Maps and views blog

3 posts from March 2018

29 March 2018

A Malawian mystery tour

The British Library, with generous funding from the Indigo Trust, has recently conserved, catalogued, digitised and made freely available online a further 1,100 images of maps and associated documents relating to East Africa.  The material represents part of the War Office (now Ministry of Defence) Archive of cartographic and topographic material produced in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries to support British interests overseas.

Malawi Figure 1

Figure 1. The Nyika Plateau, British Central Africa (present-day Malawi). (Extract from WOMAT/AFR/BCA/23/1)

Figure 1 is typical of such mapping. A carefully prepared manuscript in coloured ink and watercolour on tracing linen, it also represented an interesting challenge for the Library’s cataloguers.  Despite the lack of title, Lake Nyasa quickly establishes the location as north-eastern Malawi (or British Central Africa Protectorate as it was in 1904, the date revealed by a marginal note).  But to understand the map fully, and you certainly need to do that to catalogue it, it is also necessary to determine why it was produced.  Frustratingly, this attractive little map offers few clues.  The Nyika Plateau, a large area of rolling rough grassland, is portrayed in some detail together with an expedition route.  The distances involved are large – the entire march would have been over 250 kilometres, some of it at altitudes of 2,000 metres.  Was it perhaps an exploratory trek into an area hitherto unknown to ascertain the potential for British colonial control?  It is here that the research must start, and an article in a forty-year-old journal (Boeder, 1979) provided the answer.

Malawi Figure 2

Figure 2. Enlargement of Figure 1, showing the village of Ekwendeni, the seat of the indaba between Alfred Sharpe’s administration and the Ngoni tribal chiefs. (Extract from WOMAT/AFR/BCA/23/1)

Figure 2 is an enlargement of the southern portion of the map, and in particular the seemingly anonymous village of Ekwendeni. It was here in September 1904 that Protectorate Commissioner Alfred Sharpe (1853-1935) signed a major administration agreement with the leaders of the powerful Ngoni tribe.  The Ngoni had settled the plateau and its surrounding area in the 1850s and soon assumed control over the local Tumbuka and Tonga tribes.

Sharpe was a character of boundless energy. Born in Lancaster and educated at Haileybury College, he embarked on a career in law, training with a firm of solicitors and being admitted to the bar at the age of twenty-three.  But Sharpe was soon restless.  In 1883, in a joint undertaking with a cousin, he established a sugar plantation in Fiji, but a beet sugar crisis the following year put paid to the endeavour.  Sharpe’s next venture was to central Africa where he would spend much of the rest of his life.

Initially engaged as a professional elephant hunter and ivory trader, Sharpe met Harry Johnston, Protectorate Consul-General and later Commissioner. Johnston, recognising the usefulness of Sharpe’s legal training, quickly employed him to make treaties with tribal chiefs.  Sharpe soon established himself as a talented diplomat, and was appointed as Johnston’s deputy in 1893.  Three years later Johnston, by now Sir Harry, vacated the post with Sharpe eventually succeeding him as Commissioner.

Part of Sharpe’s remit was to continue Johnston’s establishment of administrative control within the Protectorate. This included the imposition of Hut Tax, an unpopular household levy that became even more so in a polygamous society where each wife had her own hut that attracted an additional charge.  Sharpe trod carefully, purposely deferring until 1904 when the Ngoni were at their most vulnerable.  The death of Chief M’mbelwa had created a power vacuum, order was deteriorating and a local famine had triggered overgrazing, out-migration and tensions with neighbouring tribes. In late August Sharpe’s party took a steamer from Fort Johnston (now Mangochi) up the west coast of Lake Nyasa to Florence Bay.  From here they climbed 800 metres to the Livingstonia Mission on the edge of the Nyika Plateau.  An indaba (gathering) was arranged with the Ngoni at Ekwendeni, to which Sharpe and his party walked the 160 kilometres across the plateau.

Thousands of Ngoni had gathered at Ekwendeni, and although Sharpe had brought soldiers it was his intention not to use them; indeed, they wandered unarmed among the thankfully peaceful crowds. Sharpe met the Ngoni chiefs on 2 September, with a mission teacher acting as interpreter.  Sharpe explained that the tribe’s expansion into neighbouring lands had contravened an earlier pact with Johnston, the agreed penalty of which was subjugation to colonial control.  The chiefs conceded this, and so negotiations began on the terms of the administration. While Hut Tax would have to be paid, the Ngoni still drove a hard bargain, with Sharpe agreeing that the tribal constitution could remain, the local police could be staffed by Ngoni tribesmen and that taxation could be deferred until 1906.  The chiefs would assist in the collection of the taxes in return for stipends of up to £30 (about £2,500 today).  The deal was signed, sealed and delivered by sunset.

