Early Days in African Historical Cartography ~ From the Portolan Charts to Printed Maps: Imagining and Imaging Africa in the Atlantic System – Part 1


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In Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries Africa came to be imagined and imaged in a new perspective.  Due to the rapidly cascading revelations of maritime discovery, on the one hand, and Galileo’s telescope European conceptions of geography, theology and cosmology experienced several radical transformations of their fundamental principles of understanding.  To put it briefly, in a remarkably short period of time the world had become a sphere revolving around a star in a vast and newly visible universe.

Struggling to make sense of these changes in their world, cartographers devised new ways of describing and depicting Africa.  Although northern Africa — often represented by Ptolemy as “Libya” — had been portrayed in Portolan vellum charts throughout classical and medieval times, novel discoveries about the African coastline in the 15th and 16th centuries were stretching all conceptual boundaries.

These transformations coincided with the emergence of the new technologies of printing on paper and publishing collections of maps.  By the end of the 16th century and during the 17th century bound atlases with wood-cut maps and prints came to be published and began to serve as the major vehicles for the imaging and imagining of Africa as a continent.

In our day, the collective problem we face is not unlike that of those trying to imagine and depict the “new world” that challenged the greatest thinkers in the 15th and 16th centuries.  The question remaining for us today is whether or not the best minds of our day can accomplish now what the early cartographers achieved in the day by imagining and imaging Earth so as to assist us all in “seeing the world anew” and come to understand our place within it.

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