The Men Who Mapped the Continent

Joseph Conrad, 1857-1924

Geography and Some Explorers. London: privately printed by Strangeways and Sons, January 1924. No. 10 of 30 copies, signed by Conrad. Gift of Francis H. McAdoo, Class of 1910, and Mrs. McAdoo. [Rare Books Division]

I have no doubt that star-gazing is a fine occupation, for it leads you within the borders of the unattainable. But map-gazing, to which I became addicted so early, brings the problems of the great spaces of the earth into stimulating and directing contact with a sane curiosity and gives an honest precision to one's imaginative faculty. And the honest maps of the nineteenth century nourished in me a passionate interest in the truth of geographical facts and a desire for the precise knowledge which was extended to other subjects. For a change had come over the spirit of cartographers. From the middle of the eighteenth century on, the business of map-making had been growing into an honest occupation, registering the hard-won knowledge, but also in a scientific spirit, recording the geographical ignorance of its time. And it was Africa, the continent of which the Romans used to say ‘some new thing was always coming,' that got cleared of the dull, imaginary wonders of the dark ages, which were replaced by exciting spaces of white paper. Regions unknown! My imagination could depict to itself there worthy, adventurous, and devoted men, nibbling at the edges, attacking from north and south and east and west, conquering a bit of truth here and a bit of truth there, and sometimes swallowed up by the mystery their hearts were so persistently set on unveiling. [pp. 24-5]

To those "worthy, adventurous, and devoted men"
this exhibition is dedicated.

William Winwood Reade's 1873 "Map of African Literature," showing where explorers went [Note: this predates Henry Morton Stanley's expeditions]

What was so intractable, impenetrable, impossible about Africa? In discussing his own map of the continent (1790) [see], James Rennell (1742-1830), considered England’s foremost geographer at the time, wrote:

That the Geography of Africa has made a slower progress towards improvement than that of every other part of the world, during the last, and the present century, is to be attributed more to natural causes, than to any absolute want of attention on the part of geographers. . . . But Africa stands alone in a geographical view! Penetrated by no inland seas, like the Mediterranean, Baltic, or Hudson’s Bay; nor overspread with extensive lakes, like those of North America; nor having in common with other continents, rivers running from the centre to the extremities; but, on the contrary, its regions separated from each other by the least practicable of all boundaries, arid deserts of such formidable extent, as to threaten those who traverse them with the most horrible of all deaths, that arising from thirst! [“The Construction of the Map of Africa,” Proceedings of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa (1791), pp. 311, 314-15]

There were great rivers, of course—the Niger, Nile, Zambezi, Congo—but they would all prove to have cataracts and waterfalls and other impediments to navigation. (In fact, Rennell thought the difficulty of transporting merchandise to the coasts may have given rise to the traffic in men [his italics], slaves who could transport themselves.) And it was too early for Rennell to understand the extent of African diseases, illnesses, and ailments and the ravages caused by the ubiquitous tsetse fly. African explorers would learn that rulers of contentious tribes required payments, often exorbitant, from travelers wishing to cross their lands and that in many northern areas non-Muslims were prohibited and would be killed if detected.

What Rennell does not mention and could not imagine is that the unique case of Africa required an evolution in the “breed” of explorer: someone who was educated and trained in scientific instruments, well-supplied and financed, and capable of managing large enterprises. There would prove to be no stereotype of the ideal African explorer—army officers, hunting enthusiasts, missionaries, adventurous academics all had some level of success—but anyone trying to go it alone faced a formidable challenge in sub-Saharan Africa. One could argue that Swiss-born John Lewis Burckhardt (1784-1817) provided an alternative model for a successful explorer. His linguistic abilities and education enabled him to assume an Arabic identity and blend into his environment as a native in his wide-ranging Middle East travels. However, when he died of dysentery in Cairo in 1817, he was alone and dependent on others, and had not even begun his intended African travels. Heinrich Barth (1821-1865), the German academic, was similarly prepared and enjoyed unparalleled success during the five years of his travels through northern and central Africa, but he mainly stayed above an invisible Arab/African boundary. Later, Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) would adopt the Burckhardt model only for his short forays into Muslim areas.

