Maps: Who’d have known they could be so interesting?

Michael Korda once said that “the whole attraction of writing history” is that it allows you to explore the unknown and therefore should be treated as “a journey without maps”. However, having worked closely with maps over the past few weeks, I would contend that they are in fact key to this historical journey, revealing much about the nature and challenges faced by the societies in which they were produced.

The Centre of African Studies Library is lucky enough to possess around 250 maps, all of which have now been documented and archived. Having access to such an extensive map collection is rare and affords us the opportunity to gain a unique insight into African societies and their history. Maps allow for a variety of issues to be examined, whether economic, social, cultural, political, climatic or geological in nature, and at different scales. Similarly, understanding the agendas and methods of the cartographers and publishing agencies who produce these maps can also reveal much about the attitudes and development of the wider society to which they belong. As such, the importance of maps to historical, political and sociological study cannot be underestimated.

In fact, many modern-day political issues are intrinsically linked to maps and boundaries. Ongoing border and identity disputes throughout Africa, for example the Anglophone Crisis in Cameroon, often stem back to the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884-85, when African lands were arbitrarily divided along rivers and mountain ranges (or even just by straight-lines) without a consideration of tribal, ethnic or cultural boundaries.

As you would expect, there is a distinctly colonial focus to many of the maps and as such, they often express haughty attitudes towards Africa. This is epitomised by the attempts of renowned cartographer Herman Moll to depict Africa “according to ye newest and most exact observations” (this map is a 1745 reprint of his original map published in 1710). Not only does he use archaic terms such as ‘Negroland’ (to describe West Africa) but also, through textual commentary, emphasises the superiority of white settlers around Guinea who “wear Cloths, and have ye use of Letters, make Silk, &  … keep the Christian Sabbath” and who are “a different kind of People from the Blacks”. He also marks out potential commercial interests such as gold, ivory and slave coasts, believing the British to possess natural rights over this property.

Moll map

“Ethnic” and “tribal migration” maps from British Somaliland (as with the map below) and the Ivory Coast also exemplify the implications of colonialism for the indigenous peoples. Settler colonisation often meant that local peoples were displaced, either by a process of violent depopulation, or cultural assimilation. Through using these maps, we can examine such migration patterns and in doing so ascertain both the scale and nature of this displacement.

Tribal migration map

However, the maps also enlighten us as to other social customs and challenges affecting Africa which exist autonomously from colonial narratives and issues. The map below highlights the issue of tsetse fly infestation in the Bechuanaland Protectorate. These flies, which reside predominantly in South-East Africa, are vectors of African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), a disease, which left untreated, is often fatal. It has been responsible for many tragedies throughout history, for example the 1901 epidemic in Uganda, whereby 250,000 people (approximately 2/3 of the population of the affected lakeshore area) died. In the absence of available and effective medicine, the map (dated 1960) reveals alternative ways in which the issue was managed by the authorities, marking out areas for woodland to either be felled or ring-barked, so as to destroy the natural habitat of the fly and therefore attempt to cull its population.

Tsetse fly map

The territorial ownership and land dispute map of an unidentified Nigerian village (below), dating back to 1929, gives an interesting insight into comparatively local challenges and how they were managed. Hand drawn by one R.M. Prempeh, whose surname suggests West African heritage, the map marks out the names of people who “alone enjoy [each] portion” of land and also communal areas, in doing so settling issues regarding disputed possession. Not only is the hand-drawn style of the map unique and endearing, but it shows a firm sense of order and a clear moral code being administered in local villages without any need for colonial intervention or enforcement, refuting the notions of Europeans such as Moll (above) that Africans were in any way ‘uncivilised’.

Land dispute map

Completing this project has been both rewarding and extremely interesting. As someone who is hoping to study history in the future, examining these maps has given me a new way to engage with the past, using cues and nuances from them to generate interest in and instigate research into the wider historical context. Having studied maps from colonies such as the Ivory Coast and Senegal, I have even managed to learn some French! As such, I would recommend anyone with an interest in African history to come to the Centre and explore this fascinating collection.

Sam Hughes is entering his final year at Perse School, and volunteered with us here at the Centre for 2 weeks


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