Sunday, April 3, 2011

Rediscovering African Geographies

The Catalan Atlas, 1375, by Abraham Cresques – detail showing Northern Africa, with a depiction of The King of Mali and Lord of Guinea, Mansa Musa, 1312-1337, seated on his throne in a stately fashion with crown, orb, and scepter, with the inscription: The richest and noblest King in the world.

“This ‘atlas’ was the work of a family of Catalonian Jews who worked in Majorca at the end of the 14th century and was commissioned by Charles V of France at a time when the reputation of the Catalan chartmakers was at its peak.  King Charles requested this map from Peter of Aragon, patron of the best Majorcan mapmaker of the time: Abraham Cresques.  The ‘atlas’ that resulted has subsequently been called ‘the most complete picture of geographical knowledge as it stood in the later Middle Ages.’ 
The title of the Atlas shows clearly the spirit in which it was executed and its content: Mappamundi, that is to say, image of the world and of the regions which are on the earth and of the various kinds of peoples which inhabit it.  A major impetus to the advancement of exploration in western Europe during the later Middle Ages came through the evolution and use of the nautical chart or portolano.  Designed to assist mariners find their way at sea, it served a practical purpose akin to that of the future road map, but it answered this purpose by depicting not the route itself, but detailed coastlines and hazards to shipping.  The Catalan Atlas is actually a world map built up around a portolan chart, thus combining aspects of the nautical chart by employing loxodromes and coastal detail with the medieval mappaemundi exemplified by its legends and illustrations.  The result is that the Atlas represents a transitionary step towards the world maps developed later during the Renaissance, especially by its extensive application of contemporary geographical knowledge and ambitious scope.
The crowned black man holding a golden disk is identified as Musse Melly, ‘lord of the negroes of Guinea’ - in fact, Mansa Musa, of fabulous wealth. ‘The King,’ we are told, ‘is the richest and most distinguished ruler of this whole region, on account of the great quantity of gold that is found in his land.’  Mansa Musa, who reigned over the kingdom of Mali, probably from 1312 to 1337, is known for having encouraged the development of Islamic learning.  His pilgrimage to Mecca, including a visit to Cairo, was famous for the enormous amount of gold he spent on that occasion.  This is plausible enough, for he controlled a large part of Africa, from Gambia and Senegal to Gao on the Niger, and had access to some of its richest gold deposits. Reports of the fabulous wealth of this African ruler did much to encourage an interest in the exploration of Africa. 
East of the Sultan of Mali appears the King of Organa, in turban and blue dress, holding an oriental sword and a shield.  He is, we are told, ‘a Saracen who waged constant war against the Saracens of the coast and with the other Arabs.’  Still farther to the east is the King of Nubia, ‘always at war and under arms against the Nubian Christians, who are under the rule of the Emperor of Ethiopia and belong to the realm of Prester John.’  On the Catalan Atlas, Africa is also symbolized by a nude black man with a camel and a turreted elephant.  Camels were first used for the trans-Sahara trade sometime between the second and fifth century A.D., after being introduced from Arabia.  Thanks to their notorious capacity to travel long distances without water, they completely transformed African trade, opening sub-Saharan areas to Islam.  The elephant, which inhabits the area south of the Sahara, signifies the fact, as the text puts it, that Africa is the land of ivory ‘on account of the large numbers of elephants that live there.’ ”
(excerpted from Henry Davis Consulting at

This audio slide show, link below, is a nice introduction to a new exhibit at the Royal Geographical Society in London, Rediscovering African Geographies - the history of Africa as seen through maps, narrated by British and African scholars.

Rediscovering African Geographies can be seen at the Royal Geographical Society in London between 22 March - 28 April 2011.  Check out the zoom-able maps and other informative materials in the exhibit.

