J.H. Colton’s 1855 Maps of Africa

Joseph Hutchins (J.H.) Colton was one of the major cartographic publishers of the 19th century. Based in New York from 1831 to 1893, Colton was instrumental in pushing high-quality, colourful, and detailed maps and atlases into the mass market as well as helping to raise US cartography to the standard being set in Europe at the time. Colton was not a cartographer himself. Rather, he made his maps by licensing the copyrights of other cartographers. At first, he simply bought the rights to reproduce other people’s maps through his company, reprinting them in a popular series of guidebooks and railroad maps using engraved steel plates (most publishers of the day used cheaper wax engravings to make such prints).

The results were clean-looking, accurate-by-the-day’s-standards maps that were then handcoloured and framed with decorative borders.  In the 1850s, Colton and his sons, one of whom was a trained cartographer and engraver, moved into the publication of atlases.  First published in 1855 as Colton’s Atlas of the World, the Colton’s General Atlas series continued well into the 1880s, even after the failure of the Bolivian government to pay Colton monies owed for a substantial mapping contract led the Coltons to join forces with fellow publisher Alvin Jewett Johnson, resulting in future Colton maps being published under Johnson’s name.

Thanks to the combination of mass production and the Internet, the Colton concern’s maps are easy to find today.  As these map images have now existed in the public domain for decades, hundreds of Colton maps are freely available for viewing in the David Rumsey Map Collection and the Wikimedia Commons, although those with cash to burn can buy physical versions from antique map vendors.  In this article, we take a look the at Colton maps of Africa from the original 1855 atlas; a glance at what the Western world knew about the continent in the decades immediately preceding the Scramble for Africa.  You’ll want to click on each image to expand them to full size.


The first thing noticeable in this plate of northwest Africa is the comparative lack of detail in the western Sahara regions compared even to the central Sahara, let alone the rest of Africa (no comment on the Saharan ‘Oasis of Twat’, other than that today the preferred spelling for the oasis region in modern central Algeria is Tuat).  Also readily notable are the descriptive captions placed around the map by Colton: ‘Dry Country abounding in Dates’, ‘Northern limit of the Senna plant’, ‘an extensive stony tableland; uninhabited’.

While the countries of North Africa (‘Marocco’, Algeria, Tunis, Tripoli, and Fezzan) are familiar to most eyes, the lands of the southern portion of the map may be a bit more exotic even though many of them persisted for hundreds of years.  Beginning in the east, we find the Bornu Empire surrounding most of Lake Chad (‘Lake Tsad’), which is in turn inhabited by ‘Independent Pagans’.  The successors to the earlier Kanem empire, Bornu existed from 1380 until its absorption into what will become Nigeria in 1893.  The country was ruled by the Sayfawa dynasty, a dynasty whose power in the region dated back over a millennium.  Neighbouring Bornu is Adamawa (Fumbina), an old emirate that had been conquered over a period between 1804 and 1850 by Fulani people who had declared jihad on their Hausa rulers.

The area noted as Guinea on the Gulf of Guinea is much farther to the east of modern Guinea, here shown as part of Senegambia.  This map predates French colonisation of what would become Senegal by years.  As such, the entire region from the Senegal River south to Liberia is shown as British-controlled Senegambia, with a capital at Timbo (now a smaller village in central Guinea).  Notably, the historic difference between Dahomey and Benin is shown; the Republic of Dahomey would later appropriate the name Benin in 1975.  The ‘Mountains of Kong’ reference the existing empire of Kong, whose decentralised nature perhaps lent itself to not be shown on this particular despite its existence from 1710 to 1898.  The inset of the recently independent (1847) Liberia shows just three counties compared to today’s 15 although all three countries exist today; the rest of Liberia’s counties being formed from pieces of the older counties.  The county hosting the capital, Monrovia, would have its named corrupted to Montserrado from Mesurado, although the river flowing through the capital retains the latter spelling. Sierra Leone is also present, but only as a tiny area immediately surrounding Freetown; expansion of the colony would continue through the 19th century.


Turning now to the northeast of the continent, we see Tripoli and Egypt shown as distinct from the neighbouring Ottoman Empire (‘Turkey’).  While Ottoman control over Egypt was nominal at best thanks to the ascendance of Muhammad Ali during the previous half-century, control over what would become Libya was decent during this time.  Nubia was also firmly under Egyptian control at this time to the point of being united under a single government under Muhammad Ali, so its appearance here as a separate entity during this time is misleading.  The same goes for the Kingdom of Sennar, which was absorbed into Egypt in 1821.  Darfur and Kordofan were also under Muhammad Ali’s thumb as tribute states. 

‘Waday’ is the Ouaddai Empire, which existed for over 270 years until its defeat by the French in 1909; it corresponds to modern southeastern Chad.  The eastern Sahara is almost completely empty save for the label ‘Country of the Tibbus’, a reference to the nomadic Touboupeople who continue to inhabit the region today.  Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Somauli (Somaliland) are shown; the ‘Haines River’ shown cutting across Somali territory is the modern Shebelle.  The blue colouring of the Somali territory abruptly ends at the Equator.  The lack of information on the interior of Africa shown here is stunning, the lone incursion into the blank centre of Africa being the course taken up the White Nile by Muhammad Ali in 1821. 


Colton’s 1855 African series (note the map is ‘Published by Johnson & Browning’, indicating an 1859 reprint, although the address of the publisher, 172 William Street, New York, is the same address seen on the other two maps) concludes with the southern half of the continent.  Much of the interior is simply labeled ‘Unexplored Region’.  The oddest label to modern eyes may be Lower Guinea, which is shown stretching along the Atlantic from modern Gabon to what is now the Namibia-Angola border.  Within Lower Guinea, we see precolonial kingdomssuch as Loango and Congo (Kongo), and the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Benguela.

Even into the 19th century, the tendency for mapmakers to hypothetically join unexplored waterways together is notable.  Here, the Congo River’s headwaters emerge from the same origin as the Zambezi, creating a waterway across Africa; an equivalent to the hypothetical waterways that were all too common in early depictions of North America by cartographers all too eager to create a Northwest Passage to China.  Also present is a very early depiction of Lake Nyassi (Nyasa/Malawi), perhaps confused or combined with Lake Tanganyika, as judged by the presence of a locality called Zanganika on its shores.  Another odd spelling difference is seen in Zanzibar: the island and city retain the common spelling, yet the territory as a whole is given the name ‘Zanguebar’, an archaic Portuguese mutation.

Finally, scattered in and amongst the various entities of South Africa is the little regarded region of Kaffraria, split between British Kaffraria in the west and Kaffraria proper, an independent Xhosa territory, in the east.  The British first moved into the region in 1835, alternately annexing it to the Cape Colony (1835, then 1847-1860) and governing it separately (1835-1847, then 1860-1866 before annexing it permanently).  The term Kaffraria was derived from ‘kaffir’, a slang term taken from the Arabic kafir (‘non-believer’, applied to non-Muslims) and applied by Portuguese explorers who misunderstood the term to describe various peoples of southern Africa encountered during exploration.  Today, the word is held as an ethnic slur against black people in southern Africa and is considered extremely offensive.


Just nine years after the first Colton world atlas and five years after taking over the rights to Colton’s publishing, A.J. Johnson published this much more detailed map of Africa.  Though the general design is the same, the map is much busier and much more accurate, reflecting a better understanding of the interior through exploration, as shown by the depiction of various recent exploration routes, and the expansion of colonial activities.

Further Reading

Cedar Swamp Historical Society Collection (n.d.).  Joseph Hutchins Colton.  Available at http://www.liucedarswampcollection.org/template1/aboutcolton.html.  Accessed 27 September 2012.

Geographicus (n.d.).  Joseph Hutchins Colton.  Available at http://www.geographicus.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=CAD∏_Code=colton.  Accessed 27 September 2012.

Hennig, R.C. (1993).  The Adamawa Fulani.  Jamtan.  Available at http://www.jamtan.com/jamtan/fulani.cfm?chap=2&linksPage;=284.  Accessed 27 September 2012.

Jaiteh, M. (2008).  Senegambia.  The Atlas of the Gambia, 16 December 2008.  Available at http://www.columbia.edu/~msj42/Senegambia.htm.  Accessed 27 September 2012.

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