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Project information

Project team

Kathrin Fritsch, Dirk Hänsgen, Adam Jones (Universität Leipzig), Ulrike Luttenberger (student assistant), Felix Müller (student assistant), Luise Porst (student assistant), Bruno Schelhaas, Isabel Voigt, Ute Wardenga (head of project)


University of Illinois, USA); University of Texas at Arlington, USA; Universität Leipzig; University of South Africa Pretoria, Südafrika; Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig; HU Berlin; Universität Basel, Schweiz; University of Lagos, Nigeria; Universitäts- und Forschungsbibliothek Erfurt/Gotha

Duration of project


Funded by

German Research Association

Further information

Ute Wardenga
Tel.: +49 (0)341 600 55-110

European and African Spatial Knowledge

Cartography of Africa, 1850–1914

Focus: maps as a medium of intercultural knowledge transfer between Europe and Africa in an early phase of globalisation

Not only in cultural studies and humanities but also in traditional historical studies on cartography positivist perspectives still prevail. They consider a map to be a product and thus neglect the latter’s production process: maps are interpreted above all in the framework of a cumulative growth of objective knowledge, which would mould an ever more correct reproduction of the geographical reality.

The research project combined, through its interdisciplinary approach, analyses of the history of cartography with more recent findings of the historiography of science as well as with reflections from the social sciences. For visualisations are not only of considerable significance for the practice of research. They also contribute enormously to the formation and organisation of knowledge, trigger processes of typologically recognising patterns, and can prove to be a “school of seeing”.

The project’s goal was to thoroughly investigate a hitherto scarcely considered aspect of intercultural knowledge transfer between Africa and Europe during a crucial early phase of globalisation. In contrast to postcolonial criticism of 19th century travel literature, the research concept assumes that not everything that made its way into the European maps and books on Africa was filtered by Europeans’ hegemonic perceptions and categories. Instead, traces of African knowledge and taxonomies can be identified as indigenous “voices” in cartographic works.


After extensive archival research and the analysis of numerous published sources, it became evident that the “modern” map of Africa was based not only on European observations and practices, but to a considerable extent also on African knowledge. However, most European travellers shared the perception of Africa as “empty” space. They believed that the continent could only be brought to existence through European “discovery”.

In all cases cartographic visualisations determined travellers’ research decisively and regularly caused transcultural misunderstandings. In opposition to subsequent representations and published map contents, the travellers’ routes, which had been planned in Europe, were usually modified through local interests and had to be negotiated with local key players. Additionally, African knowledge (not only regarding the naming of place) played a much larger role in knowledge acquisition and the construction of (sketch) maps until well into the 1880s than has been assumed so far.

Jones, Adam / Voigt, Isabel (2012): "Just a First Sketchy Makeshift": German travellers and their cartographic encounters in Africa, 1850-1914. In: History in Africa 39, S. 9-39

Voigt, Isabel (2012): Die «Schneckenkarte» - Mission, Kartographie und transkulturelle Wissensaushandlung in Ostafrika um 1850. In: Cartographica Helvetica (45), S. 27-38

Wardenga, Ute (2012): Kartenkonstruktion und Kartengebrauch im Spannungsfeld von Kartentheorie und Kartenkritik. In: Armin Hüttermann u. a. (Hrsg.): Räumliche Orientierung. Räumliche Orientierung, Karten und Geoinformation im Unterricht. Tagungsband zum HGD-Symposium in Ludwigsburg, 19. HGD-Symposium vom 6. bis 9. April 2011. Braunschweig: Westermann, S. 134-143 u. 370-371 (Geographiedidaktische Forschungen; 49)

Schelhaas, Bruno / Wardenga, Ute (2011): „Inzwischen spricht die Karte für sich selbst“. Transformation von Wissen im Prozess der Kartenproduktion. In: Steffen Siegel u. Petra Weigel (Hg.): Die Werkstatt des Kartographen. Materialien und Praktiken visueller Welterzeugung,  München: Wilhelm Fink, S. 89-107 (Laboratorium Aufklärung; 9)

Voigt, Isabel / Fritsch, Kathrin (2011): Transcultural aspects of exploring and mapping South West Africa between 1850 and 1914. In: Journal of Namibian Studies (9), S. 61-83

Jones, Adam (2010): Oldendorps Beitrag zur Afrikaforschung, in: Gudrun Meier u. a. (Hrsg.): Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp, Historie der Caraibischen Inseln Sanct Thomas, Sanct Crux und Sanct Jan. Kommentarband, Beiheft der Unitas Fratrum 19, S. 181–190

Fritsch, Kathrin (2009): “"You have everything confused and mixed up …!" Georg Schweinfurth, Knowledge and Cartography of Africa in the 19th Century”. In: History in Africa 36, S. 87–101.

Schelhaas, Bruno (2009): Das „Wiederkehren des Fragezeichens in der Karte“. Gothaer Kartenproduktion im 19. Jahrhundert. In: Geographische Zeitschrift 97 (4), S. 227–242

Fritsch, Kathrin / Voigt, Isabel (2008): “Local knowledge is wonderfully good, but …" - African Knowledge in European Maps. Proceedings of the Portsmouth Symposium, ICA Commission on the History of Cartography, 10.-12.09.2008 in Portsmouth/UK. Download