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Rwenzori Journal

Bamwanjara Pass, 14,600 ft (4450 m), Rwenzori Mountains

Bamwanjara Pass, 14,600 ft (4450 m), Rwenzori Mountains

For the past three weeks, I’ve been in Uganda doing research on my next book, Lost White Tribe: Explorers, Scientists, and a Theory of Race that Changed Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). The book begins in 1876 in East Africa, where the journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley encountered four Africans whose light complexion and European features “aroused [his] curiosity to the highest pitch.” They came from the slopes of Gambaragara, a snow-capped mountain west of Lake Victoria. That such a towering range existed in the heart of equatorial Africa was astonishing enough. “But what gives it peculiar interest,” Stanley wrote, “is, that on its cold and lonely top dwell a people of an entirely distinct race, being white, like Europeans.”

 Stanley’s story had the ring of the fantastic about it, but was taken seriously by scientists, explorers, and the general public — and came to be supported by evidence ranging from the origin stories of the Hebrew Bible, the discovery of ancient ruins in Egypt and Zimbabwe, the kingship legends of African cultures, and the physical differences observed — by Stanley and many others — among African tribes. The existence of white tribes of Africa was a theory, defenders claimed, supported by many pillars. Lost White Tribe traces the rise and fall of this theory, the Hamitic Hypothesis, and the scientific expeditions that gave it life.

 After completing my research at Makerere University in Kampala, I took a bus west to Kasese, and then hired a motorcycle taxi to Kilembe.  This small town was the gateway to the Rwenzoris, the tallest mountain range in Africa. Just east of here Stanley glimpsed the massive blue silhouette of Gambaragara (now called Mt. Stanley) for the first time. I spent eight days on Mt. Stanley with a Bakonzo guide and porters, recording what I could of the mountain, its people, and my own subjective experiences. Here are some brief excerpts:

Kilembe, Western Uganda. Gateway to the Rwenzoris.

Kilembe, Western Uganda. Gateway to the Rwenzoris.

10 January 2013
Sine Camp 8576 ft (2596m)

At 9:30 we walk into Kilembe village, past wooden huts and kiosks, men raking coffee beans, selling cell phone time, children driving cows. Rows of single-level dormitories stretch off to the left covered by rusty metal roofs,  goats graze the courtyards between.  The dorms were originally built as housing units for workers of the British copper mining company that came here years before. Now muzungu money enters the valley only from coffee sales or trekkers like me. The presence of whites is now rare enough to peak interest. Or fear. As we climb the trailhead, we pass a woman bringing her children to work the vertical fields of bananas and cassava ahead. Her daughter, about three years old, is ahead of us on the trail. As the girl sees us approach, separating her from her mother, she begins to cry. When she sees me, her cries grow sharp. I remove my sunglasses thinking it will help. Bad idea. She screams, covers her eyes, leaps off the trail. Scary muzungu.

William Kiminywa finds a path through the mud.

William Kiminywa finds a path through the mud.

11 January 2013
Kalalama Camp 10,327 ft (3147m)

My guide William Kiminywa is Bakonzo, a member of an ethnic group that inhabits the lowlands of the Ruwenzoris, from Western Uganda to Eastern Congo. All of the porters are Bakonzo too, mostly from Kilembe. He’s heard no talk of “white Africans” living on the mountains, but clearly the mountains are a place of the sacred and the strange. William will not say the names of the mountains that tower above us on both sides of the valley – 13,000ft pinnacles that drop straight down to the heather trees of the valley. He writes out the names in my journal instead. Unwise to say the original Bakonzo names out loud. He is no mere folklorist though. William knows the Rwenzoris like no one else. We hike through knee-deep swamps and bogs, oceans of mud. He always sees a way through though – rocks, branches, tussocks invisible to me – stepping stones through the black ooze. I call him the mud whisperer. He laughs. But its true, his knowledge goes deep, sensory and academic. Where I see a mass of ferns and heather, he sees colobus monkeys, dikas, rock hyrax, turacos. He points them out to me quietly with his walking pole, whispering their Latin names so as not to scare them away. I nod, write, take pictures.

Blue Monkeys, 12,000 ft.

Blue Monkeys, 12,000 ft.

