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Resource Suggestions from the Experts

Editors' note: We asked our essay contributors to share one of their favorite resources for teaching about Africa in the world history classroom. The result is a fascinating array of suggestions ranging from cartography to statuary and from film to texts. We hope you will find these ideas useful, and that you will share your own resources with readers through our "Letters to the Editors" feature.  

Creating Africa: A Brief Tour of European Cartography of Africa
Jonathan T. Reynolds, Northern Kentucky University


"So Geographers in Afric-maps,
With Savage-Pictures fill their gaps;
And o'er unhabitable downs
Place Elephants for want of towns."
                         Johnathan Swift, 1733

    Swifts' poem regarding African maps is fairly well-known.  Students often will have heard it by the time they arrive in a world history survey.  A good number will even get the point that in order to fill up regions of the "empty" African map, European cartographers would add whimsical images of savages and wild animals.  What is less well-known, however, is that while Swift was fairly accurate in his description of English map-making in the early 18th century, he offered a rather poor account of the maps that had preceded those of his day.  Indeed, during the 16th and 17th centuries, European (often Italian and Dutch) maps of Africa featured a remarkable amount of interior detail.  Certainly they were often lacking in what more modern cartographers might consider absolute precision.  But, they were often quite correct in broad terms, such as in citing the existence of certain rivers and cities, if not their exact courses and locations.  More so, they clearly showed that Europeans of the time (correctly) considered much of Africa to be, like Europe, well populated with cities and kingdoms.  Given that the European experience with Africa was limited largely to the coastline prior to the 19th century, it is clear that information regarding the interior certainly came from African and Arabic sources, which the early cartographers were willing to accept as accurate.  Further, Africa exerted something of a "sphere of influence" on maps during this early era as well, with the "Ethiopian Ocean" being located off the continent's Western coast, rather than the South Atlantic, as it would later be labeled.
    Thus, what is remarkable about the maps of the 18th and 19th centuries is that they gradually cease to include "indigenous" information about the African interior, and increasingly leave regions blank until they can be "discovered" by Europeans.  Thus, for a while, the outline of Africa became more sharply defined and the interior became less so.  This is something of a cartographic metaphor for Africa being defined from the outside in, and also becoming a single "thing" rather than a complex collection or regions and societies.  Similarly, there is a growing tendency in the maps in these later centuries to see Africa in increasingly racial terms, labeling large swaths of the continent as "Negroland"—presaging the notion of "Black Africa."  The detail of earlier maps does not really return until the apogee of colonial power in the 1920s and 1930s.
    The list of maps below represent a chronological sequence of on-line historical maps. They are presented with the goal of getting students to investigate and critically access the cartographic "creation" of the continent of Africa as we have come to understand it.   In using such resources in my own classes, I have encouraged students to see how the understanding of Africa (in European eyes) has changed over the centuries.  These maps can either be presented by an instructor as a "guided tour," or, if time and computer resources allow, the students can be allowed to examine them on their own.  Many offer "zoom" functions that allow them to be examined in remarkable detail.  However utilized, they provide us with information about both Africa and Europe during the period from the 15th through the 20th centuries ­ which is how world history should work in the first place.  Further, these maps offer students an opportunity to learn a bit about the history of cartography, while also highlighting the incredible richness of the map resources available on the Internet.  A few notes accompany each map, pointing out what I, at least, think is interesting or notable about each.  No doubt, energetic instructors and students will come up with additional information and commentary.

1350: Higden "Mappamondo"

A prime example of the medieval style of world maps.  It is East-oriented (which is where the term "oriented" comes from in the first place), with Jerusalem at the center of the world.  Students should be encouraged to note that Africa is presented as neither separate from nor isolated from other regions.  Rather, Africa, along with "Europe," doesn't even really exist on this map ­ there is just the world surrounding Jerusalem!0157higden.html

1482: Berlingheri

This map is interesting in that the cartographer had clearly not had access to, or digested the information produced by, Portuguese voyages along Africa's west coast.  Perhaps Berlingheri was not yet willing to break with Ptolemy, whose ancient maps seem to have deeply influenced this one.  It is also useful to point out that "Africa" is generally labeled as "Ethiopia" and "Libya" ­ "Aphrica" is just a region along the north coast.  Indeed, "Africa" was not to come into consistent use as a name for the continent until nearly a century later.

