History of Cartography

Historic Maps of Africa

4511.3 - A Cartographical History of the Quest for the Source of the Nile

Tuesday, July 4
2:10 PM - 2:30 PM
Location: Hoover

The Nile, stretching for a distance of 6,741 km (4 187 miles) is the longest river in the world and was, for centuries, the world’s greatest geographic enigma: how could the river flow unfailingly every day of the year through the largest and driest desert in the known world without being replenished by a single tributary? Where was the source of the Nile? Geographers and cartographers were especially perplexed as the interior of Africa remained for many centuries a terra incognita of which nothing was known. For 2,000 years Alexander the Great, Roman legionaries sent by Nero, Spanish Jesuit priests, successions of Italian and French traders and adventurers tried to find the source of the Nile with no success. Malaria decimated expeditions, cataracts and endless papyrus marshes blocked the upper river, tsetse flies killed beasts of burden and made wheeled transport impossible, the rainy season turned whole regions into quagmires, and the slave trade made local chiefs suspicious and hostile. Throughout this period the mapping of the Nile rested on speculation and conjecture.
Between 1856 and 1876, the White Nile at last yielded up its secrets to an idiosyncratic group if British explorers who solved the mystery of the source bit by bit. Ironically, after their journeys were over, almost all would disagree profoundly about which one of them had won the crown. Their expeditions fired the imagination of the reading public in Europe and America and their travelogues and sketch maps were regularly published by geographical societies, private publishers and cartographers.
This paper deals with the cartographic representation of the Nile from ancient and medieval times until the secret of the river source was eventually solved. The topic will be presented in two parts, namely
Section 1 which deals with the cartographic representation of the Nile during Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance and Postmodern times, and
Section 2 which covers the exploration of the Nile by Victorian explorers during the 19th century as recorded on their own and other contemporary maps
Section I
• Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations
• The Middle Ages from the 5th to the 13th centuries
• The revival of Ptolemy in the 15th century
• The influence of Ptolemy on maps of the 16th and 17th centuries
• The maps of Pigafetta and Gastaldi (1564)
• French maps of the 18th and early 19th centuries

Section 2
• Information on the interior of Africa yielded by the slave trade
• The discovery of Lake Tanganyika by Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, 1857-59
• The discovery of Lake Victoria by Speke, 1858-59
• John Hanning Speke & James Augustus Grant, 1860-62
• The discovery of the Victoria Nile, 1862
• The quarrel, 1863-64
• Lake Albert and Samuel Baker, 1864-73
• David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, 1871-73
• Solving the Nile mystery: Henry Morton Stanley, 1874-5

To conclude attention is paid by means of modern maps to the headwaters of both the White and the Blue Nile and the legendary Mountains of the Moon which are now widely accepted to be the Rwenzori Mountains. The authors will also address the issue whether it is possibile to observe hydrologic changes in the Nile River as an indication of climatic change in the region.

Lucia Lovison-Golob

Geospatial Director
Afriterra Foundation

Dr. Lucia Lovison-Golob is the Geospatial Director and Librarian of Afriterra Foundation and a Capacity Building coordinator for the Disasters at the Group of Earth Observations (GEO).


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László Zentai

Head of department
Department of Cartography and Geoinformatics, Eotvos University

László Zentai is a Full Professor and Head of the Department of Cartography and Geoinformatics at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary. He is the Vice-Rector (also between 2007 and 2010) of the university and he was also the Vice-dean of the Faculty of Informatics two times previosuly. Prof. Zentai is the Secretary-General of the International Cartographic Association (2011–2019) and he is also serving as the Chairman of the Hungarian National ICA Group. He is a Council member of the International Orienteering Federation. His papers are dealing with computer cartography, cartographic education, topographic mapping, relief representation, orienteering maps, environmental protection and webcartography.


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4511.3 - A Cartographical History of the Quest for the Source of the Nile

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