Trade Outside the Strait of Gibraltar

The Genoese were the first Europeans during Medieval times to venture out of the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar. Church doctrine and rumors of sea serpents did not hold them back from pursuing trade along the west coasts of Africa and Iberia.

The first documented voyage occurred while the Muslims still controlled the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula, and while the Crusaders still raged war in the Middle East. As early as 1162, just eight years after Muhammad al-Idrisi drew his world map, a merchant ship from Genoa visited Sale on the west coast of Morocco. By 1191, the Moroccans were allowing the Genoese to run a trading post in Ceuta.

At the same time, Muslims and Christians were developing shipping centers at the mouths of the Guadiana, Guadalquivir, and Tagus Rivers in today’s Portugal. The Genoese established trading posts there, too.

In 1253, a Genoese ship ventured as far south as Safi, the terminating point of the caravan routes through the Sahara Desert. You can see the caravan routes in the maps below drawn by Muhammad Al-Idrisi and Abraham Cresques.

Mohammad Al-Idrisi, Tabula Rogeriana, Sicily, 1154.(1)

Abraham Cresques, Catalan Atlas, 1375.(2)

The Google-Earth map below will give you an idea of the geography.

Not long after that, ships from Catalonia, Andalusia, and Portugal followed the Genoese example – all in search of ivory, gold dust, spices, and Eden-like islands. The Muslims were only too happy to trade with them.

In 1291, when Maximus Planudes was in the middle of his translation of Geographia, two brothers from Genoa, Vandino and Ugolino Vivaldi, set sail in their galleys in search of the passage to the East they believed to be under Africa. They made it through the Strait of Gibraltar and were heading south along the African coast before they disappeared.

As far as their generation knew, the brothers were lost at sea. However, evidence turned up later indicating the adventurers’ two galleys reached as far south as the mouth of the Gambia River. Rumors spread – possibly started by crew who made it home again – that the Vivaldis touched down on the “Fortunate Islands” [probably the Canary Islands].

A generation later, in 1312, a captain from Genoa named Lanciloto Malocello reached one of the Canaries, where he built a castle.

The next generation known to sail past the Canary Islands was Portuguese.


  1. Al-Idrisi, Muhammad. Tabula Rogeriana, Sicily, 1154. {{PD-old}} Public Domain in the USA and Italy, Image:
  2. Cresques, Abraham. Catalan Atlas, Majorcan Cartographic School, Majorca, 1375. The atlas has been housed in the the Bibliothèque nationale de France [formerly the French Royal Library] since the time of King Charles V. {{PD-old}} Public domain. Image source:

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