Africa: Maps and Man


By MR. S. W. BOGGS, Geographer, Department of State

Delivered at a Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Washington, D. C, September 17, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 60-64.

NOTHING in the annals of geographic discovery seems stranger than the belatedness of African exploration. Although ancient civilizations flourished in Mediterranean Africa, it is only within the lifetime of men still among us that the elementary geography of the interior of die continent became known. The great rivers and lakes of North and South America were better known within two centuries of Columbus' voyages than were the Nile, the Niger, the Congo, and the Zambezi and the great African lakes a hundred years ago. By 1850 even the exploration of the Arctic and Antarctic left problems perhaps no more baffling than those of central Africa. This apparent anomaly in geographic exploration is not a historical accident, however, but due in large part to the character of Africa's coasts and ocean currents, its topography, climate and vegetation—factors that affect Africa's future as certainly as they have influenced its past.

The naming of the second largest continent came slowly, because for so many centuries the great land mass was not an object of concrete experience. The name seems to have been derived from a Berber community, Afriga, a district south of Carthage, and the Roman province, Africa, correspended approximately to Tunisia of our day. The names "Libya" and "Ethiopia" long extended over much greater portions of the map than did the name "Africa". If we were to look at maps that have come down to us during a score of centuries we would see how slowly geographical knowledge of Africa grew, and would better appreciate why Stanley called it the "Dark Continent".

Herodotus ascended the Nile as far as the first cataract about 450 B.C. and called Egypt the "gift of the Nile" as he perceived how that great river brings water and silt from unknown sources across hundreds of miles of desert sand. Hearing apparently of the Niger river system south of the vast Sahara barrier, he believed it to be the source of the Nile, reaching Upper Egypt after a series of long subterranean journeys. That idea persisted on European maps for more than 2,000 years.

About 150 years earlier, Pharaoh Nacho had dispatched an expedition of Phoenicians, the great mariners of their day, starting them south through the Red Sea, and ordering them to follow the coasts until they should enter the Pillars of Hercules, and continue through the Mediterranean to Egypt. Generally favored by ocean currents and winds, as they would be in clockwise circumnavigation of Africa, they apparently succeeded, sailing into the Strait of Gibraltar in the third year. Herodotus did not believe that they had sailed around "Libya", partly because they reported that they had the sun on their right, or to the north, in the southern part of their journey. We can only speculate what might have been the effect on subsequent exploration if Herodotus had handed down the story of this great expedition of more than 2,500 years ago as credible history.

The great astronomer and geographer, Claudius Ptolemy, of Alexandria, may have been the first to lay down meridians and parallels to constitute a map projection, on which places were represented according to latitude and longitude. Coasts, rivers and cities were positioned on the map largely from vague estimates of direction and distance obtained from manuscripts and from the testimony of contemporary travelers. Latitude was obtained or corrected by occasional astronomical observations. True longitude relationships required determination of the time of day simultaneously at widely separated places, and about the only means was to note the difference of time of recorded eclipses, which were seldom available, whereas we now use chronometers, telegraph and wireless.

Ptolemy's world map may best be evaluated by replotting it upon a modern map. Ptolemy unfortunately did not accept the remarkably accurate determination of the circumference of the spherical earth made some three centuries earlier by Eratosthenes, but used the later figure of Poseidonius. He therefore greatly overestimated his east-west distances measured as longitude, which conversely accounted in part for the subsequent underestimate of the distance westward from Europe to Asia, ultimately encouraging Columbus to attempt his great voyages. From Greek explorers of the east coast of Africa Ptolemy had learned of two great lakes as the sources of the Nile, south of the equator, near the "Mountains of the Moon"—whose snow-covered peaks were not again reported by white men until 1888.

Roman Africa stopped with the Sahara. Rome added little to African geography, although Nero sent an expedition to solve the mystery of the sources of the Nile, pushing the limit of the known world southward to within four degrees of the equator.

During the centuries which the peoples of European outlook call the "Middle Ages" European exploration of Africa remained in abeyance. In Europe, geographical knowledge of Africa, Asia and even parts of Europe actually contracted, and merged with legend and fable, while in Asia, Mongols, Turks and Arabs were expanding their knowledge.

A form of map known as "T-O" maps came into being, and an extremely large number were made. A circumfluent ocean constituted an "O" encircling the known lands. As the term "oriented" implies, east was at the top—with proper regard for Jerusalem, as viewed from Europe. A vertical line in the Mediterranean separated Europe and Africa, and a horizontal line crossed the "T", representing the Don and Nile Rivers., which constituted the western limit of Asia. Probably St. Augustine had such a map before him when he wrote a certain passage in "The City of God".

These and other fanciful maps of the time illustrate the absence of an adventuring and inquiring attitude without which exploration of foreign lands was impossible.

Then from Arabia came Islam with dynamic force, eager to explore new lands. Moslems translated Aristotle and Ptolemy into Arabic, mediating Greek learning to Europe. They also developed the art of navigation to a new level. Northern and northeastern Africa became Mohammedan, and Moslem traders penetrated south of the Sahara into the Sudan—Negro territory.

Europe began to become Africa-conscious when Prince Henry of Portugal, early in the 15th century, learned about Africa and navigation from the Moors. Fired with contemporary crusading zeal, he initiated scientific navigation, and despatched expeditions that developed frequent contact with Africa around the bulge and along the Guinea coast. His efforts helped to make the name and influence of Portugal great, but contributed to the establishment of the slave trade by nations that professed Christianity, a traffic that had long been practiced by the Arabs and other peoples, especially along the east coast of Africa.

Late in the 15th century Portuguese explorers surged boldly around unknown Africa. Barholomew Diaz in 1488 crossed the equator, and, against adverse currents, journeyed as far south of it as Gibraltar lies to the north, and made certain that he had passed the farthest southern point of Africa before he had to turn back. Then, about the time of Columbus' third voyage westward, Vasco da Gama swept around Africa and made his way to India, encountering there and in East Africa the Moslem forces that had made impossible such a journey by the short route through the Red Sea.

These and succeeding voyages to India and the east resulted in little more than the establishment of coastal "factories" and trading posts with the interior, whence came slaves, gold and ivory for two centuries.

The Diego Ribero map, 1529, portrayed the broadened knowledge obtained largely in less than a half century. However, it placed the sources of the Nile and the "Mountains of the Moon" in southern Africa, and the cast-west extent of the continent was conspicuously excessive. Long thereafter the maps of Africa snowed enormous lakes far south of the equator as sources of the Nile, a great westward flowing river almost from the Nile to the Atlantic, and the names Libya and Ethiopia spread far into southern Africa. There was no true concept of the Niger or the Congo Rivers, nor of the great lakes of the east.

The Blue Nile, rising in Ethiopia, was first traced by Bruce in 1771. The true nature of the course of the Niger, on whose upper course lay the famed and overrated Timbuktu, was not known to Europeans until Mungo Park's journeys, 1795-1805, and Lander, 1831. Great names crowd the annals of central African exploration in the latter half of the nineteenth century, among them Burton, Speke, Livingstone and Stanley, when the Lakes Victoria, Tanganyika, Nyassa were found, and the Congo, Zambezi and upper Nile traced and mapped in their essential character. The belatedness of African exploration cannot better be indicated than by the fact that in 1876, when H. M. Stanley resumed his study of Lake Tanganyika, he was uncertain whether its waters, via the Lukuga River, belonged to the system of the Nile, the Congo or the Zambezi.

Physical Africa

What have the physical features of Africa to do with this remarkable delay in the exploration of almost the entire continent south of the part that belongs more to Europe than to Africa?

First, the Sahara is an obstacle even greater than its vast size suggests. Only the camel made its crossing possible, and what "pay-load" was worth the long, difficult journey?

Second, the nature of the coasts is a serious handicap. With an area three times that of Europe, the coastline of Africa is only about four-fifths as long—in spite of Europe's broad attachment to Asia. The remarkably smooth curved coastline is nearly harborless, and there are no widely entrant indentations of the coasts, and no large peninsulas with sheltering islands nearby.

Third, the currents and winds in general favored clock wise navigation of sailing ships, down the east coast and up the west. Arab penetration from the east was thus assisted by nature. The going south from "Europe was much more difficult and hazardous.

Fourth, the continent is largely a plateau, and is like an inverted saucer, with very narrow coastal plains. The great rivers are not navigable from the sea, and their interior courses are broken by falls and cataracts, notably the Congo. There are no navigable rivers comparable with the Amazon, the Mississippi, the St. Lawrence, the Rhine, the Danube, the Yangtze.

