Mapping Africa

Before 1500 - Africa is outlined
Africa’s outline had been mapped by the beginning of the sixteenth century. This was thanks to the efforts of Portuguese explorers, Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama.

1500s and 1600s - Africa is a land of myth
Europeans still did not know much about what was in the middle of Africa. So sixteenth and seventeenth-century map-makers, like Sebastian Münster filled the unknown parts of Africa with myths and legends.

1700s - Africa is a land of mystery
In the eighteenth century, a new group of scientific mapmakers started to put only places whose existence could be proved on their maps. Big blank spaces appeared on the new maps of Africa.

1800s - Africa is explored and exploited
These blank spaces encouraged explorers such as John Speke, David Livingstone, and Henry Stanley to try to find out what was really there. They discovered rich resources in Africa, and powerful European countries fought to claim the land and set up colonies there. This is known as the Scramble for Africa.

1900s - Africa is re-arranged
By 1914, there were only two independent African states left, Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and Liberia. Colour-coded maps of Africa showed the territorial claims of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal. During the twentieth century, these countries gradually pulled out of Africa. Maps of the continent were constantly changing as African countries gained independence and changed their names or boundaries.

Compare these two maps of the southern part of Africa (right). Would either of them encourage you to go and explore Africa? Why?

The top map is from Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia published in 1559. The bottom one is from an 1822 atlas. Click on the maps to see more.

Part of Münster's map of Africa

Part of Africa from 'Smith's new general atlas' published in 1822