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‘From the Best Authorities’: The Mountains of Kong in the Cartography of West Africa*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2009

Thomas J. Bassett
University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign
Philip W. Porter
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis


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.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1991

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67 There was also a competitive edge to such declarations as cartographers sought to establish the excellence of their maps over others. The competition began long ago. In 1670 J. van Meurs published a map titled ‘Africae Accurata Tabula’. The next year, F. de Wit did him one better with a map entitled ‘Totius Africae Acuratissima Tabula’.

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72 Dupuis, Journal, XCII.

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87 Given the variety of ways mountains are illustrated on the maps we inspected (pictorial, oval lines, hachures, etc.), it is a subjective matter to decide how much area is covered by mountains on the maps included in Fig. 6. A further element of subjectivity lies in deciding how much of a long mountain chain to include when only part of it is labeled Kong Mountains, or when it changes name along its length. The east-west extent of the Kong Mountains varies greatly from map to map. The range in length is from 525 km (325 miles) on the 1850 Meyer map to 3,950 km (2,455 miles) on the Mitchell map of 1848. The average length overall is 1,874 km (about 1,165 miles). The mountains, on average, are longer before 1850 than they are after 1850 (2,141 km vs. 1,677 km). The modal length is 1,950 km and the median length is 1,800 km.

The mean latitudinal position of the Kong Mountains was 10° 1′ N in the period 1798 to 1850. The mean latitudinal position was 8° 58′ N in the period 1850 to 1892. There was a perceptible southward shift in the position of the Kong Mountains as the nineteenth century progressed.

The modal position of the western end of the Kong Mountains was about 10° West longitude, which places it in the Guinea Highlands, southeast of Futa Jallon and northwest of Mt Nimba. The usual position of the eastern end of the Kong Mountains, particularly after 1850, is about 6° E longitude, which places it in the Oyo Yoruba Uplands, east of Ilesha.

A composite of forty maps which show the Kong Mountains (and name them so) in the period 1798 to 1892 is shown as the last item in Fig. 6. The Kong Mountains, at one time or another, have been attributed to the area shown in the shade pattern.

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93 MacQueen, , Northern Central Africa, 149Google Scholar; MacQueen's map in this text shows such a gap in what is otherwise an extraordinarily mountainous West Africa. See ‘A Map of Africa North of the parallel of 7° South Latitude; Showing the course & direction of the principal Rivers & Mountains particularly of the Niger & of the Gir With Their Tributary Streams, from the best Authorities. Drawn by James MacQueen, Glasgow 6th June 1820’.

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95 Ibid. 5.

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99 Johnston), (A. K. ‘Stanford's library map of Africa’, Stanford's Library Atlas of the World (Glasgow, 1866, with additions to 1877).Google Scholar

100 Johnson, A. J., Johnson's New Illustrated Family Atlas of the World (New York, 1866), 97.Google Scholar

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102 Ibid. 484.

103 Ibid. 485–6.

104 Ibid. 486.

105 Bartholomew, J., The Popular Hand Atlas of the World (New York, 1886), 38.Google Scholar At about this time the controversial town of Musardu began to appear in the Guinea highlands on maps of West Africa. This town, like the Kong Mountains, appeared and then disappeared, and its very existence is disputed. Benjamin K. Anderson, a Liberian explorer, published an account of his travels made in 1868–9. He undertook a second journey to Musardu in 1874. His travels predate both the French pursuit and capture of Samori and his army in 1899 and the adjudication of the Franco—Liberian boundary. Anderson's travels, if authenticated, would have given Liberia a claim to territories in the interior. It was thus in the interest of the French to discredit Anderson's published reports. One member of the Mission Hostains—d'Ollone (1898–1900), Charles d'Ollone, called Anderson's account an outright fabrication, claiming that he wrote his account with the aid of facts furnished by captives from the interior. As evidence, he cited the example of two towns (Nzolou and Nsapa) that Anderson placed more than sixty kilometers apart, which according to local inhabitants were in fact within shouting distance. He found many errors when comparing the maps for their own expedition with that prepared by Anderson. See Bartholomew, Popular; Johnston, A. K.Stanford's library map of Africa constructed by A. Keith Johnston’ (Edinburgh, 1866Google Scholar; reprinted with additions, 1877); and G. Cram & Co., Unrivaled, 196–7Google Scholar; Anderson, B. K., Narrative of a Journey to Musardu (New York, 1870)Google Scholar; Starr, F., Narrative of the Expedition Despatched to Musahdu by the Liberian Government under Benjamin J. K. Anderson, Senior, Esquire in 1874 (Monrovia, 1912)Google Scholar; Martonne, E. de, ‘La frontière libérienne’, Bulletin de l'Afrique Française, Renseignements Coloniaux, V (1928), 2293–314Google Scholar; and d'Ollone, C., De la Côte d'Ivoire au Soudan et à la Guinée (Paris, 1901), 281.Google Scholar

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107 Baker, J., A History of Geographical Discovery and Exploration (London, 1937), 319, 355Google Scholar; Hargreaves, , West Africa Partitioned. Vol. 1: The Loaded Pause, 1885–89 (London, 1974), 90–1.Google Scholar

108 Binger, Le capitaine L.-G., ‘Du Niger au Golfe de Guinée par Kong’, Bulletin de la Société de Géographie (Paris) (1889), 338–9Google Scholar; also quoted in le capitaine Binger, , ‘La ville de Kong et la prétendue chaîne de montagnes de Kong’, Revue de Géographie, XXVI (1890), 62.Google Scholar A similar statement is found in Binger, , Du Niger au Golfe du Guinée (Paris, 1892), 1, 285Google Scholar, but interestingly the reference to maps is omitted. It appears that Binger no longer perceived a need to confront the authority of maps showing the Kong Mountain chain by the time his book was published (1892). His position on the fictitious mountain range had been known to the public for at least three years prior to its publication. In addition to his presentation before the Paris Geographical Society on 3 December 1889, summaries of Binger's observations based on his letters from the field were published by the Revue Française de l'Etranger et des Colonies et Exploration on 1 February 1889. In a footnote to one such report, the editors note: ‘…one must not look for the origin of the name of the city (Kong) in the nature of the countryside in which it is located. Binger, M. only saw mountainous areas to the N-N-W.’ Anon., ‘Exploration du capitaine Binger: pays de Kong’, Revue Française de l'Etranger et des Colonies et Exploration, Gazette Geographique, IX (1889), 148.Google Scholar

109 Note the references to maps in the quotes from Duveyrier, ‘Question’, and Maunoir, , ‘Rapport’, 41Google Scholar, in the previous section.

110 Duveyrier, H. et al. , ‘Rapport sur le concours au prix annuel fait à la Société de Géographie’, Bulletin de la Société de Géographie, XI (1890), 150Google Scholar; Binger, , ‘Niger’, 369.Google Scholar

111 We are aware of at least five different maps produced by Binger to illustrate his journey. The first is a four-sheet map (1: 1,000,000) which we have not seen but is cited in Demanche, G., ‘Les traités Binger au Soudan Française’, Revue Française de l'Etranger et des Colonies et Exploration, Gazette Géographique, XII, 100 (1890), 220.Google Scholar A second map illustrated his presentation before the Paris Geographical Society and was published in Binger, ‘Niger’. This map (1:2,500,000) is titled ‘Itinéraire de Bamako au Golfe de Guinée à travers les Pays de Kong et du Mossi, levé et dressé par le Capitaine L. G. Binger, 1887–1889’. It is this version that contains the inset map (1: 8,750,000) titled ‘Esquisse orographique de la région explorée’ shown in Fig. 7. The third and fourth maps are found in Le tour du monde to illustrate Binger's lengthy account of his expedition. One is titled ‘Itinéraire général de Dakar au Golfe de Guinée (1887–89)’ (1: 14,000,000), the other is ‘Itinéraire du voyage du Capitaine Binger de Bénokhobougou à Kong et à Bobo Dioulasou’ (1: 2,000,000). See Binger, , ‘Du Niger au Golfe de Guinée’, Le tour de monde, lxi (1891), 23, 70.Google Scholar A fifth map is found in Binger's book and is titled ‘Carte du Haut-Niger au golfe de Guinée par le pays de Kong et le Mossi, levée et dressée de 1887 à 1889 par le G. Binger, Capne d'Inferle de Marine par ordre de M. Etienne, Sous-Secrétaire d'Etat des Colonies, Hachette et Cie. (1:1,900,000)’.

112 Binger, L.-G., Du Niger au Golfe du Guinée (Paris, 1892).Google Scholar

113 Schirmer, H., ‘La géographie de l'Afrique en 1800 et 1890’, Annales de Géographie, 1 (1892), 187.Google Scholar

114 Fierro, , Société, 222–33.Google Scholar

115 Anon., ‘Séance extraordinaire du 3 décembre 1889 tenue dans le grand amphithéâtre de la Sorbonne pour la réception de M. L.-G. Binger’. Compte Rendu des Séances de la Société de Géographie et de la Commission Centrale, XV–XVII (1889), 380–2.Google Scholar

116 Ibid.

117 Duveyrier, , ‘Rapport’, 149.Google Scholar

118 Demanche, G., ‘Traités’, 219–21Google Scholar; Duveyrier, et al. , ‘Concours’, 151Google Scholar; Anon., ‘Pays de Kong: exploration Binger’, Revue Française de l'Etranger et des Colonies, XI, 85 (1890), 3945.Google Scholar

119 Hargreaves, J., West Africa Partitioned. Vol. 2: The Elephants in the Grass (London, 1985), 55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

120 Quoted in Hargreaves, , Loaded Pause, 91.Google Scholar Curtin discusses how the West African interior was portrayed in the early nineteenth century in mythic terms as more healthy, wealthy and civilized in comparison to coastal areas. See Curtin, , Image, 86–7, 226, 353.Google Scholar

121 Rand McNally & Co., ‘Africa’, in Atlas of the World (Chicago, 1890), 225Google Scholar; Rand McNally & Co., ‘Afrika’, Neuer familien Atlas der Welt (Chicago, 1891), 239.Google Scholar

122 Bartholomew, J., The Oxford Advanced Atlas (London, 1928), 70–1.Google Scholar

123 Tooley, R. V., ‘The great lakes of Africa’, The Map Collector, VII (1979), 1316Google Scholar; Karpinski, L., ‘Early Michigan maps: three outstanding peculiarities’, Michigan History Magazine, XXIX, 4 (1945), 506–11Google Scholar; Knes, M., ‘Michigan's mythical mountains’, Michigan Natural Resources (09.—10. 1983), 26–9.Google Scholar

124 Harley, , ‘Deconstructing’, 11.Google Scholar

125 Binger went on to become the first colonial Governor of Ivory Coast in 1893.

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