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Map exhibit chronicles European encounters with Africa


From fantastic creatures such as the one-eyed "monoculi" depicted on a 1542 map to evidence of the foreign colonization of Africa in the 19th century, the sweeping changes in European conceptions of the "dark continent" are presented in an exhibit of maps on view through Aug. 1 in Green Library.

Africa map
Sebastian Munster's Figura el Mondo Universale (World Map) is the signature piece of The Rediscovery of Africa, 1400-1900: Antique Maps & Rare Images, an exhibition on view through Aug. 1 in Green Library's Peterson Gallery. "These maps reflect constantly changing European images of Africa," according to guest curator William Jacobson. COURTESY OF STANFORD UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES

The Rediscovery of Africa, 1400-1900: Antique Maps & Rare Images highlights the university's collection, which for the first time has been digitized and made accessible online.

In 2001, Stanford's collection of 570 maps of Africa became one of the largest and most diverse in the world with the purchase of the private Oscar I. Norwich collection from South Africa. That acquisition of more than 300 rare maps was made possible in part by a gift from William R. and Yvonne Jacobson, who established the Jacobson Africana Collection Program at Stanford.

Africa map
Above, a 1542 map of Africa by Sebastian Munster. In 2001, Stanford’s collection of maps of Africa became one of the largest and most diverse in the world with the purchase of the private Oscar I. Norwich collection. COURTESY OF STANFORD UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES

Bill Jacobson, a native of Cape Town who knew Norwich, earned a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford in 1960. Jacobson was the exhibit's guest curator and wrote its catalog, a 95-page book that gives historical context to the colorful collection.

"These maps reflect constantly changing European images of Africa," Jacobson wrote in the catalog. "They chronicle the European encounter with African kingdoms, the slave trade and African roots in the Americas, some extraordinary African places, and the 19th-century 'Scramble for Africa,' which resulted in the colonization of the continent by the major European powers."

Jacobson, an amateur map collector, explained that in antiquity, maps were instruments of bureaucracy and political power. "They gave advantage in war, they revealed new trade routes and commercial prospects, delineated property lines, defined political boundaries, and made possible the growth of cities and nation states," he wrote. "The secrets of maps were so prized in early Renaissance Europe that in the 15th century, the Kings of Portugal decreed that the penalty for disclosing the contents of maps was punishable by death."

Digitizing old maps

Roberto Trujillo, head of the Department of Special Collections at Stanford University Libraries, said digitization of the "Maps of Africa" collection has greatly expanded its potential as a research and teaching tool worldwide. "It provides an intellectual access to content that people otherwise wouldn't have," he said. And for scholars who can get to Stanford, he added, the original maps have been preserved and cataloged.

Glen Worthey, head of the libraries' Humanities Digital Information Service, helped put the collection online using a program called Luna Insight. The map images are accompanied by detailed descriptions, such as information about when and where they were made. Worthey said both the visual and descriptive information can be searched and manipulated by users who want to create their own "high-octane" PowerPoint presentations. "The program promotes collaboration among researchers, access to rare materials and its use as a teaching tool," he said.

While the exhibit is on view in the Bing Wing of Green Library, visitors who cannot access the Insight program from personal computers can try it out using a museum kiosk located in the Peterson Gallery on the second floor.

How a collection came to campus

Norwich, a surgeon born in Johannesburg in 1910, amassed his personal collection over four decades. In 1983, he published a definitive reference book on the maps that was republished in 1997, three years after his death, as Norwich's Maps of Africa.

When Jacobson met Norwich in Cape Town in 1984, he learned that the surgeon wanted to get his collection into the public domain. It was stored in a rented apartment next to the family's apartment and was cared for by a servant. "The Zulu manservant was illiterate but he knew where every map was," Jacobson said. "He was a librarian. He was the only [person] who could find them all."

After the servant died, Norwich's widow, Rose, decided to sell the collection. Jacobson said universities in South Africa did not have enough staff or resources to manage such a large antiquarian collection, while the country's heritage commission decided it could be sent overseas because the maps were of European origin.

At the time, Jacobson said, Stanford owned a respectable map collection, mostly depicting North and West Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. In contrast, many of Norwich's maps were older and they covered South and East Africa. "The collections complemented each other," Jacobson said. "There were only about 17 duplicates."

It took about two-and-a-half years for university library staff to preserve, catalog, digitize and prepare the collection for public use and display. "It's labor intensive," Trujillo said. "You have to do it right. Now it's available to everyone."

Stanford University Libraries exhibit information