Application of spatial and scientific geography

Between 1848 and 1876, regarded as the classic period of European exploration of Africa, expeditions were sponsored by scientific institutions such as the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), Kew Gardens, and European herbaria and zoos to explore the regions of Africa. The RGS, founded in 1830, sent expert individuals to discover new territories. Its reports provide historical snapshots of nineteenth-century East Africa, based on European explorers’ narratives on the modes of land use, food production and types of vegetation and soils, the social and political organization of major cultural groups, geographical spaces, trade routes, the abundant wildlife, tribal wars, slave trade, and occasional epidemics.20

The explorers investigated the potential of African rivers as waterways for expeditions into the interior and gathered scientific knowledge for exploiting the various types of environments for future European settlements. In the territories they visited, the explorers were interested in methods that European settlers could use to improve crop cultivation, carry out surveys about important minerals and their potential for economic exploitation.21

It was Dr David Livingstone’s report that ‘opened floodgates for European imperialism.’22 Livingstone’s scientific interests included a passion for geology, botany, history and human geography. He was a keen

The natural and physical geographical features of East and Central Africa

Figure 2.1 The natural and physical geographical features of East and Central Africa.

observer of the political dynamics and human security issues in the regions he visited. He described how inter-tribal wars devastated some regions, uprooting populations and ruining their economies. In the case of the Ngoni-Zulu wars in central Africa in the mid-nineteenth century, he outlined their effects on the environment, stating: ‘[t]he resources of the luxuriant land is going to waste due to tribal wars and slave-trading.’23

Thanks to his extensive skills as a medical doctor, missionary and scientist, Livingstone’s work attracted a wide readership. His contributions to the geographical knowledge of East and central East Africa are noteworthy, particularly owing to his systematic and scientific methods, some of which were later tested by other explorers. European researchers interested in Africa were influenced by his knowledge of ethnography, zoology' and botany. For example, during his Zambezi expedition of 1858-1864, he col- lected botanical specimens specifically to identify indigenous flora suitable for commercial production. His description of diseases and disease vectors motivated scholars in European universities and scientific societies to conduct further investigations.24

Methods of scientific research of geography

From the time of its publication in 1831, the Journal of the Royal Qeographical Society of London (JRQS) provided the platform for disseminating the scientific findings of explorations. In order to control the quality of the scientific information gathered by explorers, the RGS provided them with guidebooks on the methods of collecting social and environmental information.2’ Through the RGS, the travelers ‘paraded their contributions to science.’ Among the expeditions that raised huge interest in Europe were the Zambezi mission and the discovery of the source of the Nile (Figure 2.1).

Readers of the geographical reports relied on the narratives of the explorers, particularly their textual descriptions. However, some skeptics suggest that these travels through the remote regions of East Africa were relatively short, preventing travelers from developing a ‘lasting impression.’ Furthermore, if the travelers traversed the same routes during dry and wet seasons, they might have interpreted the same environments differently.26 Additionally, opinions differ about the narratives that broadly describe the African social systems and their economies and environments. One group holds that the explorers were not trained scientists and that the opinions they presented cannot be generalized. Others believe that many of the explorers were people of learning exposed to the scientific literature of the time and the sharing of scientific information through institutions such as the RGS. Considering that the explorers supported by RGS were learned, their reports would therefore be valuable sources of knowledge.

Those who questioned the texts of the European explorers suggested that the inclusion of indigenous knowledge in their reports compromised their information. Where the explorers admitted that they had relied on indigenous knowledge sources, this might have created doubts and suspicion in the minds of European armchair experts. The alternative view was that the travelers and explorers needed local travel guides, who provided the information. It has been argued further that without the use of local guides and interpreters, the European travelers’ exploits would have been fruitless.2. It was common practice to mention the individual Africans who provided information. Indeed, the explorers negotiated their passage through regions and traded with local communities. In the process, the explorers and local guides shared information about geographical features of interest and their meaning in local dialects.

John Hanning Speke28 wrote detailed accounts of how he relied on the African communities in the territories through which he traveled, locating water sources with their help and exploring their knowledge about the source of the White Nile. The credibility of explorers’ reports depended on the interpretations by local informants, who also helped them to navigate physical spaces.29 David Livingstone’s thinking was even more progressive for using indigenous knowledge to verify his own observations.ic Joseph Thomson,31 for his part, relied on African informants for guidance and information about the tribal territories his routes crossed, while the travel records of Von Hohnel,’2 Samuel Teleki’s travel companion, clearly state that Teleki’s two Swahili assistants, knew all his requirements, ‘exactly, and really surprised’ him with their knowledge.

Local communities provided the geographic information needed for cartographic mapping and demographics.3’ The European travelers used maps to mark the locations from which botanical and zoological materials were collected. Further, their cartographic mapping allowed the explorers to present various landscapes of interest, naming and plotting their routes, with spatial measurements of distances and the elevations of important geographical features.34 Their copious notebooks containing daily records, drawings of plants, specimens of animals and cultural artifacts and descriptions of the types of economies along their routes and the conditions of vegetation and their accessibility have become a treasure trove for environmental historians.3

Where the botanical materials that they collected had the potential for commercial production, the explorers reported on traditional methods for processing the crops as well as the farmers’ knowledge about the crops. This was particularly relevant during the Zambezi exploration. During the expedition, Livingstone had developed a ‘friendly relationship with Sekeleta,’ the monarch, to obtain support for his plans to introduce legitimate trade as opposed to the slave trade that had devastated the region.36 The Zambezi mission, in particular, was eager to identify places where cotton was grown by the local African populations, hoping that it would promote commercial opening up of the region. Collecting botanical specimens for European herbaria required providing geographical place names, descriptions of the topography and the types of soils and often the local uses of the plant specimens. Using such information, analysts at the herbaria could compare sample variations and their distribution.3'

It is significant that the European travelers attempted to compare their observations of nature with the European environments with which they were most familiar.’8 The reports presented systematic observations of the African societies encountered, often revealing personal opinions and prejudices. Even so, not all reports were negative. We have already mentioned how David Livingstone befriended African leaders to facilitate his exploration of the Zambezi in preparation for potential future European settlements of the Shire Highlands. When missionaries arrived in a remote region, they were among the first Europeans to interact with African societies, particularly providing medical services. Besides doing humanitarian work and ‘civilizing missions,’ the missionaries, just like other European explorers, made significant contributions to ‘scientific geography’ by making accurate records of African environments, fixing the geodesic locations of important geographical features such as the courses of rivers and lakes, describing trade routes, and mapping landscapes and important geographical features. Every effort was made to identify regions where local communities planted commercial crops and to study the land potential for crop production.39 The missionaries reported through their letters to missionary offices in Europe as well as in journals—enriching the knowledge of the socio-ecological systems of pre- colonial East Africa.40 Of greatest interest was the hypothesis of environmental desiccation postulated by David Livingstone and other explorers.

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