Skip to content

Settler Colonialism and Telling Stories with Maps

By Taylor Marvin

At the blog Afternoon Map Nicholas Danfort recently highlighted two maps, presumably from the first half of the 20th century, which neatly divide the world by race. This kind of grand racial classification wasn’t really designed to be empirical, despite what its practitioners might have consciously thought of their pseudoscience. Rather, as Danfort notes, “racial hierarchies could be adjusted and re-arranged to accommodate any political goal or ideology. As long as the right people ended up on top and the right people ended up on the bottom, infinite variations were possible.”

To demonstrate the point, Danfort passes along two maps which claim to show the distribution of the “races of mankind,” with one map depicting Europe, the other the entire globe. The global map is particularly interesting.

Source unknown, via Nicholas Danforth.

Source unknown, via Nicholas Danfort.

Danfort doesn’t know the source of the map and it’s impossible, at least for me, to precisely date. (The fact that much of the text is illegible doesn’t help.) However, since the mapmaker indicates that the western part of what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo is mixed between the “Indo-European” and “African” races, I’d guess the map was made before independence and the flight of the Belgian Congo’s white residents, so before 1960.

This leads to another interesting facet of the mapmaker’s racial thinking — a marked triumphalism about white settler colonialism in Africa. Perhaps it’s useless to remark on, given that we don’t have any idea what percentage of a population that mapmaker uses as a threshold for a mixed region, or indeed when exactly the map was produced. But the mapmaker notably indicates much of what is today South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique as overwhelmingly populated by whites. (Though the map’s “Indo-European” class is wider than what we today think of as white, that’s likely correct description for contemporary Southern Africa; admittedly the mapmaker might include South Africans of Indian descent into this category.) Again, it’s unclear what precise distinction the mapmaker sees between the cross-hatched mixed and solid colored regions, but presumably this is intended to show a wide white majority in the latter.

Enclaves on the coast of modern Angola and Namibia are colored solid red, as well. Other regions, like portions of modern DR Congo, Zambia, Uganda, and Kenya are depicted as mixed.

While the low resolution makes it difficult to make out, here’s a modern political map paired with the historical map’s view of Africa.


By the CIA World Factbook.

By the CIA World Factbook.

Since it is unclear what year the mapmaker is referencing, it’s difficult to get into any specific numbers. Similarly, comparing the white populations of various African colonies and minority-ruled states is difficult, even before accounting for time. (The numbers below are drawn from different years, and are not well sourced.) But with these caveats aside, the mapmaker’s broad red brush paints a view of settler colonialism starkly different from the reality.

In apartheid-era South Africa whites numbered over 10 percent of the population. Rhodesia, which would become modern Zimbabwe after a brutal liberation war, was dominated by a white population in the low to mid single digits percentage of the total, while whites comprised a few percent of modern day Zambia. White residents of the Belgian Congo seemed to have numbered 89,000 out of a population of 15 million on the eve of independence. While numbers are harder to pin down for Portugal’s African empire, something like 500,000 to a million mostly white Portuguese citizens fled the newly liberated colonies after 1974, out of a combined Angolan and Mozambican population of over 17 million. And while the mapmaker’s racial classification scheme obscures French settler colonialism in North Africa, in the 20th century the French portion of Algeria seems to have been roughly 10 percent.

Overall white immigration to African colonies never approached that of European settler states elsewhere, and only rarely surpassed ten percent of the population. In most European colonies in Africa the percentage of whites was much smaller. For the map to “accurately” depict this reality the mapmaker must be using a very broad definition of racially-mixed regions, which, for example, the depiction of Black Americans within the United States suggests isn’t the case. (African Americans were over five percent of the population of select northern states in 1950; by the mapmaker’s apparent definition these states should be cross-hatched, assuming the map was produced at around that time.) Anyway, depicting South Africa as overwhelmingly solid red shows that the mapmaker is following two distinct standards: tiny white minorities receive the mixed classification, while broad African majorities do not. This is deliberate.

The point is mapmaking is rarely an objective depiction of the world. Maps tell a story, and are often mobilized to support specific political projects. This map doesn’t only make broad pseudoscientific statements about race, but by exaggerating the white population of select African colonies seemly makes a political statement, likely in support of colonialism. Decolonization in Southern Africa and the end of South African apartheid was famously resistance to white minority rule. This map redefines South Africa and perhaps modern Zimbabwe as majority ruled, comforting an audience presumably sympathetic to white colonialism, and ignoring its victims. Unfortunately this destructive fantasy still has its adherents.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: