The extent of precolonial African empires

Another great map via Cherokee Gothic. (Note that not all of these empires existed at the same time.  Wikipedia lists the dates, and there’s a brief overview of the major ones at TimeMaps.)

I wonder what was going on in the Cameroon – CAR – Chad corridor between the west African and Bantu states, and along the eastern coast, that major polities never arose there.  Perhaps it’s Jared Diamond’s theory about the spread of empires on the east-west axis at work?  (Less surprised not to see major groups in southern Africa, large parts of which are very dry.)


The evolution of European ignorance about Africa

In a 1994 article, Paul Krugman mentions that he has a friend who wrote a paper called “The evolution of European ignorance about Africa.”  It sounds fascinating, and is apparently not available online anywhere.  Does anyone know more about this paper, and where to find a copy?

Here’s Krugman’s summary of the paper, with some representative maps from this excellent Princeton site on the evolution of European maps of Africa.

In the 15th century, maps of Africa were, of course, quite inaccurate about distances, coastlines, and so on. They did, however, contain quite a lot of information about the interior, based essentially on second- or third-hand travellers’ reports. Thus the maps showed Timbuktu, the River Niger, and so forth. Admittedly, they also contained quite a lot of untrue information, like regions inhabited by men with their mouths in their stomachs. Still, in the early 15th century Africa on maps was a filled space.

1644 map of Africa1644

Over time, the art of mapmaking and the quality of information used to make maps got steadily better. The coastline of Africa was first explored, then plotted with growing accuracy, and by the 18th century that coastline was shown in a manner essentially indistinguishable from that of modern maps. … On the other hand, the interior emptied out. The weird mythical creatures were gone, but so were the real cities and rivers. In a way, Europeans had become more ignorant about Africa than they had been before.

1805 Map of Africa1805

It should be obvious what happened: the improvement in the art of mapmaking raised the standard for what was considered valid data. Second-hand reports of the form “six days south of the end of the desert you encounter a vast river flowing from east to west” were no longer something you would use to draw your map. Only features of the landscape that had been visited by reliable informants equipped with sextants and compasses now qualified. And so the crowded if confused continental interior of the old maps became “darkest Africa”, an empty space.

Of course, by the end of the 19th century darkest Africa had been explored, and mapped accurately. In the end, the rigor of modern cartography led to infinitely better maps. But there was an extended period in which improved technique actually led to some loss in knowledge.

African colonization & independence

In case you need a quick reference for a country’s colonial history and date of independence, here’s a useful map, via Cherokee Gothic.


Unfortunately it does have a few errors.  It doesn’t mention the earlier German colonization of Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania, and wrongly lists Namibia as gaining independence from Germany in 1990.  Namibian colonial rule was transferred from Germany to South Africa in 1919, and the country became independent from South Africa in 1990.  (Thanks to Charles Tellier, Jakob Haentjes and Danny Wijnhoud for pointing this out.)  The map also suggests that Liberia was never colonized, which isn’t true – the modern state was founded by the American Colonization Society as a refuge for former slaves.  (Thanks for Matt Jones for this one.)


The colonization counterfactual

One of the questions I’m often asked by friends who haven’t studied African history is what might have happened to the continent if it hadn’t been colonized.  It’s interesting to look at the following map of African politico-tribal units circa 1844 by Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon in the light of this question:

Alkebu-lan[click for full size – it’s worth it!]

I haven’t been able to find any firm documentation on the origin of the name Alkebu-lan, although a variety of questionably sourced websites suggest that it’s an Arabic phrase meaning “land of the blacks” – supposedly an original name for Africa.  Cyon notes in a presentation that the map represents the culmination of an alternate history where the Black Plague killed significantly more Europeans than was actually the case, presumably reducing the amount of early colonization which would have occurred.  Thus, while many of these territorial groupings appear feasible to me, it’s unclear if they represent the real extent of various ethnic groups in 1844.

