Book catalogs panoply of African maps to beginning of 20th century
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As Plutarch observed 2 millennia ago, mapmakers aren’t nearly as accurate as they claim to be. Even in the Greek historian’s day, they had biases, agendas and tricks – often inventing places and fudging with marginalia, noting, for example, that beyond a certain point "lies nothing but sandy deserts full of wild beasts and unapproachable bogs."
Over the centuries, mapmakers continued to bring subjectivity to their craft, says Thomas Bassett, co-author of a new book, "Maps of Africa to 1900: A Checklist of Maps in Atlases and Geographical Journals in the Collections of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign." According to Bassett, a UI geography professor, "All maps reflect the desires of their makers. All maps are subjective in that they involve a process of selection and omission." The new book – thought to be the largest published checklist of maps of Africa – was published by the UI Library and the UI Graduate School of Library and Information Science.
Bassett and co-author Yvette Scheven, a UI professor emerita of library administration, found and identified more than 2,400 maps, the earliest being a 1508 Portuguese map showing a compressed continent that looks more like Massachusetts than Africa. There also are disturbing maps – Cardinal Lavigerie’s "Slavery in Africa" (1888), and intriguing maps – James Bruce’s "Two Attempts to Arrive at the Source of the Nile" (1771).
Exploring the maps in the Rare Book and Special Collections Library was "like opening a treasure chest and pulling out wondrous objects," Bassett said. He was particularly impressed with Joan Blaeu’s "extraordinarily beautiful" nine-volume "Grooten Atlas" dating from 1664-65. The biggest surprise of the project, Bassett said, was the richness of the European geographical journal collection for the 19th century, which included "the complete runs of most important series," he said.
Among his favorite maps are Giovanni Nicolosi’s "upside-down" map of the continent, which places Southern Africa at the top, demonstrating "that map orientation is purely conventional." A Royal Geographical Society map, for European audiences, shows colonies and spheres of influence in 1890. "I am especially drawn to the blank spaces," Bassett said, "which suggest that large areas of the continent are open to colonization, as if no one occupied that space."
The maps "mirror the dominance of certain countries in the world of publishing or of economics. " Thus, Dutch maps dominate the collection for the 17th century, while British and French maps stand out for the 18th and early 19th centuries. More than a third of the 19th century atlas maps were published in the United States – reflecting its rise in the world economy. Maps also show the "clear relationship between the regional focus of journal maps and the colonial interests of the country in which the journal was published," Bassett said, reminding us that "maps are social constructions reflecting the interests and circumstances of their making."