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The Mapping of Africa

The Mapping of Africa

Maps have always existed. There may not be physical evidence of its existence, but mind maps have been created since the dawn of time. A simple thought of remembering in which direction you need to travel can be considered a map of some sort. As the human mind has evolved and developed, so have the techniques for map making. A map can be used to represent an infinite number of subjects – Babylonians were fascinated by the concept of Heaven and Earth and created one of the first town plans that is still in existence, of Nippur in what is now Iraq, dating back to about 1500 BC. Carved on a small tablet, the town walls and waterways can be considered drawn to a consistent scale. Seven town gates are shown and named, as are two temples (one dedicated to the Sumerian god Enlil) which are all represented in a very simplistic manner but the map itself is overwhelming in its success to embody it’s subject.

The development of geographically accurate maps, maps which depict the exact location and physical description of coastlines, mountain ranges, roadways, rivers, and towns, for example, was wholly dependent on the development of scientific resources, correct ideas and key mathematical concepts and skill. Guesswork, successive misunderstandings, second hand information, personal perspective, bias and interpretation all contributed to the scarcity of geographically accurate maps before the twentieth century and still many early maps depict features that are not only entirely imagined but also key features in the entirely wrong place. Most people today could not even name the position of many countries with a fully complete Atlas in front of them, let alone draw an accurate outline of a country, off the top of their heads. Lands discovered by the new world changed and adapted, and scientific discovery was key in identifying the concept of our exact position in the universe – the equator, equal distance between both poles, is an invisible line, but it exists.

This map of Africa, published in 1854 by Scottish based cartographical company Gall & Inglis, is interesting as it shows that the interior of Africa was almost entirely unknown as late as the 19th century.  Only the coastlines, harbours and west of the Sahara are a realistically represented – the rest simply labelled ‘Region Unexplored’. During the sixteenth century, the Portuguese became the leading European chart makers because they were the first European nation to build ships strong enough to sail around Africa to the Indian Ocean. Information for the facilitation of trade was important, therefore the accurate mapping of coasts and harbours, but it was unnecessary, and highly dangerous, for Europeans to travel further in land. Second hand knowledge made it possible for the rough sketching of important landmarks, for example, but it was very difficult to gain scientifically accurate information about the continent until talented explorers, geographers and scientists, such as Dr Livingstone, observed the unchartered lands in the later part of the 19th century, and bought back surveys, drawings and major revelations to Britain – such as the sight of Victoria Falls, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world with a height of more than 100 metres. Before the first-hand observations of these talented scientists, much of the interior detail is often imaginary. Relaying of information relied solely on spoken word, written accounts and handmade charts.

Maps are one of the oldest forms of communication and the coasts of Africa were mapped as trade routes developed. Europeans bought manufactured goods, and silver, to the West African coast for the trade of gold, wood, ivory and, above all, slaves, which were taken to the new world and sold. Between 1450 & 1870, around 11.5 million slaves were exported, first to Europe and then to the Americas. Early European explorers were very much content to coast the shores of Africa – with local tribes bringing trade goods from the interior. The interior was a terrifying thought for early explorers. Encroaching on the land meant not only the threat of harm from the African people, but death from local diseases was highly likely, from which Europeans would have little, or no, resistance. Climate, behaviour and customs would all vary from the top to the bottom of the continent and the risk did not outweigh the benefits.

The earliest mapping of Africa largely relies on archaeology revealing information and evidence about the African people. Evidence strongly suggests that the evolution of humans began in Africa – stretching back over 5 million years. Living in mobile groups – hunting, gathering and fishing – early settlements would be located by springs, lakes and rivers. Cattle are a frequent motif in Saharan Rock Art – ‘petroglyphs’ dating back to as early as 1500 BC, indicating their importance, rather than evidence of domesticated cattle and grazing land. The Sahara is the largest hot desert in world at 9,200,000 square kilometres. The desert covers up to 31% of the African continent and sand dunes are up to 180 metres high. To the north, the Sahara skirts the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt and portions of Libya and was not considered an impenetrable barrier by early European explorers. African people have lived on the edge of the Saharan desert since the last ice age – there are over 30,000 petroglyphs of river animals such as crocodiles still in existence today.

As we garner more information about the world in which we live, the need for more and more complex mapping techniques becomes a necessity. Whether the Ancient Egyptians created their temples and pyramids without drawing plans remains a mystery but it would be impossible to create such structures without incredibly detailed drawings today. The ability to accurately visualise a structure, place or scene has always existed but the science, mathematics and understanding needed to accurately detail our place in relationship to the universe has not. Perhaps one of the most knowledgeable works from early cartographers is The Geography of Claudius Ptolemy, a Roman citizen who wrote in Greek and lived in Alexandria, Egypt in the second century AD. A mathematician, astronomer, geographer and astrologer his work successfully combined this knowledge with the latest information from explorers, based on latitude and longitude, to create some of the most highly accurate maps developed, and his influence is still felt today. Ptolemy’s knowledge of the world was far from perfect – he placed the ‘Mountains of the Moon’ in the centre of Africa and these mountains were not discovered to be a total fallacy until 2,000 years later when the true topography of the continent became known. The format in which he displayed his data, however, was the foundation for the development of the first modern Atlas.

Explorations by Richard Burton, John Speke and James Grant in the latter part of the 18th century greatly increased our cartographic knowledge of the interior of Africa. The ‘Scramble for Africa’ began in the 1880’s when European colonisation of Africa had become more active. The major powers – Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy – all became embroiled in a race to claim land in Africa for themselves – a rush to claim remaining uncolonized areas before a rival European power could do so. The ‘Scramble for Africa’ had huge influence on the cartographers who set about drawing the lines on the map which would separate their respective colonies and maps just half a century later depict very little, if any, land unexplored.  

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