Cover for African Impressions
African Impressions
How African Worldviews Shaped the British Geographical Imagination across the Early Enlightenment
Rebekah Mitsein

Walker Cowen Memorial Prize - United States, (2022)

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Nineteenth-century European representations of Africa are notorious for depicting the continent with a blank interior. But there was a time when British writers filled Africa with landed empires and contiguous trade routes linked together by a network of rivers. This geographical narrative proliferated in fictional and nonfictional texts alike, and it was born not from fanciful speculation but from British interpretations of what Africans said and showed about themselves and their worlds.

Investigations of the representation of Africa in British texts have typically concluded that the continent operated in the British imagination as a completely invented space with no meaningful connection to actual African worlds, or as an inert realm onto which writers projected their expansionist fantasies. With African Impressions, Rebekah Mitsein revises that narrative, demonstrating that African elites successfully projected expressions of their sovereignty, wealth, right to power, geopolitical clout, and religious exceptionalism into Europe long before Europeans entered sub-Saharan Africa. Mitsein considers the ways that African self-representation continued to drive European impressions of the continent across the early Enlightenment, fueling desires to find the sources of West Africa’s gold and the city states along the Niger, to establish a relationship with the Christian kingdom of Prester John, and to discover the source of the Nile.

Through an analysis of a range of genres, including travel narratives, geography books, maps, verse, and fiction, Mitsein shows how African strategies of self-representation and European strategies for representing Africa grew increasingly inextricable, as the ideas that Africans presented about themselves and their worlds migrated from contact zones to texts and back again. The geographical narratives that arose from this cycle, which unfolded over hundreds of years, were made to fit expansionist agendas, but they remained rooted in the African worlds and worldviews that shaped them.

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