Imaginary Africa: Armchair Geographers, Romantic Writers and Visions of the ‘Dark Continent’
by David Lambert
This exhibit is concerned with the entanglements associated with what was simultaneously the Romantic Period and the classic age of West African exploration in which Africa became an ever more sharply-defined object in the Euro-Atlantic imagination (3). In particular, it examines the traffic between the West Africa mapped out by the armchair geographer and commercial projector, James MacQueen, and the imaginary West Africa created by the young Brontë siblings (1 and 2). In different ways, all these African maps are imaginary, yet carry deeper ‘truths’ – not only about African hydrology, but also the place of empire, slavery and race in the early nineteenth-century British Atlantic world.
Map of ‘Africa North of the Equator Showing the Course & Direction of the Principal Rivers and Mountains Particularly of the Niger and its Tributary Streams from the Best Authorities’
Map of ‘Africa North of the Equator Showing the Course & Direction of the Principal Rivers and Mountains Particularly of the Niger and its Tributary Streams from the Best Authorities’ in Geography of Central Africa, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 19. James MacQueen. 1826. Image courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.
This map accompanied an article in which James MacQueen (1778-1870) argued that the River Niger was an ideal means for British commerce with the African interior. However, that the Niger terminated in the Atlantic Ocean was not an accepted geographical fact in Europe at this time. Indeed, MacQueen’s map also depicted an alternative theory that the river followed far to the east and joined with the Nile, which had been most recently articulated by Sir James Barrow, Second Secretary to the Admiralty and the key co-ordinator of British exploratory activities. While MacQueen’s hypothesis was not accepted by Europe’s geographical establishment, he would soon be proven to have been right.
Map of the Glass Town Federation and surrounding lands
Map of the Glass Town Federation and surrounding lands in The History of the Young Men from their First Settlement to the Present Time. Bramwell Brontë. 1830-7. Image courtesy of the British Library.
This map was made by a young Bramwell Brontë (1817-48) to accompany the Glass Town and Angrian saga that he created with his sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, from the mid-1820s to the 1840s. Comprised of poems, articles, plays, speeches, short stories, and novelettes, these stories represent a crucial part of the Brontës’ juvenilia and early writings. Bramwell’s map follows MacQueen’s Niger theory and although his imaginary river is more truncated, it also terminates at the sea, the location of Glass Town’s federal capital, ‘Verdopolis’. While the significance of this influence on the Brontë’s imaginary Africa has been recognised, the origins of the MacQueen map are far more complicated and murky than has been appreciated, lying as they do in the Caribbean and in the displaced lives of enslaved Africans.
Africa in A New and Elegant General Atlas, comprising all the New Discoveries, to the Present Time. Aaron Arrowsmith and Samuel Lewis. Boston: 1812. Image courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection, Stanford Libraries.
Atlases such as this were one of the main sources of information about the world for the British public, including British children. Whereas the coastal regions of Africa were well known to Europeans through their involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, the interior was not. New information was being gathered about West Africa from the late eighteenth century, particularly through the travels of figures such as Mungo Park, but key questions remained – not least about the course and termination of the River Niger.