West Africa on European Maps

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West Africa on European Maps


Early Maps and Geographical Descriptions. One way to trace the development of trade and cultural exchange between West Africa and the rest of the world is to look at the evolution of representations of the region in world maps. The fifth century B.C.E. voyages of the Carthaginian Hanno along the Atlantic west coast of Africa to establish a series of Phoenician trading posts resulted in the first recognized “European” on-site reports of the area. Hanno drew brief sketches, rather than actual maps, in his written accounts of the journeys. Exactly how far along the coast he sailed and the location of the area he called “Cerne” are still in dispute. However, it is known that Carthage already knew about the gold mines of the Western Sudan and had already established a trade network to acquire it. Hanno’s voyages were attempts to solidify earlier contacts, but his efforts were not successful for any substantial period of time. A few years later, in 430 B.C.E., Herodotus described the Carthaginian coastal trade coordinated at Cerne. The Greek writer now known as Pseudo-Skylax built on Herodotus’s version in 340 B.C.E. Neither Herodotus nor Pseudo-Skylax included maps in their narrative accounts. The first known attempt to map the Western Sudan was included in Claudius Ptolemy’s second-century manuscript (published in 1477 and 1513). His “Tabula Quarta Africae,” which included his vision of the Western Sudan, set the standard followed by virtually all subsequent European geographers until the Portuguese voyages to West, South, and East Africa in the fifteenth century. Although several Arab authors—including al-Khawarizmi in 830, Ibn Hawqal in 980, and al-Idrisi in 1192—used knowledge based on trade links across the Sahara to draw maps of West Africa that were fairly accurate spatially and conceptually

virtually all medieval European maps of West Africa were based only on ideas of the region, not on real data.

European Maps. The first relatively accurate European map of the Western Sudan, based on Mansa Musa’s golden trip to Mecca in the fourteenth century, was the Catalan Map of the Sahara region, commissioned by Charles V of France and drawn by Abraham Crepques of Mallorca in 1375. The original is at the Bibliothèque Nationale of France. This map shows the Atlas Mountains of the Maghrib and a picture of Mansa Musa, the ruler of Mali in 1312-1337, with a golden crown and scepter and a large gold nugget in his hand as he engages in a trade negotiation with a merchant on a camel. There are three captions beside the drawing. The one to the right says, “This Negro King is called Musa Mali, Lord of Guinea. There is so much gold found in his country that he is the richest and most noble king in all the land.” The caption just above the drawing says, “Through this place must pass all merchants who travel to the land of the Negroes of Guinea, which place is called the Valley of the Dra’a.” The last caption says, “All of this land is occupied by people who veil their mouths; one can only see their eyes and they live in tents and ride in camel caravans. They also have control of beasts called Lemp from which they make fine war shields.”

Increased Accuracy. Following the Catalan Map, European mapmakers got better at locations and distances in their maps of the Western Sudan. In 1570 Abraham Ortelius used firsthand maps of the West African coast drawn by Portuguese traders at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries for an accurate depiction of the West African coastline in his “Africae Tabula Nova” map. Ortelius was the leading mapmaker in the Netherlands at the time and began a “golden age” of cartography in Antwerp and Amsterdam, as the Netherlands became the primary production center for European mapmaking until well into the eighteenth century. A few years later, in 1595, one of his countrymen published the highly popular Gerardus Mercator Atlas Map of Northwest Africa, the first projection map, which added the details of the Western Sudan away from the coast. Continuing this tradition, Jodocus Hondius’s 1602, 1628, 1633, and 1634 maps depicted Guinea and the Western Sudan better than previous maps and included Gao, Timbuktu, and the Empire of Songhai. Willem Blaeu’s “Fezzae et Marocchi regna Africae celeberrima describebat Abrah” (1635) is an excellent rendition of Northwest Africa and the Sudan. European cartographers of the next century fairly routinely included accurate depictions of the Western Sudan in their maps.


Well known for his theories that the Earth was flat and the center of the universe, Ptolemy influenced Western geography for more than a thousand years:

For many Europeans in the fifteenth century, the world looked much the same as it had to Ptolemy in the second century. His work on geography was the basis for most scholarship throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, before exploration and improved technology began to provi debelter information….

In the Ptolemaic world view, Africa, Antarctica, and part of Asia were all joined, forming a large southern land mass marked simply “Terra Incognito.” The exact shape of Africa was not known, and the northern part was depicted as much broader and squarer than it actually is.

Source: “The Eye of the Beholder: Western Maps of Africa,” Yale Map Collection <www.library.Yale.edu/MapColl/afexbib.html>.


Nehemia Levtzion, “The Early States of the Western Sudan to 1500,” in History of West Africa, edited by J. F. A. Ajayi and Michael Crowder, second edition, volume 1 (London: Longman, 1976), pp. 114-151.

A. L. Mabogunje, “Historical Geography: Economic Aspects,” in Methodology and African Prehistory, edited by J. Ki-Zerbo, volume 1 of General History of Africa (London: Heinemann / Berkeley: University of California Press / Paris: UNESCO, 1981), pp. 333-347.

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West Africa on European Maps

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