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The First Printed Map of Africa as a Continent with Curious River Routes

Finely colored example of Sebastian Münster's map of Africa, from the first edition of Munster's Geographia.

Münster was the first mapmaker to show each of the four known continents in separate maps and his map of Africa is widely accepted as the first map of the complete African continent.  Prior maps, such as those by Waldseemuller, covered only portions of the continent. 

While the map has some foundation in the work of Claudius Ptolemy, it is a modern map, and includes information from modern Portuguese explorers and Arabic information.

The coastal outline of Africa had only recently been understood by Europeans. Bartolomeo Dias had only rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, while Vasco de Gama reached India by sea a decade later. The cartouche in the lower left details sailing directions from Lusitania (Iberian Peninsula) to Calcutta. The Portuguese caravel in the Gulf of Guinea represents trade and navigation.

The map is richly illustrated with vignettes, including an elephant and tropical birds in southern Africa. In what is today Nigeria and Cameroon, there is a Cyclops or one eyed man, a reference to the fabled tribe of the Monoculi. The map depicts numerous kingdoms, marked by a scepter within a crown. Finally, towns and cities dot the continent, mostly along the northern coast and Nile River. They include Meroë, where the Nubian kings are said to be buried, and Prester John's fabled settlement.

Münster also speculates as to the sources for the Niger and Nile Rivers, as well as places a curious forest in the middle of the Sahara Desert. A desert forest isn't the most interesting geographic feature on the map, however. As John Delaney points out, "One of the intriguing aspects of this map is the loop of the Senegal River, which is shown entering the ocean in today's Gulf of Guinea. Actually, this is the true route of the Niger River, but that fact will not be confirmed until the Lander brothers' expedition in 1830. Strangely, this loop disappeared from subsequent maps of Africa for the next two hundred years."

Sebastian Münster (1489-1552) was a professor of Hebrew who taught at Heidelberg and Basel. He settled in the latter in 1529 and died there, of plague, in 1552. Münster made himself the center of a large network of scholars from whom he obtained geographic descriptions, maps, and directions. He is best known for his Cosmographia universalis, first published in 1554 and released in forty editions by 1628.

Münster's Geographia

Münster's 1540 Geographia deserves a number of superlatives. First, it established the convention that a world atlas should include world and continental maps. To that end, it was the first atlas to include specific maps of the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. This change was in no small part influenced by the first circumnavigation of the globe by Ferdinand Magellan in 1522. The Geographia was the first printed work to render latitude and longitude in their now-standard degree-minute-second form. And it was the book that ushered in a series of "modern"-style world atlases culminating in the 1570 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum of Abraham Ortelius.

Norwich 2. Potter p110. Tooley & Bricker p153. Tooley 70.
Sebastian Munster Biography

Sebastian Münster (1488-1552) was a cosmographer and professor of Hebrew who taught at Tübingen, Heidelberg, and Basel. He settled in the latter in 1529 and died there, of plague, in 1552. Münster made himself the center of a large network of scholars from whom he obtained geographic descriptions, maps, and directions.

As a young man, Münster joined the Franciscan order, in which he became a priest. He then studied geography at Tübingen, graduating in 1518. He moved to Basel, where he published a Hebrew grammar, one of the first books in Hebrew published in Germany. In 1521 Münster moved again, to Heidelberg, where he continued to publish Hebrew texts and the first German-produced books in Aramaic. After converting to Protestantism in 1529, he took over the chair of Hebrew at Basel, where he published his main Hebrew work, a two-volume Old Testament with a Latin translation.

Münster published his first known map, a map of Germany, in 1525. Three years later, he released a treatise on sundials. In 1540, he published Geographia universalis vetus et nova, an updated edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia. In addition to the Ptolemaic maps, Münster added 21 modern maps. One of Münster’s innovations was to include one map for each continent, a concept that would influence Ortelius and other early atlas makers. The Geographia was reprinted in 1542, 1545, and 1552.  

He is best known for his Cosmographia universalis, first published in 1544 and released in at least 35 editions by 1628. It was the first German-language description of the world and contained 471 woodcuts and 26 maps over six volumes. Many of the maps were taken from the Geographia and modified over time. The Cosmographia was widely used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The text, woodcuts, and maps all influenced geographical thought for generations.