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The Mountains of Kong

Mountains of Kong

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The History

Rennell Africa The Mountains of Kong were a significant geographic feature on 19th century European maps of West Africa, usually originating in the highlands of Guinea and stretching straight across the Sahara into Central Africa. The Mountains of Kong first appeared on maps in 1798, following the West African expeditions of Scottish explorer Mungo Park. Park explored a good deal of Central West Africa, and was the first European to traverse the middle part of the Niger River. After his first expedition, he recounted his travels to English cartographer James Rennel, who published a map showing Park's discoveries in 1798. Rennel's map showed a large range of Mountains running east to west between the Niger River and the African coast to the south.

Why Rennel's map shows these mountains is a bit of a mystery. Park's journey did not take him into the area where these mountains were depicted, nor did he provide an explanation why they are called the Mountains of Kong. There are no mountains in the area that Rennel depicted, but there are a series of low hills and plateaus in some areas that separate the inner plains of West Africa from the coast. It is possible that Park was told about this chain of hills by his native guides and he then relayed the information to Rennel.

Whatever the source of the information, these hills, which do not reach 700 feet above the level of the surrounding country, were exaggerated into a towering and impassable range of mountains. This error might have been corrected had Park not died on the Niger in 1806. With Park's death, the Niger and its surrounding area were not thoroughly explored by Europeans for several decades.

Cary Mountains

However, the lack of new exploration did not deter significant changes to these mountains on European maps. In 1805 British mapmaker John Cary showed a much longer "Mountains of the Kong" connecting to the equally fictitious Mountains of the Moon, creating a giant mountain range that crossed the continent from east to west. This incarnation of the Mountains of Kong would be popular on European and American maps for several decades, remaining in place until at least the 1840s.

Numerous explorers who ventured into this area continued to include the mountains on their maps. Explorers like René Caillié, Hugh Clapperton, and John and Richard Lander showed the Mountains of Kong on their maps, and occasionally increased their size. The reasons for this are unclear, but most likely these men glimpsed hills or plateaus in the distance and took them to be the foothills of the supposedly mighty Mountains of the Kong. As the main object of their explorations was the Niger River and not the Mountains, it is not unthinkable that these explorers did not spend much time trying to find the Mountains of Kong. Equally likely is the idea that these explorers simply added their discoveries to existing maps of the area, and did not remove any features for which they had no proof.

The mountains were finally disproven in the late 1880s by French explorer Louis-Gustave Binger. During his expeditions along the Niger in 1887 and 1888, Binger surveyed the area in much greater detail than previous explorers and firmly attested that no such mountains existed. Despite Binger proving the Mountains of the Kong were a fiction, they did not immediately vanish from maps or atlases. The Mountains of Kong occasionally appeared in maps and atlases well into the 20th Century, long after their existence had been disproven. In fact, the Mountains of Kong mistakenly reappeared in the index of Goode's World Atlas in 1995!

A Selection of Maps

Cary Africa
John Cary. "A New Map of Africa, from the Latest Surveys." London: J. Cary, 1805. 18 1/2 x 20 7/8. Original outline coloring. Light creasing and light smudges at center. Short tear at lower centerfold. Otherwise, very good condition. Denver.

This map was drawn, engraved and published by John Cary (fl 1769-1836) in London for the 1805 edition of his New Universal Atlas. Amidst the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, British naval power was rising, and mapmaking as an art and science kept pace. Cary used existing maps and new surveys to provide his clients with the most up-to-date information on all parts of the world. Inaccuracies might be evident, but they reflect the state of knowledge in western Europe when they were made. The northern parts of the continent show much information along the rivers, and trade routes. A non-existent mountain chain stretches across the continent; the eastern half of this range, "Mountains of the Moon," are a remnant of the Ptolemaic conception of Africa; the western half "The Mountains of Kong" were the result of a mistake by cartographer John Rennel in 1798. This map was the first to show the "Mountains of Kong" and the "Mountains of the Moon" as part of the same giant mountain range, a feature which would remain on maps of Africa until the 1850s. The southern half of the continent has information mostly along the coasts where traders and European settlements had been made. The interior of the south is mostly blank, "Unknown Parts," though Lake Maravi, an early reflection of the interior lakes, is shown. Attractive, with interesting information and absence of information, this is an excellent map of Africa from the beginning of the nineteenth century. $550

Maps by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. London: SDUK, 1830-40 All 12 x 15. Engravings. Original outline hand-coloring. Some minor chipping in some margins. Very good condition. Denver.

A set of detailed and clearly drawn maps of regions of the world by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK). This wonderful English enterprise was devoted to the spreading of up-to-date information and the enhancing of geographical understanding. These precise views of 19th-century geography are splendid examples of the Society's work. Each region is shown with impressive, precise detail.

