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Book Review


Leila Koivunen, Visualizing Africa in Nineteenth-Century British Travel Accounts New York and London: Routledge, 2011. Pp. 351. $49.95 (paper).


     For an African (and in my case, South African) reader, it must be unimaginable to think that barely the elite of erstwhile mid-19th century Britain was informed on and about Africa. After all, Britain affirmed its authority in South Africa for way more than a century after 1806, followed by approximately 4000 British Settlers entering the country in 1820. Leila Koivunen allows these thoughts to crosses one's mind in Visualizing Africa in Nineteenth-Century British Travel Accounts, which makes worthy reading on the traveling history of the British in Africa through Western eyes.

     Koivunen, in an informed and structured way, explain how organised travelling to Africa initially was to share alien and foreign continental information with the broad British people. Danger and health risks were part of this adventurous package. Yet, as explained in Visualizing Africa, enough brave and courageous professionals from a variety of stands, backgrounds and skills attempted the challenges and have contributed to understand Africa from a variety of different visual mediums. These various modes of visual expressions are assessed by Koivunen from a modern day post-colonial insight. In hindsight, it is so much easier to identify stereotyping practises and distortions ordered on native Africa by British travellers. Koivunen has a special close engagement with particularly early British traveling accounts in field sketches and wood engravings, with the intention to understand how distorted and stereotyped imagery of Africa was initially constructed. Her approach and visual dimensions chosen is a refreshing new approach to the African academic discourse mainly visible in written contributions. To engage with the distorted and stereotyped imagery on Africa, Koivunen structured her book in two parts with four chapters each.

     The first part of Visualizing Africa mainly covers a literature exposé on visual views of Africa, complimented by what the ideal is for visual documentation. She continues by debating issues around problematic picturing before uncovering to the reader how Africa is captured in pictures in chapter four. Chapter five mainly is a representation of experiences and ways of disseminations by explorers on selections of the African environmental and indigenous landscape. To what extent financial and persona gains features in some of the travellers' intentions of visualising Africa to the British masses, appears less prominent in Visualizing Africa, but to Africans Europe's economic gains in pre-colonial and colonial Africa will remain an inevitable question, inclusive of possible financial gains in British traveling imagery accounts.

     Chapter six covers the daunting process of imagery selection based on several published examples, with Chapter seven revealing, in a very stimulating writing style, the inevitable transformation of images. Chapter eight conceals the modification process of original African images as a means to cope with the "Unknown Continent," but not necessarily to always depict an absolute lifelike reflection of reality. Koivunen, in the summarizing conclusion of Visualizing Africa, confirms the impossibility of authenticity in the publications of British travel accounts due to constructions and transformations before publication. Furthermore, the visualising of Africa by pioneering nineteenth century British travellers was mostly connected with their Western understanding of what will be of interest or value to the community they "cater" for. The "other" as the different (for example African nakedness) is frequently featured, probably more than curiosity than to inform.

     Though Adrian S Wisnicki in Victorian Studies (2010:673–675) so well articulates Koivunen's notable extensive literature contribution to the critical theoretical debate on Victorian travel images (and Wisnicki's impressions are endorsed), a lack of intercultural representation indeed is a concern and will remain an obstruction progressing towards a representative debate among scholars in and outside the continent. Impressions by Africans on outsider expressions via various visual mediums, are equally due. Apart from absences and silences in African scholarship in so many debates about Africa, First World learning should perhaps take more cognisance of scientific contributions coming from the continent on some pioneering British travellers in parts of books and in articles. One such example from African scholarship is that of Johann Tempelhoff's on David Livingstone and his perspectives (also visually) on nineteenth-century water in Southern Africa (New Contree, 57, 2009). However, having said this, it must be accentuated that Koivunen's outstanding contribution in the field of British traveling in Africa certainly acknowledges her as one of the leading Western scholars in this field.

Elize Van Eeden is a Professor at North-west University in South Africa, and has published more than sixty scholarly articles and is the author of "Didactical guidelines for teaching history in a changing South Africa" (Potchefstroom: Keurkopie Uitgewers, 1999). She is currently chairperson of the South African Society for History Teaching and editor of the accredited peer reviewed scientific journals Yesterday and Today and New Contree. She can be contacted at


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