The True Size of the Congo, or: The Evolution of the Map of Africa

Why does a map of Africa printed in 1705 show more rather than less detail than one created in 1842? Are there really Tritons and Sirens in African lakes? Has Google really eliminated all blank spaces on the map of Africa?

As a background to forthcoming travel, I’m adding some observations on the evolution of the map of Africa as it’s an interesting topic. Over the last years, I found some historical maps of Africa in flea markets in Amsterdam and London, and I even visited a noble shop in London with helpful staff where you can find the most beautiful historical maps.

The Greek Historians

The Greek created maps of the North African coast in the sixth century BC. Descriptions of the central African region appear as early as in the writings of Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century BC. In the second century AD, Claudius Ptolemy wrote about the mysterious snow-capped Mountains of the Moon and the source of river Nile. The seminal work Description of Africa (1550) by Leo Africanus, a geographer born in Granada/Spain around the year 1494 with the Arab name al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, became a standard.

Herodotus’ writings about great lakes and snowy mountains continue to appear in the first map of Africa as a continent printed in Basel in 1554 by Sebastian Münster. Also a map published in 1705 drawn by the Dutch cartographer Carel Allard (1648-1709) shows the river Congo and a big lake “Zaire lacus” – likely one of the lakes mentioned by Herodotus.  Ptolemy’s Mountains of the Moon are most likely the Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda. The mountains reach highs up to 5’109 m and support glaciers. They indeed contribute to the river Nile.

Map of Africa
Photographs of historical maps of Africa. Left: A map published in 1705 drawn by the Dutch cartographer Carel Allard (1648-1709) shows the river Congo and a big lake “Zaire lacus”, as well as many other details. Right: Map of Africa by James Wyld published in London 1842 and containing large blank spaces.

Tritones and Sirenes

These maps are full of details and depictions of small rivers,  mountains, and name of kingdoms such as the kingdom of Congo. Some of them add further descriptions to stimulate the phantasy of the viewer, as in the 16th century Maps of Africa by Ortelius – a mythological reminiscence to the Greek historians describing Tritones and Sirens in an elusive Lake Zaire.

“Tritones et Sirenes in hoc lacu sunt”

At this stage, the maps contained more than a good bit of speculation.

Blank Spaces

The age of Enlightenment made the vaguely described Africa of Herodotus, Claudius Ptolemy, and Leo Africanus a fascinating object for expeditions. At the same time, the rich details of the maps disappeared as the cartographers tried to base them on evidence. Whole areas of the maps became empty.

In 1482 after decades of voyages, Portuguese Diogo Cão was the first European to sail as far as to the mouth of the river Congo to explore the sea beyond Cape Bojador and the Canary Islands by order of the Portuguese King John II. In the wake of the christening of the King of Congo many mission schools opened. However, the discovery of the Americas and West Indies escalated the demand for slaves from Africa. Portuguese slave traders based on São Tomé ravaged the kingdom and corrupted the Portuguese missionaries at the beginning of the 16th century. Other European maritime nations started to take their part of the lucrative traffic. Arab slavers from the coast, in particular Zanzibar, took over the trade.

Two hundred years after the voagyes of Diogo Cão, slave trade ravaged the Congo, but the river itself was still a mistery to Europe. There was no accurate map, although earlier Portuguese slavers, missionaries, and soldiers had reached Stanley Pool (today’s Pool Malebo with the cities Kinshasa and Brazzaville at its shores).

The Age of the Explorers

Europe’s industrial revolution changed economy to become less dependent on plantation products. In 1807, Britain ruled the slave trade illegal, the United States and the remainder of Europe followed suit with Portugal and Spain lagging behind. Demands changed, but not to the good for the Congo. Explorers were sent to explore Africa – not least to clear the way for industrial exports.

  • Mungo Park, a Scottish physician with an an itch for travel, was sent to explore river Niger and Timbuktoo.
  • James Kingston Tuckey was sent to the Congo river. Both he and Mungo Park died under way.
  • Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke rivaled to explore the source of the Nile.
  • The Scottish missionary doctor David Livingstone crossed the Kalahari desert and discovered the Zambezi river, Victoria falls, and crossed the continent from Angola to Mozambique by 1856.

The central African region was the last to be explored by European expeditions. At the Congo Conference of 1884, organized by Bismarck in Berlin, the African continent was distributed among the European colonial powers. Rwanda became a German colony although no European had ever set foot on the Rwandese kingdom. In 1885 Henry Morton Stanley took possession of the Congo for Belgian King Leopold II to exploit ivory and rubber. Between 1892 and 1894, the Belgian King ousted the Zanzibari Arab slave traders led by Sefu, the son of notorious Tippu Tip. The war was fought by native Congolese on both sides. Appalled by murder and torture, the Belgian state finally seized the Congo from Leopold in 1908 to establish the Belgian Congo colony. In his book King Leopold’s Ghost (1998), Adam Hochschild compares the death toll in the Belgian-administered Congo to the Holocaust.

“The Great Lakes region was perhaps the largest, most richly endowed, most developed and most densely populated of indigenous agricultural systems in Africa. It was also the last to be ‘discovered’ by Europeans.”
–John Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent

In 1861, the British explorer John Hanning Speke caught a glimpse of the Virunga Mountains from a distance. In 1876, the British explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley passed the mountains without realizing their volcanic origin. The Kivu region lacks detailed depiction in Stanley’s diary Through the Dark Continent, although he mentions Lake Kivu.

Distorted Views

Our view of the World, and Africa in particular, is distorted in the proper sense. Maps still use the Mercator projection introduced by the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569. The Mercator projection augments the size of land masses, the further away they are from the Equator. In other words, Europe’s states appear bigger than they really are.

Due to the Mercator projection, countries near the equator appear smaller relative to land masses nearer to the poles. The true size of the Congo (DRC) becomes apparent in this overlay map created with
Due to the Mercator projection, countries near the equator appear smaller relative to land masses nearer to the poles. The true size of the Congo (DRC) becomes apparent in this overlay map created with

How much has our notion of Africa changed over the centuries? We might have satellite maps available on Google, but blank spaces and distortions remain in our thinking.