Why Was Africa Called the Dark Continent?

Victorian Era Adventure, Missionaries, and Imperialism

South Africa : Illustration

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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 and disingenuous. Europeans had known quite a lot about Africa for at least 2,000 years, but European leaders began purposefully ignoring earlier sources of information to justify colonialism and anti-Blackness.

At the same time, the campaign against enslavement and for paternalistic missionary work in Africa intensified Europeans’ racial ideas about African people in the 1800s. White people called Africa the Dark Continent because they wanted to legitimize the enslavement of Black people and exploitation of Africa's resources.

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—Burton, Livingstone, Speke, and Stanley—who went to Africa were credited with (newly) 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 British explorer Henry M. Stanley, who with an eye to boosting sales titled one of his accounts "Through the Dark Continent," and another, "In Darkest Africa." However, Stanley himself recalled that before he left on his mission, he had read over 130 books on Africa.

Imperialism and Duality

Imperialism was global in the hearts of western businessmen in the 19th century, but there were subtle differences between the imperialist demand for African resources compared to other parts of the world. That did not make it any less brutal.

Most empire-building begins with the recognition of trading and commercial benefits that could be accrued. In Africa's case, the continent as a whole was being annexed to fulfill three purposes: the spirit of adventure (and the entitlement white Europeans felt towards Africa and its people and resources they could then claim and exploit), the patronizing desire to "civilize the natives" (resulting in deliberate erasure of African history, achievements, and culture) and the hope of stamping out the trade of enslaved people. Writers such as H. Ryder Haggard, Joseph Conrad, and Rudyard Kipling fed into the romanticized and racist depiction of a place that required saving by strong (and white) men of adventure.

An explicit duality was set up for these conquests: dark versus light and Africa versus West. Europeans decided the African climate invited mental prostration and physical disability. They imagined forests as implacable and filled with beasts; where crocodiles lay in wait, floating in sinister silence in the great rivers. Europeans believed danger, disease, and death were part of the uncharted reality and the exotic fantasy created in the minds of armchair explorers. The idea of a hostile Nature and a disease-ridden environment as tinged with evil was perpetrated by fictional accounts by Joseph Conrad and W. Somerset Maugham.

18th-Century Black Activists and Missionaries

By the late 1700s, British 18th-century Black abolitionists were campaigning hard against the practice of enslavement in England. They published pamphlets describing the horrid brutality and inhumanity of enslavement on plantations. 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 enslavement in 1833, however, Black activists turned their efforts against the practice within Africa. In the colonies, the British were also frustrated that former formerly enslaved people didn’t want to keep working on plantations for very low wages. To retaliate, the British portrayed African men not as human, but as lazy idlers, criminals, or evil traders of enslaved people.

At the same time, missionaries began traveling to Africa. Their goal: to convert as many Africans as possible to Christianity - at the expense of existing African religion, customs, and culture. African people already had built their civilizations, their culture, and their knowledge, especially of their own land and environment. The cultural erasure perpetrated by these European Christian missionaries caused significant damage to generations, while also attempting to distance African people from their own environment — which in turn left it even more vulnerable to damage and exploitation by imperialist interests.

When decades later the missionaries still had few converts in many areas, they began saying that African people’s hearts were unreachable, "locked in darkness." Rather than acknowledging why African people might not want their history, culture, and religion overridden by foreigners, the missionaries followed a familiar playbook: retaliation. They portrayed the African people as fundamentally "different" from westerners and closed off from the "saving light" of Christianity, further propagating inaccurate and deeply racist stereotypes about Africa and its people.

The Heart of Darkness

Africa was seen by the explorers as an erotically and psychologically powerful place of darkness, one that could only be cured by a direct application of Christianity and, of course, capitalism. Geographer Lucy Jarosz describes this stated and unstated belief clearly: Africa was seen as "a primeval, bestial, reptilian, or female entity to be tamed, enlightened, guided, opened, and pierced by white European males through western science, Christianity, civilization, commerce, and colonialism."

In reality, African people had been achieving great things in a variety of fields for thousands of years - often before Europeans did. Ancient African cultures were responsible for developing entire mathematical systems, charting the sun and creating calendars, sailing to South America and Asia long before Europeans did, and developing tools and techniques that even surpassed Roman technology. Africa was even home to its own empires (notably, the Zulu), as well as enormous libraries and universities in countries such as Mali.

By the 1870s and 1880s, European traders, officials, and adventurers were going to Africa to plunder, exploit, and destroy its people and resources. Recent developments in weaponry gave these men enough military might to enslave African people and seize control of raw materials. A particularly severe example of this is King Leopold's Belgian Congo. When things escalated, Europeans took no accountability and blamed Black people instead. Africa, they said, was what supposedly brought out the savagery in man. That belief is patently false.

The Myth Today

Over the years, people have given lots of reasons why Africa was called the Dark Continent. Many people know it is a racist phrase but don't fully understand why. The common belief that the phrase just referred to Europe's lack of knowledge about Africa makes it seem outdated, but otherwise benign.

Race does lie at the heart of this myth, but it is not just about skin color. Calling Africa The Dark Continent further codified the association between whiteness, purity, and intelligence and Blackness as a pollutant that made one subhuman. This is principle is exemplified by the one drop rule. The myth of the Dark Continent referred to the inferiority that Europeans convinced themselves was endemic to Africa, to further their political and economic agenda. The idea that its lands were unknown came from disregarding centuries of pre-colonial history, contact, and travel across the continent

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Thompsell, Angela. "Why Was Africa Called the Dark Continent?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2021, thoughtco.com/why-africa-called-the-dark-continent-43310. Thompsell, Angela. (2021, August 26). 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 October 16, 2021).