Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Treasure Maps and Fool's Gold: Exploring the African Unknown in the 19th Century

"Rough Sketch of Africa indicating the
 progress of recent discoveries" 
by the famous
 cartographer August 
Heinrich Petermann,
1853. The 
middle of the continent
is simply named the "Unexplored Region".
By the mid-nineteenth century, much of the world had been, for the most part, already claimed and discovered. However, as we "journey" through the latter half of the nineteenth-century, we begin to see a flourish of exploration in Africa, more specifically the "dark heart of Africa" - which remained one of the last undiscovered areas in the world during this period (along with the Arctic and Antarctic regions). It was left to explorers such as David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, and Frederick Selous to discover this last region of Africa, which was achieved by the 1870's.  

So the exploration of Africa was occurring during the mid-to-late Victorian period. What then, you might ask, does this have to do with Victorian culture and society? Well reader, you will take immense interest in knowing it has everything to do with Victorian society. The Victorians didn't just take an interest in these vast expeditions to otherworldly, unexplored places. They were obsessed with them (no really, they were.) One of the ways we can see this is through looking at the literature that was produced during this 50-year period. There begins an astounding resurgence of adventure fiction (largely geared towards boys and young men, but more on that later) and the creation of the "lost world" genre, with texts such as Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King and H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, being published. Solomon's Mines, interestingly, is largely considered to be the first novel in the "lost world" canon, and deals with the discovery and exploration of the "heart of Africa". Indeed, the British southeast African explorer Frederick Selous inspired Rider’s protagonist of his novel, Allan Quatermain (who in turn was the inspiration for the eponymous character in the popular Indiana Jones film series).

It is not difficult to understand why King Solomon’s Mines, was so immensely popular with the Victorians. A novel concerning the discovery of the ancient world would have appealed greatly to them due to their large obsession with time and history. Indeed, John Stuart Mill argued that “The idea of comparing one’s age with former ages, or with the notion of those which are yet to come, had occurred to philosophers; but it never before was itself the dominant idea of any age.” (‘The Spirit of Age’, 1831). The Victorian reader is almost instantly hooked at the mention of an ancient settlement laden with beautiful gems and worldly riches. Just like the real-life explorers journeying to discover unclaimed land, there is something enthralling about an unknown space; “‘Solomon’s Mines?’” ejaculated both my hearers at once. ‘Where are they?’ ‘I don’t know’ I said; ‘I know where there are said to be. Once I saw the peaks of the mountains that border them, but there were a hundred and thirty miles of desert between me and them, and I am not aware that any white man ever got across save one.’” (King Solomon's Mines, 10). Perhaps it is the notion of freedom and independence that an unclaimed space can provide. We certainly see this in other Victorian adventure novels - R.L Stevenson’s Treasure Island for example - and there are many similarities between both Stevenson’s novel and Solomon’s Mines. They both are told from a first person narrator, who inhibits a casual, conversational approach in narrating their “journey” to the reader. Another similarity between these texts is their use of maps within the novel. This use of verisimilitude further enhances the idea of real-life exploration, and increases the interest the reader has through reading these lost-world, adventure novels. If young Jim Hawkins and old Allan Quatermain can explore new worlds and discover “money to eat – to roll in – to play duck and drake with ever after” (Treasure Island 34), why couldn’t they?    

Map of Treasure Island, published in the first
 edition of the text and drawn by Stevenson himself.
The Way to Kukunaland as featured in
  King Solomon's Mines. Notice the
similarities between this map
 and the map of Treasure Island.

While it is true that famous explorers such as Stanley and Solous inspired these novels, it is worth considering how they in fact inspired future explorers to be adopt the role of the "hero" in society. (In other words, they became a "celebrity" in Victorian England, equivalent to the countless film stars society obsesses over today). As is often the case, the explorer in literature is the protagonist and the hero, and these brave, tough explorers would have been very aware that Britain viewed them in a similar light. Henry Morton Stanley, for instance (most famous for his extensive exploration of central Africa and finding the then missing David Livingstone in 1869), was incredibly aware of the fame and fortune waiting for him in Britain because of his discovery and exploration. For many Victorians, he represented a real-life version of these literary heroes that were so immensely popular during the Victorian period. One only has to look at through the John Johnson collection to discover all the advertisements and merchandise associated with Stanley and his travels. The image below “Stanley’s Expedition to Relieve Emin Pasha” shows the African natives carrying Huntley & Palmers biscuits on their head, while Stanley looks ahead, merely watching them. Clearly intended to be an advert for the biscuit company, I think it represents much more. Regardless of Stanley’s success in the riches he finds whist exploring, he is aware of the riches he has waiting for him at home, and he merely treats these natives and the new places he discovers as “fool’s gold”, aware that, for him at least, it holds no true value, and that his money lies in merchandise and advertisements in Britain, where he can be treated as a “hero”.

'Stanley's Expedition to Relieve Emin Pasha' - taken from the John Johnson collection. Does this image represent heroism by Stanley or it is simply a money-making advertisement for him?
What do all the explorers (both real and fictional) have in common? That’s right, no women. This was to be expected during the Victorian period; it is interesting to note that both in Treasure Island and King Solomon’s Mines, women are (mostly) conspicuously absent. (Stevenson often stated that Treasure Island was to be “a story for boys…women were excluded”). Several blogs have discussed in detail many of the difficulties women faced during the Victorian period, and unfortunately just like those, the role of the explorer was not for the woman; men dominated the field of exploration. Perhaps this is because of the ceremonialism of exploring new land for Britain, as women were considered unequal during this period. If a woman were to claim land for Britain it would not have held the same worth or value.

The exploration of Africa captivated the Victorian audience, just as the 21st Century has developed an obsession with space exploration. The yearning for discovery and new places seems to be ingrained in society. The question is: where will it take us next?

Works Cited:


"Rough Sketch of Africa indicating the progress of recent discoveries" -


Haggard, Henry Rider and Dennis Butts. King Solomon’s Mines. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Stuart Mill, John. ‘The Spirit of the Age’, 1831.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.


  1. Wow Daniel, this is amazing! Your links and supportive quotes for your analysis are great!

  2. Great post! Very informative and the images you chose really link to what you're saying!

  3. Thank you Lizzie and Bianca. I'm glad you enjoyed reading about the exploration of Africa and I would definitely recommend you ready King Solomon's Mines - a thoroughly enjoyable read that gives you a completely new perspective on the importance of these kinds of expeditions during the mid-to-late Victorian period.