Garret uncovers the map collection

Maps are an incredible tool in understanding the world. Vast swathes of land can be digested in a matter of minutes. Imagine how long it would take to describe every twist and turn of a border, every wind of a road, every village, town and city in the detail a map conveys. Their use stretches from education to governance, warfare to commerce. Hence for archives, maps provide a precious source by which we can investigate the past. Where were people making maps of? Who was making them and when? What type of map was it? All of these questions and more arise when studying maps.

The Cambridge African Studies Centre Library is lucky enough to possess a collection of around 250 such maps, which we are in the process of documenting and archiving. They range widely, including as diverse topics as tourist and military maps. Whilst a new gem in our collection, it certainly is a challenging one for a Centre more used to books and papers to deal with!

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As with most of our collection, there is a distinct colonial slant to the maps we possess. Whilst we don’t have records of who donated the maps, they almost all originate in various colonial offices, or as educational tools. Maps far more prevalent  in the late 19th and early 20th century. The many exploratory expeditions across the ‘undiscovered’ world – as with David Livingstone for instance – uncovered discoveries that demanded proper documentation. And those colonial officers who followed these first explorers documented the lands that they ruled. As such, there are many fascinating maps of Africa in our collection, of which we’ve picked out some our highlights of our archiving so far.

The first is a beautiful map produced by the government of Rhodesia, modern day Zambia, in 1964 which, claiming to be comprehensive, details all the journeys of Europeans in Rhodesia prior to 1890. What’s more, on the reverse is a full list of those Europeans who visited the area in that same timeframe, beginning as early as the 16th century with the first Portuguese explorers. It’s just a shame that this list would be obscured during the display of the map itself! The maps clear purpose is educational, but the focus on Europeans, to the exclusion of any mention of the natives, does add an additional layer of interest to the map. Having been printed in 1964, it seems plausible that it could have been used to legitimise the European presence in Rhodesia in the face of strong anti-colonial feeling, by emphasising the long European presence in the country. Whilst just conjecture, it is amongst the many interesting questions raised by these maps.

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Our collection has also been left various French maps made by the Institut Geographique National, including a set concerning Algeria made around 1962. Again, these maps are gorgeous (though that might just be me…), detailing the vast expanse of the Sahara, which is less empty than you might think! Their compilation during, and publication at the end of, the Algerian war, in which France reluctantly retreated, suggests that they did not plan well their withdrawal, with at least some government departments expecting to continue their presence in the country.

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Finally, we discovered several fascinating hand-drawn maps which detailed various land-disputes in the Gold Coast, modern day Ghana. These maps are mostly drawn up by a certain Ernest S. S. Woods of the 2nd Surveyors Brigade – an individual touch not often found in cartography. For colonial historians these documents provide an interesting perspective on Ghanaian compliance with, and possible use of, the British legal system. Furthermore, it gives an unflattering view of British justice, which is so often touted – however spuriously – as one of the greatest benefits of British rule. The document, which was signed off by Woods, the surveyor, in 1922, was then signed off by the court in 1928 – 6 years later! But the maps we have in our collection gives a sense of the scale of the task the British authorities faced – incredibly detailed and accurate maps had to be drawn up to resolve complex conflicts amongst their new subjects across vast areas.

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Maps were an important tool for the coloniser. They demarcated international boundaries – however arbitrary – surveyed lands for for governments based far away in Europe, and detailed natural resources to utilise – to give just a taster of all the flavours of maps we’ve found. With several large wads to go, be sure to check our Twitter feed for any other gems we uncover!

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Garret Shannon has kindly given his time to the African Studies Library before starting his degree at Durham in October

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