How a Beautifully Detailed Map Hides the Horror of a Looming Slave Trade

Image of the Week: An ornate navigational chart pointed the way for European explorers intent on exploiting Africa’s wealth and its people.

Jaime Olives, Aethiopia. Portolan chart, 1572. Colors on parchment, 440 by 580 mm (detail).
Jaime Olives, Aethiopia. Portolan chart, 1572. Colors on parchment, 440 by 580 mm (detail). Bibliothèque municipale, Valenciennes, France

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Though crowded with lively detail and a wealth of place names, maps of Africa during the age of European exploration reflect a limited knowledge of this vast continent.

Africa was still a land of great contrasts, a place of tantalizing wealth shrouded within a mysterious, impenetrable interior. When this map of West and Central Africa was made, the distinction between fable and reality, ancient lore and contemporary discovery, was just beginning to be worked out. As more and more European interests began to crowd along its coasts, the exploitation of African wealth took on ever more ominous tones. Mapping its coast became more and more a visual metaphor of the slave trade and its terrible impact on the native people of Africa.

This particular type of map is known as a portolan chart, a branch of medieval and early modern cartography intended as a navigational aid for voyages at sea. The maker of this chart is known from his signature, Jaimes Holives, now more often rendered Jaime Olives. A native of the island of Mallorca lying off the Mediterranean coast of Spain, Olives came from a distinguished family of map- and chart-makers.

Produced on a large sheet of parchment in Barcelona, the chart bears legends in Latin and Spanish. It is part of a set of nine nautical charts in a form resembling the modern atlas.

This is a detail of a much larger map of the Mare Oceanus (Ocean Sea), or southern Atlantic Ocean. On the left, out of view here, is Brazil in the New World. On the other side of the ocean appears the west coast of Africa, from the Guinea coast in the north to the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of the continent. Along the shore, principal geographical features are listed in close succession. The web of lines crisscrossing the surface of the map represents trading routes between numerous points along the African coast and the easternmost area of the Portuguese colony of Brazil.

One of the most prominent features of Olive’s representation of Africa is the word “Aethiopia” rendered in large gold leaf letters across the central and eastern regions of the continent. In maps and charts of the early modern period, this name does not refer to the homonymous modern nation but, rather, evokes the more comprehensive use of the term by writers of the classical world. Herodotus and others gave this name to the entire southern zone of the world as they knew it. Here, however, it denotes the European focus on Africa alone as a source of material wealth.

Serving the same purpose are the lavishly rendered local details of places and populations within the interior of the continent. Some are real, others fanciful, but in every case these images of seated rulers and walled cities provide a figurative complement to the multitude of topographical names arranged along the shore. The European nations’ intentions for the continent of Africa range from the prospect of evangelization and conventional trade in natural resources to the cynical exploitation of its human capital.

European contact with one of the greatest and most well-documented centers of power along the West African coast began in the late 15th century, when the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão encountered the mouth of a huge river, labeled here “Rio de manicongo.” Sailing upstream, he arrived at the capital of the Kingdom of Kongo. Manikongo is the Portuguese approximation of the KiKongo term mwene Kongo, or “lord of Kongo.” These rulers governed a vast empire woven together by a complex system of alliances with nobles and client states.

Just above the river appears a massive walled and turreted stone city. Farther above is an imposing image of the manikongo himself. He sits on a blue-tasseled cushion, dressed in the lavish robes of a Middle Eastern potentate. A bulbous turban crowns his head, and he holds a large golden sword as a sign of his power.