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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.”

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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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The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. 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.