Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Blomstrand – re-writing Botswana’s history

“I rushed out of my office screaming at the top of my voice. I was asking for an encyclopedia to look up David Livingstone.”

Christer Blomstrand had bumped on cartographic information that knocked European explorer David Livingstone off his pedestal, challenged basic assumptions on which the Botswana history rests, and re-wrote the history of Southern African.

Blomstrand’s voice peaks a decibel or two as he tells the story. He pushes his glasses atop the ridge of his nose and rubs his face as he breaks into a chuckle. He has relived that moment from seven years ago thousands of times, but he still gets excited when he talks about it.

The cartographic information that Blomstrand discovered was a map of what is today northern Botswana and southern Zimbabwe with the Zambezi River and the waterfall Mosi-oa-Tunya. The map, intriguingly, was made in 1852, three years before Dr. Livingstone visited the falls for the first time (1855). When Livingstone, who is credited with discovering the Victoria Falls arrived, he wasted no time renaming the falls after the British Queen Victoria.

We are huddled around the colourful, intricate map on a huge round table in his office at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. Blomstrand, a Swedish history researcher, is explaining that “this map of Northern Botswana, by David Livingstone is indeed proof of the fact that it was the African people who, with their information, had a large importance in the mapping of Africa. But this fact was seldom brought forward in Europe in the 19th century.”

The map showing northern Botswana, southern Zambia and south-west Zimbabwe is most probably the first map ever made of this area. “And it is remarkably correct and very detailed,” explains a write up by Blomstrand.

According to the Chairman of the International Cartographic Society, it was probably made by Livingstone himself. He then made a map containing a “discovery” which he would only make three years later.

“This map is very interesting as it shows clearly the extent to which the African people contributed with information to the early explorers, who then made the maps. Most of the areas drawn on this map had never ever been visited by Europeans at that time…. Had David Livingstone travelled with his ox-wagon and cart at 4 km an hour, over the entire area shown on this map, he would have had to spend several years on this map alone. More than 90% of the information on this and most other 19th century maps came from the African themselves,” argues the write up.

The ground breaking discovery has been kept at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences because the Swedish explorer and trader Charles John Anderson (1827-1867) who brought the map with him from his African expedition wrote a letter asking the academy not to publish the map but “merely use them for their own information.”

The credit for bringing the map back to life goes to Blomstrand, who’s been tracing fellow Swede Charles Andersson’s and many other Swede’s contemporaries’ travels in Africa for quite some years.
“Christer Blomstrand showed up on our doorstep one day and asked if we had any map done by Charles Andersson stored in our archives. And indeed we had, not that we did not know about it, it’s just that the significance of it had to be unveiled, we have thousands and thousands of things just sitting there,” said Professor Karl Grandin, Director of History of Science at the Swedish Royal Academy of Science, who was present during the presentation.

Blomstrand explained that, “In 1850, the Swedish explorer, hunter and tradesman Charles John Andersson and the British scientist Sir Francis Galton arrived at Walvis Bay. Together they travelled through Namibia, reaching as far north as Ondangwa. While Galton went back to England in the beginning of 1852, Andersson had decided to stay on, having decided to try and reach the fabled Lake Ngami. Livingstone had visited the lake in 1849 and described it then as a large fresh water lake. In order to finance his next journey in Namibia he went to Cape Town.

Here the Swedish-Norwegian Consul at the time, Jacob Letterstedt, asked him to make a map of the area Namibia, they had seen. This land was at the time almost completely un-known in Europe.

Blomstrand points out that it was indigenous people who “participated to a great extent with information and sketches to the production of the early maps as well as guiding and leading the European, American and Asian explorers”.

“This fact was hardly ever mentioned in the representations that the explorers did, in their home countries, on their discoveries in Africa,” says Blomstrand.

The maps carry a wealth of historical information, as it’s not just about geography but also “also on the peoples and tribes of Southern Africa at the time”. Andersson left numerous hand- written notes on the maps with information on peoples, their whereabouts as well as on animals and nature.

Blomstrand’s discovery is a major gain for Afrocentric historians who have always argued against discoveries of African landscapes by European explorers. This has always proved to be a controversial issue in the politics of African history.

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