12 January 2013
Bugata Camp 13,327 ft (4062m)

Today we approach the lower arm of Mt. Stanley. We are now closer to the mountain than Stanley was in 1876 when he climbed a small mountain near the Katonga River and “caught a passing glimpse of the king of mountains Gambaragara.” It was at the summit of this great mountain, Stanley’s African troops told him, that the white Gambaragarans lived amid the snow and craters lakes. Still, my head is elsewhere today. Tess completes in the final round of an oratory contest in Bloomfield, a big event in her life and  to miss it hurts a bit. More than a bit. I feel the isolation of the mountains as we go higher. William is fantastic, and his crew of porters are polite, knowledgeable, professional, but no companions. I am a client, not a friend. The porters bring food, supplies, then retreat to their own tents. Tea and biscuits at 4pm, even in rainstoms, on windy cliffs. When I visit their quarters to talk, they stand, go silent. I’m unshaven, unshowered, caked with mud, but I’m still the Earl of Grantham and I’ve come to servants’ quarters unannounced. My liberal politics, my critiques of colonialism, Victorian explorers, mean nothing here. I enter a fixed role, one that’s been set in place in Africa for hundreds of years and is kept in place by all kinds of trekkers organizations here, Kilimanjaro, maybe the Himalayas too? (I must ask the Everest people). I’m head muzungu. It’s Upstairs Downstairs, only at altitude. Where’s my pith helmet?

Summit of Mt. Stanley, border between Uganda and Congo, dividing point between the watersheds of the Congo and Nile Rivers.

Summit of Mt. Stanley, border between Uganda and Congo, dividing point between the watersheds of the Congo and Nile Rivers.

15 January 2013
Margherita Camp  14,714 ft (4485m)

We leave at 3 am for the summit, headlamps on. I stay very close to William. I never know if the blackness covers a slope or sheer void. After an hour of hiking we’re in snow, then glacier. We take thirty minutes to put on crampons and harnesses, rope up. The march across Elena Glacier is calming after the rocks. Black sky and an ocean of white, just the sound of our feet. We descent a sharp pinnacle of rocks, then we’re on Margherita Glacier. This is not calming. The glacier is steep here, very steep, and the wind howls. I don’t know how many knots but its enough to push flinty pieces of ice up the 50° slope towards the summit and into the skies over Congo. They hit us and keep moving. The air is so thin, it cracks my lips and it’s impossible to catch my breath. I shuffle like an old man. William seems unaffected. Three hours of this and we are finally the rocky crown. It’s so hard to move up this craggy face, I have to crawl at points towards the summit. When we’re there, I stand and sob. I can’t help it. An accumulation of feelings over the six day ascent, and longer perhaps, the three weeks in Kampala and Western Uganda. There are many points of contact between Stanley’s description, those of his African soldiers, and what I see here. The ice and snow, the small lakes in the shadow of the glacier, the great elevation. But there are no lost whites up here – well — none except for me. And maybe there’s something to that. Stanley wasn’t the only one to think he saw white people in weird places. Not a product of lying, I think, but, more likely wishful thinking. A racial Rorschach test. It may have given Stanley – already a lonely man — some comfort to imagine Africans who shared his color, his features, perhaps his kinship, so far from home.

Anthropology of Expeditions: Travel, Visualities, Afterlives

Alfred Cort Haddon's painting of an imagined Malo–Bomai ceremony in pre-contact Credit: Paul Burke Australian National University

Last weekend, I attended a symposium, “Anthropology of Expeditions: Travel, Visualities, Afterlives” at the Bard Graduate Center in New York. I will post some reflections about  themes of the conference, starting here with the keynote speech by historian of anthropology, Henrika Kuklick.

In her address “Science as Adventure” Kuklick describes a historical shift in thinking about anthropological fieldwork. In the early 1800s, westerners who ventured into the remote regions of the world were often seen as gofers rather than researchers, rugged collectors that did the bidding of armchair scientists back home. These sedentary scientists did not perceive their distance from the field as a bad thing. Far from it: in their labs and museums, they could pore over specimens and cultural artifacts without the distractions of life on the expedition. In their more controlled habitats, they believed they could consider objects comparatively, objectively, and dispassionately. Thus, distance seemed to offer advantages both physical and methodological: a safe environment and a privileged perspective from which to see species and human cultures without the bias of being on the ground, in the vortex of the new encounter.

