Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mapping South Africa's history


Maps seem pretty innocuous objects. But just how significant they really are becomes clear when reading MAPPING SOUTH AFRICA, A Historical Survey of South African Maps and Charts, by retired history professor Andrew Duminy, published by Jacana. My review of his book appeared in the Weekend Post, Port Elizabeth, on March 31, 2012, and can be viewed on the Jacana website at http://gate5.co.za/qv/pr/15869605/18387701/0/p. This, however, is the uncut version, complete with pictures as I would have liked to use them. Unfortunately, a glitch has crept in, compacting the text. On the positive side, if you hold down shift and right click on the maps, you can see them big and clear. By holding down "control" and using the mouse scroll wheel, the text can also be enlarged. Sorry, but all attempts to ditch the glitch failed.


The cover of Mapping South Africa

ANTI-COLONIALISTS should, logically, be vehemently opposed to historical maps of South Africa and, indeed, of all the other parts of the world colonised by European powers.

Because this remarkable book reveals that the mapping of our country went in tandem with its colonisation and conquest, first by the Dutch, then the British.

It also casts an interesting light on the whole debate, launched somewhat gauchely in parliament recently by Dr Pieter Mulder, as to whether black Africans can lay claim to the whole of the country. Judging from the maps included here, it seems clear that the Khoisan occupied much of the land to the west of the country when the whites arrived, not the Xhosas or other darker tribes. But this is a history of map-making, not anthropology, so I’d better steer clear of that particular issue.



This is the first map to show the southernmost tip of Africa. It was drawn by Henricus Martellus, a German, in 1489, a year after the Portuguese explorer Batholomew Diaz had first rounded the Cape and established the latitude of his landing as 34 degree 22 minutes south. Clearly not much was known of the eastern half of the continent!

What is evident, as one advances into the 20th century, is that by the time of Union in 1910, the European colonisers had occupied and surveyed vast swathes of the country. There is a particularly telling map from a survey conducted over five years from 1905 by H M Jackson, just after the Anglo-Boer War ended. One of 55 sheets done at a scale of 1:125 000 of the Orange Free State, it is not a proper topographical map, but it does show the extent to which the land around Boshof – like elsewhere – had been neatly parcelled out. Each farm, established when the Boers – who trekked north from the Cape in the mid-1830s – settled in the Orange River Free State and the Transvaal Republic, is shown and named.


By 1513 things look more familiar. This map, by the German Martin Waldseemuller, of the southern African coastline was the first printed map of the subcontinent. Note how far out of place Madagascar is.

This was the reality in South Africa 100 years ago already, and the history of how map-making played in integral part in the process is both fascinating and disturbing. For the conquerors of European extraction, despite all the hardships they had to endure, acquiring that land must have been like manna from heaven. For the indigenous tribes scattered across the land, it was a nightmare.



After Jan van Riebeeck established a settlement at the Cape in 1652, map-making began in earnest, but remained very inaccurate. This, from 1724, was by the Dutchman Francois Valentyn.

Duminy is a Professor Emeritus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a descendant of one of the early French mariners, Renier Duminy, who played a significant role in the early mapping of the Cape. Indeed, as can be expected, it was the Cape peninsular and the southern Cape coastline up to Algoa Bay which were the first areas to be extensively surveyed and mapped – initially as an aid to the shipping trade with the East following Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival at the Cape in 1652. Then, as the centuries passed, the interior was explored and the first basic maps were made. Initially, with longitude an ongoing problem, the southern part of Africa was depicted as far more pointy than it is. It was only in 1834, after Captain (later Vice-Admiral) William Owen’s scientific survey using the latest available equipment – theodolites, sextants, chronometers and telescopes – that the first accurate map of southern Africa’s coastline was published.


By 1752, however, the map of the western Cape was starting to look far more accurate. This was done by French navigator Jean-Baptiste de Mannevilette.

About the same time, the first map, by Lt James King, was made of Port Natal (later to become Durban). But it is the mapping of the Eastern Cape frontier which makes up a large part of this book. Because it was here that colonial boundaries were in a constant state of flux during the 100 years of conflict between the white settlers and the Xhosas. Interestingly, one of the reasons Britain set about exploring and mapping the east coast of Africa was to intensify the Royal Navy’s anti-slavery campaign, Britain having resolved in 1807 to put an end to the ocean-going slave trade. At the time, it seems, Brazil was taking slaves from east Africa.


Cornelis van de Graaff, the Cape governor from 1785 to 1791, organised a major survey of the coastline and interior as far west as the Fish River. This is the eastern half of his map competed in 1794.


Britain first took over the Cape Colony in 1795 and, apart from a brief interlude from 1803 to 1806, governed it until Union in 1910. During this period massive strides were made in mapping the whole region. This map, from 1834, gives the first accurate representation of the southern African coastline.

