Petter Hellström: "A New New World: Unmapping Africa in the Age of Reason"

  • Date: –15:00
  • Location: Engelska parken 6-3025 (Rausing Room)
  • Organiser: Department of History of Science and Ideas
  • Contact person: Otto Sibum
  • Seminarium

History of Science Seminar Series

Research presentation by Petter Hellström, Uppsala University. 

Abstract: 

Beginning in the early eighteenth century, European maps of Africa became increasingly empty. Rivers and mountains, kingdoms and cities were wiped off the map, and replaced by nothing. Blank spaces continued to characterize European maps of the continent throughout the nineteenth century, a period of intensified exploration, evangelization, and violence in the course of European empire building. While historians have scrutinized the role of the blank spaces in creating and sustaining the perception of Africa as an unknown and unclaimed continent, awaiting civilization and conquest, the blanks themselves have long been understood as the unintended outcome of improved scientific standards: Enlightenment geographers, we have been told, cleared the map of imaginary wonders, and kept only what could be independently verified.

This explanation for the continent’s unmapping does not, however, hold in the face of the empirical evidence. Whereas Enlightenment geographers argued eloquently for the principled suppression of uncertain knowledge, they continued, in practice, to work within the established tradition. Attempting to reconcile conflicting reports from lands they had never themselves visited, they were no less at the mercy of their informers than their predecessors had been. Leaving an area blank when there were no trustworthy reports about its geography was similarly not their invention—it had long been a feature of colonial mapping. What was new about the blank spaces on eighteenth-century maps of Africa was not so much the blanks as such, as their application to a previously mapped part of the Old World.

An article draft will be made available ahead of the seminar. Please email the presenter if you wish to receive an electronic copy.

Image: Detail from Willem Jansz Blaeu, Africæ nova descriptio (Amsterdam, 1630). Photograph: Petter Hellström