By the early twentieth century, Kuklick argues, perceptions of fieldwork began to change. The New Imperialism of the late 1800s brought huge swaths of Africa and Asia under colonial control, making them more accessible to field scientists. The rise of disciplines such as public health and tropical medicine also gave new impetus to the human sciences conducted in remote places. Finally the meaning of first-hand fieldwork itself had started to evolve. No longer did the field represent a place of bias and distortion, but as a stage for adventure. In adventure, the explorer-scientists could show their passion for science, a passion great enough to risk sickness and death, and thereby enhance their reputation for trustworthiness in the process. In showing an adventurous spirit, the pith-helmeted field scientist’s credibility was revealed, not diminished. “It is because they act heroically, Kuklick writes  “that their testimonials can be believed.” Kuklick presents a number of examples of this new authority of adventure within the work of anthropologists, particularly in the writings of Bronisław Malinowski, who studied native peoples of Australia and the Western Pacific.

Malinowski with Trobriand Islanders, 1918.

Yet it is not clear to me that these examples are as representative as Kuklick claims. Yes, we can find prominent armchair scientists in the nineteenth century as Kuklick suggests, men such as Richard Owen and Georges Cuvier who were happy to do science from the confines of the museum. But we can also find plenty of counter examples: explorer-scientists such as Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, and John Tyndall who were not just tolerated, but celebrated, for their rugged fieldwork.

Indeed, adventure had become something of a fetish by the mid 1800s, affecting not only scientists but legions of western writers, artists, and intellectuals. This was, after all, an era still enthralled by Romanticism, a movement that celebrated the individual’s confrontation with nature as an essential component of truth seeking.

Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818

Conversely, the twentieth century is not quite the adventure-junkie paradise that Kuklick suggests. True, the early 1900s had a number of adventurous anthropologists, as Kuklick persuasively documents, but it also had plenty of scientists who lamented adventure as a distraction from serious field work. Beginning with the International Polar Year of 1882-3, western scientists sought to distance themselves with expeditions based on pure adventure. It was for this reason that the American Geographical Society tried to make its organization more rigorous at the turn of the twentieth century. Even the father of American anthropology, Franz Boas, believed that adventure could be taken too far. “We must not forget that the explorer is not expected merely to travel from one point to another,” Boaz wrote, “but that we must expect him also to see and to observe things worth seeing.”

Franz Boas

In short, western scholars have been debating the meaning of expeditionary fieldwork for at least 250 years. Whether one views it as the peripheral, or the central, event of scientific discovery probably has more to do with issues of personality, individual opportunities, and disciplinary training than shifts in the scientific zeitgeist. If it does express a shift, as Kuklick suggests, I think it’s more likely to be confined to the discipline of anthropology.  As for the meaning of fieldwork outside anthropology, the patterns are more difficult to see.

Science and Exploration

"The Artist in His Museum" Charles Wilson Peale (1822) credit: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

I’ve been slow to update the past two weeks, due to the collision of teaching and writing projects. One of these projects, an essay for an edited collection, looks at the relationship of science and exploration in historical context. I’m including the first paragraphs of the intro below, just so you don’t think I’m playing foosball.

Westerners began to think differently about exploration in the nineteenth century. Whereas they once talked about it as a fascination, a symbol of progress, they began referring to it a “fever”: something rampant, contagious, and immune to reason.[1] During this period, explorers poured out of Europe and the United States for regions remote and dangerous. Some raced to the limits of latitude, to stand first at the polar axes.

"David Livingstone" Life and Explorations of David Livingstone (1880)

Others set off for the equatorial regions seeking lost tribes, lost cities, and lost explorers. Survey expeditions mapped the American West, inventoried the ocean depths, and facilitated the “Scramble for Africa.” States sponsored some of these efforts. Museums and universities sponsored others. Meanwhile private adventurers set off to write, photograph, and hunt their way through the world’s remaining terrae incognitae.

