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

“There’s just something hypnotic about maps” (Ken Jennings, Jeopardy contestant) – David’s labour of love @AfrStudiesLib

Here’s a bit of trivia for you…Did you know that the international boundary separating Botswana and Zimbabwe is one of only a handful that includes an arc?

It’s known as the “Tuli Circle” and it encloses what is now a protected safari area administered by The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.  (Incidentally, one could also straddle the elliptic edge of St. Peter’s Square in Rome, thus placing one foot in the Vatican City and the other in the territory of Italy.)

Deciding to consult a map of the area, you would then probably question why the Tuli Circle marks such a curious deviation from the natural frontier offered by the Shashe river. Well, its origin dates back to the colonial period and a land grant from a Botswanan King to the British South Africa Company.  There are even accounts alledging that Cecil Rhodes may have made a rather unusual contribution to the history of cartography – by drawing around the side of his compass to delineate what would become a cattle free zone (probably designed to protect his herds beyond the river from a local outbreak of a viral disease known as “rinderpest”.)

How do I know all this?  Well, it was mentioned to me in passing by a colleague archivist here in Cambridge whilst I was consulting a map of Rhodesia at the Centre of African Studies.  One of my various ongoing tasks has been to gradually compile a detailed list of the maps the library holds (only a small part of a much wider scheme to increase accessibility to the vast range of resources preserved in the basement stores).

As the photograph below testifies, I rapidly became submerged in a sea of maps: lands were sorted; topography identified; those mountainous stacks of paper soared ever upward, forming chains across the floor as the Head Librarian surveyed the scene through her office window!

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Yet it’s partly a labour of love.  Everyone gets excited about maps…don’t they?  As an occasional amateur historian dealing in facts, I may have to finally concede that pirates probably didn’t hide their treasure hordes and mark the spot on a parchment or scroll.  Nevertheless, throughout recorded time a whole range of dedicated people have marked all sorts of features on fascinating (and sometimes beautiful) documents.

The University Library actually has a dedicated “Map Room”.  But whilst the collection at African Studies is certainly more modest, it also includes its fair share of unusual specimens: maps by African city planning authorities; maps that document land use, land distribution or expected annual rainfall; others provide a snapshot of population levels, record internal immigration patterns and even the forced resettlement of tribal communities.  One of my personal favourites is an aeronautical chart for pilots needing to navigate their way over East Africa that dates back to WWII.

Anyway, this is very much a work in progress…so watch this space for future updates!

Guest Blogger: David Radcliffe

(David currently works for the Centre of South Asian Studies Library via Cambridge University’s Temporary Employment Service.  He is also currently a volunteer at the Centre of African Studies Library.)