Competing cartography in the colonial context: the case of Cameroon

In this post, Dieunedort Wandji, a student on the MA Francophone Africa programme, presents his independent research project on colonial mapping and Cameroon.

As part of my MA in Francophone Africa at the University of Portsmouth, I undertook an Independent Project exploring the relationship between colonial power and mapping. For this project, I began by exploring the theoretical approaches to maps and mappings as they relate to the colonial context, precisely against the backdrop of colonial competition in Cameroon. Drawing on seminal works on critical cartography, I also attempted to recover the voices of the colonised through maps, along with assessing the post-colonial impact of colonial mapping as regards Cameroon. This blog will provide a brief overview of the theoretical underpinnings of my research, as well as the main research questions and aims, I hope to address in my project. The final project comprises of an online presentation of the visual features of maps, with conclusions derived from analyzing various maps and based on the theoretical framework developed around colonial mapping. This presentation is aimed at both undergraduate and graduate students of Francophone Africa with an interest in the colonial period and mapping, as well as those who wish to to further develop specific historical knowledge about Cameroon.

As an overview, four major colonial powers (Portugal, France, UK, and Germany) have at some point laid claim on Cameroon as colonial territory (Bouopda, 2006), and a constant trait in each of these countries’ occupation discourse was the production of maps of Cameroon. A series of arresting works in the historiography of colonial mapping (Harley, 1989; Wood, 2010) have since the 1980s articulated the use of maps by colonial powers to legitimate and advance territorial control. In fact drawing upon the Westphalian understanding of the relationship between State and territory that guided various colonial projects, Harley (2009; 1989) supports the view that maps are tools and representations of hegemonic power. So, maps of Cameroon as produced by various (in some instances simultaneous) colonial masters, constitute a unique body of historical evidence on the country and provide an opportunity to study the relationship between mapping and colonial power, especially in the African colonial context. My research focused mainly on German and French maps of Cameroon, because Portuguese and British maps are not as numerous as the former, for reasons that are detailed in the online presentation.

By electing exclusively online sources for maps, planning for a digital output and interpreting the production of the artefacts within the broader context of the politics of imperial representation in the colonial era, when Africa was unusually mapped by European superpowers (Austen, 2001), I aim to not only underscore the impact of certain colonial practices both on Cameroon and on knowledge about Cameroon, but to also highlight the placement of maps found in online archival sources as a self-reproducing post-colonial site of knowledge with a significant potential in this digital age of ours.

In other words, using the information technology principle of input/output, I start a research journey online with data collection/analysis and end it online through a recorded presentation on maps, with a view to answer the following research questions:

  1. How did various maps of Cameroon shape knowledge and understanding of this contested space?
  2. What is the relationship between colonial mapping and narratives of occupation in Cameroon?
  3. What do the cartographic devices used on maps of Cameroon tell us about the construction and projection of power on the world stage?
  4. To what extent can the artefacts studied enable us to recover the voices of the colonised?

Please click here to watch my final presentation. After watching my presentation, you will be prompted to an optional quiz.

Thank you very much for taking the time to read my post and watch my presentation. Any comments or feedback would be warmly welcomed via email (



Basil Davidson’s The Magnificent African Cake: 30 years on and still as magnificent as ever

In this post, Dr. Joanna Warson explores Basil Davidson’s classic documentary, The Magnificent African Cake, and considers some of the reasons why, more than 30 years after it was first aired on Channel 4, this film remains such an excellent resource for teaching the partition of Africa.

Over the past few weeks, in our second year unit, ‘Guns, glory hunters and greed: European colonisation in Africa’, we have been exploring the partition of the African continent by the European colonial powers. Taking as our starting point the Portuguese exploration of Africa’s coastline in the 15th century, we have traced the development of relations between Africa and Europe, from these early, primarily trade-focused encounters to the violent, territorial conquest that took place in the final three decades of the 19th century, seeking to present the “Scramble for Africa” as a long term process, whilst also exploring in detail the particular late 19th century context that enabled formal partition to take place.