Three Years of Arctic Service, Adolphus Greely (1886)

Taken together these activities produced oceans of text: articles, technical papers, and personal narratives. One writer for Nature, buried by stacks of expedition literature waiting to be reviewed, wondered what was driving the process. Did exploration fever grow out of a deeper love of science, a “craving for knowledge by stronger stimulants than can be obtained by books” ? Or was it —as the metaphor of fever implied— beyond human control, an affliction activated by some instinctive desire, “a remote ancestral habit which still clings to us.” If it was the latter then science would seem to be artifice, a veneer applied to expeditionary endeavors in order to mask true motives, deeper and atavistic urges that lured explorers up mountains and into malarial jungles.[2]


[1] Robinson, Michael, The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 159-164; Robinson, “Maybe I Was Wrong” http://timetoeatthedogs.com/2009/01/29/maybe-i-was-wrong/

[2] “Two Amateur Explorers,” Nature 13: 264 (3 Feb 1876)

First, Fastest, Youngest

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on Mt Everest, 1953

Firsts have always been important in exploration. This seems rather straightforward, even tautological, to say since being first is woven into the definition of exploration. After all, traveling to unknown places is  doing something that hasn’t been done before (or at least hasn’t been reported before). And this is how the history of exploration often appears to us in textbooks and timelines: as lists of expeditionary firsts from Erik the Red to Neil Armstrong.

In truth, though, firsts are fuzzy.

Some fuzziness comes from ignorance, our inability to compensate for the incompleteness of the historical record. This is a perennial problem in history in general and history of exploration in particular. (I call it a problem but it’s actually what makes me happy and keeps me employed).

Was Christopher Columbus the first European to reach America in 1492? Probably not, since evidence suggests that Norse colonies existed in North America five hundred years before he arrived. Was Robert Peary the first to reach the North Pole in 1909? It’s hard to say since Frederick Cook claimed to be first in 1908 and its possible that neither man made it.

Simon Bolivar

Some fuzziness comes from the different meanings we give to “discovery.” The South American leader Simon Bolivar called Alexander von Humboldt “the true discoverer of America.” Bolivar did not mean this literally since Humboldt traveled through South America in 1800, 17 years after Bolivar himself was born there, 300 years after Columbus first arrived in the Bahamas, and about 16,000 years after Paleo-Indians arrived in America, approved of what they saw, and decided to stay.

But for Bolivar, Humboldt was the first person to see South America holistically: as a complex set of species, ecosystems, and human societies, held together by faltering colonial empires. Being first in exploration, Bolivar realized, meant more than planting a flag in the ground.

Neil Armstrong on the Moon, 1969

At first glance, we seem to have banished fuzziness from modern exploration.  For example, there is little doubt that Neil Armstrong was the first human being to set foot on the moon since the event was captured on film and audio recordings, transmitted by telemetry, and confirmed by material artifacts such as moon rocks. (Moon hoax believers, I’m sorry. I know this offends.) Were the Russians suddenly interested in challenging Armstrong’s claim to being first, they would have a tough time proving it since Armstrong could give the day and year of his arrival on the moon  (20 July 1969) and even the exact hour, minute, and second when his boot touched the lunar surface (20:17:40 Universal Coordinated Time).

But this growing precision of firsts has generated its own ambiguities. We have become more diligent about recording firsts precisely because geographical milestones have become more difficult to achieve. As a result, there has been a shift from firsts of place to firsts of method. As the forlorn, never-visited regions of the globe diminish in number, first are increasingly measured by the manner of reaching perilous places rather than the places themselves.

Reinhold Messner

For example, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were the first to ascend Mt. Everest in 1953, but Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler were the first to climb the mountain without oxygen in 1978. In 1980, Messner achieved another first, by ascending Everest without oxygen or support.

Now as “firsts of difficulty” fall,  they are being replaced by “firsts of identity.” James Whittaker was the first American to summit Everest in 1963. Junko Tabei was the first woman (1975). Since then, Everest has spawned a growing brood of “identity first” summits including nationality (Brazil, Turkey, Mexico, Pakistan), disability (one-armed, blind, double-amputee) and novelty (snowboarding, married ascent, longest stay on summit).

It would be easy to dismiss this quest for firsts as a shallow one, a vainglorious way to achieve posterity through splitting hairs rather than new achievements. But I don’t think this is entirely fair. While climbing Everest or kayaking the Northwest Passage may have little in common with geographical firsts in exploration 200 years ago, this is not to say that identity firsts are meaningless acts. They may not contribute to an understanding of the globe, but they have become benchmarks of personal accomplishment, physical achievements — much like running a marathon — that have personal and symbolic value.

