The Eye of the Beholder:
Africa Through Western Eyes
Exploration of the Unknown
The Ptolemaic World View
1482, Nicolaus Germanus Donnus, Ulm
For many Europeans in the fifteenth century, the world looked much the
same as it had to Ptolemy in the second century. His work on geography
was the basis for most scholarship throughout the Middle Ages and into
the Renaissance, before exploration and imprved technology began to provide
better informaiton. This particular map is a reproduction of one from
an edition of Ptolemy's Geography, published in 1482.
In the Ptolemaic world view, Africa, Antarctica, and part of Asia were
all joined, forming a large southern land mass marked simply "Terra Incognito."
The exact shape of Africa was not known, and the northern part was depicted
as much broader and squarer than it actually is. The source of the Nile
River was also not known, and was not discovered until the late nineteenth
century. But there were two major theories about it, both of which are
shown here. The first was that the source lay in the Mountains of the
Moon, a mountain range far to the south which had never been fully explored
due to its challenging nature. The other main theory was that there were
two lakes from which the Nile's two branches flowed. Over the next centuries,
both of these theories were used by European mapmakers, and sometimes
even combined, as in this map.
Tabulam hanc Aegypti
1591/1598, Frankfurt, Filippo Pigafetta/Theodore de Bry
Filippo Pigafetta was an Italian historian and traveler who published
a two-sheet map of Africa in his Relatione del reame di Congo in
1591. He drew on the work of Duarte Lopes, a Portuguese explorer who collected
a mass of geographic information on the Congo and its basin. This is one
of the few early maps to make a meaningful alteration in the geography
of Africa. It changes the Ptolemaic conception of the sources of the Nile
from two lakes side by side to two lakes one on top of the other, wh ich
conforms more closely to the actual location of Lakes Victoria and Tanganyika.
This is de Bry's re-engraved edition of Pigafetta's map.
Africae Tabula Nova
1570, Antwerp, Abraham Ortelius
The explosion of European trade and exploration in the sixteenth
century enabled geographers to gain a clearer and more precise image of
the physical shape of Africa. Less than thirty years after Sebastian Munster
produced his map with its fanciful illus trations and its Ptolemaic view
of the coast of Africa, Ortelius depicts the coastline with almost complete
accuracy. The interior is also more detailed than that of many previous
maps, though there are still large regions marked with the names of tribes
such as the Amazons, or labeled simply "Deserta."
Images of the Fantastic
Aethiopia Superior vel Interior vulgo Abissinorum sive Presbiteri
c. 1642, Amsterdam, Johannes Blaeu
The legend of Prester John first appeared in Europe in tne middle of
the twelfth century, at the height of the Crusades. Reports of a Christian
kingdom, standing alone against the infidels somewhere far to the east,
gave Europeans hope that with the help of this new ally, they could defeat
the Muslims and retake the Holy Land. The ruler of this land was called
King John Presbyter, or Prester John. Repeated attempts to contact or
locate Prester John failed, however. When Marco Polo made his famous journey
to the East, he found a loosely organized Christian tribe in central Asia,
not the powerful kingdom that Europeans had expected to find there. And
so the Prester John legend lost popularity among Europeans -- until 1310,
when King Wedem Ra'ad of Ethiopia, a Coptic Christian, sent an ambassador
to Europe. Here was a ruler who seemed to match the description of Prester
John exactly...but in Africa, not Asia.
From that time on, Prester John's kingdom was placed in Ethiopia, and
its ruler's descent traced from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The Portuguese
exploration of the west coast of Africa in the fifteenth century was done
in part as an attempt to find a new route to the lands of Prester John.
However, as time went on, missionaries began to bring back reports of
the Christian rulers of Ethiopia which did not match the image created
by the Europeans. Furthermore, the Crusades were long over, and Christian
Europeans no longer needed either the military help nor the emotional
sustenance provided by allies - real or imaginary - in the East. Over
the course of the sixteenth century, a disillusioned Europe gradually
let the myth of Prester John die out.
c. 1545, Basle, Sebastian Munster
This woodcut map exemplifies the way that Africa was commonly viewed
by Europeans in the early sixteenth century: a mysterious place, inhabited
by strange people and even stranger creatures. Geographically, it conforms
to the paradigm set by Ptolemy over 1300 years before, depicting the northern
half of the continent as disproportionately large and squared-off, and
the Red Sea as much too wide. The locations of a few kingdoms are known,
and labeled accordingly. However, there are large blank spaces, and no
cities are marked. There are also pictures of exotic or even fantastic
creatures, such as the Monoculi. The mythical kingdom of Prester John
is also included, approximately where modern Ethiopia would be.
Africa Nova Descripto
1630, Amsterdam, Willem Janzsoon Blaeu
This map, which appears in Volume X of Blaeu's Grand Atlas, is notable
for its decorative and artistic merit as well as its relative geographic
accuracy. The shape of the continent is almost perfect, and the coastal
cities and rivers are named in meticulous detail.
However, the names of places are, in many cases, engraved inwards to
give an impression of fullness, and there are still many blank spaces
on the map - which, as with earlier maps, are filled with elephants, ostriches,
and camels. The empty spaces in the ocean are decorated with animals as
well, but in this case, they are fanciful creatures such as flying fish
and sea monsters. But realism and pragmatism are not entirely lost: the
seas are also dotted with ships flying the Dutch flag, reminders of the
naval power of the Netherlands at this time.
