Drawing Colonial Lines: Between Armchair Cartography and On-Site Observation

On May 16, 1893, the cartographer Paul Langhans (1867–1952) wrote to German explorer Joachim Graf von Pfeil und Klein-Ellguth (1857–1924), a former farmer in the Orange Free State and colonial politician: “Highly esteemed Count! […] The crossing of Neu-Mecklenburg in 1:200,000 is now in autography, […]. I request a short text for the map, according to which also the lettering of the map would have to be completed, otherwise it would look far too empty” (Langhans 1893). The then still relatively young cartographer Langhans was a native of Hamburg and had already obtained material about areas unknown to Europeans even when he was still in secondary school. He contacted explorers directly at the port and visualized the material they provided in map form. After studying in Leipzig and Kiel, Langhans joined the publishing house of Justus Perthes in Gotha in 1889 and quickly came to be seen as a possible successor to the well-known cartographer and virtuoso compiler of route surveys Bruno Hassenstein (1839–1902). 

His request to von Pfeil for an accompanying text to fill the map, however, shows that he was continuing traditions of Justus Perthes that were characterized by an effort to not only illustrate geographical research, but to actively direct and supervise it in order to obtain a maximum of up-to-date data for the best cartographic representation. The attitude towards explorers and their material was stimulating, demanding, critical, and tremendously meticulous, which contributed significantly to the excellent reputation the publishing house gained among explorers and map users worldwide. This is one of the reasons why the material of the Perthes Collection is so unique and remains so valuable to this day. Langhans mapped various voyages of von Pfeil. The map of South West Africa by Langhans, which focused on von Pfeil’s explorations of the German-British borderlands and the colonial imaginations it conveyed, will be the focus of the following analysis.

Langhans’ Colonial Cartography

In 1893, the year in which Langhans wrote to von Pfeil, several instalments of his first atlas project, the Deutscher Kolonial-Atlas, were published. This atlas not only abruptly catapulted him into the first rank of German colonial cartographers, but also vehemently opposed the prevailing concept of colonies, which located them exclusively overseas. