Drawing the line: The interplay of African and European mapping practices
in Binger’s Carte du Haut-Niger au Golfe de Guinée par le Pays de Kong et le Mossi (1:1,000,000)
Thomas J. Bassett
The history of cartography of Africa privileges European mapmakers, giving little attention to Indigenous mapping. To correct this omission, this exhibit demonstrates how European mapmakers relied heavily on Africans who shared their geographical knowledge in the form of oral maps, ground maps, and written itineraries. In addition, the content of European maps was significantly shaped by African rulers who granted or denied Europeans permission to pass through their territories. Those who denied permission enforced blank spaces on European maps. These Indigenous mapping and political influences are evident in Captain Louis-Gustave Binger’s Map of the Upper-Niger to the Gulf of Guinea. This geo-referenced and digitized version of Binger’s map highlights his travel route in green, the routes explored by other Europeans in black, and the routes he obtained from African informants in purple. A geographic information system (GIS) measurement of the length of these itineraries indicates that African sources account for 74% of the total routes. The blank spaces in the northeastern and southwestern sections are areas where regional chiefs barred Binger’s entry. The blank spaces and digital analysis of routes demonstrate how Binger’s map is a co-construction of European and African mapping practices and political negotiations.
Geo-referenced "Carte du Haut-Niger au Golfe de Guinée par le pays de Kong et le Mossi" (Map of the Upper Niger to the Gulf of Guinea through Kong and Mossi country) showing digitized itineraries
Geo-referenced Carte du Haut-Niger au Golfe de Guinée par le pays de Kong et le Mossi (Map of the Upper Niger to the Gulf of Guinea through Kong and Mossi country) showing digitized itineraries. Captain Louis-Gustave Binger (original), Tom Bassett with Sarah Riadi (reproduction). 1890; 2021. gallica.bnf.fr / BnF, Esri, HERE, Garmin, FAO, NOAA, USGS. Binger’s original map is located at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
I selected Binger’s landmark map of the Niger Bend because it readily reveals African contributions to it. The map and legend depict the routes surveyed by Europeans and those obtained from African informants. Using geographic information systems (GIS) software, we joined and geo-referenced the original four sheets of Binger’s map and then digitized the European- and African-sourced routes. The digital analysis shows Binger’s heavy reliance on African mapping practices and geographical information in the construction of his map.
Digitized itineraries on geo-referenced version of Binger’s map located on a current day country boundary map of West Africa
Digitized itineraries on geo-referenced version of Binger’s map located on a current day country boundary map of West Africa. Captain Louis-Gustave Binger (original), Tom Bassett with Sarah Riadi (reproduction). 1890; 2021. gallica.bnf.fr / BnF, Esri, HERE, Garmin, FAO, NOAA, USGS.
This version of Binger’s map shows the same three route categories located on a present-day country boundary map of West Africa. It omits other details in the original map to make it easier to see the preponderance of African-sourced routes, again shown in purple.
Thomas Bassett writes on the political ecology of agrarian change in West Africa and the history of cartography of Africa. He is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Geography & GIS and former Director of the LAS Global Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His writings on the history of cartography focus on Indigenous mapping, administrative mapping, road mapping, and mapping and land privatization in Africa.
He has contributed to three volumes of the History of Cartography and is currently working on a book on the role of mapping in France’s colonial conquest of 19th century West Africa.