from Persia to Agadez who had once been a slave himself for seven years in Livorno and spoke Italian.  While on route to Agadez Pieter met another slave who told him that he had corresponded with Europe and received replies; so Pieter wrote a letter home on 27 November.  The caravan arrived in Agadez on 14 December.  During the trip Pieter gained the confidence and friendship of his master, who promised him and his friend Daniel their freedom once Pieter finished directing the construction of an Italian style villa for him.  Pieter spoke of the faith and within four weeks had led 200 slaves, Jews and Moors (most likely non-Muslim blacks), to the Christian faith.  All this was done discretely, and even his master, Sura Belin was secretly baptized with all his family.

These developments were noticed by a Frenchman named Louis de la Place who had been a slave of Sura Belin’s brother for a year and a half.  He was a Huguenot and, envying Pieter’s rapid rise in favour, on 7 March 1687 denounced him to the qâî for subverting Islam.  To give strength to his accusations he himself became a Muslim.  Pieter was immediately arrested, twice asked to recant his faith, and then tied to a frame and dragged around the town being whipped all the while.  He would have been killed if his master had not interceded and redeemed him for 200 patacons.22

Working on his master’s villa once again, Pieter was nevertheless placed under the surveillance of the Frenchman who had denounced him and was kept locked up every night and could talk to no one.  Pieter’s friend Daniel died on 15 August.  On 17 September Pieter received a letter from home and on the 19th answered, asking for 200 patacons, as demanded by his master in compensation for what he paid to redeem him from the qâî.  There was trade and communication between Agadez and the Dutch post at Elmina, where a Dutchman named Mr. Colck promised to send the money to Agadez once the equivalent was deposited in his brother’s account in Amsterdam.  Pieter wrote on 29 April 1688 that the money had come and he was to leave in a month or two, but that the route to the north was unsafe because of hostilities between Europe and Algeria.  He would try to leave by way of Elmina.  As for the continuation of Christianity in Agadez, Pieter’s master together with a converted Jew and two Greeks from Rhodes were catechizing people in secret.  Besides, on 1 June forty Italian slaves were brought, including two priests.  Pieter hoped “they will do much good, if only they are not too rash.”

On 10 July 1688 Pieter left together with two Moors his master sent to accompany him as far as the Niger river.  These, however, took leave of him at the town of “Gobel” (= Gobir); at this time the Gobir capital was at Tsibiri (just west of Maradi), about 400 kms south of Agadez.  Pieter continued on alone, heading straight south which he mistakenly thought was the direction of Elmina.  After two days of walking over flat land he came to hilly country (which could be in the area of Kwatorkwashi in Sokoto State, Nigeria).  He travelled on two more days without meeting anyone or seeing any path, resting in trees at night because of the wild animals, presumably hyenas.

On the fifth day he found an east-west road (apparently from Kano, perhaps along the route later known to go through Gwarzo, Gora, Kankara and Yandoto to the Niger river).  He turned, mistakenly again, to the east, hoping to find another road to the south.  The third day on this road he met people for the first time, four Moors who spoke a language he could not understand.  These stripped him of everything he had and one of them would have killed him but was prevented by the others.  Doing two more miles that day, he spent the night in a tree and went on for two more days naked and without food.  On the third day he tried some wild fruit which gave him diarrhoea, cramps and vomiting.  Lying in misery and ready to die, he prayed as he always did and before sunset a caravan of 200 camels and 50 elephants came which had been at the Niger river and was returning to Congo.  The leader of the caravan, who spoke Portuguese and could understand Pieter’s Italian, turned out to be a good Samaritan who gave pieter medicine and had him washed and given a loin cloth.  Since the caravan travelled by night and rested by day, Pieter was immediately put on an elephant.  He slept while riding and during the whole next day’s rest.  After six days he was strong enough to on foot like the others.

The caravan must have passed Kano during this time and rounded the headwaters of the Benue beyond Yola, since it was the rainy season.  Pieter says nothing of the rest of the journey except that it took 57 days to reach Congo (around 22 September), and while on the way he often talked with his good Samaritan “and found that Moor as exemplary in life and exercised in virtue as anyone I have ever met in my life.”  he often spoke to Pieter about “Brachmanni”, pointing to the east.  Pieter concluded that the man was “of the religion they call Brachmanism”, that is, Indian Brahmanism.23  After 14 days’ rest in Congo Pieter’s friend went with him on another caravan to Luanda and helped arrange for him to get passage on a ship heading for Elmina.

