Established in 1954, the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University in Chicago is said to have the largest collection of African art, history and literature in the world. Recently, it unveiled a collection of antique African maps created as far back as the 15th century.
David Easterbrook, the curator of the library, says that the early cartographers who created these maps based their data mainly on anecdotal information from travelers. They also used the limited literature of European scholars, and antiquities of Greek and Roman scholars who had written of, or traveled to, Africa.
“They were taking text and turning it into something visual,” he said.
Easterbrook adds that the maps cover in particular North Africa and Algeria, Madagascar and other islands, and a few city plans. They have a basic structural knowledge which has been the foundation for the newer more accurate maps created by modern cartographers. He emphasizes, “[They are] crude renditions of the map of Africa.”
However, as he stressed, the maps do not give a clear resolution to the longstanding controversy about the real source of the Nile, a topic that has of late been on the minds of many geographers around the Central and East African regions. Some geographers say the source is in Rwanda, others, in Uganda.
The digital collection highlights a series of maps of North Africa by famous cartographers like Italian Girolamo Ruscelli that date as far back as 1565. They also include a series of Algerian maps published by the French government in the mid-1800's, and maps by other notable cartographers, such as Nicholas Sanson, and Fredrick de Wit.
The Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University has made these resources and many other African materials in the library available to readers in digitized form available on the internet at http://www.library.northwestern.edu/govinfo/collections/mapsofafrica/