Afriterra, The Cartographic Free Library
This site offers resources from the Afriterra Foundation, a non-profit cartographic library, including a partial list of the Foundation’s holdings of books and maps; a short list of map-related websites; and more than 500 online maps. The maps will be of greatest use to researchers, instructors, and students.
The maps span the period from 1478 to the 20th century, with most falling in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. It is a terrific collection, and what distinguishes it from most other web-based map resources is the ease with which a viewer can pan, zoom in and out, and keep track of their position within the whole image (Flash required). These tools are nearly intuitive in operation, and the instructions provided make them easy to use. A small image of the entire map remains to the upper left, with a red box highlighting the detailed section of the map currently under view. Clicking and dragging the red box allows the viewer to quickly shift the area of detail. The clarity of the images, even when viewed at great magnification, is simply breathtaking. Maps are printable with fairly good resolution.
The maps will be valuable for a number of purposes. While research requires access to originals, the images will serve well for preliminary work to identify and pinpoint specific place names mentioned in documentary and secondary sources (which frequently have limited or poorly-reproduced maps). The maps can be used as important teaching tools for courses on many topics: African history; Atlantic World history; the slave trade; the era of European expansion; environmental history; and military history. A quick glance at many of the maps reveals an important lesson: European mapmakers simply did not know very much about Africa.
For example, Forlani’s 1566 map shows that even when it came to basic information, such as the relative proportions of the continent, European explorers frequently were in the dark. Comparison of these early maps with modern ones can show just how difficult it was for Europeans to operate in Africa’s interior because they were ignorant of basic topography and geography and thus unprepared to navigate rivers, lakes, mountains, or other potential obstacles.
One useful classroom application would be to pair maps with specific texts, such as Robert Harms’ The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade, or John Thornton’s The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706.1 Both are fine-grained narrative accounts in which place and space matter a great deal in understanding the story. (One should note that both works include good maps, though none comparable with those on this site.)
In reading The Diligent (or other work on the Atlantic slave trade), students can follow the movements of European slavers along the West African coast by referring to Afriterra’s 1750 map of “Slave Factories.” The degree of detail is terrific, and as the mapmaker’s note explains, “The Flaggs denote the Factory’s, and the Place on the Coast where the Flaggs are Raised from, shews where the Factory stands, and the Names writt against the Flaggs is the Names of those Factory’s.”
Likewise, Thornton’s work recounts the movements of armies, slave raiders, Catholic priests, and an African “saint” in the Kongo kingdom. The site offers Blaeu’s 1670 map of the Congo and Angola and Ortelius’ 1595 map with an inset of the “Christian Kingdom of Congo,” both of which would allow students to follow the movements of pilgrims, kings, and armies throughout the Kongo kingdom.
This site represents an exceptional example of the internet’s capacity to expand access to important primary sources for historical study. The maps have great breadth in the range of their practical application and they permit users to achieve astonishing depth in examining the details represented. A final caveat—many of the older maps contain the names of people and places that no longer exist, if they ever did, so one cannot hope to find their “correct” location on one of today’s maps.
1. Robert Harms, The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade (New York: Basic Books, 2002); John Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).