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'From the Best Authorities': The Mountains of Kong in the Cartography of West Africa

Thomas J. Bassett and Philip W. Porter
The Journal of African History
Vol. 32, No. 3 (1991), pp. 367-413
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/182661
Page Count: 47
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'From the Best Authorities': The Mountains of Kong in the Cartography of West Africa
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Abstract

This study goes beyond the 'first and last appearance' approach of cartographic historians to examine the social contexts in which the Kong Mountains were first depicted in and then eliminated from nineteenth-century maps of Africa. This history shows that the conventional periodization of the history of cartography into 'decorative' and 'scientific' phases is greatly exaggerated. We trace the mountains' origins to the geographer James Rennell and show how their purported existence served to support his arguments on the course of the Niger River at the turn of the nineteenth century. The enduring depiction of the Kong Mountains throughout the century illustrates the authoritative power of maps. This authority is based on the public's belief that cartographers are guided by an ethic of accuracy and are applying scientific procedures in mapmaking. Despite doubts about the existence of this mountain chain, the 'extraordinary authority' of maps helped to perpetuate an erroneous spatial image of West Africa until Binger's famous expedition in the late 1880s. With the publication of his travels and maps, Binger became the new authority on West African geography. His work altered the subsequent cartography of the region and substantially contributed to French empire-building.

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