"West Africa." From Family Cabinet Atlas. Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1832. 3 1/2 x 5 2/3. Engraving by J. Yeager. Original hand color. Very good condition. Denver.

In 1831, Thomas Starling issued his Family Cabinet Atlas in 12mo format, each small map filled with precise detail. A year later, the Philadelphia firm of Henry Charles Carey and Isaac Lea issued their version of this atlas, "Revised, Corrected and Enlarged." The maps were based on the British atlas, but with the plates re-engraved. This map is impressively detailed of West Africa and includes a prominent ridge of "Mountains of the Kong." Other mountain ranges, rivers, and many towns and wells are indicated. The hand color and small size makes this map as charming as it is interesting. $60

Burr Africa
David H. Burr. "Africa." From A New Universal Atlas (1835). New York: Thomas Illman, 1834. 10 3/8 x 12 1/2. Engraving by Illman & Pilbrow. Full original color. Light smudges in upper right. Else, very good condition. Denver.

An excellent map of Africa by David H. Burr, one of the most important American cartographers of the first part of the nineteenth century. Having studied under Simeon DeWitt, Burr produced the second state atlas issued in the United States, of New York in 1829. He was then appointed to be geographer for the U.S. Post Office and later geographer to the House of Representatives. As a careful geographer, Burr is painstaking in this map to put in only information for which he felt there was a scientific basis. Despite that, this map includes a short range of "Mountains of Kong" to teh west of the Niger River. Also shown are the Mountains of the Moon, below which is shown "Unexplored Region." Elsewhere, rivers, deserts, mountains, towns, and a number of countries are clearly presented. Burr's maps are scarce and quite desirable. $225

Tanner: Africa 1844
Henry S. Tanner. "Africa." From Tanner's Universal Atlas. Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1844. 12 x 14. Engraving. Original hand coloring. Very good condition. Denver.

This map was made by the great American cartographer, Henry Schenck Tanner. In 1816, Henry, his brother Benjamin, John Vallance and Francis Kearny formed an engraving firm in Philadelphia. Having had experience at map engraving through his work with John Melish, Tanner conceived of the idea of compiling and publishing an American Atlas, which was begun in 1819 by Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co. Soon Tanner took over the project on his own, and thus began his career as cartographic publisher. The American Atlas was a huge success, and this inspired Tanner to produce his Universal Atlas, of more manageable size. The maps were issued by Tanner until 1841, then in 1844 by Carey & Hart. Later the maps were issued by S. Augustus Mitchell, and then Thomas, Cowperthwait & Co. into the second half of the century. $225

"Map of Africa from the Latest Authorities." Philadelphia: Charles Desilver, 1856. 12 1/4 x 15 1/4. Lithograph. Original hand color. Very good condition. With decorative border.

Charles Desilver, one of the many publishers working in Philadelphia during the mid-nineteenth century, issued an atlas of maps based on the famous Tanner-Mitchell-Cowperthwait series. Desilver used much the same information as originally drawn in the 1840s, but updated the maps with new roads, towns, and other information. This map is typical of the rather unusual and scarce Desilver atlas. Inset showing "Map of the Republic of Liberia from Gurley's Report". An attractive and fascinating document. $160

Mitchell Africa 1880
"Map of Africa, Showing Its Most Recent Discoveries." Philadelphia: S. A. Mitchell, Jr., 1880. Lithograph. Original hand-coloring. 10 1/2 x 13 1/2. Full margins. Very good condition. Denver.

For most of the middle part of the nineteenth century, the firm founded by S. Augustus Mitchell dominated American cartography in output and influence. This fine map is from one of his son's atlases issued in 1880. It depicts as current geographical information as was available at the time, showing rivers, lakes, towns, trade routes and some orography. Political divisions are clearly indicated, highlighted with contrasting colors, giving us an interesting picture of what Americans understood of the states of Africa. The late nineteenth century was a period of great exploration throughout Africa and this map shows "its most recent discoveries." Despite this, there is still a large section noted as "Unknown Interior." A wonderful cartographic document over a century ago. $125

Frank A. Gray. "Gray's New Map of Africa." Philadelphia: O.W. Gray & Son, 1881. 15 x 12. Lithograph, engraved on stone by J.M. Atwood & W.H. Helms. Original hand color. Chip in top right corner; else very good condition. Backed with map of Asia.

The last part of the nineteenth century was a period of intense European exploration of Africa and this map reflects the latest information available on the "dark continent." For instance, information from Stanley's 1874-77 explorations to Lake Victoria and the Congo are included, as is much other interior detail that is impressively updated from earlier maps. The political situation of the continent is also up-to-date, with the Orange River Free State and Natal shown, and other nations/colonies along the coasts. Insets are included of St. Helena and the delta of the Nile. A wonderfully detailed and current snap-shot of Africa at an exciting period of its history. $150


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