The Golden Age of Cartography
Africa ex Magna Orbis
1595, Amsterdam, Gerardus Mercator
The end of the sixteenth century marked the ascendancy of the Low Countries
in mapmaking, as Antwerp and then Amsterdam became the leading map production
centers until the start of the eighteenth century. Ortelius, Mercator,
and Blaeu are all representatives of this "golden age" of cartography.
This map is from Atlas sive cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica
mundi et fabrica figura, the first complete Mercator atlas, published
in 1595 (the year of Mercator's death) by his son Rumbold. It was based
on Gerardus (Gerhard) Mercator's world map of 1569, the first to use the
projection that bears his name. The map of Africa was updated and redrawn
for the 1595 edition by his grandson, also named Gerhard Mercator. It
is one of the most distinctive maps of the continent, and the silk-effect
sea shading and elaborate strapwork were typical of the period. Although
the information is much the same as in the maps of Ortelius, this volume
was extremely popular, and many editions were published in various languages
throughout the first half of the seventeenth century.
Carte de Nigrite
1653, Paris, Pierre du Val
1730, Brussels, Guillaume de L'Isle
Map production in France was seen as of no great importance, at least
compared to its northern neighbors, until the mid-seventeenth century.
From that point onwards, as France grew in wealth and power, its contributions
to world geography formed the basis of "scientific" cartography.
The best-known figure in French cartography is Guillaume de L'Isle,
whose maps of the newly-explored parts of the world reflect the most up-to-date
information available. Unlike some other cartographers, he did not include
fanciful detail in the absence of solid information. De L'Isle's maps
were copied and reprinted for well over 100 years, and most of the maps
of Africa issued in the eighteenth century were based on his work.
Pierre du Val was the nephew and pupil of another great French cartographer,
Nicolas Sanson. His work is less ornate than that of the Dutch school,
and the usual seventeenth-century decorations are omitted.
Missions, Colonies, and Trade
L'Afrique divisée en ses principaux Etats
1782, Paris, Jean Janvier
Janvier, a French geographer who worked in Paris in the second
half of the eighteenth century, collaboratedon an Atlas Moderne
publishedin several editions from 1762 to the 1780s. This map is reasonably
accurate, reflecting the known geography of the east and west coasts at
that time, while leaving much of the interior and southern Africa devoid
Africa, Performed by the Sr. Danville...Revised and Improved by Mr. Bolton
c. 1785, London, Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville/Solomon Bolton
By the eighteenth century, trade routes to Africa were such a commonplace
and established part of the European economy that Europeans were beginning
to identify different regions of Africa based on what commodities they
obtained there. This map illustrates this clearly, naming four parts of
the west coast "The Grain Coast," "The Tooth Coast" (elephant tusks; later
called the Ivory Coast), "The Gold Coast," and "The Slave Coast."
This is one sheet of a four-sheet map. D'Anville, the French Royal Geographer,
rejected the unconfirmed cartography and plagiarism so common among earlier
mapmakers, and left blank spaces on his maps where no information was
available. His maps were often copied and revised by Bolton for the British
publishers Sayer, and Laurie and Whittle.
A New Map of Africa, from the Latest Authorities
John Cary, London, 1811
By the early nineteenth century, European colonization of Africa was
in full swing, and explorers were venturing for the first time into the
uncharted interior of the continent. Ironically, however, it seems that
as Europeans gained more accurate and certain knowledge of the geography
of Africa, the more likely mapmakers were to admit what they did not know.
This map illustrates the point dramatically. While the Janvier and Bolton
maps show relatively little interior detail, Cary's map is even more cautious,
with large areas labeled "unknown."
L'Afrique suivant les Derniers Observations de Mr. Hass et des RRPP
George Louis Le Rouge, Paris, 1747
George le Rouge was a French engraver, Goegrapher to the King, and publisher
of many atlases. This 1747 map is similar to one by Johann Hass published
a decade earlier by the famous German mapmaking family of Johann Homann.
Much of the usual ornamentation has disappeared from the map as well as
most of the fictitious lakes and rivers.
The cartouche shows three Europeans talking to a native ruler, while
the table in the upper left reflects the first tentative claims of various
nations on parts of the continent. The countries represented include France,
Spain, Portugal, England, and Holland.
1845, Paris, Victor Levasseur and Raimond Bonheur
This map suggests the attitude that some colonial powers might
have adopted toward their African territories. Africa is depicted here
as a woman, dressed exotically and surrounded by wild animals: something
to be tamed, yet protected at the same time.
Many Europeans saw themselves as educators as well - in many cases they
believed that their colonization of Africa would bring enlightenment to
the continent. As Levasseur says, describing his own pictures in the margins
of the map, "The children of France bring to a glorious life Algeria,
conquered by their force of intelligence which must one day unite all
Map of Africa
1905, Buffalo, New York, Central Committee on the United Study of Missions
As the nineteenth century went on, the continent of Africa was
occupied more and more by European colonies. By 1900, as this map shows,
almost the entire continent was claimed by one European power or another.
Many cities and towns retained their native African names, but labels
such as "French West Africa," "Anglo-Egyptian Sudan," and "Italian Somaliland"
leave no question as to which European nation held sway in which region.
This map also traces the most common routes of travel from European cities
to African cities.
Along with the move to colonize Africa came the drive to spread Christianity
throughout the continent. This map was made by missionaries and for missionaries,
intending to educate them about their destination before their arrival.
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