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


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!


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.

WP_20170801_04_21_32_Rich  WP_20170801_04_21_48_Rich  WP_20170801_04_22_02_Rich

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.

WP_20170801_03_18_50_Rich - Copy

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.


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!


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!

map 4

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.)