That the agreement was signed so quickly may have been down to both side’s preparedness to negotiate. Johnston had been a tougher type than Sharpe, frequently resorting to military force and offering little by the way of indigenous self-governance, and understandably affairs had often been strained.

Sharpe, by now Sir Alfred and Governor of the newly-created Nyasaland, retired in 1910 yet the relatively good relationship between the administration and the local population continued. By 1914, however, life for the Ngoni had become more difficult.  Overgrazing and poor soils had once again led to famine and out-migration, and in turn the Hut Tax became unaffordable for many.  Ngoni chiefs clashed with new governor Sir George Smith over a refusal to reduce taxes for the most disadvantaged.  Relations reached a low point with the onset of the First World War and calls for tribal enlistment and the requisition of food from areas already suffering shortages.  Smith tightened his control, and the powers of the tribal chiefs diminished.

While this is a fascinating story, it is nevertheless one that the map alone cannot tell. The map itself is neatly compiled – certainly the hand of a trained draughtsman, probably a non-commissioned army officer or mid-ranking government official.  However, there is also a second, larger and more cursive script demarking the expedition route (Figure 2).  Somewhat blithe alongside the draughtsman’s more painstaking work, this addition in generously laden, broad-nibbed fountain pen is very much the hallmark of a senior officer.  It was a long shot but worth a punt, and ten minutes and an internet search later a collection of Sharpe’s personal correspondence was unearthed.  The handwriting appeared identical but, as tempting as it is, cataloguers must work in certainties, and the creation of a Library record for Sharpe as ‘cartographer’ will have to wait for another time.

The Ekwendeni map is typical of many in the War Office Archive, portraying the challenges encountered by indigenous populations in the face of colonialism. The archive can be accessed from the Library’s War Office Archive webpage or downloaded from Wikimedia Commons; there is also a Google Map index marking the central point of each map sheet and providing links to the catalogue records and images.

Nick Krebs

Map Cataloguer, War Office Archive


Further reading

R.B. Boeder, ‘Sir Alfred Sharpe and the Imposition of Colonial Rule on the Northern Ngoni’, The Society of Malawi Journal, 32 (1979), 23-30.

Alfred Sharpe, The Backbone of Africa (London: Witherby, 1921).

16 March 2018

Georg Wilhelm Schimper in Abyssinia: a new online resource

We are pleased to introduce this guest blog post by Dr Dorothea McEwan.

Ethiopia is the product of a long historical process, from the Aksumite empire 2000 years ago, then the introduction of Christianity in the 4th century, the political expansion of various ethnicities, the centuries-long artistic development of rock churches, followed by Portuguese military and Roman Catholic religious intervention in the 16th and 17th centuries, and finally the unification of the country under emperor Tewodros ll (reigned 1855-1868).

Europeans have travelled in the country and written about their experiences adding to this geographical knowledge by drawing maps of the  routes of their travels, like the Scotsman James Bruce, who published his account in 1790. In 19th century Europe the growing importance of geography as an academic discipline led many travellers to create maps, which they sometimes complemented with potted histories of the lands, the turbulent political times and customs and mores of the populations.


Map of Axum und Adoa. Add ms 28506, f. 17. This is the Aksum and Adwa Region in Tigre, concentrating particularly on how far the clay plateau extends and on its configuration (shown here in red which is also more or less its natural colour ‘).

One such traveller was the German botanist Georg Wilhelm Schimper (1804-1878), who lived and worked in Ethiopia from 1838 to his death in 1878. He witnessed upheavals and wars, the coronation of Emperor Tewodros II in 1855, married and had children with Ethiopian women, but most notably, he criss-crossed the country to research the flora of the country. He sent the dried botanical specimens back to Germany and France and made a living out of it courtesy of travel associations like the Esslingen Reiseverein which advanced money to Schimper and recouped it from the sale of his dried plant specimens to European herbaria.

