Explorations in Equatorial Africa

Posted 16 July, 2010 13:04 by Karla Baker

I have been fascinated by the exploits of Victorian adventurers and explorers for a very long time, and I don’t think I’m alone. Quite what it is that attracts us to these men (and the occasional woman) can be quite varied, but for me, there’s something about the contribution they made to the map of our world that is compelling; it’s like watching cartographic time-lapse.

Bartholomew produced a lot of African mapping during this period. The maps tended to focus on the subjects of African colonisation and/or exploration, including the great fascination of the time, the search for the source of the Nile. Before long, the search became focused around the area of the great equatorial lakes.

Bartholomew printed 4,080 sets of these maps on the 28 April, 1902. The maps reveal how, as a direct result of the scramble for one of the great prizes of exploration, our geographical understanding of this region improved over time.

Compiling this information must surely have proved difficult and it would appear as a testimony to Bartholomew’s reputation that they could be relied upon to deliver the goods. But then, reputation seems to have been an important part of business life at the turn of the last century and by a very happy coincidence it emerges that the commission for these maps came from an old friend of both Bartholomew and me, none other than Sir Harry H. Johnston!

Sir Harry is a stalwart of this blog and if you are unfamiliar with him allow me to point you in the direction of an earlier entry, The Empire Strikes Back, which provides a brief introduction. Harry’s life became immutable from the central Africa which he came to both love and despair of. His works on the subject are substantial, some are even influential, and the maps printed by Bartholomew on this occasion were destined for his mammoth, two volume tome, The Uganda Protectorate, published by Hutchinson & Co in 1902.

Harry had much sympathy for these explorers; he himself spent a considerable amount of time exploring this region, albeit arguably more for pleasure than anything else. That said, he had trained as an artist and used these journeys to capture illustrations of the flora and fauna he encountered, such as this Okapi, which he is credited with discovering.

He was also an extremely gifted linguist and these trips provided him with the source material for his seminal work on the Bantu and semi-Bantu languages of the region. As such, it is perhaps forgiveable that he includes his own name amongst a list of his exploring contemporaries.

The Lakes region was a magnet for many colonisers and explorers, including, perhaps most famously today, David Livingstone. With his onus on missionary activity, for him, this region was seen as the key to opening up the dark heart of Africa.

These maps are testament to the endeavours of a succession of men, keen to unlock the intricate and complex hydrology of the area and the concomitant contribution to the greater body of knowledge which they made.

However, since Harry helped to inspire this entry it seems only fitting that he should have the final word.

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