Fifth, climate and vegetation which is immediately dependent upon it, added greatly to the obstacles of exploration. Only a portion of the southern tip of Africa enjoys a Mediterranean type of climate similar to a narrow coastal strip of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Africa is the most tropical of the continents. Luxuriant vegetation flourishes in steaming torrid heat and high humidity. The tropical rain forest, tropical grass-land or savanna, and the hot desert, all have great heat in common.

Furthermore it should be remembered that continental unity has little reality save as a continuous obstacle to navigation by sea. It may be easier to circumnavigate the earth in a sailing vessel than to make a long overland journey on foot or even up unknown rivers. Stanley's porters laboriously carried the parts of a small steamer, the "Lady Alice", with which they navigated Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika, and the upper courses of the Congo River.

World Relationships

Since the days of the great explorations, ending about sixty years ago, the hitherto unknown portions of Africa have been almost catapulted into relationships with the rest of the world. With a great stream of vital raw materials now coming out of Africa, and a vast network of strategic air services crossing the continent, it is difficult to appreciate the inhibitions, the terrors of the unknown, and the very real physical obstacles that so recently isolated Africa. What is happening to Africa with accentuated abruptness, however, epitomizes what is happening to the world as a whole.

Political relationships

The political map of Africa signifies the most important relationship of practically all parts of the continent with the outside world. As recently as 1876 the map showed little more than a fringe of small coastal colonies. Some of the Portuguese small holdings and all of those of the Netherlands had changed hands, and the embryos of the greater British and French empires appear. The geographical secrets of the interior had just been revealed, and astonishing discoveries in diamonds in 1866 had touched off an eager and frequently futile rush to find sudden riches in many areas.

The Congress of Berlin of 1884-5 failed in its effort to provide international supervision of colonial administrations, but attempted to establish freedom of trade, for all nations, within the Congo basin.

Within the first decade of the twentieth century practically all of Africa had been absorbed by the colonial powers; and by 1934 the present boundaries of colonies and dependencies had been established, and the former German colonies had become mandated territories. The colonial expansion inland from the coasts, and delimitation of these territories, proceeded without much regard for native societies. In the words of the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" as applied to the west coast areas, "This international patchwork persists".

Railroads and roads are patterned to conform to the political boundaries, and development of the continent is conditioned to the political map. Colonial administration has made notable progress in many parts of the continent since the beginning of the century, and today in various areas it has come to take a long-range view, and makes a genuine effort to protect the interest of the native peoples.

Economic and trade relationships

Africa's commercial relationships with the world depend largely upon its present and potential agricultural and mineral production.

As the most tropical continent, Africa includes one of the great regions that is complementary to the areas in northern mid-latitudes, including much of Europe and the United States, in which industry and commerce have developed greatly. Vegetable oils, in Africa chiefly from the oil palm and the peanut (the latter, transplanted from tropical America), were one of the objects of interest of the European powers during the period of colonial partition.

Of the various agricultural products exported from Africa, cereals are at present first in importance, chiefly from North Africa, and then from South Africa. Cotton is next, from Egypt and East Africa. Oil seeds and vegetable oils rank third, and cacao fourth in point of value.

The mineral endowment of Africa is very great, and it is important to the rest of the world. Ninety-eight per cent of the world's diamonds are produced in Africa. The diamonds essential in drilling machinery and other industrial uses are now mined chiefly in Belgian Congo.

In 1938 Africa produced about nine-tenths of the world's cobalt, two-fifths of the phosphate rock, two-fifths of the gold. One-third of the world's vanadium and a third of the chromite have been coming out of Africa. The largest manganese mine in the world is in the Gold Coast, and there are extensive reserves of this important mineral in South Africa.

The great copper production from Belgian Congo and Northern Rhodesia comes at low cost from very high grade ores, and the reserves are very large.

An eighth of the tin comes from Africa, and much more may come in the future. Almost all of these minerals, and others available in Africa, are vital in modern industry.

Coal and petroleum for industry and transportation have not been discovered in great quantities, and much of the continent may have to depend upon fuelwood and local hydro-electric power. About one-third of the world's estimated water-power reserves are estimated to reside in the Congo and Niger river systems—much of it so expensiveto develop that it may never be utilized unless it proves worth while in a world-integrated economy.

