In 1805 large tracts of the continent of Africa remained unknown in Britain and Europe. Mapmakers were quick to draw on new information, newly sophisticated measuring instruments, and new consumer interest in the wider world. Their efforts produced maps that were more scientific and objective on one level, but remained deeply coloured by their biases and preconceptions.

There was extensive knowledge of Mediterranean societies in the north, and maritime trade routes and provisioning points, reflected in the map’s emphasis on western and coastal regions. But large areas of the interior of the continent remained, literally, a blank. As wars and revolutions raged around the globe, understanding and engaging with peoples and markets became both more possible and more urgent.

In past centuries, Europeans had found the disease environment and resilient societies of the African interior, especially in central and southern Africa, too much of an obstacle to permit much colonial settlement. Africa’s great geographic features were known about in loose terms, but south of the Sahara, merchants, slave traders, and East Indian companies had been forced to occupy only occasional ports, slave forts, and outposts. European trade goods, including guns and textiles, had travelled inland via slave traders from western Africa, who mostly captured their victims in the interior. Plenty of commerce and knowledge had also come out of the intrusion of European overseas companies, such as the East India Company, whose ships and sailors needed a stopping point as they navigated the treacherous seas around South Africa.

Cartographers were commissioned to create maps of the known world, which were becoming fashionable household objects as well as military tools.

Amidst the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, British naval power was rising, and mapmaking as an art and science kept pace.  Cartographers were commissioned to create maps of the known world, which were becoming fashionable household objects as well as military tools. John Cary (1755-1835) was one of the foremost cartographers of the late 1700s and early 1800s. This map was drawn, engraved and published for the 1805 edition of his New Universal Atlas, and was still being copied in the 1820s.

Cary’s map may have abandoned the mythical monsters and filled-in false details of earlier European attempts, but it still contained plenty of misconceptions. The northern parts of the continent show considerable information and detail along the rivers and trade routes, but then a non-existent mountain chain stretches across the middle of the continent and the map. The connection of the ‘Mountains of Kong’ and the ‘Mountains of the Moon’ as part of the same giant range would remain a feature on European maps of Africa until the 1850s. The southern half of the continent has much more detail and information mostly along the coasts, where some European settlements and plenty of trade had been made. The interior of the south is mostly blank, ‘Unknown Parts’, although Lake Maravi, an early reflection of the interior lakes, is shown. Explorers and companies in the nineteenth century eagerly took on the challenge of exploiting the global spaces outlined by Cary and his peers.


Did you know..?

An “Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa” (commonly known as the African Association) was founded in London in 1788, with significant support from abolitionists. The club dedicated itself to sponsoring the exploration of West Africa, including missions such as finding the origin of the great Niger River and the exact location of the fabled Timbuktu.

Sources & acknowledgements

This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.