In 1884-85, a group of European dignitaries met in Berlin and delineated the boundaries of French, British, Belgian, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and German colonies on the continent of Africa. Lines drawn on the map became administrative reality, and over the next few decades European governments busied themselves with exploring, surveying, and conquering their new territories. One of the regions allocated to Germany was an area called “Kamerun,” from the Portuguese “Camarões,” referring to the abundant shrimp in the Wouri River. Kamerun was located in central-west Africa, on the Bight of Bonny, and within its territory several polities were already in existence.
Among these was the kingdom of Bamum in the northwestern part of the new colony, then ruled by King Nsangu; within a couple years of the Berlin Conference, his son, Ibrahim Njoya, had taken the throne. Reigning during a turbulent period of political change – including no fewer than 3 colonial administrations – Njoya made a name for himself promoting and leading projects of national and cultural identity-building, including the development of a new syncretic religion and a script for the Bamum language.
Perhaps the most literal of Njoya’s nation-building projects was the creation of maps of the Bamum kingdom, one of which was acquired by the Geography and Map Division in 2021. This map depicts the entire kingdom, encircled by the Mbam and Noun Rivers. It was titled Lewa ngu, “the book of the country.”
Between April and October 1912, he, along with his chief cartographer, Nji Mama, led the first of a series of topographical surveys of the Bamum state. Its capital, Foumban, was surveyed later in 1918. A team of 60 people conducted the work, which included bush-clearing, taking measurements, and recording toponyms.
The walled city of Foumban dominates the center of the map. The royal palace – shown as a red square with crossing lines – is in the north end of the city. Depicted in green are two mountains, Mbapit and Nkogam, which rise to the west and southwest of the city. Green is the typical color for mountains on Njoya’s maps; roads and paths are red, while rivers and text are a purplish-blue.
Njoya studied contemporary maps of Kamerun made by German cartographers like Max Moisel, the head cartographer of the German Institute for Colonial Cartography (Kolonial kartographisches Institut), which had a staff of about 60 – the same number as Njoya’s topographic survey team. German, and later British and French, colonial maps relied on geographic data provided by African informants, and in 1907, Moisel spent about 5 months in Kamerun collecting information.
Moisel’s earlier maps of Cameroon reveal the limited German presence in the Bamum region prior to 1902. This map, dated around 1901, includes very little data in a large, sparsely-detailed area labeled “Concessions of the Northwest Cameroon Company.” In the middle of the concession is the toponym “Bayong (Bamum),” surrounded by a few settlements, some labeled tentatively with question marks. The Bamum capital of Foumban would appear somewhere above the hyphen in “Nordwest-Kamerun.”
A map very similar to this was published in 6 sheets in the 1901 edition of in the Großer Deutscher Kolonialatlas. By the time the second edition of Moisel’s Cameroon maps appeared in 1911, they had been fleshed out with rich detail. Foumban is not only shown on the map, it has taken over as the title of the sheet, which was previously called Yola. It’s likely that Moisel obtained some of this geographic information from Njoya, while the latter studied and adapted German cartographic techniques used by Moisel.
The Großer Deutscher Kolonialatlas presented to the German people a clear visualization of political power – a global empire contained within a book. Scholars have discussed the political purposes of Njoya’s cartography – including consolidating his rule and resisting colonial incursions into Bamum territory – and debated the extent to which his cartographic skills were self-taught vs. influenced by that of Moisel and German missionary cartographers. What is evident is that Njoya’s maps are not recreations of German maps; they are, from the toponyms themselves to the script in which they’re written, Bamum maps.
Njoya produced several versions of the national map, as well as maps of the city of Foumban. His earliest extant map plotted the route between his farm and the capital. The version shown here is the only map of his held in the Geography and Map Division, which holds about two dozen maps by Max Moisel.
- Bamum Script: An African Writing System – research guide from the African and Middle Eastern Division
- The Genius of Cameroon’s Sultan Ibrahim Njoya – post on Library of Congress blog
A fascinating and illuminating article that illustrates some of the dynamics of colonialism and the extraordinary efforts of an African ruler to define his own territory.
What a splendidly informative and eye-opening article!