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Uncharted Africa

Uncharted Africa

Before the scramble, the world’s second-largest continent was little more than an outline

Before the scramble, the world’s second-largest continent was little more than an outline

Samantha Weinberg | September/October 2014

John Rapkin was a cartographer and engraver, expert at the minute detail that turned a work of art into a traveller’s guide. He was employed by John Tallis & Co., the premier mapmakers of the Victorian era, drawing many of their maps and illustrating them with finely wrought engravings of people and places that, for the most part, he had never seen.

In 1851, Tallis published “The Illustrated Atlas and Modern History of the World” in good time for the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London. The atlas is a traveller’s cornucopia of wonder. Each plate has an intricate border surrounding a map filled with cartographic detail and illustrated with dabs of local colour: in Syria a caravan of camels disappears into the desert, there are waterfalls in Ceylon, and Inuit hunters in British America.

Rapkin was tasked with putting Africa on the map. His caricatures—of the fortifications at St Helena, an Arab family of Algeria, and various scantily clad Hottentots—were based on travellers’ descriptions. But the map itself would not have been of much use to a contemporary explorer venturing into the interior of what Henry Morton Stanley, 27 years later, called “the Dark Continent”—the “dark” of the title of Stanley’s account of his 999-day trek across the girth of Africa meaning unknown, unexplored, mysterious.

Rapkin, sitting at his drawing board in Clerkenwell, must have groaned. His Africa was little more than an outline. Even the few details sketched into the interior are geographically inaccurate. The Mountains of the Moon are hundreds of miles from their true position on the border between modern Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, while the “Great Marsh” is clearly a giant bog of the imagination.

The population of Africa at the time was reckoned to be close to 100m. Over the preceding 700 years, around 30m Africans had been captured or lured into slavery. But for the most part, their homelands, 10m square miles of forests and mountains, rivers, plains and kingdoms, remained unmapped, as far as Europeans were concerned, res nullius—not exactly fertile ground for Rapkin.

Just 34 years after he drew his map, all this would change. The excitement whipped up by the explorers—Stanley and Brazza, Burton and Speke—fed into a lust to acquire that came into formal fruition in Berlin in December 1884. Touted as a trade treaty, it in effect parcelled out the world’s second-largest continent between the six interested European nations: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Belgium. No African was present at the meeting.

Over the succeeding decades, European traders and farmers, soldiers, missionaries and civil servants swarmed into Africa to tame the land and claim its riches. The empty space in the interior started to take shape: there was Lake Victoria and the Great Rift Valley in the east, the rubber forests of the Congo in the west and the great gold and diamond fields in the south. Kingdoms that had existed for millennia without maps were erased as country borders were drawn, roads and towns built. John Rapkin’s Africa was coloured in by the pen of a cartographer, and inked in the minds of generations to come.

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