From Charts to Maps: The “Networks of Transmission” in Imaging Africa in the Early Years


[N.B. The Africa Map Circle is an informal group of scholars, educators and students who meet to share research ideas and information about African historical cartography.   The close study of Africa maps is essential for an in-depth understanding of African history and culture within Africa itself and within the broader context of Africa’s relation to the wider world since the beginning of the early modern era.

The “map chats” that are occasionally recorded from these sessions are shared online with the intention to encourage more extensive research on the topics discussed.]

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From Portolan Charts to Printed Maps: Trade, Slavery & the Imaging of the Atlantic World
[a map-chat of The Africa Map Circle, (forthcoming)]

[Material for this map chat is drawn, in part, from the Yale University Library Map Collection and selected maps from the online Afriterra cartographic library.   Special thanks are extended here to Dr. Raymond Clemens and Kristen Herdman, curators of the current exhibit of the Yale Beinecke Library entitled, The World in Maps, 1400-1600 and to Dr. Gerald Rizzo, President of Afriterra for their professional assistance in assembling the material discussed in this map chat.]

Discussing the 1507 Waldseemuller map, John Hessler has focused the attention of cartographic scholars of all early maps upon what he calls “the problem of transmission” and specifically the “networks of transmission.”

We need now to examine in detail the “networks of transmission” between the makers of portolan charts and the communities of geographers and cartographers whose work appears in the early printed maps of Africa.

One of the earliest Portuguese portolan charts that is preserved is in Yale’s Beinecke Library collection:

This chart by Jorge de Aguilar from 1492 — described in this brief excerpt by Raymond Clemens — contains a very interesting “insert” drawn in the interior of West Africa but representing the coastline details south and west from the Cape Verde area (current day Senegal) down past what it labels as Sierra Leone and all the way to the castle of Elmina, which the Portuguese began constructing in 1482, a decade before the 1492 discoveries of Columbus in the “new” world.

portuguese portolan yale image

1619 – Anonymous ms. Portugese portolano of the Atlantic Ocean – Yale University Library

For example, this 1619 portulan chart needs to be compared carefully with the 1635 map printed in Holland and others like it printed later.  What are “the problems of transmission” here that, as John Hessler has suggested, future scholarship needs to address?

1635 – Dutch Map of Africa, Brazil and the Atlantic


For consideration of discussions at the Library of Congress on topics including the portolan charts and the first printed maps of the Americas see:

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See as well:


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