Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians

07 October 2015

Drawing Lines across Africa - from the War Office Archive

Most of today’s international boundaries within Africa derive from the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, when the colonial powers divided the region between themselves in order to provide a framework for their own political administrations and for the regulation of trade. Many boundaries were drawn through regions where the detailed geography was unknown, explaining why around thirty per cent of the boundaries in Africa are straight lines. The artificial way in which they were allocated has been criticised for creating arbitrary divisions between communities on the ground, or for preventing the free movement of indigenous nomadic groups, but most of the boundaries have come to be recognised by the African community and persist to this day.

In the years following their initial allocation, a number of the boundaries were surveyed and demarcated on the ground by boundary commissions sent from Europe. While the boundary lines were often finessed to accommodate local geographical features, the locations of population groups were rarely taken into account, though this was not unknown. Among the material held in the War Office Archive is a file which documents a British agreement to hand over territory in order to respect the wishes of the local population.

At the Berlin Conference the region now occupied by Rwanda and Burundi was incorporated into German East Africa and became a single province in the north-west of the colony. After the First World War it was handed to Belgium as a League of Nations mandate, while the rest of German East Africa became a British mandate re-named Tanganyika. The newly-created boundary between the British and Belgian territories was surveyed by the ‘Anglo-Belgian Boundary Commission (Ruanda-Urundi) 1922-1924’, which created field sheets, fair drawings and a sheet index, all now preserved in the archive at reference BL Maps WOOS/4.


Detail of WOOS/4/1/3


Detail of WOOS/4/1/7

The field sheets record regions of mountain, swamp and thick forest, and are in a good state of preservation considering the conditions in which they were made. Some of the ink drawing is highly skilled, with half-erased pencil workings still visible.

The commission started survey work in the north, on the tripoint with Uganda and moved southwards as far as Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika. The sheet index gives an overview of the serpentine route they followed, which is marked in green.



The agreed boundary followed the traditional tribal boundaries of the kingdoms of Ruanda and Urundi that had been incorporated into the former German province. However, in the northern portion the British had negotiated a shift of the line westwards to accommodate the planned construction of a British railway connecting Tanganyika to Uganda - marked ‘POSSIBLE […RAILWAY ROUTE]’.


Detail of WOOS/4/4

But soon after the boundary commission had passed through the area, Belgian missionaries in Rwanda made a formal protest to the League of Nations at ‘the social, political and economic harm caused by the imposition of this arbitrary boundary’, and proposed moving it back eastward ‘to the “natural frontier” of the Kagera River’. The British government subsequently agreed that the imposition of the boundary had had harmful effects on the resident population, and since by this time an alternative rail route existed between Uganda and Tanganyika they had no objection to the re-location of the boundary. The agreement was made in 1923, and is shown on the index sheet in red hatching labelled ‘Area to be handed over to Belgium’.


Detail of WOOS/4/4

The Times of 21 January 1924 reported that the Belgians ‘expressed their deep gratitude for the spirit of equity and the sincere desire to respond to the wishes of the native population manifested by Great Britain in these negotiations’. But a more recent study has concluded that, ‘far from being a natural cultural divide, the new boundary did still cut across four small culture areas – Ha, Hangaza, Haya and Zinza’.

The Belgians surveyed the new portion of the boundary shortly after the transfer was made, but the precise definition and demarcation of its course through wide papyrus swampland was not finally settled until 1934, when the sale of tin mining concessions in the area made it imperative to establish the boundary once and for all. In the present day it remains unchanged as the boundary between Rwanda and Tanzania.


Nicholas Dykes

The British East Africa portion of the War Office Archive is being conserved, catalogued and digitised with generous funding from the Indigo Trust.

Further Reading:

Adekunle Ajala, ‘The Nature of African Boundaries’, Africa Spectrum, vol. 18, no. 2 (1983)

Ian Brownlie, Ian R. Burns, African Boundaries: A Legal and Diplomatic Encyclopaedia (1979)

Ieuan Griffiths, ‘The Scramble for Africa: Inherited Political Boundaries’, The Geographical Journal, vol. 152, no. 2 (Jul., 1986)

United States Bureau of Intelligence and Research, International Boundary Study, no. 69 (May 2, 1966), Rwanda-Tanzania Boundary

H.B. Thomas, ‘The Kagera Triangle and the Kagera Salient’, The Uganda Journal, vol.23, no.1 (March 1959)