Petter Hellström

Unmapping Africa: Enlightenment Geography and the Making of Blank Spaces

In the eighteenth century, European maps of Africa became increasingly empty. Rivers and mountains, kingdoms and cities that had been mapped for centuries, suddenly disappeared and were replaced by blank spaces. The blanks continued to characterise maps of the continent throughout the nineteenth century, a period of intensified exploration, expansion, evangelisation, and violence in the course of European empire building. Whereas earlier studies have investigated the role of blank spaces in creating and sustaining the perception of Africa as an unknown and unclaimed continent, the blanks themselves have long been understood as the unintended bi-product of improved scientific standards. While this explanation originates with the geographers themselves, it does not hold in the face of the empirical evidence. Through detailed examination of the maps and writings, drafts, sketches, notes and letters of Jean-Baptiste d'Anville and other leading geographers of the French Enlightenment, I reconstruct the epistemological concerns and practical priorities that motivated and informed European geographers as they transformed Africa into a largely unwritten sheet. In thus shifting the focus from critically reading the finished maps, to critically examining their production histories, I explore the ways in which not only the employment of colonial maps—but also their making—was fundamentally shaped by contemporary power relations.
Grant administrator
Uppsala University
Reference number
SEK 2,584,000.00
RJ Projekt
History of Ideas