Unmapping Africa

Enlightenment Geography and the Making of Blank Spaces

Project Description

In the eighteenth century, European maps of Africa became increasingly empty. Rivers and mountains, kingdoms and cities that had been mapped for centuries, suddenly disappeared and were replaced by blank spaces. The blanks continued to characterise maps of the continent throughout the nineteenth century, a period of intensified exploration, expansion, evangelisation, and violence in the course of European empire building. Whereas earlier studies have investigated the role of blank spaces in creating and sustaining the perception of Africa as an unknown and unclaimed continent, the blanks themselves have long been understood as the unintended bi-product of improved scientific standards. While this explanation originates with the geographers themselves, it does not hold in the face of the empirical evidence.

Through detailed examination of the maps and writings, drafts, sketches, notes and letters of Jean-Baptiste d’Anville and other leading geographers of the French Enlightenment, I reconstruct the epistemological concerns and practical priorities that motivated and informed European geographers as they transformed Africa into a largely unwritten sheet. In thus shifting the focus from critically reading the finished maps, to critically examining their production histories, I explore the ways in which not only the employment of colonial maps – but also their making – was fundamentally shaped by contemporary power relations.

The project is led by Petter Hellström, and advised by an international reference group.

över Afrika, framställd av den kunglige geografen Nicolas Sanson och tryckt i Paris år 1650.
Two continental maps of Afrika – both produced in Paris by royal geographers. To the left: Nicolas Sanson, "Afrique" (1650). To the right: Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville, "Afrique" (1749). Photograph: Petter Hellström.

Detail from John Cary, A New Map of Africa, London, 1805.
Detail from John Cary, "A New Map of Africa", London, 1805. Image courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries.

About the Project

Project Duration



The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond)

Last modified: 2023-02-08