Why Google Maps gets Africa wrong

About halfway through Jonathan Swift’s boisterously witty epic poem On Poetry: A Rhapsody, the 18th century Anglo-Irish satirist briefly turns his attention to maps of Africa, writing:

So geographers, in Afric maps,
With savage pictures fill their gaps,
And o’er uninhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.

In Swift’s time, European explorers had only skirted around the coastal edges of Africa and its interior remained, to all intents and purposes, a mystery. But as the poet pointed out, rather than just leave the middle of the continent blank, mapmakers would instead “fill their gaps” with things they thought might reside in such exotic corners of the world, such as strange monkeys, roaming lions, and “elephants for want of towns.”

From Willem Janszoon Blaeu’s 17th Century map of Africa.
These elephants were largely marched off maps of Africa in the 19th century as expeditions by the likes of David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley provided more information to Europeans about the continent’s geography. But these explorations were fairly narrow in scope, and the vast bulk of Africa would remain terra incognita for years to come.

In fact, even at the 1885 Berlin Conference where, legend has it, Europe’s colonial powers each drew lines across a map of Africa and coloured in their territories with their imperial hue-of-choice, the colonialists weren’t really sure what those areas contained. Although cartographers had given up their predilection for doodling odd creatures across Africa’s interior, there wasn’t a whole lot more they could put there instead.

These maps of Africa, drawn up by a small group of western cartographers, symbolically reinforced Europeans’ sense of control over their mapped territories and subjects, but they didn’t betray much in the way of real information. Though they would have been seen as objective and impartial at the time, in retrospect it is clear how subjective, ideologically driven, and, in many ways, fantastical they were.

Fast-forwarding to today it may seem like the situation is completely different. Any gaps in our geographical knowledge have been painstakingly filled in thanks to advanced technologies and satellite imagery. Access to maps is no longer confined to a small western elite. And mapmaking no longer seems so ideologically charged, but far more scientific and technical.

Unlike the age in which Africa was patchily mapped through a distinctly colonialist lens, one could argue that today, we all finally know what the continent − and indeed the world − actually looks like.

But things may not have changed as much as one might assume. No map is completely objective and every cartographer has to make countless decisions over what is more important and what is less so. Some of these choices may be purely technical, some may be issues of historical convention, and some may be informed by ideological assumptions. But these decisions − as invisible as they are in the final product − have to be made and they all fundamentally change how we see the world.

In today’s maps, Africa arguably gets as rough a deal as it always has. Now as ever, the continent may not look like we think it does.

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