To the Mountains of the Moon:

Mapping African Exploration, 1541-1880

With a land mass of 11.7 million square miles—over three times that of the United States, including Alaska—Africa has always captivated and challenged cartographers. But explorers have been the meaningful mapmakers. Initially, after Bartolomeu Dias first rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, the continent was something for sailors to pass by on the way to India and the spice islands of the East Indies. A 16th‑century map (see Sebastian Münster’s “Totius Africæ tabula” [1554]) even provides basic directions from Portugal on how to do just that: “keep the coast on the left, don’t stop much, and turn due east after rounding the cape.” For two hundred years most Western countries followed those instructions. Unlike the New World, which Europeans were eagerly colonizing in the 18th century, Africa presented a dangerous and inhospitable landscape.

What was so intractable, impenetrable, impossible about Africa? This exhibition tries to answer those questions vicariously through the eyes and experiences of the men who accepted the challenge. It is colored with their personal frailties, cultural biases, and European stereotypes of superiority and invulnerability. Illustrations and captions are representative and unedited, and all the maps are original.

Benefiting primarily from the 19th‑century efforts of British, French, and German explorers, most of the general mapping of Africa took place between the founding of the African Association in 1788 and the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, the start of the “Scramble for Africa” by colonial powers—a span of roughly one hundred years. European exploration of Africa sought several geographic prizes, among which were to reach the fabled city of Timbuktu, to navigate the entire length of the Niger River (Did it evaporate in the desert or flow as a tributary of the Nile? Did it flow to the east or the west?), to discover the sources of the Nile, and to behold the Mountains of the Moon, an iconic feature of early maps of Africa. The desire to eradicate slavery (banned in the British Empire in 1833) was an additional motivation for British missionaries and some British explorers to push on into uncharted African territory, but the pure adventure of the undertaking was reason enough for most. Drawing from the cartographic and rare book resources of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of Princeton University Library, this exhibition documents the evolution of the map of Africa, 1541-1880. It is a story told in the expedition maps, illustrations, and words of those explorers.

© 2007 Princeton University Library

Questions/Comments about this website should be directed to the exhibition curator, John Delaney:

The title page illustration is “Ruwenzori, or ‘The Mountains of the Moon’, in Central Africa, Discovered by Mr. H. M. Stanley’s Expedition.” Supplement to the Illustrated London News 96, no. 2650 (1 February 1890).

Right: photograph of Mount Kilimanjaro as seen across the "saddle," taken in June 2006