David Livingstone (1813-1873), the missionary-explorer, offered yet another alternative, but he perhaps was a special case. The failure of his government-sponsored Zambezi expedition (1858-1864) was partially due to his inability to manage a large-scale project. In sub-Saharan Africa, often size mattered precisely because the attrition rate, from death and desertion, was so high. For example, the Burton-Speke expedition into the central lake region in 1857-1859 began with 130 men and 30 heavily-loaded animals. Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) traveled with a veritable army of men and supplies; his 1874-1877 transcontinental expedition started with a cargo weighing over eight tons, divided among 300 men (356, including women and children). It even included sections of a small boat. Only 115 reached Embomma (Boma) on the west coast. This kind of explorer/expedition did not really appear until the mid-19th century.

“Hints to Travellers,” printed at the end of the 1854 volume of the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society (pp. 328-58), was the RGS’s first attempt to formulate a guide so that the efforts of explorers and travelers setting off to “imperfectly known countries” might be more useful to geography. The article provided a list of instruments, not too cumbersome or difficult to carry, and instructions on how and when to use them (and protect them); a table for determining altitude from the temperature at which water boiled; a section called “Outfit for an Explorer,” which described in more detail the instruments, stationery, and books to pack; “Hints for Collecting Geographical Information,” consisting of questions one might ask on an expedition and suggestions on what to do on it ( “Is the soil rich or poor? loamy - sandy - boggy?” “Trace the outlines of the principal basins of the chief rivers.” “Can water, provisions, and fuel be easily procured?”), grouped under the general headings of Aspect, Surface, Physical Divisions, Mountains, Rivers, Lakes, Sea Coasts and Ports, Volcanoes and Mineral Springs, Maps, Charts, Etc., Astronomical Observations, Instruments, Meteorology, Natural History, and Ethnography. The hints concluded with a sample outline that could be filled in to complete a “descriptive geography” of the explored territory. The authoring subcommittee members expected that these guidelines would lead to more accurate, consistent, and reliable, hence useful, observations—and maps. “To lay down a useful map,” they claimed, “is an easier task than usually supposed, if correct principles be adopted and carefully followed in practice” (p. 330).

Gradually, such scientific practices were followed. John Hanning Speke (1827-1864), writing about his RGS-sponsored Nile expedition (1860-1863), described the methods he employed:

My first occupation was to map the country. This is done by timing the rate of march by watch, taking compass-bearings along the road, or on any conspicuous marks—as, for instance, hills off it—and by noting the watershed—in short, all topographical objects. On arrival in camp every day came the ascertaining, by boiling a thermometer, of the altitude of the station above the sea level; of the latitude of the station by the meridian altitude of a star taken with a sextant; and of the compass variation by azimuth. Occasionally there was the fixing of certain crucial stations, at intervals of sixty miles or so, by lunar observations, or distances of the moon either from the sun or from certain given stars, for determining longitude, by which the original timed-course can be drawn out with certainty on the map by proportion. [Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (1863), p. 21]

The manuscript originals of these maps—and those of other British explorers like Livingstone, Burton, and Sir Samuel White Baker (1821-1893)—are housed in the archives of the RGS. When G. R. Crone, the society’s librarian and map curator in the 1960s, published a portfolio of reproductions of them in 1964, the explorers’ observations were re-calculated by Royal Observatory staff. Given African expedition conditions, Crone noted, “the surveyors achieved considerable accuracy.”

* * * * *

A historic map is like an MRI slice of time and place and purpose. This exhibition presents the mapping of Africa in such slices—northern, central (east and west), and southern; an additional emphasis is the search for the source(s) of the Nile River. Atlas maps document the development of the continental and regional maps, which drew from the expedition maps of major explorers and travelers. Thus, the broad, slowly changing canvas of Africa forms the backdrop to the detailed, timelier strokes of the explorers.

The Men Who Mapped the Continent