Cataloguing Colonial Maps of Africa
#LoveMaps / Collections - Posted 10-05-2022
For the past two years, between lockdowns, I have been working my way through a backlog of uncatalogued or partially catalogued maps of Africa, sorting them and adding them to the online database so everyone can access them. We are often told by readers that they did not know we had maps from outside Wales, so I hope this cataloguing project and my blog posts will help more readers to discover the breadth of material we hold.
Anglo Belgian Boundary Commission, 1925
Tanganyika border triangulation diagrams, 1928
Anglo-Belgian Boundary Commission, 1925 [signatures]
Most of these maps are from the era of European colonial administration of African countries. This partly results from the source of the maps in the collection — the vast majority have arrived in the library during the 20th century through the legal deposit process, which applies only to material published in the UK. The most prolific British publisher of overseas mapping in the 20th century was the government’s Directorate of Colonial Surveys. It was established in 1946 to centralise production of maps of the empire. In 1957, with independence movements across the empire gaining momentum, it was renamed the Directorate of Overseas Surveys. Other governmental departments, such as the Central Office of Information, also produced maps for a general audience, while the Ministry of Defence (MoD) produced and collected maps for military purposes, some of which have been added to the library collections as the MoD reduces its paper map collection in favour of a more digital approach. However, the dominance of colonial administrative perspectives in the collection also reflects the importance of mapping the colonial world — maps ‘prove’ who owns land.
Our first two maps are from a set used to define and legalise the border between British Tanganyika (modern Tanzania) and Belgian Rwanda and Burundi. The maps were drawn in the 1920s, and divided the spoils of the First World War as decided by the Treaty of Versailles. Tanganyika, Rwanda and Burundi had until then been part of German East Africa, but were to be divided as reparations between Britain and Belgium.
The ceremonial signatures of British and Belgian commissioners can be seen on the map. No reference is made to local people or leaders, whose signatures were not required for this division of their territory.
Wiedergutmachung von Unrecht?, 1918
Our next map is a German challenge to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s speech outlining his aim of ‘compensation for injustice’ [Wiedergutmachung von Unrecht] through the peace process. Lloyd George had demanded that Germany and its allies withdraw from Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro, Italy, Romania, Alsace and Lorraine — this German map argues that his demands were hypocritical while Britain and its allies held colonies around the world. German East Africa is not included on the map.
While some colonial borders were defined with reference to geographical features, such as Lake Tanganyika in our first map, a quick glance at ruler-straight national boundaries in north Africa, for example, suggests that other borders were defined on paper, by lines drawn on maps, rather than with reference to the land itself, or its people.
This six-sheet 1959 map of the town of Voi in southern Kenya demonstrates this on a smaller scale: the town’s administrative boundary is a perfect circle, map information stopping abruptly at the circle’s edge.
The map of Voi was intended for administrative use within Kenya itself. However, many maps in the collection were made for a UK audience, to inform people about the empire. As a result, some are much more visually striking than the large-scale maps used for colonial administration.
West Africa, 1948
East Africa, 1947
West Africa, 1948 [border]
West Africa, 1948 [Mungo Park]
East Africa, 1947 [legend]
Our next two maps were produced in the late 1940s by the British government’s Central Office of Information for a general British audience. Both were drawn by Leo Vernon, who also illustrated maps of other parts of the empire, as well as tourist and historical maps of Britain.
They are intended to convey something of the culture and history of the places they depict through their use of colour and highly illustrated borders.
On the West Africa map, numerous figures are depicted around the edge of the map. The only one named is Mungo Park, a Scottish explorer. The numerous Black Africans depicted are unnamed, and most have only the slightest suggestion of facial features, in stark contrast to the detailed image of Park.
Both maps also show the rich resources found in Britain’s colonies, emphasising the exploitative and extractive nature of much of British colonialism. This focus on exports and commercial potential is a common feature on the maps in the collection.
Africa: commercial development, 1922
Legend from Africa: commercial development, 1922
The next map dates from 1922, and aims to classify the ‘commercial development’ of the entire African continent. The neat colour coding presents an impression of scientific rigour and accuracy, in contrast to the pictorial appeal of Leo Vernon’s illustrations.
In this hierarchy of development, mining, industry and plantation agriculture (run by and for European settlers) come at the top, while ‘virgin’ lands, although used by local communities for hunting and ‘primitive’ collecting, are classed as undeveloped. It is clear in whose interest ‘commercial development’ is intended to be. There is also very little interest in internal trade within countries or regions, only in external connections — those that benefitted imperial countries.
The continent of Africa, 1954
A number of maps in the collection emphasise the difference between colonies, protectorates and trusteeships, including our next map, as well as the 1948 West Africa map discussed above. Although trusteeships were theoretically intended to ensure that economic development benefitted both native people and colonial interests, they were thought of in a decidedly paternalistic way. An article published in 1946 describes trusteeships:
“Trusteeship, both national and international, is a conception which is at the forefront of the human advance. It assumes a relatively stable human society in which nations, themselves mature, rational, and governed in their actions and policies by high conceptions of law and justice, undertake to assist less advanced peoples to climb the ladder of self-government…”
The maps also frequently include short texts extolling the virtues of the colonial system, detailing the benefit that British rule supposedly bestowed upon Africans, and the ‘progress’ to be made before Africans could be ‘trusted’ with self-government:
The continent of Africa, 1954 [text]
East Africa, 1947 [text]
This blog has only scratched the surface of the fascinating material I have catalogued during this project, and there is plenty more work still to do, so I will be doing more blog posts in future to update you all with my favourite finds from this process.
Anglo-Belgian boundary commission, 1925 (E11:3 (3))
[Tanganyika border triangulation diagrams], 1928 (E11:6 (13))
Wiedergutmachung von Unrecht?, 1918 (B1:4 (4))
Africa: commercial development, 1922 (Oversize Map 164)
The continent of Africa, 1954 (E1 (128))
Bibliography and further reading:
The imperial map: cartography and the mastery of empire, edited by James R. Akerman. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Mapping an empire: the geographical construction of British India, 1765-1843, by Matthew H. Edney. University of Chicago Press, 1997.
The Napoleonic survey of Egypt: a masterpiece of cartographic compilation and early nineteenth-century fieldwork, by Anne Godlewska. Cartographica Monograph no. 38-39. Cartographica 25 (1-2), 1988.
The iconography of landscape: essays on the symbolic representation, design, and use of past environments, edited by Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels. Cambridge University Press, 1988.
The British Commonwealth and Trusteeship, published in the journal International Affairs, volume 22, number 2, pages 199-213, 1946.
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Trainee Assistant Map Curator
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