What might have happened from 1845 onwards in this non-colonial world?  The most densely populated areas in west and central Africa might have grown into something approaching Westphalian sovereignty, controlling clearly defined territories (as per Jeffrey Herbst’s thesis on state formation in States and Power in Africa).  Coastal and riverine areas may have done well off of trade, encouraging the development of stronger local authorities.  Places rich in natural resources would have had to fend off various external claimants to their territories, if not from Europe (or India) then perhaps from neighboring kingdoms, and might have developed into stronger states if successful or faced the imposition of external institutions if not.  But what of places like the land alloted to the Herero in this map (modern Namibia), which is largely desert?  Or the semi-arid plains of the Sahel?  Perhaps they would have continued with smaller or more mobile sociopolitical groups, without a central state.  Whether they would have been vulnerable to expansionary neighbors is unclear.  And all of this doesn’t even touch on whether European economic development would have followed the same path, and whether colonization might have eventually occurred anyway, at least to the weaker or less populous states.  A fascinating thought experiment, though.

A different look at global income inequality

Something that has long struck me about modern discourses on international development is the idea that poverty is somehow shocking, an aberrance in our age of wealth.  It’s not!  Plenty of people in the world live in the way that humans have lived for most of history.  If anything, it is the wealth of the developed West that is profoundly and ahistorically abnormal.

Worldmapper has some good maps of population and wealth through history that offer a bit of perspective on this topic.  Data for year 1 CE was taken from Angus Maddison’s historical estimates of the world economy.  Check out these maps of estimated population and wealth at this time:

Population, 1 CE (source)

Wealth, 1 CE (source)

You’ll note that the maps are virtually identical, reflecting the facts that per capita GDP (imputed to modern territories, as these states obviously didn’t exist in 1 CE) varied extremely little around the world.  Maddison has estimated it at an average of $445 annually per person.

Now check out population and wealth in 2000:

Population, 2000 CE (source)

Wealth, 2002 CE (source)

Hello disparities!  Latin America is the only region where wealth appears to have grown roughly commensurately with population.  The US, Europe and Japan, of course, are looking a bit bloated, whilst most of sub-Saharan Africa appears to be doing worse (relative to the rest of the world) than it was 2000 years ago.  Average global per capita GDP in 2000 was about $5200, meaning that even the massive population growth of the last two millennia has not prevented the world’s citizens from growing (on average) more than ten times as rich as they were in 1 CE.

Don Alvaro, King of Kongo

It’s interesting to remember that there was a pre-colonial time when the European imagination hadn’t yet essentialized Africa into a land of savages.  I purchased the image below – a reprint of an engraving from a 1668 book on African exploration – on a trip to South Africa last year, intrigued by seeing a European artist using European symbols of power to demonstrate the position of an African king.  (In other words, he is rather reasonably providing an accessible visual interpretation of African “power” for his audience.)  Note the Latin inscription “Don Alvarez, Rex Kongo” and the elegant European-style interior:

“Don Alvaro, king of Kongo, giving audience to the Dutch in 1642”

The Kingdom of Kongo, as it turns out, had a long and fascinating pre-colonial history.  From origins just south of Matadi (in the present-day DRC), it expanded to cover an area from the north of (modern-day) Angola to the south of the Republic of Congo, and remained extent as a political entity from roughly 1400 to 1914.  Its territory was divided into anywhere from 6-15 provinces and sub-provinces, with provincial rulers taxing local trade and paying revenues upward to the king.  In the early 17th century, the population of its capital, Mbanza-Kongo, and the surrounding hinterland was estimated at 100,000 people.

So whence this engraving?  The Portuguese came into contact with the Kongo in 1483, when Diogo Cao made his famous voyage up the Congo River.  Subsequent relations seem to have ranged from amicable to strategic to hostile, mostly centered around the slave trade and factional struggles for the throne of Kongo.  By the 1600s, however, the Dutch were competing with the Portuguese for the spice trade, and they captured Luanda from the Portuguese in 1641.  In 1642, Kongo agreed to provide them with military assistance, and in return the Dutch helped the then-king of Kongo, Garcia II, put down a rebellion in the south.  (Garcia’s predecessor, who died in 1641, was Alvaro IV.  Presumably either the name or the year in the print above is incorrect.)

Kongo held out, through wars, factional struggles, and a post-Berlin wave of Portuguese colonialism, until 1914.  But even today, the kingdom’s afterlife continues.  The DRC-based religico-political group Bundu dia Kongo has pressed for a revival of the Kongo culture and kingdom since the late 1960s, and has gotten attention more recently for demonstrating against (and being brutally suppressed by) the Kabila regime.