Africa On The World Map: How Flawed Representation Leads To Flawed Perception

5 min read

We’ve all grown up learning that Africa is the world’s second-largest continent. If we see a world map, however, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

With over 30 million square kilometers of area and spanning six different time zones, Africa is the world’s second-largest continent. This isn’t the impression you’ll get from watching world maps, however. Most of the maps we see today have distorted the actual size of the continents. According to this illustration, Africa—a continent that easily fits three Canadas—is smaller than Canada. The deceptive nature of our world maps has spawned a discussion concerning the proper representation of the continents. Why then does Africa's size appear distorted on our maps?


Image from Maps of India

The Problem with World Maps

Before discussing the problem with world maps, we have to understand how they originated. Much of the modern-day world map uses the Mercator projection. It was created by Gerardus Mercator, a Belgian cartographer who worked in the 16th century. Mercator's early projects were globes. He later transferred his work to two-dimensional surfaces. By doing so, Mercator assumed the equator to be the earth’s center. Such an assumption resulted in a vast gap near the north and south poles. To bridge the gaps, Mercator proposed stretching the countries near the poles. This type of map distorts the sizes of countries and continents based on their distance from the equator, making those farther away appear larger than those closer to it. Because Africa is one of the equatorial continents, it appears proportionally smaller when projected in this manner. Since Mercator’s map was a pioneer and extremely useful to navigators at the time, it became the standard way of making maps. Even digital maps such as Google Maps used Mercator’s projection up until 2018. 

Furthermore, Africa was mostly unknown to Western cartographers at the time. Their familiarity was limited to the coastal edges of Africa. Subsequently, the maps they produced of the continent lacked much detail. They were able to label cities, towns, and other information on their countries thanks to the inflated scale of their continents caused by the Mercator's projection. However, these details weren't as important when it came to Africa. 

Does colonialism play a role?

While it is incorrect to assume that Africa’s representation on the world map is a direct result of colonialism, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Much of European exploration has resulted in Europe colonizing almost the entire world. As we mentioned earlier, the map of Africa that explorers used lacked detail, creating a flawed perception of the continent. Such perception has led Europe to disregard the existing African territories and societal structure in its scramble for the continent. To them, the “dark continent” had no states, cities, towns, trade routes, etc. It was just a collection of villages populated by primitive tribes. Such a view was aided by maps that presented Africa as a small piece of land, instead of the diverse and organized continent it was.  

Representation matters. Yes, even in world maps

What's the big deal, then? You may ask. Why is it important how Africa is depicted on a map? Well, it's because representation matters. Representation is no benign thing. It has power. Maps provide a visual representation of geography and humanity, allowing viewers to comprehend the global relationships between places and people. A single map can help you understand the complex connections between countries and regions all over the world. If a continent with a rich, diverse, and complex history as Africa is represented as a small chunk of land, it inadvertently reinforces the prevalent practice of treating Africa as a monolith. Many African civilizations may have been downplayed due to this. Viewing the ancient civilizations of Axum, Nubia, Mali, and Egypt on a modern-day map of Africa diminishes the amount of territory they had, leading to the perception that those civilizations weren’t as great as their Asian or European counterparts. The power of representation is real, and to fix a flawed perception, we must get rid of a flawed representation. 

It should be emphasized, however, that all maps contain some sort of error. The best approach here is to diminish the number of errors as much as possible. Nowadays, new maps that depict the continents' actual sizes are being created. . While these new maps are not free from errors, they are surely a better version. Understanding the importance of representation will help create a more credible version of world maps that will provide more or less accurate information to the public.

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