In 1788, twenty years after sailing into the Pacific with Captain Cook, Joseph Banks turned his attention to the next riddle of geographical science: the exploration of Africa. In St. Albans Tavern in London, Banks and the other members of the elite Saturday Club drafted a proposal of action:
Resolved: That as no species of information is more ardently desired, or more generally useful, than that which improves the science of Geography; and as the vast Continent of Africa, notwithstanding the efforts of the Antients, and the wishes of the Moderns, is still in a great measure unexplored, the Members of this Club do form themselves into an Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Inland Parts of that Quarter of the World.
The Saturday Club acted quickly. It endorsed the resolution, established an Association, put together an expeditionary fund, and commissioned John Ledyard (also a veteran of Cook’s voyages) to cross the African continent from east to west. Ledyard arrived in Egypt ready to complete the “efforts of the Ancients” but was struck down by illness in Cairo. He died before his boots got sandy.
Ledyard’s death was a disappointment to the Association, but it couldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Africa had proved itself resistant to European efforts for over three centuries. The first forays into Africa began badly. In 1446 Portuguese mariner Nuno Tristão took twelve men up the Gambia River in pursuit of Africans and riches. Tristão was attacked by Gambian tribesmen and killed along with half of his party.
The Portuguese learned from Tristão’s mistake. When they returned to West Africa, they abandoned their plans to explore and conquer the interior, preferring to set up outposts or “feitorias” on the coast from which they could trade with African kingdoms of the interior.
Other factors inhibited exploration as well. The inhospitable conditions of the Sahara made overland expeditions difficult. The great rivers of Central Africa seemed more promising, but they were filled with cataracts that made it impossible to travel far by boat. Malaria felled Europeans who traveled inland, and sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis) not only attacked humans but horses. The horse, so effective as a weapon of war for Europeans battling the Incas in the New World, proved useless in European efforts to dominate Central Africa.
Despite Africa’s importance in the Atlantic economy as a source of slaves and gold, then, it remained poorly understood in Europe. As a result, it remained a place of mythical and geographical speculation: on the source of the Nile, the riches of Timbucktoo, the Gold Mines of Ophir, the trans-continental mountains of Kong, and the mysterious Mountains of the Moon.
This explains the power of Africa in the Western imagination even late into the nineteenth century. For writers and artists, Africa became a canvas upon which almost anything could be painted. In Anglo-American literature, Africa found a home in the work of dozens of writers including H. Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines, She), Joseph Conrad (The Heart of Darkness), and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan). Interestingly, the Africa of these works was background rather than foreground, a region made dark (morally, racially, and geographically) so as to better illuminate its protagonists — Allan Quartermain, Charles Marlow, Lord Greystoke — as they found adventure and enlightenment.
How such ideas were projected upon the surface of maps is the focus of Princeton’s excellent online exhibition, To the Mountains of the Moon: Mapping African Exploration, 1541-1880. Created by curator John Delaney, To the Mountains of the Moon offers a history of Africa as seen through European eyes.
As one might expect, early Renaissance maps of Africa were colorful, fantastical documents. What they lacked in credible information they compensated for with a rich palate of speculation. On Sebastian Münster’s 1554 map of Africa one finds the home of the mythic Christian hero, Prester John, as well as a tribe of one-eyed giants, the dough-faced Monoculi, who sit above the bight of Africa.
Nineteenth century maps added precision and sophistication. Gone are the mythic tribes and gold mines of early maps along with the chatty notes in Africa’s margins about river currents, astronomical observations, Biblical figures, and anything tangentially related to the continent.
Yet the later maps leave out Africans too. If Prester John and African cyclops are not representative of Africa’s peoples, at least they show it to be a place of human action and habitation. While some nineteenth century maps — by John Tallis and Victor Levasseur — present ethnographic scenes in the margins, others — such as William Winwood Reed’s Map of African Literature — shows the continent as a white text, tabula rasa, for the names of European explorers. “LIVINGSTONE” stretches across Central Africa from Mozambique to the mouth of the Congo River. Which of these maps – Munster’s or Reed’s – shows the greater distortion?
Despite the excellent maps and essays, the menus of the exhibition are not very clear. It’s easy to get lost and miss a map or two on the way out. This didn’t stop Stanley. It shouldn’t stop you.