Pieter departed, but after two and a half days of smooth sailing the ship was driven by a contrary wind far to the southwest, past St. Helena.  Around 2:00 A.M., the morning of 29 December, Pieter was on deck praying when a sudden windstorm capsized the ship.  Thirty people were sleeping below and only the captain and two sailors were on deck with Pieter.  While keeping himself afloat in the water Pieter could hear cries for help from far away, but in the morning saw only planks.  He gathered some and tied them into a raft with strips of his shorts.  He later found a rope of bark to help tie the planks.  After three days (on 1 January 1689) he drifted onto a reef forty yards long by thirty.  In a crevice he found some polluted rain water to drink, but there was no food.  Four days later a stinking corpse floated ashore in whose pocket was an English Psalter, a tobacco box and a knife.  While struggling to make up his mind about eating human flesh a large dead fish, just as smelly, drifted in.  Pieter put the man to sea and set to work on the fish.  Later it rained and he cleared the crevice to collect pure water.  The movement of the tides also trapped small fish in the rocky crevices which he collected every day.

After 145 days (on 25 May) a Dutch ship passed within sight but fearing the shoals past on.  Another 174 days later (on 20 November) a pirate ship from Salâ passed very close by and, being signalled, sent a small boat to collect Pieter.  On board was a Dutch renegade whom Pieter did not trust at all because he knew that such Muslims were the most spiteful of all.  Although Pieter had nothing, not even a stitch of cloth, the captain insisted on bargaining and it was settled that Pieter should work at carpentry for him for three years at Salâ.  The captain gave him clothes and they arrived at Salâ on 20 December.  On 9 April 1690 a Dutch ship came with a ransom for Pieter, and in early October he took a ship bound for Hamburg, arriving back in Ghent in January 1691.  The 16th of June he died from a fever at the age of 39, 19 years after his profession as a Franciscan brother.

            The Franciscans in Agadez and Katsina (1710-11)24

The French consul in Tripoli, Claude Lemaire, reported as early as 1686 a rumour gathered from slaves brought across the desert that in Borno “there are many Christians, little or uninstructed in the faith”.  Lemair’s report was discussed at a Propaganda Fide meeting in 1700 and it was decided to attempt a mission.  An elderly Franciscan, Damiano da Rivoli, who was in Cairo and knew Arabic, was made prefect of the proposed Borno mission.  The route from Tripoli through Fezzân was blocked because of fighting and plague; Fr. Damiano therefore went up the Nile and came to Sennâr on 11 November 1703.  There he heard more about a Christian village near Borno, 60 days away by caravan.  He was invited to go, but others advised him not to because the presence of a Christian might make the caravan an object of attack.  In May 1704 he went back to Tripoli via Cairo and got further information on Borno from Claude Lemaire.

The latest information was that Borno was completely Muslim, but a nearby kingdom named “Corurfa” or Gourourfa” was at least nominally Christian and slaves coming from there made the sign of the cross.  The kingdom referred to, of course, was Kwararafa or Jukun.  Damiano was not physically strong enough to make another trip and returned in April 1706 to Italy.  In his place were appointed Carlo Maria di Genova, a priest experienced in medicine and surgery who was in Cairo waiting to go to Ethiopia, and Severino da Silesia, a Bohemian who was fluent in Arabic.  Carlo questioned Borno pilgrims in Cairo and verified the story that the “Canorfa” people “venerate the cross and erect it over their houses and churches, and their king acts among them as a high priest.”

In June 1710 the two left Tripoli for Fezzân under the protection of the Bey of Fezzân, arriving at Murzûq on 30 July. They were well received, but a war scare while they were there caused everyone to take refuge in the walled town of Traghen, some 50 kms to the east.  There they met the son of the “king of the Tuareg” returning to Agadez from Mecca.  The king was Ag-Abba, who began his rule in 1687, while Pieter Fardé was still in Agadez.  On 17 October Carlo wrote saying he was going this way to Agadez and hoped to go on from there to “Garolfa”.  A Tripoli merchant named âjj Mîlâd travelled with them as far as Agadez, who reported to Fr. Francesco Maria di Sarzana in Tripoli the result of the mission.

According to Francesco di Sarzana’s repetition of the report to Propaganda Fide, the Franciscans in Agadez could not go through Borno because of dangers on the route.  They therefore went with a caravan on a southwesterly route to Katsina.  In Katsina a disease struck the caravan causing swelling of the body.  Fr. Carlo tried to operate on one victim of the disease but only caught it himself and died 8 days later.  The Sarki of Katsina then confiscated all of Carlo’s belongings and, when Fr. Severino protested, only replied that Severino should become a Muslim.  Fr. Severino refused, and after catching the disease died 13 days later, in August 1711.  Only one person of the caravan survived to bring the story to Hâjj Mîlâd in Agadez.