Transportation and communications

Interrelationships between peoples and continents now depend upon transport which is machine-powered, because, in the last analysis, it is so much more economical of human effort. In Africa, the waterways navigable to steamers include the magnificent great lakes of the eastern central part of the continent, and portions of the principal rivers—always interrupted by rapids and cataracts, notably the Nile and the Congo. Nowhere is there a railway network except in western Mediterranean Africa and a portion of the Union of South Africa. Motorable roads are already fairly extensive, and are developing steadily.

The movement of goods in both native and international trade in parts of the continent is still dependent solely upon primitive transport. In the Belgian Congo, at least, Europ-ans are no longer permitted to hire porters, thus conserving labor and encouraging the use of motor roads. The world of transportation costs, in which Africa finds an important place through trade and commerce, can scarcely be visualized on maps, even with the most striking contrasts of color, because the differences are so nearly astronomic. They might be comprehended more readily by means of an electric globe, the construction of which would be analogous to electric power transmission systems. Cover the high seas, where freight can be moved at l/10c per ton-mile, with silver (the best electrical conductor), or with silver wires, connecting all the world's ports; the navigable high seas will be insulated from the coasts except at ports; for railroads select a steel alloy wire whose electrical resistance is about ten times that of silver; then choose wire and strands of other materials with from twenty times to ten thousand times the resistance of silver for roads, caravan routes and trails traveled by auto trucks, horses and wagons, pack animals and human porters. The rest of the globe should be covered with an almost perfect insulating, nonconducting material such as glass or porcelain. Now, with delicate instruments to determine the relative electrical resistance between alternate routes, we find which way freight will move between any two points. You will come to realize that, whereas "a thousand years are as one day" with the Lord of the universe, a thousand miles by ocean freighter are as a fraction of a mile over the Burma Road, with man who regards himself "Lord of the earth."

What the airplane will do for Africa and for the world no one can foretell. When some one can fly a thousand miles and drop bread or a bomb beside me, the question "Who is my neighbor?" becomes more puzzling than ever. In any event, it will soon be physically possible for some one from another continent to drop down almost anywhere in Africa and inquire of the local inhabitants what they have in their subsoil, or what they can produce on their land, which would be of interest to the rest of the world. And the movement of goods by air, while much more expensive than by sea or even by railroad or motor road, is generally more economical than transport by human porters or pack animals. The airplane surmounts the handicaps of Africa's long stretches of harbor less coasts, and its lack of great rivers navigable from the sea. In undeveloped regions stir freight and express will tend to supplant primitive transport except over very short distances, and to bridge gaps between the railroads, motor roads and steamship services, at least until more economical surface facilities can be provided. No one can prophesy what the map of air service in Africa even a decade hence will look like.

This rapidly changing world—of which Africa is an integral part—is frequently called "a shrinking world," represented pictorially by a series of smaller and smaller globes, for the horse-and-buggy days, railroad travel, and finally airplanes. However, the term "shrinking" is quite misleading. The significant fact is that the reduction of time multiplies the achievement which is possible in any unit of time. The world of experience is rapidly expanding for all mankind, whether regarded from the viewpoint of the individual or of corporate groups or nations. Our lives may be expanded and enriched because we can go farther and do more, and friends from great distances may come to us. We should realize, on the other hand, that modern technology, in vastly increasing the distance at which practically all forces may operate with great effect, makes intensification of rivalries possible, even to the ends of the earth, if they are not curbed and controlled.

Some geographical relationships

Picture for yourself a native school in central Africa in which a native teacher is teaching geography to the coming generation. Today she has a map of Africa before the pupils, and she has at her disposal basic knowledge of lakes and river systems unknown to a human soul a century ago, and has probably had personal experience with river steamers or railroads, automobiles, airplanes and radios. Next . month or next year the pupils may study the United States, or Asia, or a world map. They are learning something about us, much of it not in the classroom. They need not recapitulate our mistakes, in information and attitudes, but may be conducted directly, by routes of understanding adapted to their own background, into sane relationships with the whole world.