1547:  Portolean Chart from Vallard Atlas

This is a beautifully rendered (and south-oriented) map of Northern and Western Africa.  Though the interior is rather lacking in information, the coast is well detailed.  Most interesting are the representations of cities and people ­ exactly the things that Swift later would say were missing. Indeed, while Nicholas Vallard and the other creators of this atlas clearly didn't know much about the interior of Africa, they nonetheless saw the people living there as doing so much like people elsewhere.  Most of the images represent trade, urbanization, and political authority.  However, careful observers will note two fanciful creatures giving each other what appears to be a high-five in the center-left of the image. (Click on Folio 7 "Northeast Africa")

1554: Ramusio-Gastaldi

This is another very nice south-oriented map. However, it is different in that it shows considerable interior detail.  Given the lack of European experience beyond the coastlines, most of this information could only have come from African sources and from Islamic geographers (many of whom were, after all, also African).

1570 Ortelius

Much like Ramusio-Gastaldi, this map provides a great deal of interior detail.  It is also interesting in its identification of the "Oceanvs Ethio" (Ethiopian Ocean) instead of the "South Atlantic" or "Atlantic."

1607: Mercator "Africa"

Mercator is of course famous as a cartographer, so it is useful to show his early representation of Africa.  The map is similar to the previous two maps in many ways, but is notable for its use of "Africa" as a signifier, and also for its frequent references to "regnum/regio" ­ Latin terms identifying the presence of kingdoms.

1632: Jodocus Hondius

This is yet another example of the highly detailed maps of the 17th century.  It is based upon earlier work by Janssonius (1623), and was later reproduced in the "Grand Atlas" by Joan Blaeu (1663-1665).  It features, once again, the "Oceanus Aethiopicus" and is bordered with representations of not-particularly-outlandish Africans (save the two folks eating snakes in the bottom right corner).    

1680:  Fredrick De Wit "Totius Africae"

This is a detail of southwestern Africa from a larger map.  The section shows both a detailed coastline and interior.  It once again features the "Oceanus Aethiopi."  The area around the title presents what are perhaps romanticized, but certainly not barbaric, African representatives.

1729:  Herman Holl "Negroland and Guinea"

Here we see a fairly sharp break from the previous maps, with considerably less information provided for the interior.  This map also represents an early characterization of part of the continent as "Negroland," and an early identification of the nearby ocean at the Atlantic.  It may be worthwhile to point out to students the map's emphasis on European "ownership" in that it identifies "what belongs to England, Holland, Denmark, etc."  The fact that the slave trade was beginning to dominate European economic ties to Africa around this time might also be noted.

1771: R. Reynolds "An Accurate Map of Africa"

Like the Holl map above, this map is useful in that it reflects the growing precision of the exterior outline of Africa, but a decreasing degree of interior detail. "Negroland" and the Atlantic are, again, important components of the map.

1821: William C. Woodbridge

This map, from an American geography text, is remarkable in the general absence of interior detail for the continent.  Apparently, there was, by this time, little to be taught (if not known) about the African interior.

Precise Date Unknown (Probably circa 1820): A. Arrowsmith 

This map, produced for the "British Association for the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa" is interesting precisely for its imbalanced detail.  Some areas are completely blank, and others, where European "explorers" have previously been active, are highly detailed.  This is a fairly overt representation of Africa as a "Tabula Rasa"—a blank page awaiting the imprint of first-hand European experience.

References and Additional Useful Resources:  

Afriterra: The Cartographic Free Library.

American Museum of Natural History, Congo Expedition Map Gallery.

University of California, Berkeley, Digital Scriptorium.

Harris, Nathaniel. Mapping the World: Maps and their History (Thunder Bay Press, 2002)

Images of Early Maps on the Web: 5. Africa.

Norwich, I, and Jeffrey Stone. Norwich's Maps of Africa: An Annotated and Illustrated Carto-Bibliography (Terra Nova Press, 1997).

Short, John Rennie. The World Through Maps: A History of Cartography (Firefly Books, Ltd., 2003).

University of Florida Map and Image Library: Africa.

Yale Map Collection: Africa.