Temba Tsheri Sherpa

Still, I am disturbed by the rising number of “youngest” firsts. Temba Tsheri was 15 when he summited Everest on 22 May 2001. Jessica Watson was 16 last year when she left Sydney Harbor to attempt a 230 day solo circumnavigation of the globe.  (She is currently 60 miles off Cape Horn). Whatever risks follow adventurers who seek to be the oldest, fastest, or the sickest to accomplish X,  they are, at least, adults making decisions.

Jessica Watson

But children are different. We try to restrict activities that have a high risk of injury for minors.  In the U.S. for example, it is common to delay teaching kids how to throw a curve ball in baseball until they are 14 for fear of injuring ligaments in the arm. Similar concerns extend to American football and other contact sports.

So why do we continue to celebrate and popularize the pursuit of dangerous firsts by minors? What is beneficial in seeing if 16-year-olds can endure the hypoxia of Everest or the isolation of 230 days at sea.  Temba Tsheri, current holder of youngest climber on Everest, lost five fingers to frostbite.

We must remember that to praise “the youngest” within this new culture of firsts, we only set the bar higher (or younger as it were) for the record to be broken again.  In California, Jordan Romero is already training for his ascent of Everest in hopes to break Tsheri’s age record. He is thirteen.

Prester John

For Europeans in the 1450s, the Western Ocean (or the Atlantic as we now call it) was a frightening place. Unlike the cozy, well-mapped Mediterranean which was surrounded by three continents, the Western Ocean was unbounded, poorly understood, and filled with dangers.

The dangers were not the threat of sea monsters or falling off the edge of the world. Medieval sailors and geographers understood that the earth was spherical. (The idea that they thought it was flat is a fantasy conjured up by Washington Irving in his 1828 biography of Christopher Columbus.)

The Canary Current (part of the North Atlantic gyre)

Rather, the real threat was the ocean itself. Expeditions that followed the West African coast had revealed strong winds and currents that made travel south (with the current) easy, but return extremely difficult, especially with vessels that could not tack close to the wind. By the 1430s, Europeans had even identified a spot on the West African coast, Cape Bojador, as the point of no return.

Cape Bojador, West African Coast

And yet Europeans, led by the Portuguese, continued to push further south despite this risk. They developed trade factories off the west coast of Africa which exchanged Europeans goods — horses, wool, iron — for gold, ivory, and slaves. And ultimately they followed the African coast around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean, reaching the Indies — the holy grail of luxury items — in 1498.

Route of Vasco da Gama, 1498

All of this makes European exploration seem logical and methodical, driven by the promise of riches. Yet Europeans were interested in more than slaves and spices. Africa attracted Europe’s attention because it was considered the most likely location of Prester John, legendary Christian king and potential ally in the fight against the Muslims who occupied the Holy Land.

Historians have long placed Prester John within the category of myth, and in so far as myths describe “traditional stories, usually concerning heroes or events, with or without a determinable basis of fact” I suppose Prester John qualifies.

But “myth” has subtler, darker meanings.  The world is filled with traditional stories  that have a tenuous relationship to observable facts:  the Gospels, the Koran, and the Torah are filled with them. Yet we describe these stories as “beliefs” out of faith or respect. We usually reserve the word “myth,” however, for those stories — unicorns, leprechauns, a living Elvis  — that we dismiss as untrue.

The point here is not to say that Prester John was real, but to say that in characterizing him as a mythic figure, historians have tended to discount his serious influence on European exploration and discovery.

This is a central argument of historian Michael Brooks in his excellent thesis, Prester John: A Reexamination and Compendium of the Mythical Figure Who Helped Spark European Expansion. Brooks shows that, while it might be clear in hindsight that Prester John was more fable than reality, it was not clear to Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries, all of whom could point to multiple accounts of the Christian king from different, trustworthy sources. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, one of the most popular books in late medieval Europe, even offers a first-hand account of Prester John’s palace:

He dwelleth commonly in the city of Susa. And there is his principal palace, that is so rich and so noble, that no man will trow it by estimation, but he had seen it. And above the chief tower of the palace be two round pommels of gold, and in everych of them be two carbuncles great and large, that shine full bright upon the night. And the principal gates of his palace be of precious stone that men clepe sardonyx, and the border and the bars be of ivory. [Mandeville quoted in Brooks, 87]

On the basis of these multiple, mutually supportive documents, Dom Henrique (Henry the Navigator) charged his explorers to bring back intelligence about the Indies and of the land of Prester John. This was not merely an addendum to their orders for geographical discovery. Argues Brooks:

Without the lure of making political connections with the supposed co-religionist Prester John in the struggle against the Islamic world, the European history of overseas expansions would likely have taken a different course [3].

