Why Was Africa Called the Dark Continent?

Ignorance, Slavery, Missionaries, and Racism Play a Role

Dark Continent
Slide related to Dr. Laws mission, Church of Scotland Foreign Missions Committee lantern slides, c1900. Flickr

The most common answer to the question, “Why was Africa called the Dark Continent?” is that Europe did not know much about Africa until the 19th century, but that answer is misleading. Europeans had known quite a lot, but they began ignoring earlier sources of information.

More importantly, the campaign against slavery and missionary work in Africa actually intensified Europeans’ racial ideas about African people in the 1800s.

  They called Africa the Dark Continent, because of the mysteries and the savagery they expected to find in the “Interior."

Exploration: Creating Blank Spaces

It is true that up until the 19th century, Europeans had little direct knowledge of Africa beyond the coast, but their maps were already filled with details about the continent. African kingdoms had been trading with Middle Eastern and Asian states for over two millennia. Initially, Europeans drew on the maps and reports created by earlier traders and explorers like the famed Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta who traveled across the Sahara and along the North and East coasts of Africa in the 1300s.​​

During the Enlightenment, however, Europeans developed new standards and tools for mapping, and since they weren’t sure precisely where the lakes, mountains, and cities of Africa were, they began erasing them from popular maps. Many scholarly maps still had more details, but due to the new standards, the European explorers who went to Africa were credited with discovering the mountains, rivers, and kingdoms to which African people guided them.

The maps these explorers created did add to what was known, but they also helped create the myth of the Dark Continent. The phrase itself was actually popularized by the explorer H. M. Stanley, who with an eye to boosting sales titled one of his accounts, Through the Dark Continent, and another, In Darkest Africa.

Slaves and Missionaries

In the late 1700s, British abolitionists were campaigning hard against slavery. They published pamphlets described the horrid brutality and inhumanity of plantation slavery. One of the most famous images showed a black man in chains asking “Am I not a man and a brother?”.

Once the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833, however, abolitionists turned their efforts against slavery within Africa. In the colonies, the British were also frustrated that former slaves didn’t want to keep working on plantations for very low wages. Soon the British were portraying African men not as brothers, but as lazy idlers or evil slave traders.

At the same time, missionaries began traveling to Africa to bring the word of God. They expected to have their work cut out for them, but when decades later they still had few converts in many areas, they began saying that African people’s hearts were locked in darkness. They were closed off from the saving light of Christianity.

The Heart of Darkness

By the 1870s and 1880s, European traders, officials, and adventurers were going to Africa to seek their fame and fortune, and recent developments in guns gave these men significant power in Africa.

When they abused that power – especially in the Congo -  Europeans blamed the Dark Continent, rather than themselves. Africa, they said, was the that supposedly brought out the savagery in man. 

The Myth Today

Over the years, people have given lots of reasons for why Africa was called the Dark Continent. Many people think it's racist but can't say why, and the common belief that the phrase just referred to Europe's lack of knowledge about Africa makes it seem out-dated, but otherwise benign.

Race does lie at the heart of this myth, but it not about skin color. The myth of the Dark Continent referred to the savagery Europeans said was endemic to Africa, and even the idea that its lands were unknown came from erasing centuries of pre-colonial history, contact, and travel across Africa.

Sources:

Brantlinger, Patrick. "Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent," Critical Inquiry. Vol. 12, No. 1, "Race," Writing, and Difference (Autumn, 1985):166-203.

Shepard, Alicia. "Should NPR have apologized for "Dark Continent?", NPR Ombudsman. February 27, 2008.

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Thompsell, Angela. "Why Was Africa Called the Dark Continent?" ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2017, thoughtco.com/why-africa-called-the-dark-continent-43310. Thompsell, Angela. (2017, September 8). Why Was Africa Called the Dark Continent? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/why-africa-called-the-dark-continent-43310 Thompsell, Angela. "Why Was Africa Called the Dark Continent?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/why-africa-called-the-dark-continent-43310 (accessed September 24, 2017).