English, Department of



ADRIAN S. WISNICKI https://orcid.org/0000-0002-9145-3309

Date of this Version



Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 51, No. 1, pp. 121–128.


This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licence


IN this essay, I offer some reflections on how Victorianists might understand nineteenth- and early twentieth-century discursive practices for mapping Africa. In doing this, I respond to what Sukanya Banerjee, our panel organizer, asked us to do in determining the focus for our essays—namely, that we direct “attention to topics in Victorian studies that [we] feel might otherwise be overlooked or viewed differently.” In what follows I introduce and problematize a series of Victorian-era maps or, more specifically, problematize what such maps represent conceptually, then offer some alternate means by which Victorianists might critically engage with cultural and social reality on the nineteenthcentury African continent, particularly the more southern and eastern parts of the continent where much of my prior research has focused.

Figure 1, a meme taken from my book Fieldwork of Empire (2019), speaks to common perceptions of how Victorians tended to represent the African continent, that the continent alternates between being “blank” and being “dark” in Victorian imperial discourse. The meme also engages with chronology by nodding to the idea that Africa, during the Victorian era, evolved in such discourse from being the former to being the latter. Other nineteenth-century representations of Africa show that “blank” during the era often meant that cartographers could only include a limited range of geographical features (e.g., Burton et al., inset map). By contrast, later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Victorian maps of the continent represent the continent in a way that reflects the European partition of the continent and shows different European colonial possessions clearly marked by hard borders (e.g., Hertslet et al.; see fig. 2). Collectively, these latter two types of maps—the limited geographical map and the colonial border map—provide actual era-specific instances of the representations to which my meme speaks. The maps also hint at the means by which local cultural and geographical knowledge—the basis of other earlier maps of Africa—came to be replaced by European knowledge in later maps.