From the blurb announcing the exhibit:
“From the great African Kings and Empires from 3000BC to the complex trade networks and migration of Africans within the continent and across the world, the Society's new Rediscovering African Geographies exhibition uses maps, photographs and literature from our Collections to travel through Africa’s history.
Rediscovering African Geographies shows, from an African perspective, how culture, international relations, language and conflict have shaped the geography we know today. It reveals often neglected stories and how these records of African societies, cultures and landscapes helped shape and inform European views of this continent and its people.
The exhibition, which runs from 22 March 2011 to 28 April 2011, has been created with African community partners representing the Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and South Africa.
The exhibition features Africans such as James Chuma, Abdullah Susi and Sidi Mubarak Bombay who made important contributions to the Victorian expeditions undertaken by David Livingstone and others that were supported by the Society.”  (Source: Royal Geographical Society webpage)

Since most of us, regrettably, won’t get to see the exhibit in London, I have put together a little tour of some historical maps of Africa (not from the RGS exhibit), but which are interesting nonetheless.  Note that many of the maps are by some of the most illustrious cartographers in history: 

Cosmographia Claudii Ptolomaei Alexandrini, 1467, by Nicolaus Germanus after Claudius Ptolemaeus, published in Reichenbach Monastery. 

Africa in Cantino, 1502, a portolan chart showing detailed information about coastal areas, which were the areas of Africa that were both the most well-known as well as the most useful to the Europeans.

Map of Africa, drawn in 1508, map maker unknown. 

Nautical (Portolan) chart of Africa, by Portuguese cartographer Fernão Vaz Dourado (1520 - c. 1580), part of a nautical atlas drawn in 1571, and now kept in the Portuguese National Archives of Torre do Tombo, Lisbon.

Antique map of Prester John’s kingdom in Ethiopia, by Ortelius.  The Latin reads: ‘A description of the Empire of Prester John of the Abyssinians.’  Note the little drawings of elephants scattered about.

Africae tabula nova,” by Abraham Ortelius, 1570, Antwerpen,  

West Afrika, 1596, by Jan Huygen van Linschoten. Note that the Atlantic Ocean is called Oceanus Aethiopicus (Ethiopian Sea) on this map.

Amina (El Mina),West Africa, 16th Century.  Elmina Castle was built by Portugal in 1482 as São Jorge da Mina (St. George of the Mine) Castle, in present day Elmina, Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast).  It was the first trading post built on the Gulf of Guinea, so it's the oldest European building in existence south of the Sahara.  First established as a trade settlement, the castle later became one of the most important stops on the Atlantic Slave Trade route.  The Dutch seized the fort in 1637, and continued the slave trade from there until 1814, and in 1871, the British took  over the castle as well as the colony.  In 1957 the Gold Coast gained its independence, and the new country of Ghana took control of the castle.  UNESCO has named it as a World Heritage Site.

Map of the Abyssinian Empire (in the medieval imagination) drawn in 16th century, combining Ptolemie's tradition and findings of contemporary travelers, by Gerardus Mercator, 1595.  Atlas sive cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica mundi et fabricati figura. Originally published by Jodocus Hondius.

Map of Africa, by Mercator, from the same Atlas, 1595.

Map of Africa, 1600, from Johannes Leo Africanus, A Geographical Historie of Africa, Written in Arabicke and Italian. ... Before which... is Prefixed a Generall Description of Africa, and... a Particular Treatise of All the... Lands... Undescribed, by J. Leo... Translated and Collected by J. Pory. London: George Bishop.  The north African geographer, al-Hassan ibn-Mohammed al-Wezaz al-Fasi (c.1483-1552), better known as Leo Africanus, geographer extraordinaire to kings, sultans, the Sublime Porte, and the Christian Pope, was quite an incredible person who led a most interesting and eventful life.  If you aren't familiar with Leo Africanus, watch this blog for a future posting devoted to him.

Africæ nova description, 1635, by Willem Janszoon Blaeu, (1571-1638) published in Amsterdam, “Cum privilegio ad decennium.”  Relief shown pictorially.  Map contained within illustrated frame. Nine city views across top of map: Tanger, Ceuta, Alger, Tunis, Alexandria, Alcair, Mozambique, S. Georgius della Mina, Canaria.  Source: Northwest University Library.

“L'Afrique suivant les premiers voyages par Mer des Portugais,” by Pieter van der Leyden, 1714.

Map detail showing the Bight of Biafra from a 1729 map by Herman Moll, (1654-1732) showing “Negroland and Guinea. With the European Settlements. Explaining what belongs to England, Holland, Denmark, etc.”  Source: Atlas Minor, originally published in 1727 in London.  The map shows the area from the Tropic of Cancer to Cameroon.  From the University of Florida Map and Image Library.   

Guinea Propria, Nec Non Nigritiae Vel Terrae Nigorum…Aethiopia Inferior…1743, Homann Heirs.  One of the finest maps of west Africa to appear in the mid 17th century.  Details West Africa from Cape Blanc and Senegal to Guinea Inferior and the Cacongo and Barbela Rivers. Extends inland to including Ghana Lake on the Niger River as far as Regio Auri.  The coast is highly detailed with numerous notations regarding the peoples and tribes of the region.  The detail extends inland along some river valleys, most specifically the Niger, however, the map becomes quite vague the farther the river flows inland.  Features an elaborate enbraving in the lower left depicting ivory, Africa tribespeople and a small village.
Map of Africa, made by John Cary in 1805.  The map shows the non-existent “Mountains of Kong.”

Africa,” from Brookes, R., The General Gazetteer; or Compendious Geographical Dictionary. Eighth Edition.  Dublin, 1808.

Map of Africa, 1812, by Arrowsmith and Lewis, printed in Boston by Thomas & Andrews.

Africa, 1827, by Anthony Finley (1790-1840), American Cartographer.  “A beautiful example of Finley’s important 1827 map of Africa.  This map predates the explosion of African exploration that occurred in the mid-19th century.  Much of the interior remains unknown.  The Ptolemaic Mountains of the Moon are drawn stretching across the central part of the continent with the suggestions that they are the source of several branches of the Nile.  Several speculative courses are drawn for the Niger River, one of which joins it to the Nile, another of which flows south of the Mountains of the Moon into the Congo, and yet another of which, correctly, bends southwards to empty into the Bight of Biafra.  Identifies numerous African tribes throughout, including the Pomba, Jaga, Tbook, Tuareg, Tibboos, Bambara, and others.  Also identifies a land of Cannibals in Mozambique.  Title and scale in lower left quadrant. Engraved by Young and Delleker for the 1827 edition of Anthony Finley's General Atlas.”  Source: Finley, Anthony, A New General Atlas, Comprising a Complete Set of Maps, representing the Grand Divisions of the Globe, Together with the several Empires, Kingdoms and States in the World; Compiled from the Best Authorities, and corrected by the Most Recent Discoveries, Philadelphia, 1827.

Historical map of Africa, 1885, by J. Bartholomew, F.R.G.S. John Bartholomew (1831 – 1893), a Scottish cartographer, born in Edinburgh.  The image shows a political map with the knowledge about Africa in the year 1885.

Muhammadan Africa, 1899, from “A History of the Colonization of Africa by Alien Races,” by Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston, 1858-1927, and J.G. Bartholomew, Cartographer, 1860-1920, Source: New York Public Library.

Africa.  Source: Encyclopedia Britannica 1911

Modern Africa, 1913, by J.G. Bartholomew, LL.D., originally published in “A literary and historical atlas of Africa and Australasia,” by J. G. Bartholomew, London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd; New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc. 1913.

German Claims in Africa, 1917, according to Professor Delbruck
Ottoman Map of Africa


  1. Greetings. My blog posting has nothing to do with Ancient Greece, so your comment makes no sense and is not relevant. I notice that you also left a similar one on another post about Ancient Egypt, when the post had said absolutely nothing about Ancient Egypt. Please stop leaving these inane comments on my blog. Thank you.

  2. Map Monkey, Thank you so much for your wonderful blog! In case you are not aware, please explore the African rare maps at the Free Online Cartographic Library: in Boston, MA

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. It really does sound interesting! Maps are such an important part of life–whether they are made of paper or are digital–and it would interesting to learn their history and how they came to be.Feel free to visit my web page Historic map

  4. Hi. I'm writing a long narrative poem, and my "hero" is now traveling from Andalusia, about 1040CE, to Metz. I want to include a map (which I'll make myself) that he might have used to travel this route. I'd love to see some relevant examples of the region from around that time (=- 250 years?). I found you as I was searching for maps, and I thought you might be able to focus my search. Thanks in advance.
    Steve Berer, steve at shivvetee dot com.