You are here


Monticello researchers have compiled the following references to Africa from Thomas Jefferson's letters and from his book, Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson made many additional written references to Africa, which are only incidental and are not included here.

Primary Source References

c. 1781. (Notes on the State of Virginia). "That the last part of [Buffon's assertion that "the domestic animals are subject to degeneration from the climate of America"] is erroneous, which affirms that the species of American quadrupeds are comparatively few, is evident from the tables taken all together. By these it appears that there are an hundred species aboriginal of America. Mons. de Buffon supposes about double that number existing on the whole earth. Of these Europe, Asia, and Africa, furnish I suppose 126; that is, the 26 common to Europe and America, and about 100 which are not in America at all."1

c. 1781. (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XXIII: "Histories, Memorials, and State-Papers"). "1675, Oct. 1. 27. Car. 2. A proclamation for prohibiting the importation of commodities of Europe into any of his majesty's plantations in Africa, Asia, or America, which were not laden in England: and for putting all other laws relating to the trade of the plantations in effectual execution."2

1783-1784? (Jefferson's Notes on Sheffield's Observations on the Commerce of the American States). "Seven eighths of the Spermaceti candles made, go to the [West Indies] where the heat of the climate renders them cheaper than tallow. The other eighth supplies Europe, Africa and America."3

1784 June 10. (Jefferson to Ezra Stiles). "Monsr. de Buffon the celebrated Physiologist of the present age, who has advanced a theory in general very degrading to America, has in this particular also adopted an opinion which I think not founded in fact. It is that this animal was the same with the elephant of Asia and Africa."4

1784 November 11. (Jefferson to Jacob Read). "You will have heard of some little affairs between France and Portugal on the coast of Africa. They will have no ill consequences. Portugal was building forts to appropriate to herself a part of that coast and thus narrow the feild of general commerce. France interfered in the common cause, destroyed the forts, and thus placed that part of the coast again in statu quo."5

1785-1786? (Jefferson's Estimate of American Imports). This document lists imports from Europe, Africa, and the West Indies.6

1787 March 29. (Jefferson's Notes of a Tour into the Southern Parts of France, &c.). "It is observed to me that the olive tree grows no where more than 30 leagues distant from that sea. I suppose however that both Spain and Portugal furnish proofs to the contrary, and doubt it's truth as to Asia, Africa and America."7

1787 August 10. (Jefferson to Peter Carr). List of recommended reading that includes Antoine Augustin Bruzen la Martinière's Introduction a l'Histoire de l'Asie, de l'Afrique, et de l'Amerique.8

1788 May 28. (Jefferson to John Brown). "I cannot think but that it would be desireable to all commercial nations to have that nation [the Ottoman Empire] and all it's dependancies driven from the sea-coast into the interior parts of Asia and Africa. What a feild would thus be restored to commerce! The finest parts of the old world are now dead in a great degree, to commerce, to arts, to science, and to society. Greece, Syria, Egypt and the Northern coast of Africa constituted the whole world almost for the Romans, and to us they are scarcely known, scarcely accessible at all."9

1788 July 19. (Jefferson to Rev. James Madison). "He [John Ledyard] went to London, engaged under the auspices of a private society formed there for pushing discoveries into Africa, passed by this place [Paris], which he left a few days ago for Marseilles, where he will embark for Alexandria and Grand Cairo, thence explore the Nile to it's source, cross to the head of the Niger, and descend that to it's mouth. He promises me, if he escapes through this journey, he will go to Kentuckey and endeavour to penetrate Westwardly from thence to the South sea."10

1789 February 28. (Jefferson to William Short). "I have received a letter from Lediard dated Grand Cairo Sep. 10. He was just then about to plunge into the terrae incognitae of Africa. This morning I receive one from Admiral Paul Jones dated St. Petersburg Jan. 31. He was just arrived there at the desire of the empress. He has commanded hitherto on the Black sea, but does not know whether the Empress destines him to return there or to take any other command."11

1789 September 18. (Jefferson to Edward Rutledge). "I have duly received your favor by Mr. Cutting, inclosing the paper from Doctr. Trumbull for which I am very thankful. The conjecture that inhabitants may have been carried from the coast of Africa to that of America by the trade winds is possible enough; and it's probability would be greatly strengthened by ascertaining a similarity of language, which I consider as the strongest of all proofs of consanguinity among nations. Still a question would remain between the red men of the Eastern and Western sides of the Atlantic, which is the stock and which the shoot? If a fact be true, which I suspect to be true, that there is a much greater number of radical languages among those of America, than among those of the other hemisphere, it would be a proof of superior antiquity which I can conceive no arguments strong enough to over-rule."12

