Interesting and Uninteresting Unknowns

Mapping Southern Africa in the Seventeenth Century




mapping, visual cultures, Cape Colony, Dutch Republic, creole science, Dutch colonialism


This article explores the stark visual and epistemic contrasts between early modern representations of uncertain southern African spaces produced in the metropolitan Dutch Republic and the Cape Colony, respectively. It emphasizes the importance of metropolitan and colonial mapmakers’ different material interests in shaping their disparate visual cultures. Southern Africa was a heterotopia, viewed differently through metropolitan and settler eyes, and its visualization was interest-driven. Thus, the article argues, early modern representations of uncertain southern African topographies should be analyzed neither just as verisimilar descriptions nor as emptied or exoticized fantasies. Rather, the article proposes studying the epistemic and visual cultures of mapping with the perspective-dependent categories of interesting and uninteresting unknowns. Interesting unknowns tended to be illustrated in a straightforward, ostensibly representationalist manner, whereas uninteresting unknowns became sites for mapmakers to project delocalizing fantasies. Based on their dissimilar geopolitical perspectives and material interests, metropolitan Dutch and colonial creolized Cape mapmakers viewed different geographical unknowns as interesting or uninteresting. Thus, this article contends, scholars ought to pay more attention to the unique contexts that shaped their disparate depictions of the unknown.

Author Biography

  • Gianamar Giovannetti-Singh, University of Cambridge

    Gianamar Giovannetti-Singh is the Lumley Junior Research Fellow in History at Magdalene College and a Leverhulme Trust “Early Career” Fellow in the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge. His current research ex‐plores how early modern Europeans drew on Asian knowledges to make sense of the unknown in Southern Africa.






Special Issue