Mapping the African Question

As Benedict Anderson argues in Imagined Communities (1982), the map was one of the main vehicles for imagining the colonial state. The majority of maps of Africa used in this project were produced during and after the "scramble for Africa." The powers attending the Berlin Conference viewed Africa as a conglomerate of colonies, protectorates, possessions, and a few sovereign states. The interactive maps include here will highlight American knowledge of Africa shaped by these colonial discourses, as well as by Americans living in and traveling through Africa (e.g., missionaries, explorers, Pan-Africanists, emigrants, and plenipotentiaries). The project uses maps from the David Rumsey Map Collection because of its comprehensiveness.

Viewed collectively, these maps show the progression of the production of European and U.S. geographic knowledge about Africa according to space and time. Specifically, the maps visualize how Western geographic knowledge of Africa was refracted through the lenses of settler colonialism and imperialism, thus paying very little attention to indigenous political structures. Areas not under European "possession" are either labeled according to ethnic groups that populate the region or by antiquated terms used by explorers and slave traders. For example, Mitchell's map labels West Africa mostly as Upper and Lower Guinea. In contrast, the two maps created by German geographers depict African kingdoms, city-states, empires, sultanates, and caliphates (although they are not labeled as such).

The maps viewed in chronological order of publication, as well as layered on top of each other, present to the user an African continent increasingly depicted as a sum of European possessions. While this should be expected, it is the detail of African diversity that stands out. Even as Africa was imagined and partitioned according to European interests in the wake of the Berlin Conference, geographers attempted to present what they viewed as "the real" Africa to the public.

Berlin Conference

This section uses four historical maps to demonstrate how American understanding and knowledge of Africa changed over time, focusing on the period immediately after Liberian independence (1850s) to 1920 when the Versailles Treaty divested Germany of it African colonies. Two of the maps used here were available to Americans primarily through geography classes at the grade-school level and in newspapers. The section uses two German maps because of the high profile of German cartographers in mapping Africa after the Berlin Conference until World War I. Conceivably, American diplomats and elites interested in Africa

  • Samuel Augustus Mitchell's 1853 map titled "Map of Africa from the Latest Authorities" illustrates Africa according to the possessions held by European powers (e.g., Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands) and includes an inset of the Republic of Liberia, noting the latter's history as a former U.S. colony established by the American Colonization Society in 1821. Mitchell was a geographer most noted for publishing the textbook Mitchell's School Geography (in several editions), which American schools used as a primer in secondary education geography courses.
  • On February 22, 1891, The Morning Call, a California newspaper published the map "The Partition of Africa as Settled by International Agreements" in the article "A Very Much Divided Country."(3) The map visualizes the possessions, spheres of influences, colonies, and protectorates of Great Britain, Italy, France, Portugal and Germany. It also maps the Congo Free State and the "Congo Free Trade Area."
  • German geographer, Richard Andree's 1895 map "Africa" also maps the European possessions, but includes those of Spain.
  • Andree and his colleague Albert Scobel's 1895 map "Afrika: Politische Ubersicht" includes Belgian (Congo Free State) and Turkish possessions, the latter referring to the Ottoman Empire. This map includes an inset of German Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia).