Mapping new views of Africa
14 January 2004
The Parliamentary Millennium Project brings together an astonishing collection of ancient maps and artefacts, contrasting Western representations with earlier Eastern ones, and with African forms of social and cultural mapping, to shed new light on the history of "the dark continent".
Post-apartheid South Africa remains divided when it comes to the perspectives people have of society. Based on the premise that our polarised views emanate from our very different experiences of history, the Parliamentary Millennium Project explores different historical perspectives of Africa, with the aim of building a common understanding among South Africans.
"Parliament's Millennium Project provides an opportunity to explore our different ideas and perspectives in order to enrich our society, rather than to allow them to divide us", says Frene Ginwala, speaker of the National Assembly in Parliament, on the project's impressive website.
The project, comprising exhibitions in Parliament, the website, a lecture series and a schools project, uses ancient maps to illustrate different perspectives on Africa. Says Ginwala: "A rare map from the East, for example, shows Asia's awareness of Africa years before Western explorers thought they had discovered the southern part of our continent.
"Others show the Western experience of Africa - of slavery, colonial exploitation and European perceptions of Africans. This contrasts with what our people know of Africa - of, for example, gold mining, trade and a rich cultural heritage long before Europeans landed here."
Unknown Africa. Only the ports, peninsulas and a few cities in the north of the continent are marked on this map from 16th century Italy. Southern Africa is almost completely blank inside of the coast-line. The line of text in the centre reads: Hec Aphricae Antiquioribus Mansit Incognita (This part of Africa remained unknown to the ancients).
Naledi Pandor, chair of the National Council of Provinces, says the project "will place the diversity of South Africa and Africa directly before our people, and will encourage them to begin discussions about South Africa and Africa from new and currently unexplored perspectives".
Asians encountered Africa first
One such unexplored perspective on Africa is the Asian one. Contrary to popular belief, it was the Asians who first encountered Africa. A rare 15th Century map from the East, the Da Ming Hun Yi Tu, provides evidence of contact between Africa and China well before the European voyages of discovery.
Many believe the Da Ming Hun Yi Tu - the Amalgamated Map of the Great Ming Empire - is the oldest in existence to show the correct shape of Africa. Painted on silk hundreds of years ago, the 3.86m x 4.56m map is stored in dry-room conditions in the First Historical Archive in Beijing. The Chinese government gave Parliament the go-ahead to reproduce the map, which has never been displayed in public before, for its exhibition.
The defeat of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368 blocked access for China's new Ming rulers to the "silk route" from Asia to Europe, prompting an ambitious period of exploration of the "Western Sea" to find new trade routes. A shipyard and a school for foreign languages were established, and several maps were drawn to prepare for these voyages.
China's technological advances – including blast furnaces for casting iron, the water clock and sophisticated textile weaving equipment – allowed for the building of huge ships, some like floating farms, where vegetables were grown and livestock kept to feed the crew.
Parliament's exhibition includes pictures of these ships, and brings to life the travels of remarkable seafarer Admirial Zheng He, whose search for alternative trade routes for China took him to more than 30 countries in South East Asia, the Middle East and along the east coast of Africa.
China's great era of exploration finally came to an end when Emperor Hong Xi took power, destroying ships and maps and beginning China’s isolation from the rest of the world.
Many rare maps from Parliament's Mendelssohn's collection, bequethed by the late Sydney Mendelssohn, are also on display at the exhibition - and reproduced on the project's website - showing the Western experience of Africa as one dominated by slavery and colonisation.
How Africans mapped their space
Contrasted with these outside views of the continent are Africans' own social and cultural forms of mapping. While Western cartographers experimented with representing the outer shape of Africa - producing maps that were in the main about power, economic advantage and the claiming of territory - Africans defined their territory in fundamentally different ways.
Consider the demarcation of geographic and social space using Lukasas, hand-sized memory boards made of wood and studded with beads and pins or covered with carved geometric designs. In Luba society, these memory devices were used in rituals to induct new rulers into office, teaching them about clan migrations, genealogies, codes of kingship, navigation routes and journeys of kings.
While Western maps speak of the African interior as "the land of the unknown", archeological finds such as the Lydenburg head, San pottery, the Golden rhino and trade beads - all part of the Millennium Project - reveal Africa's rich cultural, social and economic life prior to the European conquests.
While the seven ceramic heads found near Lydenburg in Limpopo Province remain mysterious - we still know little about the community that made them - they provide evidence that people have been making art, engaging in social activities and practising rituals for over 1 500 years in this part of the world.
Similarly, the rhinoceros made from gold plating, found at Mapungubwe in 1932 and dating back 800 years, debunks the view that gold was first discovered and mined in South Africa in 1886, while Ming pottery and glass beads excavated from the same site provide proof of trade and diplomatic relations between Southern Africa and Asia well before Europeans rounded the Cape to trade in spices.
Parliament's Millennium Project, Ginwala said, aimed to illustrate "the degree to which different ways in which we experienced the past are still being reflected in the way we see and understand our current problems and policy options. It is about ways of seeing.
"The exhibition as a whole will, we hope, develop a greater understanding of what makes us South African."