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). Bibliothèque municipale, Valenciennes, France

His magnificent appearance belies the actual extent of his control over his Portuguese trading partners. By the late 16th century, the Portuguese had begun to dominate trading interests with the Kingdom of Kongo. One of the most deleterious results was the almost unrestrained taking of slaves from the region for sale in the New World.

At the bottom of this portion of the map, to the right of the letter “A,” sits a figure similar to the manikongo. He is identified as the ruler of Benematapa, better known as Monomotapa in the annals of African exploration. The realm was said to be located in southeastern Africa, its extent at least as great as that of Congo.

The fabled riches of Monomotapa, though the subject of intense interest to early European explorers, never materialized. For every tangible contact with the wealth of Africa, there seemed to be at least one “lost kingdom” to lure the insatiable European appetite for riches.

Even more enigmatic than these two African regents is the figure of Prester John. He appears on the chart above the manikongo, positioned vaguely between the Nile River and the west coast of Africa. He wears the robes and miter of a bishop of the Catholic Church. Though obviously placed on African soil, his name is rendered “Preste Juan de la India.”

The reference to India reflects the earlier European belief in the location of his kingdom much farther to the east. Ultimately he became associated with the region of East Africa, sometimes called the third India. The kingdom of this enormously powerful priest-king had gripped the Western European consciousness for centuries as a hoped-for bastion of Christianity outside Europe, and a force to be summoned for the reconquest of the Holy Land.

The three rulers seen in this detail elicit the state of Europe’s perception of the African power structure at a crucial juncture in the history of both continents. Before long, fantasy gave way to the systematic exploitation of Africa’s tangible assets. The forced exportation of human beings from its coasts fueled the advent of Europe into the modern age. A massive influx of precious metals, sugar and other products from the New World, all produced by slave labor, helped to capitalize great advances in technology, science and economics. Intended solely for the pragmatic purpose of navigation, the constellation of radiating lines on the map just as graphically traces the long, tortuous journey of enslaved Africans to a life of bondage on the other side of the Atlantic.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

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