When this income dried up, he was lucky enough to be appointed as regional administrator in Enticho, Northern Ethiopia, until 1855. In the 1860s he was engaged in something totally new: because of his detailed knowledge of the plant life in various regions, dependent as this was on the differing soils and rock formations, he proceeded to integrate geological information onto maps that he drew himself, accompanying the maps with plentiful and detailed botanical, geological and geographical observations.

He produced four manuscript maps, held by the British Library at Add. MS 28506. The maps and accompanying commentaries by Andreas Gestrich, Dorothea McEwan and Stefan Hanß have been published by the German Historical Institute London, and are online here. The database presents 221 folios of the original German pages, transliterated in modern German and translated into English, with a fully annotated bibliography and biography of Schimper.  


(BL Add ms 28505, f. 86r) This folio is wonderfully illustrated with little sketches of parasols and rain ‘coats’ worn by local people together with the following explanation:

'The Scirpus and Juncus, known as Saddi, usually growing on the banks of brooks or otherwise in quite marshy places, and some slender Cyperus, called Gadima, which grow there too, are used for parasols and shepherds’ cloaks. The parasols are made from the stems of these plants in the following manner: A few inches below the thicker end of a normally three to three and a half ft. long stick or reed, four thin rods are first attached as spokes. Their thickness and length are more or less the same as the whalebone of the parasols of European ladies. Then the stems of these plants are used to weave a small flat disk around these four spokes lying right up against the stick. Next a number of other spokes are woven into this disk, which, in the gaps, gets double stem reinforcement. Now the whole framework is tightly interwoven, snake-like with these stalks.

These stalks are first stripped of their green outer skin, making the whole thing look like a white shade. These parasols are called Zelal here, meaning ‘shade’, and are very much in use by women as well as by men. As these parasols cannot be folded they have to be carried around even when it is cloudy or in the evening at dusk. These parasols are the same size as the parasols carried by European ladies, but they are not slightly curved. They have an almost completely flat, horizontal parasol top.

Typha, and the larger Cyperus (Doguale) are also used, just like the Scirpus and Juncus stalks, for this purpose and for making shepherds’ cloaks. It would be impossible to find a better or simpler coat to protect you from the rain. The green outer casing of the stalks of these reed-like plants are left on, and then they are woven into a shape like the guardhouses of European soldiers on individual sentry duty. This kind of reed coat, like a roof, reaching to the knees and repelling rain quite well, is called Gassa, and is only used by shepherd boys. In the cold highlands of Semien, shepherds often wear sheepskins, like other adult country folk.'  

You can access George Wilhelm Schimper in Abyssinia: Observations on Tigre, go to

Dorothea McEwan

08 March 2018

International Women's Day: Helen Wallis OBE (1924-1995)

International Women's Day 2018 provides the opportunity to celebrate the life and achievements of Helen Wallis OBE (1924-1995) head of the British Museum and later British Library's map collections between 1967-1986, and to promote a research fund set up in her memory. 


Helen Wallis was one of the leading figures in map librarianship who pioneered the study of cartography. She was the first woman to hold the position of Map Librarian, following on from her predecessor R.A. Skelton (1906-1970) in 1967. Over 19 years she made the British Library the centre for map studies through research, publications and exhibitions including the Cook bicentenary exhibition of 1968, the American War of Independence exhibition of 1975 and the Francis Drake exhibition of 1977.

Wallis was a geographically-trained historian, a gifted and enthusiastic communicator, and a prominent member of professional and academic organisations. Among her wide research interests were historical globes. She was the first to unearth the significance of the earliest English-produced globes the (Molyneux Globes of 1590), and was the first to research the Jesuit-produced 'Chinese' globe of 1623 which was donated to the nation during her tenure. Once, when transporting the globe on an aeroplane to Berlin where it was to be exhibited, she famously had a seat reservation made out to it in the name of 'Mr Globe'.


Mr Globe

In honour of the memory of Helen Wallis, an annual award of £300 is available to a scholar  from any field, whose work will help promote the use of the British Library's cartographic collections in historical investigation. The award also offers the convenient working environment of the British Library with extended privileges. The fellowship may be held as a full or part-time appointment, but would normally be for one or two periods totalling a minimum of 6 months with the maximum period being one calendar year.

To apply please send a letter of application, indicating the period you intend to be in London and outlining your proposed research project, together with a full curriculum vitae and the names of three referees to or by post to The British Library, Map Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, UK. The closing date for each annual award is May 1st. For further information on the award please contact

Tom Harper