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Sample Analysis: Maps

The “Africae novo” map, from the early 1600s, allows us to think through the interpretation of one historical map. Unlike some historical maps that are mysteries, we know the origins of this one: it was produced by a famous Dutch cartographer, Willem Blaeu, and published in his 1630 atlas. The atlas has survived in several copies, and this artist is quite well known. Blaeu was an instrument maker, a globe manufacturer, and an engraver. Like most cartographers of the time, he was not an explorer himself: he drew his maps from the accounts of explorers, traders, and travellers. He also no doubt used earlier maps as a basic template for his own.

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Even if we didn’t already know that this was a Dutch map of Africa, we would interpret the map in the first instance as an “outsiders” map. Several features tell us that this is not a map drawn by Africans of Africa. The expanses of oceans, proportionately taking up a good deal of the entire map spread, and the prominence of the ships on the oceans, suggest that this is a view of Africa from a maritime perspective. It is hard to read some of the flags flying on the ships, but the Dutch flag—red, white, and blue horizontal stripes—is prominent on several. The ships are not drawn as if they were making landfall in Africa; instead, they are mostly headed south and east, around the Cape, and indeed, we know that European interest in Africa was largely spurred initially by the search for a fast route to the Indies.


The main language of the map is Latin—not an African language—with Dutch and English names also sprinkled throughout. The place names are interesting in all sorts of ways—as historical markers, as small individual historical puzzles, or as hints that help us contextualize the map. Many of the country names represented on this 1630 map are closer approximations of “native” names than we would find on maps a century or so later—since this map predates the full force of colonial rule in Africa, the names are also precolonial. “Benin,” for example, is the precolonial name included in this map; the name was wiped out when this territory was broadly incorporated into a single huge territory under French colonial rule called simply “French West Africa”; it wasn’t until 1975 (many years after postcolonial independence) that the country name Benin— its current name—was reintroduced. Names on the map such as “Nubia” (in what is now southern-interior Egypt and Sudan) reflect a more anthropological and historical bent, a reference to one of the great ancient kingdoms of Africa. Other place names, such as “Barbaria” (widely presumed to be a variant on “Berber”), would be familiar to 17th-century Europeans: the pirates and slave traders of the “Barbary Coast” were widely feared throughout northern Africa and southern Europe. “Oceanus Aethiopicus” —what we now call simply the southern Atlantic—is a historical remnant, a term first used by the Greeks in the 4th century BCE.


The map shows much more geographic detail for the eastern coast of Africa and the Mediterranean shores than for the south and west—another sure sign of the European exploration bias in this map. But overall, one of the key features of this map is how few details are actually mapped. The names of coastal towns and features are printed inwards into the continent, giving an illusion of density and comprehensive coverage—but if you look closely, you will see that the densest geographic knowledge portrayed on this map consists mostly of a thin ribbon along the coast. There are large sections of the interior of Africa that are blank—many of which are artfully covered with elephants, tigers, camels, monkeys, and the like. Africa was a thoroughly populated continent in the 1600s: the blank spaces clearly don’t reflect a reality that “nothing was there” — rather, they reflect the limits of European knowledge and curiosity, and the hierarchy of what was “important” to know about Africa from a Eurocentric view.


On closer examination we can see that this is almost entirely a coastal view of the continent. The sketches of towns that are included along the top border of the map—presumably among the principal settlements with which the Europeans had contact—are, with one exception, all coastal towns. It is not clear what criteria have guided the selection of these nine towns. One might surmise that they were towns best known to Europeans, but it is reasonable to assume that, even with limited exploration, more than nine settlements in all of Africa were known in to Europeans in the early 1600s. These might be major trading ports for the Dutch, or they might be the only towns known to Blaeu through the narratives of his raconteurs. Closer historical analysis is needed to understand the significance of these nine towns. Similarly, the portraits of figures in “native costume” that border the map warrant a closer study. The Europeans of the 17th century had a strong anthropological interest in “exotic” peoples. Blaeu’s portraiture reflects this interest—which is not to say that the portraits might not also reflect with accuracy some of the diversity of the peoples of Africa. The (few) women represented in the portraits seem to be the most heavily exoticized, but it is overall difficult to determine what parts fantasy and reality are embedded in these portraits.


In terms of its constituent cartographic parts, this map is particularly striking in several elements. Its geographic representation is quite accurate—the continent of Africa portrayed on the map is actually a close illustration of the scale and shape of the continent. Some of the key topographic features of the continent, such as the Great Lakes of eastern Africa, are also represented more or less accurately. The compass, straddling the equator, is richly detailed, with a strong flourish pointing north. The latitude and longitude grid adds more directional specificity. However, there is no scale or distance measure on this map. Other Blaeu maps do include scales and keys, but not this one—perhaps the view, of an entire continent, was too broad for Blaeu to think that a scalar measure would be useful. The lack of a scale is especially problematic in the portraits of the nine towns; without advice from the cartographer, it is impossible to tell how large or small these towns are or what are their sizes relative to one another. Common to maps of this era, artistic elements of the map are obviously out of scale: the animals in the interior of Africa and the ships on the oceans, for example, are drawn at a size that wildly distorts scale relationships.


The artistry of this map is breathtaking. The vivid colors, the artwork around the border, the fanciful creatures scattered over land and sea, all add to the sense that this was as much a work of art as a map. Even small details such as the title plate (known as a “cartouche”) are richly drawn and elaborated. This is a testament to the skill of the artist, Blaeu, and it also suggests that this map was a costly and valuable possession. This would not be a map in common circulation. It is not detailed enough or technical enough to serve as a navigational map—it clearly wasn’t a seafaring map. No doubt Blaeu’s readers included adventurers, mercantile elites, upper-class art collectors, and, perhaps, the emerging class of intellectuals who were simply curious about the “new” lands and foreign peoples who were part of the expanding worldview of the Dutch in the early 1600s.


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