This serious, sustained interest in Prester John helps explain the longevity of the legend well into the seventeenth century.  I could not help seeing many similarities in Brooks’ account of Prester John with other stories of exploration. The one I have written the most about, the theory of the open polar sea, has also been discounted by historians as “myth” even though it was taken very seriously by scientists, explorers, and geographers in the nineteenth century, shaping the missions of numerous explorers.

Brooks’ thesis is available in pdf here.

He also posts a number of articles and reviews on history and exploration on his blog, historymike.

On Biography

doing research

Every year, history conferences feature panels about biography. These are not talks which offer a biography in the manner of A & E’s Biography Channel  (which profiles Kirstie Alley tonight) but ones that consider biography as a genre. They come with titles like “Making a Case for Biography: New Methods in the History of X.”

Why do professional historians feel the need to defend biographies? They have never stopped writing them.  Academic presses remain eager to publish them. Yet biography still carries a reputation of being popular at the expense of being deep, of being an intellectual lightweight in a world of hipper, higher-powered genres: micro-histories, cultural histories, comparative histories, and transnational histories. In the high-cultural universe of academic writing, biography is Gilligan’s Island.

There are many reasons for this, but one key reason is structure. Biography focuses on the role of individuals in shaping events. As such, it sails against the wind of modern scholarship which, for forty years or so, has located historical change in institutions, corporations, governments, and national cultures. And individuals? Go to Barnes and Nobles.

Moreover, biography is tricky as a genre because it sometimes lures historians into thinking that they are really psychoanalysts, that they can interpret the thoughts and feelings of their subjects. If Freud couldn’t ferret out the real causes of his patients’ behavior, why do we think biographers will prove any better at it with people who are dead?

Sigmund Freud's Couch

Sigmund Freud's Couch

That said, I like biographies. If the genre has limitations, it also has spirit. Whether or not people offer a useful way to look at historical change, they are interesting to read about. And the way biographers choose to tell the stories of individuals is interesting too.

john ledyard

For example, Ed Gray’s biography of John Ledyard (which I reviewed here) gives a rich account of Ledyard’s travels. Yet Gray avoids the temptation to put him on the couch and Ledyard remains a mysterious figure, a shadow in the foreground of a brightly painted world.

By contrast, Tim Jeal is far freer with his psychological analysis of Henry Morton Stanley. This should probably make me uneasy. But Jeal builds his psychological hypothesizing on a solid foundation of evidence. He has done his homework on Stanley, a man who left an Africa-sized archive of primary source material.

Better yet, Jeal uses his analysis of Stanley to say interesting things. For example, he observes that Stanley inflated the number of Africans that he killed from the island of Bumbireh in Lake Victoria, a strange boast given that it contributed to Stanley’s reputation as a cold-hearted killer.

henry morton stanley

Yet Jeal argues that Stanley’s actions make sense only if one understands his shame at being humiliated by the leader of Bumbireh weeks earlier, something that Stanley — abandoned by his parents and raised in a workhouse — was keenly sensitive to. Moreover, Jeal argues that Stanley misjudged his audience’s reaction to the Bumbireh story, thinking that Europeans and Americans would like stories of warfare in Africa, much as they liked “big kill” stories about the Indian wars of the American West.

Despite their very different styles, I recommend both books.

Mountains of the Moon

Mountains of the Moon, detail of 1655 Kircher Map of Africa

Mountains of the Moon, detail of 1655 Kircher Map of Africa

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.

Cataract on the Congo River

Cataract on the Congo River

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.

Sebastian Munster's 1554 Map of Africa (detail)

Sebastian Munster's 1554 Map of Africa (detail)

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?

Winwood Read, Map of African Literature, 1910 (detail)

Winwood Read, Map of African Literature, 1910 (detail)

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.


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