1790 November 27. (Jefferson to Samuel Vaughan, Jr.). "About two months ago I was fortunate enough to recieve a cask of mountain rice from the coast of Africa. This has enabled me to engage so many persons in the experiment as to be tolerably sure it will be fairly made by some of them. It will furnish also a comparison with that from Timor. I have the success of this species of rice at heart, because it will not only enable other states to cultivate rice which have not lands susceptible of inundation but because also, if the rice be as good as is said, it may take place of the wet rice in the Southern states, and by superseding the necessity of overflowing their lands, save them from the pestilential and mortal fevers brought on by that operation."13

1791 August 30. (Jefferson to Benjamin Banneker). "No body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and America."14

1800 April 10. (Jefferson to Littleton W. Tazewell). "there is nothing in nature corresponding with the man of Europe, except the tyger of Africa."15

[after 1800 September 2]. (Summary of Public Service). "In 1790. I got a cask of the heavy upland rice from the river Denbigh in Africa, about Lat. 9 H. 30' North, which I sent to Charleston, in hopes it might supercede the culture of the wet rice which renders S. Carola & Georgia so pestilential through the summer. it was divided, & a part sent to Georgia. I know not whether it has been attended to in S. Carola; but it has spread in the upper parts of Georgia so as to have become almost general, & is highly prized. perhaps it may answer in Tennissee & Kentucky. the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to it's culture; especially a bread grain."16

1800 September 23. (Jefferson to Benjamin Rush). "I have not seen the work of Sonnoni which you mention. but I have seen another work on Africa, Parke's, which I fear will throw cold water on the hopes of the friends of freedom."17

1808 December 1. (Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse). Jefferson learned from the works of De Porpre of upland rice growing "... all along the coast of Africa ... I found there [Havre] Capt. Nathanl. Cutting, who was the ensuing spring to go on a voyage along the coast of Africa. I engaged him to enquire for this. he was there just after the harvest, procured & sent me a 30. gallon cask of it. it arrived in time the ensuing spring to be sown."18

1809 December 11. (Jefferson to Nathaniel Chapman). "Williams, in his history of Vermont, has an essay on the change of climate in Europe, Asia, & Africa, & has very ingeniously laid history under contribution for materials."19

1811 January 21. (Jefferson to John Lynch). "You have asked my opinion on the proposition of mrs Mifflin to take measures for procuring on the coast of Africa an establishment to which the people of color of these states might from time to time be colonised, under the auspices of different governments. having long ago made up my mind on this subject, I have no hesitation in saying that I have ever thought it the most desirable measure which could be adopted for gradually drawing off this part of our population most advantageously for themselves as well as for us. going from a country possessing all the useful arts, they might be the means of transplanting them among the inhabitants of Africa, and would thus carry back to the country of their origin the seeds of civilisation, which might render their sojournment and sufferings here a blessing in the end to that country."20

1812 June 11. (Jefferson to John Adams). "but unluckily Lafitau had in his head a preconcieved theory on the mythology, manners, institutions & government of the antient nations of Europe, Asia, & Africa, and seems to have entered on those of America only to fit them into the same frame, and to draw from them a confirmation of his general theory."21

Books About Africa in Jefferson's Library

The following list was compiled by James Gilreath and Douglas Wilson and published in Thomas Jefferson's Library: A Catalog with the Entries in His Own Order.22

  • Shaw's Travels, fol.
  • Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte, par Volney, 2 v 8º.
  • Lettres sur l'Egypte, par Savary, 3 v 8º.
  • Description de l'Egypte par Maillet, 2 v 12º.
  • Voyage de Denon dans la basse et haute Egypte, 2 v 4º Lond. 1802.
  • Voyage de Guinee, par Bosman, 12º.
  • Description du Cap de Bonne Esperance, par Kolbe, 3 v 12º.
  • Sparmann's voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, from 1772 to 1776 2 v 8º.
  • Bruce's Travels, 6 v 8º.
  • Relation de l'Afrique, par de La Croix, 4 v 12º.
  • Histoire de l'Afrique Française, par l'abbe Demanet, 2 v 12º.
  • Voyage de Dubois aux isles Dauphine, Bourbon, &c. 12º.
  • Voyage de Madagascar, 12º.
Filed In: 


Login or register to participate in our online community.