Africa: Historical Kingdoms

Northern Africa had been known, visited, and colonized by European cultures as early as the Roman Republic, but most of Africa was only intermittently explored. Powerful currents made sailing along the west coast a dangerous proposition and overland travel presented its own challenges. Africa is the second largest continent with a surface area of 30,375,000 square kilometers, almost triple the size of Europe, containing a dizzying array of climate zones and different terrains, to say nothing of the animals and civilizations unknown to Europeans except in the reports of a handful of enterprising explorers, missionaries, and adventurers.

Early European maps of Africa, including the ones in this gallery, were riddled with inaccuracies. A distinctive and recurring error lay in the large bodies of water in central Africa marked on maps, typically called Zaire Lacus, Zembra or Zembre Lacus, and Zaflan Lacus (or some variation thereof). Only Lacus Zaflan (now known as Lake Malawi) is a actual lake whereas the others were probably swamps or floodplains. The error recurs because of the derivative nature of mapmaking, both then and now. Maps of Africa were drawn based on a chain of data transmitted through numerous accounts. Scherer, for instance, relied on the work of on Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), who himself had relied on the missionary Pedro Paéz y Jaramillo (1564-1622), the first European to travel to the source of the Blue Nile. Scherer’s maps in turn were be used as a basis for other mapmakers, including Matthäus Seutter (1685-1757), whose Diversi Globi Terr-Aquei Statione variante et Visu intercedente (ca. 1740) shows similar errors.

One hundred years separate Abraham Ortelius’ map of northern Africa from Heinrich Scherer’s map of southern Africa, but what all three maps have in common is an interest in national borders both current and historical. Ortelius mapped a legendary Christian kingdom even as belief in that kingdom was fading; Blaeu highlights large empires discovered by Portuguese explorers; and Scherer emphasizes the names of local empires as he maps religious sites. The “Scramble for Africa” where European powers raced to seize territory in Africa would not begin until the 19th century: these 17th-century mapmakers were more interested in history and tracing the origins of the civilizations they depicted. Emphasizing history in turn required them to omit other details: what might a different emphasis have placed on the map?