Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Africa’s Shifting Regions by Vincent Szilagyi

Antique maps of Africa are an excellent choice for both novice and expert map collectors. Maps of Africa show wonderful (albeit often inaccurate) detail. The relatively late exploration of the continent by Europeans and the ever-changing colonial boundaries mean that maps only a few years apart can show vastly different pictures of the continent. Maps of Africa are also less in demand than some other areas of the world, allowing people to acquire great pieces of history and art at very reasonable prices. One of the interesting things about maps of Africa is the relatively fluid use of terms describing regions and states. A term used for one area on a 1770s map can be found referring to a wholly different region thousands of miles away on a 1780s map and so on up until quite recently. There are quite a few of these terms, many of which appear briefly and then disappear or were only used by one cartographer. However, there are four regional terms that had significant staying power through the years and through the coming and going of different cartographic minds. These terms defined Africa for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years, and are still found on maps today. Many should be familiar even to those without much knowledge of African history; they are Guinea, Congo, Ethiopia and Libya.

Guinea (or Guinee, Guiney)

Map of Guinea by Herman Moll, 1727

Map of Upper and Lower Guinea by Andriveau-Goujon 1838 (Courtesy of

Guinea is a name still found on African maps today. In addition to the Republic of Guinea, the countries of Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea share the name of this ancient region. (The island of New Guinea in Oceania is also named after this region, as is Papua New Guinea, the country on its eastern half.) In general, Guinea historically referred to the West African region bordering the Gulf of Guinea. However, some maps show Guinea extending along the entire Atlantic African coast, while others have a small confined Guinea near what is now Ghana and the Ivory Coast. There wasn’t a great deal of consistency in the placement of Guinea beyond this, and it was mostly used as a catchall for West Africa. Later, Guinea was divided into Lower Guinea in the North and Upper Guinea in the South. As the colonial race went on, Guinea became less and less used as other names took precedence. As such, by the end of the 19th century, Guinea disappeared as a region and was replaced by terms like West Africa or the names of the various British and French colonies in the region.

Kongo (or Kongo)

1848 manuscript map by Marianne Hunt showing the Congo (Courtesy of

The Congo is another old name, stemming from the Kingdom of the Kongo that interacted with the Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries. Starting with the Portuguese, European maps began to place the label “Congo” in a variety of places. Simply put, the Congo referred to anywhere within the Congo River drainage basin. While this explanation seems fairly straightforward, for most of Africa’s history mapmakers had no idea where the Congo River actually went. Many geographers thought it was connected to the Nile or the Niger, while others thought it connected to the Zambezi. This confusion resulted in the “Congo” being anywhere in a vast region that covered the entirety of Central Africa from the Sahara to the Zambezi and from the Atlantic to an ill-defined border in the East. Over time, as the region was mapped, the Congo began to refer specifically to the colonial holdings of King Leopold II, which occupied the modern territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire. In addition to the DRC, the Republic of the Congo is also named after this region and river.

Libya (or Libye)

Reconstruction of the World as described by Herodotus

Libya is a region inherited from Roman and Greek geographers. To most geographers, Libya was a shorthand for the entirety of desert North Africa. While certain regions like Egypt and Mauritania had their own names, they were considered part of the greater Libya region. In fact, on several maps the term Libya is used as a synonym for Africa as a whole. This was the standard for centuries, until the Age of Exploration when Portuguese and Spanish sailors determined that Africa was much, much larger than previously thought. As this European penetration of Africa moved the frontiers of geographic knowledge further and further from the coast, Libya expanded inland. Libya became the lands between the Mediterranean and Guinea. The entire Sahara was often called Libya, among other names. As the centuries progressed, Libya eventually took on a second meaning, the land of light-skinned Africans. Libya was the land of the non-black Africans: the Arabs, Copts and Berbers. Another familiar term was used for the parts of Africa inhabited by black-skinned peoples.


Ethiopia was the land of black-skinned Africans. The term comes from the Ancient Greek term Aethiopia (Burnt-Faces) which was first mentioned by Homer in the Iliad. Later Aethiopia was described by Herodotus as the farthest region of "Libya" (i.e. Africa): "Where the south declines towards the setting sun lies the country called Aethiopia, the last inhabited land in that direction. There gold is obtained in great plenty, huge elephants abound, with wild trees of all sorts, and ebony; and the men are taller, handsomer, and longer lived than anywhere else." As time went on and more of Africa became mapped, Ethiopia moved frequently. At times, Ethiopia was all of Africa below the Sahara. At other times, Ethiopia became more closely related to the modern day Ethiopian Highlands. This area was also called Abyssinia. It is not unusual to see Ethiopia and Abyssinia on the same map, often in very different places.

When looking at maps of Africa, some or all of these our terms will almost always be present. Even though they have been used for centuries and into the present day, just because a term is familiar, does not mean you will know where to find it.

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