There are but few great physical barriers to the extension of mechanized transport in Africa, and the native peoples will thereby have contacts which are constantly widening. At least in the great Bantu area the numerous languages are closely related, and there are already important linguae francae and increasing use of English, French and other European languages throughout Africa, that enable one to move about without great difficulty. Less dissimilarity of cultures than in most other great areas, and the absence of nationalistic traditions, tend to facilitate integration of African societies. Public health measures are reducing the death rate, especially the high infant mortality, and the relatively sparse population is likely to increase rapidly in some areas, further tending to bring the peoples into closer touch with one another and with the world.

The peoples of Africa have many problems, some of them very new. They cannot be solved by wishful thinking. "Longing for home cannot take you across the river," is a Mongo proverb. The problems of the native peoples cannot be solved by integrating or organizing the continent or large regions in opposition to other continents or regions. It will be normal for many communities or small regions in Africa to maintain closer relations with distant parts of the world than with nearby portions of their own continent. The peoples of Africa cannot alter the fact that they live in the same world with the peoples of Europe, Asia and the Americas.

What, then, of our adaptation to Africa? We shall need to unlearn some of our old geography and to learn some new geography relating to Africa, We should become aware, in the first place, that it is commonly underrated as to area, partly because, on the usual type of maps, especially Mercator's, the land areas of northern Asia, Europe and North America are so greatly exaggerated. As may be seen on a globe, it is as far east-west across Africa, from Dakar to Cape Guardafui, as it is across Russian territory from Odessa on the Black Sea to Bering Strait.

We also frequently fail to realize the geographical relation between Africa and the United States, because of our use of Mercator maps and of eastern and western hemisphere maps. That part of Africa which is within a hemisphere centered at Eastport, Maine, is equal to the entire continent of South America in both area and population. From Washington, D. C. to the farthest corner of Egypt, on the Red Sea, is nearer than Cape Horn.

These geographical relationships of Africa with Asia and the Americas have become evident as we have studied a globe, with the aid of a transparent plastic hemisphere on which continental outlines were traced. By moving the transparent hemisphere anywhere over the globe one may compare any portion of the earth with any other, and may study great circle routes and distances, without any of the distortions of scale and area which attend the use of flat maps. Unfortunately such devices cannot become available for general use until the materials can be directed to peace-time services. But we all need to learn that one of the most important aids to global thinking is the globe itself, with simple means of measuring and comparing one area with another.

Abraham Lincoln said ". . . we cannot escape history." If we cannot escape history, neither can we escape geography—the geography of rapidly changing world relationships, cultural and economic, between peoples of every part of the globe.

The geographical relationships which may scarcely be perceived except on a globe have come to have real significance for the first time in history. Actual distances between places on the earth are important because in the invisible ocean of air above us, far deeper than the deepest sea, overlying land and sea alike, airplanes are flying. Heretofore the distances that really counted were measured in time of surface travel, and in the cost of passenger travel or freight rates. Today, because of the airplane, direct global relationships tend to determine both time and cost, except for bulk freight.

The adjustments which we must make with reference to other continents are perhaps analogous, in a sense, to the change of viewpoint required when modern astronomy was born, four centuries ago. The discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, making the earth but one of a family of planets revolving about the sun, were humiliating, and were passionately resisted, when men believed the universe to be geocentric None could then imagine the great series of subsequent astronomic discoveries pertaining to the vast universe, in which the physics of stars and atoms are intimately related. Similarly, today, men of all races and nationalities tend to resist the implications of world interrelationships, fearing that their fixed positions will dissolve before their eyes, and that they may have to move in orbits which are related to, and influenced by, those of other peoples.

We should, however, focus on facts, not fears. One of those facts is that men employ the cheapest and fastest means of travel, communication and the transport of goods at their disposal. They will in Africa, and we do with reference to 1 Africa. Men want their expenditure of effort or of money to count, without much thought of social or political implications. In the horse-and-buggy days men began using automobiles without insisting on knowing the possible effects on road building, steel and rubber industries, petroleum consumption, or international travel. And now that men have made their adjustments and regard automobiles as normal, some of the viewpoints and attitudes of a half century ago seem a bit antiquated. Likewise, when men have learned to em-ploy the great facilities now at their disposal they can only regard their expanded geographical and cultural relationships as normal. With the emphasis upon such facts, rather than fears, the instrumentalities that are being so effectively and so tragically used for brutalitarian ends can more readily be dedicated to humanitarian objectives and world order.