Monday, February 12, 2018

Maps of the Scramble for Africa

Our friend, Vince Szilagyi, who is a scholar on the history of maps, especially those related to Africa, recently gave an excellent talk to the Rocky Mountain Map Society, The Scramble for Africa: Colonial Africa Explored through Maps and Artwork.


I found this particularly interesting as it made me realize that for maps of Africa, it is those issued after 1850 which are of particular interest. In general, it is much earlier maps which are of the most interest to collectors, with many focusing on the earliest maps of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, though collectors of American maps are very interested in those from the eighteenth century up to shortly after the middle of the nineteenth century. However, for African maps, one is missing much of the most interesting material if one doesn’t look at the maps issued after 1850.

This is because most of the interesting changes on maps occurred after that time. A regular theme of my blogs and other writing is the fact that maps with a direct connection to history--which show changes or new information or contemporary events--are the ones which are the most interesting and valuable. Most of the printed maps that were published up to the twentieth century were issued in either Europe or America, and in terms of the knowledge of Africa and involvement in events in Africa, most of that took place from 1850 on.


Early in the nineteenth century, European or American knowledge of Africa was very limited to coastal areas, northern Africa and the very southern part of the continent. Africa was, for Europeans and Americans, the Dark Continent. Missionaries and explorers began to extend European knowledge beginning in the middle of the century, with new information beginning to appear on maps shortly thereafter.


However, it was in the 1870s that European interest in Africa went beyond exploration and missionary work, to economic and political colonization. It is a startling fact that in 1870, only about 10% of Africa was under European control, but by 1914, almost 90 percent was!


The “scramble for Africa” had begun, with European countries trying to exert their influence and control as fast as they could. Worried that this would lead to war between the European powers, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck convened what became known as the Berlin Conference, which lasted between November 15, 1884 and February 26, 1885.

With the resulting “General Act of the Berlin Conference,” the European powers basically divided up Africa amongst themselves with no African participation.


The maps of Africa published between 1870 and 1914 document the scramble for Africa and its results in a graphic fashion. Though they are late for most map collectors, these are maps of considerable interest (which, by the way, tend to remain relatively available and inexpensive).


  1. I have enjoyed reading the Antiques Print blog, I just found it yesterday doing research on Lithos and antique prints - ......Excellent resources here - well done!

  2. Interesting post. I can see the point about the most interesting material on the maps coming after the 1850s, but as a collector, what I love about older maps are the errors, the unknowns and the mistakes. I recently blogged about a map of Africa that I have from the 1830s ( One of my favorite elements of it is that the cartographer makes no secret of how little he knows about what he's mapping.

    P.S. I only just found your blog and am glad I did. I plan to be back!