We dedicated one of the first sessions dealing with this topic to watching The Magnificent African Cake, episode six of Basil Davidson’s award-winning series, “AFRICA: A voyage of discovery”. Despite being more than 30 years old, for a number of different reasons, this documentary remains a first class resource for teaching the partition of Africa, both to students with little prior knowledge of the theme and to those who have studied the “Scramble for Africa” before.

A long-term perspective

This documentary carefully situates the “Scramble for Africa” in its long-term context. Davidson begins by referring to the pre-history of partition, emphasising the existence of long-standing trading relations between Europe and Africa, before explaining succinctly the reasons behind the shift towards a greater European territorial presence on the continent. The documentary also successfully moves beyond key turning points in this transition from commerce to conquest, notably the Berlin Conference, to show how the European colonisation of Africa did not take place overnight. Davidson aptly distinguishes between conquest and colonial rule, highlighting the challenges Europeans faced in imposing and maintaining power over their claimed African possessions.

 An African perspective

It is perhaps unsurprising in a series entitled “AFRICA”, written and presented by one of the greatest Africanists of our time, that a strong African voice is present throughout this documentary. In contrast to the European ignorance of Africa’s native population during the colonial period and the failure to ask permission before partitioning the continent, something highlighted on numerous occasions throughout the film, Davidson pays particular attention to African agency. Davidson weaves into his analysis accounts of Africans as both resisters and collaborators, discussing, for example, the respective positions of Amadu Bamba and Samory Touré towards French colonial rule, as well as details of nascent nationalist movements in Africa in the early twentieth century. Alongside this discussion of the African role in the process of partition and its aftermath, there is a thoughtful and balanced assessment of the impact of the European conquest in Africa in both the short and the long term, which goes beyond a Western-centric explanation. In addition, the documentary contains various interviews with Africans who actually experienced colonial rule. These first hand accounts provide an invaluable and irreplaceable insight into how Africans experienced colonial rule, not least because, as the European colonial period becomes more remote from the present day, the number of people who lived through and remember European colonial rule grows ever smaller.

 An international perspective

One of the best things about The Magnificent African Cake, and a factor at the heart of the continued utility of this documentary as a resource for teaching the “Scramble for Africa”, is its international approach. Davidson acknowledges at the outset of the documentary that Britain and France were the leading powers in the “Scramble for Africa”. Yet, considerable attention is also given throughout the film to the role played by other European powers, including Germany, Belgium and Portugal. There is, for example, a strong discussion of the violence that characterised King Leopold’s rule in the Congo Free State, as well as analysis of the use of forced labour by the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, the latter of which, in particular, might less well known to an English-language audience. Moreover, and related to this latter point, Davidson’s perspective of the “Scramble” is most definitely a pan-African one, revealing the full diversity of the causes and consequences of the different European colonial powers’ activities in Africa across the continent as a whole. Davidson succeeds, therefore, in presenting the partition of Africa, and its aftermath, as an international and interconnected process. This, in turn, enables The Magnificent African Cake to remain a highly applicable teaching tool in the current historiographical context, notably the growing popularity of global, connected histories of empire.


Inevitably, in 55 minute television documentary aimed at a mass audience, The Magnificent African Cake does not cover everything there is to know about the partition of Africa. Davidson’s broad temporal and spatial perspective, alongside the attention given to African agency, although key strengths of the film, also mean that many elements require further elaboration and explanation. Yet, for the reasons discussed above – and many others – this remains an excellent and relevant teaching tool, not only as a way of introducing the “Scramble for Africa”, but also as means of synthesising the numerous themes and debates surrounding the European conquest and colonisation of the African continent. 30 years on, therefore, Basil Davidson’s The Magnificent African Cake is certainly still as magnificent as ever.