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date: 10 April 2021

Maps and Cartography in the History of South Africa: From Print to Digitallocked

  • Norman EtheringtonNorman EtheringtonFaculty of Arts, Business, Law and Education, School of Humanities, University of Western Australia


The first well-attested maps showing Southern Africa date from the late 15th century. Before the 19th century, maps provided little information about the interior but depicted coastlines in great detail, thanks to the requirements of seaborne navigators. Information about the inhabitants was scanty and skewed by misconceptions about the nature of African societies. Land-based exploration activity increased dramatically in the 1830s but the poorly trained and equipped human agents made many errors that had significant historical consequences. Accuracy in the mapping of physical topography improved with the advent of skilled civil and military surveyors, but entanglement with advancing forces of European colonialism resulted in biased representations of the nature and distribution of the indigenous people. Competition among European invaders during the so-called Scramble for Africa in the last decades of the 19th century made cartography a volatile element in the general mix of combustible material. Continual war among Europeans and Africans also affected the production of maps. The impact of African resistance to colonial surveys and land seizures on map making was for too long neglected by historians. By the end of World War I, the geopolitical boundaries of the region assumed their present configuration, marking off South Africa from its neighbors. The imposition of European rule, racial inequality, and segregation introduced cartographical distinctions between areas in which land was held in freehold title by members of a ruling racial elite and so-called African reserves and locations where land was held communally under the surveillance of traditional authorities. Decolonization beginning in the 1960s swept away the colonial racial order but did not abolish its legacy of boundaries, inequality, and parallel systems of land governance. The advent of geographical information systems, digital mapping, and satellite imaging has revolutionized cartography.

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