            Filippo da Segni OFM (1850)25

Propaganda Fide met in 1713 and wanted to sent more priests across the Sahara, but none that we know of actually came until 1850.  As a result of the reports of Fr. Vincenzo da S. Venanzo, the Franciscan prefect of the Tripoli mission since 1843, a Vicariate of Central Africa was established in 1846.  As part of its preparations, Fr. Filippo da Segni obtained the protection of the Bey of Tripoli and joined a caravan bound for Borno together with a “Catholic Moorish servant” named Fedele.  They left Tripoli on 20 January and after 14 or 15 days reached Murzûq, where several Maltese and Italian Catholic families were living.  After 4 days the caravan continued on.  Once it came into a severe sandstorm followed by a downpour, which left Filippo sick, but he was restored by drinking palm wine at Bilma.  After 4 more days the caravan reached the outskirts of Borno, whose capital at this time was Kukawa.  Filippo met a maltese family consisting of two elderly parents and two grown boys.  They had come from Benghazi at the invitation of a native of Borno whom they had nursed back to health after he had broken his leg.

Filippo delivered letters to an Arab who had lived a long time in Kukawa.  The Arab brought him to see the king, who was Shehu `Umar (1835-80), son of Muhammad al-Amîn al-Kanemi.  After presenting some gifts, Filippo was told he could stay in Borno as long as he liked.

Throughout his 20 days in Kukawa Filippo suffered from dysentery.  The Maltese family looked after him until his departure.  Fedele disappeared, probably glad to regain his freedom and his homeland, and the two sons of the Maltese couple volunteered to accompany Filippo on his return journey.  They did not wish to marry or settle in Borno and were glad of the chance to return to their homeland.  After his arrival in Tripoli Filippo went straight on to Rome.  He was back in Tripoli from December 1850 to September 1852, then recalled to Italy where he lived until his death in 1895.  No further work was done on the proposed Vicariate of Central Africa.


So ends the middle period of African Church history.  The early Christianity planted before Islam was still strong in Egypt and Ethiopia.  The Church of the middle period was much weaker, but left a slight lasting impression.  The modern and greatest period of Christianity in Africa was just about to begin.

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1Shinnie (1971), 49.

2Bivar & Shinnie (1962).

3Such a cross, found near Lake Chad, was on display in the Lagos Museum in 1966, but is no longer there.  The curator (1980) had no information on its whereabouts.

4Barros (1945), Dec. I, liv. 3, ch. 4, 90-1.

5Hodgkins (1960), 96; Obayemi (1971), 247.  This opinion is taken up again by Robin Horton, “Ancient Ife: a reassessment,” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 9:4 (June 1979), 69-150.  I discuss this in “The early evangelisation of Benin: further reflections,” Bodija Journal, n. 2 (June, 1990), 71-76.

6R. Mauny and P.H. Talbot; cf. Hodgkins (1960), 94.

7Ryder (1969), 7, and (1965a).

8Palmer (1929-30) thinks these are the Bulala of around Lake Fitri in Chad.  Pierre Kalck argues for a kingdom in the Darfur/Chad region.  See also R.S. O’Fahey and J.L. Spalding (1973).

9Urvoy (1949), 28, note 2.

10In Palmer (1928), II, 96.

11Bovill (1966), III, 333-4.

12Gray (1967), 385; Meek (1931), 19, 206, Plate 1.

13Gray (1967), 388.

14Palmer (1928), II, 61-3.

15Gray (1967), 392-3.

16P. Stevens (1975).


18Last (1967), xxxiii-iv.

19M. Nissen (1968), 57-8, combines the legend of Rawat al-afkâr with that of the Chamba people; she also gives the mistaken common attribution of this work to Muammad Bello.

20H. Fisher (1971), 216.

21Fardé (1903).  Cf. Marcellino da Civezza (1894), VII:4, 447-502; Goyens (1914).  Fro details see J. Kenny, “A seventeenth century Belgian visitor to Agadez and the north of Nigeria: Pieter Fardé,” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 10:4 (1981), 73-89.  My conclusion is that the letters themselves are authentic, yet there are serious questions about Fardé’s accuracy or even veracity.

22The details of Pieter’s ordeal are narrated in the letter of Daniel van Breuckel, 15 March 1687, in Fardé (1903), 54-60.

23The good Samaritan was evidently an Indian, probably from Indian settlements along the Zambeze.  These were sent to explore the way across the continent from Mozambique to Angola (Axelson, 1964, 4-5, 101, 115, 137, 151, 178-80).  Indians, of course, knew how to domesticate elephants and could do so with African elephants as is done even today, e.g. in Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo.  Another hypothesis is that “Brachmanni” is the Islamic Arabic “ar-Rahmân” (“the Merciful”).

24Gray (1967); Filesi (1973), 856-8.

25Filippo da Segni (1870).  Hickey (1976) expresses doubts about the dates given in Filippo’s article which was published 20 years after the trip.