Sign In

- Or use -
Forgot Password Create Account

"...One of the Greatest Maps ever Published." - Ashley Baynton-Williams, Mapforum Magazine

First state of Aaron Arrowsmith's monumental four-sheet map of Africa, one of the most important maps of Africa published in the nineteenth century.

Arrowsmith's Africa is widely regarded as a preeminent example of Enlightenment mapmaking, with cartography based on the latest empirical evidence and with little reliance on older cartographic chimeras. Writing in Mapforum, Ashley Baynton-Williams writes that Arrowsmith's map is: of the greatest maps ever published. Arrowsmith simply stripped away centuries of accumulated myth, misconception and unsustainable guesswork, and took the mapping of Africa back to the bare bones of substantiated fact, leaving the interior as a blank canvas, a challenge to a new generation of explorers. As a picture, many of his predecessors of a century earlier would not have thought of publishing it, as a statement of intent it raised the standard for geographical accuracy above that practised by the vast majority of his contemporaries.

The detail that is shown on the coasts, around the major river systems, and from Trans-Saharan caravan routes, covers only a very small fraction of the interior. The defining feature is open space. In this respect, Arrowsmith has some predecessors among eighteenth-century French and English mappings of Africa; however, his map is strikingly more stark and absolute in its treatment. That being said, some debatable features remain: the massive transcontinental "Mountains of the Moon" still bisect Africa, a holdover of Ptolemaic mapping.

The map can be seen as laying down the gauntlet for British and European explorers and colonists; Arrowsmith is showing them exactly how much about Africa they do not know.

The British Association for Discovering the Interior Parts of Africa

As with many large format maps published in London at beginning of the nineteenth century, this map includes a lengthy dedication to an important group of men, in this case, the British Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa. Commonly known as the African Association, the group was founded on June 9, 1788. The members were dedicated to the exploration of West Africa, hoping to uncover the origin and course of the Niger River. They also wanted to plot the location of the famed city of Timbuktu, which was thought of a fantastical city full of riches. With the formation of this group, the eye of European exploration widened from the oceans to include the interior of the African continent.  

The dedication of this map, so spare in its detail, to an organization committed to exploring the interior of the continent, frames the project in an interesting light. The exacting empirical qualities of Arrowsmith's cartography and the launching of a group that began the age of exploration of the interior of Africa says much about the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century British relationship to the continent.

Am I not a Man and a Brother?

The map also includes a subtle hint toward Arrowsmith's politics, tucked away in the lower-left corner; indeed, H. Wilson's title cartouche in the lower-left corner of the map deserves an essay of its own. The layers of symbolism say almost as much as the map about the British attitude toward Africa in 1802. However, probably the most noteworthy aspect is the figure of a kneeling African man taken from Josiah Wedgwood's famous abolitionist image, "Am I not a Man and a Brother?" Importantly, the African man here is not manacled, as he is in Wedgewood's image, but is free in Africa. He looks up thankfully at the regal lion (representing the British Empire), which holds his protective paw on the title shield reading "AFRICA." This imagery seems impossible to disentangle from a white savior narrative, in which the British Empire has ended the slave trade (not yet officially) and is the protector of Africa.

Thomas Jefferson and Arrowsmith's Map of Africa

Among the more noteworthy owners of Arrowsmith's map of Africa was Thomas Jefferson, who prominently displayed the map in his home at Monticello.  As noted on the Monticello website: 

Jefferson's Entrance Hall map collection was dominated by the wall maps of the London mapmaker Aaron Arrowsmith. In Jefferson's day, Arrowsmith's maps were renowned for their clarity and large scale. He was particularly skilled in producing maps from a wide variety of source material, ranging from visitors' accounts of terrain, to sketch maps and triangulations.  His map of the United States was compiled largely from Native American maps and information supplied by the Hudson's Bay Company.  Arrowsmith began his career as a surveyor and worked with the prominent map and globe maker John Cary. His success led to an appointment as hydrographer to King George IV. 

Jefferson made all of his purchases of Arrowsmith maps while serving as president. The first, in 1803, was "A Map of the United States of North America," published in London in 1802. Apparently satisfied with Arrowsmith's work, in 1805 Jefferson ordered maps of Europe, Asia, and Africa "on linen, with rollers & varnished," from a London agent, William Tunnicliff.  These three, along with the map of the United States, were probably among the maps that hung in Jefferson's Cabinet at the President's House.

Jefferson received the Arrowsmith's map only a couple of years before overseeing the end of the United State's Atlantic slave trade in 1807. Britain abolished the trade in the same year. 


