History of the Vikings in Africa
When you think about marauding vikings, typically you envision them raiding monastaries in Ireland, or maybe attacking English towns. Furthermore, they followed the rivers of Eastern Europe, and established the Rus empire, in today’s Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. They even discovered North America, five hundred years before Columbus. Still, to me, the strangest place to have been plundered by Vikings is probably Morocco, Northern Africa.
This part of their history, often overshadowed by their exploits in Europe, is a testament to their relentless pursuit of new lands, driven by a blend of ambition, internal strife, and the magnetic allure of trade and plunder.
The landfall of vikings in Africa has been described in an ancient manuscript known as the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. This eleventh-century manuscript, with somewhat questionable accuracy, recounts a story from around 860AD about a group of vikings in Africa. They were said to have been led by two brothers, sons of some local king in Scotland or the Orkney islands.
After what is described as an internal power struggle between three or more brothers, two struk out on their own. Having rallied and enlisted a large group of tearsome warriors, they set to raid across Scotland and England. Then, carried by youthful pride, they gathered a small armada and sailed towards Spain.
The young Vikings steered their longships beyond the familiar waters of the British Isles, venturing into the vast expanse of the Cantabrian Sea – the stretch between Erin (Ireland) and Spain. Their journey was not just a flight from familial conflict but a quest for new opportunities in lands ripe for trade and ripe for the taking.
The Raid on Morocco
As their longships cut through the waves of the Cantabrian Sea, the Vikings’ journey took a pivotal turn. Their course led them along the coast of Portugal. There they unleashed a wave of terror – pillaging and killing, as was their wont. But their ambitions didn’t stop at the Iberian Peninsula. They pushed further, crossing the Gaditanean Straits, where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean, and found themselves in Africa.
The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland vividly recount this chapter. “They arrived in Africa, and there they fought a battle with the Mauritani, in which a great slaughter of the Mauritani was made.” This encounter was not just a clash of arms but of worlds. The Vikings, known for their ferocity in battle, met a formidable opponent in the Mauritanians. The battle was fierce, and though it ended without a clear victor, it marked the Vikings’ indelible footprint on African soil.
The aftermath of the battle saw a strategic retreat by both sides. But the Vikings, ever relentless, seized the opportunity to ravage the land. They plundered and burned, asserting their dominance in this unfamiliar territory. Their actions culminated in the enslavement of many locals, who were then taken back to Erin. These captives, referred to as the ‘blue men’ in the annals, were a stark reminder of the Vikings’ far-reaching influence.
Encounters with the Mauritanians
The encounter with the Mauritanians was a pivotal moment in the Vikings’ African saga. The Fragmentary Annals offer a glimpse into the mindset of the Viking leaders during this campaign. One of the sons, reflecting on their journey, remarked, “It is great folly and madness in us to be going from one country to another throughout the world, killing ourselves, instead of defending our patrimony and obeying the will of our father.”
This introspection, however, was short-lived. As the Mauritanian forces approached, the Vikings prepared for battle. The annals describe a fierce confrontation: “He rushed suddenly into the battle, and he came up to the King of Mauritania, and gave him a stroke of a great sword, and cut off his hand.” This act of bold aggression typified the Vikings’ approach to warfare – direct, brutal, and unyielding.
The battle raged with neither side gaining a decisive advantage. The Vikings, known for their resilience, stood their ground against the Mauritanians. But as dawn broke the next day, the Mauritanians, leaderless and demoralized, fled the battlefield. The Vikings, seizing the moment, laid waste to the land, a grim testament to their presence in Africa.
This in the Vikings’ history in Africa is a stark reminder of their relentless pursuit of new lands. Their journey to Africa, driven by the magnetic allure of exploration, trade, and plunder, showcases their indomitable spirit and their impact on the world stage during the Viking Age.
Beyond the Known – Speculative Ventures
The Vikings’ journey to Morocco was just one in their expansive saga. Their insatiable curiosity and ambition likely propelled them further into the African continent. While historical records of their presence in regions like Egypt are scarce, it’s tantalizing to imagine these intrepid Norsemen navigating the Mediterranean, perhaps even reaching the fabled lands of the Pharaohs.
The Vikings’ reputation as traders and raiders suggests they would have been drawn to the wealth and splendor of ancient Egypt. The Nile, teeming with trade opportunities, could have been a siren call to these adventurers. While we tread in the realm of speculation, it’s not far-fetched to consider that the Vikings, who reached the gates of Constantinople, might have set their sights on other prosperous regions along the North African coast.
Archaeological Evidence of Vikings History in Africa
The story of the Vikings in Africa is not just woven from the threads of annals and tales. Archaeological evidence adds a tangible dimension to this narrative. The discovery of African skeletal remains in early medieval Britain hints at the far-reaching impact of the Viking slave trade. These remains, including a woman from Sub-Saharan Africa found in Gloucestershire, dating between AD 896 and 1025, suggest a connection to the Vikings’ African expeditions.
While these findings don’t explicitly confirm the Vikings’ presence in Africa, they align with the accounts of African captives taken to the British Isles. This evidence, though circumstantial, supports the notion that the Vikings’ African adventures had a lasting impact, weaving the fates of distant peoples together.
Legacy and Interpretation
The Vikings’ history in Africa is a mosaic of fierce battles, daring voyages, and cultural intersections. This of their saga, while not as widely known as their exploits in Europe, underscores their role as formidable agents of change during the Viking Age. Their ventures into Africa, driven by the allure of new lands, trade, and plunder, showcase their adaptability and ambition.
Modern scholarship continues to unravel this complex tapestry. Each discovery, whether a line in an ancient annal or a bone fragment unearthed, adds depth to our understanding of the Viking Age. The Vikings’ African narrative is a reminder of their enduring legacy, a saga that stretches beyond the fjords of Scandinavia to the sun-baked lands of Africa.
Last Thoughts on the Vikings’ Adventures in Africa
The Vikings’ history in Africa is a testament to their far-reaching influence during the Viking Age. Their ventures were driven by a blend of ambition, curiosity, and the lure of the unknown. Forever placing them as one of history’s most dynamic and impactful peoples.
While a small excursion in the story of the Viking Age, making their way to Africa is still remarkable. It’s a pity not more material covers this, but it must have been a curious clash of cultures. Bearded, unwashed and furious Viking warriors, marching into a Moroccan city, sacking it and making away with their plunder. Having been to Morocco myself, I can only wonder what my forefathers made of that place.