Mobile spaces: Indigenous mapping and the conquest of eastern Africa

Julie MacArthur

Photography played a central role in the mapping of the northern frontier of the East African Protectorate. The maps created by officials like Geoffrey Archer projected cartographic and ecological mastery in the “unmapped” and “unconquered” expanses of the northern frontier. In this process of imperial possession, photography performed imaginative and cartographic work. Geoffrey Archer used photography much like he used cartography: to bring the vast expanses of the northern frontier under his controlling gaze and render them into the scientific imperial order. And yet, Archer’s photographs belied this cartographic mastery; instead, they revealed the many ways Somalis withdrew, subverted, or inserted themselves into these projects. In stark contrast to the hazy, endless, empty horizon of imperial imagination, these photographs reveal hidden layers of Indigenous knowledge, agency, and labor. When read together, this photography-as-cartography revealed Archer’s self-conscious dependency on Indigenous geographic knowledge and mapping techniques as well as the ability of local intermediaries to facilitate, or subvert (through, for example, misinformation, misnaming, or subversion), the work of imperial cartography.

Explorations and Surveys in the Northern Frontier District

Explorations and Surveys in the Northern Frontier District by Geoffrey Archer, 1913. Source: G. Archer, Recent Exploration and Survey in the North of British East Africa, The Geographical Journal 42, no. 5 (1913), 421-430.

In 1913, Geoffrey Archer, the Officer-in-Charge of the Northern Frontier in the East African Protectorate, was invited by the Royal Geographic Society to give a lecture on his cartographic surveys. For Archer, a young colonial official and still an amateur cartographer, this invitation was quite a coup. While he could not attend, his findings were published, along with a map (shown here), in the Geographic Journal. As Officer-in-Charge, Archer was tasked with demarcating the boundaries of the protectorate with Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland, establishing relationships with local Indigenous leaders, and creating a complete geographical survey of the region’s complex topography. Archer created this map during a cartographic mission to map the largely uncharted northern frontier of the East African Protectorate (later Kenya). In his article, Archer detailed the immense labor required to survey the waterless expanses, plentiful game, and host of inhospitable topographical and ecological impediments despite the "featureless" nature of the landscape in this "blank space of the map".

Untitled photograph

Geoffrey Archer Photographic Collection, untitled photograph, c. 1913. Source: Sudan Archives, Durham University, SAD.49/1/77.

This photograph was taken during Geoffrey Archer’s colonial expedition in the northern frontier of the East African Protectorate (now Kenya), around 1913. It depicts mostly Somali labor displaying the often cumbersome tools of cartographic surveys: concrete beacons, wooden measuring stick, tripods and alidades, and a variety of staffs, flags, and makeshift frontier posts. In this, and other photographs, Somali presence, Indigenous knowledge, agency, and labor reinforced the interdependence of cartographic work and revealed how Indigenous mapping at times enabled and at others subverted the project of imperial cartography.

Dr. Julie MacArthur is an associate professor of African history at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include cartography and geographic imaginations, borders, mobility, and local practices of space, decolonization and sovereignty, memory and visual representation in modern Africa. She is the author of Cartography and the Political Imagination: Mapping Community in Colonial Kenya (Athens, 2016) and lead editor of Dedan Kimathi on Trial: Colonial Justice and Popular Memory in Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion (Athens, 2017), as well as several articles published in leading journals. She also works extensively in African cinema, both as a scholar and curator.