Let’s play a game. Take a look at the map below of a section of West Africa drawn in 1839. Aside from the outdated colonial names, does anything seem out of place?
Looks like a normal map of 19th century Africa, right? It is, but like most maps of Africa created during that century, it’s also very wrong in one important regard.
See the long range of mountains labeled Mountains of Kong located directly above the blue territory of Upper Guinea? The mountains that seemingly stretch for thousands of miles? They don’t actually exist.
If you, like me, didn’t notice anything odd about the Kong Mountains, then don’t worry, because neither did anyone in the 19th century. From the time they were first added to the map in 1798, until it was definitively proven that they did not exist in 1889, the Kong Mountains appeared on no less than forty published maps. How did such a glaring error continue to be repeated again and again? For much the same reason that California was drawn as an island for hundreds of years (something I raised in an earlier blog post). When an area of the world is still largely unexplored, cartographers would rather copy other cartographers than leave a blank spot on a map, even if the feature they copied was unverified and possibly fictional. It speaks to a truth about human nature, that we would rather a fiction than an unknown.
So how did the Kong Mountains come to be, anyway? The English cartographer James Rennell first added the mountain range to a map accompanying Mungo Park’s 1798 travelogue, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa. Park traveled in search of the source of the Niger River, and along the way, he observed two or three mountains that he suggested may be preventing the Niger River from flowing South to the Gulf of Guinea. Rennell took this idea and ran with it, constructing a whole mountain range running from East to West which he argued was shaping the course of the Niger River. He was wrong, but people believed him because of his recent accomplishment in producing the most detailed survey of Bengal at the time.
Mungo’s account of Africa, and Rennell’s maps, became very popular and inspired other mapmakers to add the Kong Mountains to their own maps. Not only that, but the mountains were greatly expanded and exaggerated over the years. One cartographer added snowy peaks, and another combined the range with other mythological African mountains. The fiction stubbornly persisted for almost 100 years, even though no one else reported seeing the mountain range.
Finally, in 1889, the French officer Louis-Gustave Binger traveled all along the Niger and concluded that the Kong mountain range simply did not exist. He relayed this news to the Paris Geological Society, and very shortly afterwards, the Kong mountains started disappearing from the map. They did, however, continue to pop up occasionally, apparently even in an atlas published in 1995. Old cartographical habits die hard!