“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.)