This video is part of a series of 19 animated maps.

View series: Europe's colonial expansion, 1820-1939

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Exploring Africa

This map is part of a series of 19 animated maps showing the history of Europe's colonial expansion, 1820-1939.

Africa had long remained in close contact with the Arab Muslim world, thanks to the great Trans-Saharan caravans, and, apart from the coastal regions, was relatively unknown to Europeans in 1800.

By 1900, however, the unexplored and unknown regions of Africa had been reduced to a few areas in the Sahara.

Originally encouraged by the Geographical Societies, expeditions ‘in the name of science’ were sent out to explore the Dark Continent. Europeans were fascinated by many exploration projects at thi

- first, a survey of the Niger River basin: begun by Mungo Park between 1795 and 1806, this mission was taken up by Clapperton and completed by the Lander brothers.  

- next, the exploration of the Sahara, its mountains and oases. In 1828, René Caillié reached the legendary town of Timbuktu and then travelled on to Morocco. Later great expeditions into the Sahara were led by the Germans Barth and Nachtigal.

- in Southern Africa, we should mention the work of Burchell, the naturalist, based on his travels from the Cape to the edge of the Kalahari desert and explorations of Galton and Andersson along the Namibian coast and the Okavango swamps.

-finally, the geographers’ ‘holy grail’: the search for the source of the Nile. James Bruce’s discovery of the source of the Blue Nile in 1770 launched new expeditions into Central Africa. 

A key figure in African exploration was the missionary, David Livingstone, whose interest in exploration went beyond scientific discovery to what he called the “three Cs”: “Civilisation through Christianity and legitimate Commerce”. Starting in South Africa, Livingstone pushed his expeditions further and further north: he found the source of the Zambezi River and then travelled down to the falls which he named after Queen Victoria. In 1858, he began exploring the Lake Nyasa region and then searched for the source of the Nile until his death in 1873. In fact, Speke had already discovered Lake Victoria, which he believed was the source of the Nile, in 1858.

Another explorer passionately dedicated to the same quest was Stanley who confirmed Speke’s claim. He was famous for his legendary meeting with Livingstone in 1871 and for his exploration of the entire Great Lakes region and of the Congo River basin.   

Serving the Belgian King, Leopold II, in Congo, Stanley showed how colonial rivalry could become a key element in African exploration during the late 1870s: for example, Brazza worked for France between Congo and Gabon, as did Serpa Pinto for Portugal in his journey across Central and Southern Africa.

After 1890, exploration was carried out above all by military expeditions, such as that led by Marchand. They were expected to map out the routes which would allow colonial powers to expand and establish links between existing colonial territories.