As with many large maps by Aaron Arrowsmith, this map went through many updates. To the best of our understanding, here is a way to differentiate the states:

  1. London, published by A. Arrowsmith, Rathbone Place, November 1st. 1802.
    Tooley's 1st State: "A four sheet map giving the Colony's boundaries from the Kousie River to the Great Fish R. The three districts of Stellenbosch, Graff Reynet and Zwellendam are shown. To the north of these are the names of various tribes-Bosjesmans or wild Hottentots, Namaquas, Briquas. A note to the Orange R. reads, discovd. by Col. Gordon in 1777. Beyond this the map is blank right up to the Nile or White River. Large title-piece bottom left with figure of natives, Egyptian mummies, lion, palm tree, obelisk etc."
  2. London, published by A. Arrowsmith, Rathbone Place, November 1st. 1802. (1802+)
    Tooley's 2nd State: "With additions to S. Africa north of Karroo. Names of the following native areas appear: Damaras, Kora Hottentots, Booshuanas, Barroloos. The Orange R. has been re-drawn. A note added to the Brenas Mts reads said to abound with Copr. Un-named tracks are shown from Cape Town into Bechuanaland in Oct. 1801."
  3. London, published by A. Arrowsmith, 10 Soho Square, November 1st. 1802. (1808+)
    Tooley's 3rd State.
  4. London, published by A. Arrowsmith, 10 Soho Square, November 1st. 1802. (1810)
    Unrecorded by Tooley. Hydrographer to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales added to the imprint.
  5. London, published by A. Arrowsmith, 10 Soho Square, November 1st. 1802. (1811)
    Tooley's 4th State: "Another Edition with additions to 1811... Routes across the W. Sahara inserted [In northwest Africa, updates to the coast north from "Beni Amir" (rendered in capitals in the previous state) through all of Morocco. Readily recognized by the addition of a road running through the desert from "Noon or Inoon" to Hoden.], names added down the east coast [in the vicinity of "SOFALA BAY", newly added], Kumra or Mountains of the Moon shown in Sudan [i.e., it now reads "Jebel Kumra or Mountains of the Moon"]..." Tooley was unaware of the preceding state and conflated the two, and perhaps even earlier changes from the second state. For the sake of clarity, we have left out the confusing passages.
  6. Another Edition, Map of Africa constructed by A. Arrowsmith Hydrographer to His Majesty 1832. (1832)
    Tooley's 5th State: "4 Sheets. In this edition the decorative title cartouche bottom left is discarded and the new title is transferred in plain lettering to the top right hand corner of the map. Additions are made to the interior of Southern Africa, e.g. Butchells' Track, the country of the Bichuanas, the Morootzies, and the Bamakwins, &c."
Condition Description
Original hand-color. Dissected and laid on contemporary linen. Scattered dampstain and soiling. Toning. A few small fold splits to the linen. A few scattered smaller holes, namely in the lower left corner.
Tooley, Maps of the Africa Continent, page 9.
Aaron Arrowsmith Biography

The Arrowsmiths were a cartographic dynasty which operated from the late-eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth. The family business was founded by Aaron Arrowsmith (1750-1823), who was renowned for carefully prepared and meticulously updated maps, globes, and charts. He created many maps that covered multiple sheets and which were massive in total size. His spare yet exacting style was recognized around the world and mapmakers from other countries, especially the young country of the United States, sought his maps and charts as exemplars for their own work.

Aaron Arrowsmith was born in County Durham in 1750. He came to London for work around 1770, where he found employment as a surveyor for the city’s mapmakers. By 1790, he had set up his own shop which specialized in general charts. Arrowsmith had five premises in his career, most of which were located on or near Soho Square, a neighborhood the led him to rub shoulders with the likes of Joseph Banks, the naturalist, and Matthew Flinders, the hydrographer.

Through his business ties and employment at the Hydrographic Office, Arrowsmith made other important relationships with Alexander Dalrymple, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and others entities. In 1810 he became Hydrographer to the Prince of Wales and, in 1820, Hydrographer to the King.

Aaron Arrowsmith died in 1823, whereby the business and title of Hydrographer to the King passed to his sons, Aaron and Samuel, and, later, his nephew, John. Aaron Jr. (1802-1854) was a founder member of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) and left the family business in 1832; instead, he enrolled at Oxford to study to become a minister. Samuel (1805-1839) joined Aaron as a partner in the business and they traded together until Aaron left for the ministry. Samuel died at age 34 in 1839; his brother presided over his funeral. The remaining stock and copper plates were bought at auction by John Arrowsmith, their cousin.

John (1790-1873) operated his own independent business after his uncle, Aaron Arrowsmith Sr., died. After 1839, John moved into the Soho premises of his uncle and cousins. John enjoyed considerable recognition in the geography and exploration community. Like Aaron Jr., John was a founder member of the RGS and would serve as its unofficial cartographer for 43 years. Several geographical features in Australia and Canada are named after him. He carried the title Hydrographer to Queen Victoria. He died in 1873 and the majority of his stock was eventually bought by Edward Stanford, who co-founded Stanford’s map shop, which is still open in Covent Garden, London today.