Of note regarding the Eastern Cape is the fact that before Port Elizabeth was established with the arrival of the 1820 British settlers, the main centres in the area were Graaff-Reinet and Uitenhage. Grahamstown also predated PE, as the British military established an outpost there in an attempt to stem the Xhosa insurrection. In the mid-19th century, towns like East London, King William’s Town, Queenstown, Cathcart and Burgersdorp were formed as the frontier wars continued.


This map, shown to the House of Commons to illustrate a report by Cape governor Sir Benjamin D’Urban, reveals what a political hot potato the eastern frontier had become. The area outlined in red was the Ceded Territory. Envisaged as a buffer zone in 1819, it was annexed by D’Urban but abandoned the following year.

The maps in this book are also reflective of the way the indigenous people were seen, with one from 1847 referring to an area occupied by the “Amakosa or Kaffirs Proper”, as opposed, I assume, to the Khoisan. Elsewhere, in a map of Natal and its interior (1851) there is a note on the map that the interior is “Inhabited by wandering tribes of Kaffirs and Zulus”.


Taking shape. British publisher John Barthlomew’s map of South Africa, published in the Scottish Geographical Magazine in 1885.

The book concludes with sections on modern map-making, and it is here that Port Elizabeth features heavily, with Sir David Gill, the Astronomer Royal at the Cape from 1879-1906 having personally established the co-ordinates for a beacon at Buffelsfontein in 1885. The baseline he established became the datum for the entire southern Africa, as a major geodetic triangulation was conducted. It remained the datum (the point to which all survey measurements related) until 1999, when, thanks to satellites, the Radio Astronomy Observatory at Hartebeesthoek supplanted it.


The Buffelsfontein beacon in Port Elizabeth, with a plaque installed in 2004. On the right is a second beacon marking the other end of the baseline of 5 600 feet measured by Sir David Gill in September 1885. All southern African triangulation surveys were based on this datum.

Yet in the 20th century, it was those beacons which in a way became symbols of the new country. A national trigonometric survey of South Africa was launched in 1936 but, with World War 2 intervening, it was only completed in 1976, producing 1 916 sheets at a scale of 1:50 000. In the course of this process, more than 29 000 beacons were erected – including one in the East London suburb where I grew up, which was so prominent the place was called Beacon Bay. Duminy says: “These are still a feature of the South African landscape and there is every reason why they should be preserved as national monuments.”


There was intense interest in Britain in the Anglo-Boer War, Britain’s biggest conflict since the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. This map, published in Edinburgh in 1899, shows just how detailed maps had already become. Note how small Johannesburg was compared to Pretoria.

The book, which includes numerous maps and photographs, concludes with a chapter on two South Africans who, in the last century, pioneered the use of photography and radar in map-making.

What Duminy’s well-researched and beautifully presented book does is reveal just how complex our country’s history really is. If you consider that each little name on a map – whether a farm or a dorp or a koppie – has a history, a story of human endeavour , and then you consider how many such places there are across the length and breadth of our land, it gives you serious food for thought.

After the Anglo-Boer War, the Orange Free State was surveyed by H M Jackson over five and a half years from 1905. This is a detail from one sheet. Note how each farm around Boshof has been accurately recorded and named.

Maps are the repositories of a nation’s history, and without them – and all that led up to their being made, for good or bad – I doubt whether we would be living in a modern, industrial state today. The key for our new African leaders is to build on the work of nearly 350 years of European rule, not to break it down and destroy it.



This letter from Andrew Duminy was published in the Weekend Post on April 7, 2012. He subsequently informed me that his book has ruffled a few academic feathers over a few minor quibbles. I sense a case of professional jealousy.

1 comment:

  1. I do believe some credit should also go to Sir Thomas Maclear for his work on triangulation surveys and not just to Sir David Gill (see below taken from the NGI website):-


    Prior to 1st January 1999, the co-ordinate reference system, used in South Africa as the foundation for all surveying, engineering and georeferenced projects and programmes, was the Cape Datum . This Datum was referenced to the Modified Clarke 1880 ellipsoid and had its origin point at Buffelsfontein, near Port Elizabeth. The Cape Datum was based on the work of HM Astronomers: Sir Thomas Maclear, between 1833 and 1870, and Sir David Gill, between 1879 and 1907, whose initial geodetic objectives were to verify the size and shape of the Earth in the Southern Hemisphere and later to provide geodetic control for topographic maps and navigation charts.

    From these beginnings, the network was extended to eventually cover the entire country and now comprises approximately 29 000 highly visible trigonometrical beacons on mountains, high buildings and water towers, as well as approximately 20 000 easily accessible town survey marks.

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