VISUALIZING A NEW LAND: THE CARTOGRAPHY OF SÃO TOMÉ FROM DISCOVERY TO THE 20TH CENTURY
Department of History
DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois, USA
When the Portuguese discovered the islands of the Gulf of Guinea in the late 15th Century, one of their major needs was to visually fix the islands, both in relation to the African mainland and in regard to their individual physical layout. This was not as easy as it seemed; the cartographic arts were poorly developed before the 19th Century, and simply coming to terms with wholly new lands presented an intellectual, as well as cartographic, challenge. In the case of São Tomé, it took nearly 500 years before accurate representation of the island could be fully accomplished.
This paper surveys the attempts by cartographers over nearly five centuries to accurately map São Tomé. It shows that real islands and wholly mythic islands, such as those imagined by Jonathan Swift and by early, anonymous, map-makers, were equally challenging when it came to placing them on a map that could be used by navigators, settlers or invaders. The paper includes maps from many sources — Portuguese, French, Dutch — across nearly five hundred years. It shows how certain visual conventions [e.g., that São Tomé was round, or that it lay athwart the Equator] gradually gave way to more accurate and precise mapping. The maps used in the paper, and shown in the presentation, come from rarely-seen files in the Portuguese archives, from collections in the Dutch national archives, and from the Bibliotheque National in Paris, as well as from books and pamphlets of the 16th through 19th Centuries.
The paper concludes that the accurate mapping of new lands was not just a technical problem, but also involved the ability of people to accept the reality of newly-discovered places and to fit them into a physical and mental framework. Even for a small and physically constrained place such as São Tomé, this was a challenge that took a long time to be successfully met.
Keywords: São Tomé, Cartography, Geography, Maps
Biography note: I received my college degree at the City University of New York. I got my Ph.D. at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, as well as a Certificate in African Studies. I have published a book on the history of Sao Tome, as well as many articles about the island’s economy, society and culture. I have also published four textbooks about world history and modern European history. I teach courses in African History, and also courses in World History, The Age of Discovery, Modern European History and History of the Cold War. I am currently finishing a book on Sao Tomean social history, and I am talking with the government of Sao Tome on translating my first book into Portuguese. For the past 43 years, I have taught at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, USA.