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Europe's limited knowledge of Africa

 Detail of Münster map of AfricaEuropeans' interactions with Africans were much different than their interactions with the Americans. North Africa had been an integral part of the ancient Mediterranean world and had figured prominently in early European maps, even if few Europeans visited the region after it came under Muslim control. But what lay south of the Sahara was a complete mystery. It was not even known how far to the south Africa extended, or whether it was part of a larger southern continent that blocked access to the Indian Ocean. In the early fifteenth century the Portuguese embarked on a systematic program of exploring the west coast of Africa, and by the end of the century had succeeded in sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to India.  Ramusio map of AfricaPortugal's policy was to keep its maps secret, but the general outline of Africa was well known by the early sixteenth century, even if the detailed portolan maps were locked up in a vault in Lisbon. Shown here are two mid-sixteenth century maps of Africa, drawn at about the same time. Sebastian Münster's map, probably from the 1544 German edition of his Geographia, includes a number of medieval elements, including a cyclops and the kingdom of Prester John. The other map is from the first volume of Giovanni Battista Ramusio's Voyages. This southern-oriented map was drawn by the leading Italian mapmaker of the day, Giacomo Gastaldi, who filled the continent with mythical mountains and rivers, rather than mythical creatures.  Detail of Pontanus map of Africa and Asia One of the features these two early maps of Africa have in common, though, is that they display information about the continent's towns and kingdoms with the same types of symbols found on maps of Europe, without making moral judgments about the people.

Climate, disease and local resistance kept Europeans confined to the African coast as traders rather than colonizers until well into the nineteenth century. Africa nonetheless played a prominent role in European expansion. The West African coast was the path European trading expeditions followed on their way to the lucrative Asian markets, so the towns and rivers became familiar stopping points for sailors needing rest and supplies. Africa itself was a profitable trading area for ivory, gold and slaves. The Portuguese monopolized the African and Asian trade until the end of the sixteenth century when the Dutch began to challenge them. The first successful Dutch expedition to Asia was completed in 1596, and six years later a group of Amsterdam merchants formed the Dutch East India Company, which would soon become the most powerful corporation in Europe. Johannes Pontanus's 1611 history of Amsterdam celebrated the city's new pre-eminence in international trade by devoting most of its pages to accounts of the overseas exploits of Dutch explorers.  Detail of Dapper map of AfricaThe map of Africa and Asia, engraved by Jodocus Hondius, shows a West African coast with detailed annotations about towns and rivers, reflecting the increasing European knowledge of the region. The decorative illustrations reveal a hardening attitude toward Africans, portraying them as primitives, in contrast to the exotic Asians. By mid-century, the decorations on Dutch maps reveal a more clearly defined relationship between Africans and Europeans, one in which the Europeans are unquestionably in charge. The illustration reproduced here is a detail of the title cartouche from a mid-seventeenth century Dutch map from the 1686 French edition of Olfert Dapper's book on Africa.

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