Early Modern Mapping of Africa
The outline of Africa took shape in the European mind, and on European maps, around 1500. This was the Age of Exploration—Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the 1480s, and shortly after, Vasco de Gama continued all the way around the continent to the Spice Islands. As mariners brought back their observations and measurements of the coasts they passed by, the shape of Africa familiar to us today appeared on maps.
The interior of Africa was another matter. Europeans did not penetrate the heart of the continent for centuries to come, and yet maps of Africa from the 16th and 17th centuries are filled with geographic detail. The most prominent and consistent feature in these maps is the Nile River, both its source and its course. The source usually appears as one, two, or three lakes, typically in “Mountains of the Moon,” and sometimes with fountains, springs, and more rivers heading off in other directions—all variations on a single theme. If the Europeans had not yet penetrated the heart of Africa, where did these ideas come from? As it turns out, from the Ancients.
Much of the detail about inner Africa came from the Geography, a treatise written around 160 CE by the Alexandrian Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemy. The Geography was lost to the Latin West after the fall of Rome in the 5th century, but it was rediscovered in Byzantium around 1300 and later found its way to Italy. Ptolemy’s work was translated into Latin around 1410, and from that moment on, it had a profound influence on European cartography. The Geography provided coordinates of all the locations in the world known to the Ancients (the oikumene)—along with conjecture on places known through story, including the source of the Nile. For centuries, Ptolemy’s description of inner Africa appeared in one form or another on maps, often intermingled with medieval Christian legend and the residue of classical stories from Greek and Roman authors such as Herodotus and Pliny the Elder.
The maps in this case illustrate the Early Modern mapping of Africa, and the persistence of the Ancients even in the Age of Exploration.
Barb Mackraz, MLA 2016