The Shanga Lion: Evidence of Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Indian Ocean
Erik Gilbert, Arkansas State University

    My favorite way of showing students that the Swahili were participants in a larger Indian Ocean world is to tell them about the Shanga lion. The Shanga lion is a small bronze statue of a lion that was found during Mark Horton's excavation of the Swahili town of Shanga.  It dates from roughly 1100; a time when the Swahili city states were growing rapidly and Indian Ocean trade was booming.  Nothing similar has ever been found in East Africa, but lions of similar size and appearance have been found in India where they were used in Hindu religious ritual.  One possible explanation for the lion's presence in Shanga is that it belonged to Indian merchants who came there to trade, or that it was an imported piece used for non-religious decorative purposes by Swahili elites.  However, other qualities of the lion suggest that it also had local roots.  While the statue is stylistically Indian, the lion it depicts is an African lion rather than an Asian lion.  So whoever made the statue had seen both Indian statuettes of lions as well as African lions.  Equally intriguing is that the copper used to make the bronze from which the statue was cast seems to derive from melted Chinese coins.  The presence of this statute, which Horton says is neither African nor Indian but "Indian Ocean," is vivid evidence of the types of cross-cultural encounters that were occurring in the Swahili towns of the 12th century.
    For more on the Shanga lion see M.C. Horton and T.R. Blurton, " 'Indian' metalwork in East Africa: the bronze statuette from Shanga," Antiquity 62 (1988): 22.  There is also a treatment of the Shanga lion in Erik Gilbert and Jonathan Reynolds, Africa in World History (Prentice Hall, 2003), page 106.  There is a photo of the lion in Mark Horton, Helen Brown, and Nina Mudidia, Shanga: the Archeology of a Muslim Trading Community on the Coast of East Africa (British Institute in East Africa, 1996), but the statue is not particularly photogenic or visually interesting, and the book is expensive and not widely available.

Connecting Africa to the World: Donald Wright's The World and a Very Small Place in Africa
R. Hunt Davis, University of Florida

    One of the best and most widely adopted books for teaching about Africa in the context of world history is Donald R. Wright, The World and a Very Small Place in Africa: A History of Globalization in Niumi, The Gambia (2nd ed, M.E. Sharpe, 2004).  Through focusing on the small state of Niumi at the mouth of the Gambia River, beginning with the first direct contact with the Portuguese in 1446 CE and continuing to the present, Wright combines a detailed local history with that of the evolving intercommunicating world.  By doing so, this study enables its readers to understand the changes that a growing involvement with the world economy introduced into the lives of real people at a very local level.  In the words of one reviewer, it has developed a reputation as "the best book on Africa."

"Traditional" versus "Modern" Africa: Film as a Resource in Teaching about Africa
Candice Goucher, Washington State University, Vancouver

    One key lesson that I find is typically difficult for students to grasp are the distinctions between "traditional" and "modern" Africa, village life and urban struggles.  I like to use the film La Vie est Belle (Life is Rosy), available from California Newsreel's Library of African Cinema. Its opening scene shows a young villager escaping to the city to pursue a dream of becoming a musician.  Many scenes juxtapose ideas about modernity and traditional beliefs from an African perspective.  This film's content may be too mature for some high school audiences, but selected scenes may be used to open discussion on a changing Africa.  Its world beat music is captivating.   California Newsreel has lots of great films by African filmmakers—the continent's modern "griots"—and they provide windows on both contemporary and historical Africa.  9

Published Primary Sources: Robert Edgar's An African American in South Africa
Robert Vinson, Washington University, St. Louis

Robert Edgar's An African American in South Africa: The Travel Notes of Ralph J. Bunche (Ohio University Press, 1992) is an excellent teaching resource based on the incisive 1937 travelogue of Bunche, the first African American Nobel Peace Prize winner (1950). The book is valuable for its comparison of racial segregation and black politics in South Africa and America, and for its intimate first-person account of a society moving tragically toward apartheid. It also provides critical insights into the nature of African societies in the colonial era, and reminds us of the Marxist analysis of colonialism, capitalism and racism that posed a serious challenge to Western systems of political governance and the economic and racial orthodoxies of this time. Bunche's status as a visiting African American in South Africa also makes this travelogue a complementary companion to Alexis de Tocqueville's famous Democracy in America. Finally, the book is a wonderful introduction to the trenchant political thought, social sophistication and wry sense of humor of Bunche, a largely forgotten, but important figure in American history. 10

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