EXTRACT: On the Map by Simon Garfield

Simon Garfield

And the other is a map of equatorial Africa, the region once known as Congo Free State, which shows Stanley basically doing the same thing. Stanley’s magnificent achievements as an explorer – not only the successful location of Livingstone, but the confirmation of Lake Victoria as the source of the White Nile – have been undermined by his participation in what may be the worst humanitarian disaster ever conceived by colonial hubris and greed.

Encouraged by Stanley’s heroics along the River Congo between 1874 and 1877, Leopold II, King of the Belgians, coopted him to take part in a rather less ‘scientific’ venture. Leopold had seen the blank maps and wanted a piece for himself. In a period that saw Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Portugal carve up the continent in a wild imperial looting expedition, the conquest of land through a mixture of industrial ambition and religious divination might have seemed merely like the natural order of things. Leopold made his intentions clear at a geographical conference in Brussels in 1876, proposing the establishment of an international committee with the purpose of increasing the ‘civilisation’ of Congo natives ‘by means of scientific exploration, legal trade and war against the “Arabic” slave traders.’

He claimed a higher goal: ‘To open to civilisation the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire peoples, is, I dare say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress.’ But his ideas of progress and scientific methods were cruelly unconventional, involving as they did brutal enslavement, a military dictatorship and the ruthless control over the ivory and rubber trade, an ambition only made possible initially with Stanley as his entirely respectable agent, buying up vast areas for Belgian control with sweet-talk and trinkets. To what extent Stanley knew of Leopold’s intended subterfuge has long been the subject of debate, but the king reportedly informed him, ‘It is a question of creating a new state, as big as possible, and of running it. It is clearly understood that in this project there is no question of granting the slightest political power to the Negroes. That would be absurd.’

Leopold (and Stanley’s) conquest of the Congo was one of the prime motivations behind Otto von Bismarck’s Berlin Conference of 1884-5, an attempt to divide the rightful ownership of this recently blank continent. (In Heart of Darkness, Bismarck’s Berlin Conference becomes a parody: the ‘International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs’.) The subsequent map looks colourful and ordered enough, and suddenly full again. But the new appearance of King Leopold’s massive Congo Free State heralds one of the truly dark periods of colonial rule. And the bright new partitions on the rest of the map at the start of the twentieth century – French Algeria, Portuguese Angola, Italian Libya, German Cameroon and British South Africa – show only the ability of maps to conceal what’s really there, and to mask the misery to come.

A quarter of a century after Conrad’s Heart of Darkness first appeared, and in the year of the author’s death, a private press published the author’s own thoughts about the lightness and darkness of maps. Like Charlie Marlow, Conrad was a map fan. He had to be: he had led such a peripatetic life on land and sea that they were the only way he could find his bearings. In Geography and Some Explorers he wrote of how ‘map-gazing, to which I became addicted so early, brings the problems of the great spaces of the earth into stimulating and direct contact with a sane curiosity and gives an honest precision to one’s imaginative faculty.’ He was aware he was living through a revolution in which ‘the honest maps of the nineteenth century nourished in me a passionate interest in the truth of geographical facts and a desire for the precise knowledge which was extended to other subjects. For a change had come over the spirit of cartographers. From the middle of the eighteenth century on, the business of map-making had been growing into an honest occupation, registering the hard-won knowledge, but also in a scientific spirit, recording the geographical ignorance of its time. And it was Africa, the continent of which the Romans used to say “some new thing was always coming,” that got cleared of the dull, imaginary wonders of the dark ages, which were replaced by exciting spaces of white paper.’

What really excited him about maps, he realised, was a simple thing: ‘Regions unknown!’ Not defined certainty, but the opposite – the mystery, and the life-enhancing possibility of discovery.

Extracted from On the Map by Simon Garfield, published by Profile Books, R349. The book has been selected as one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

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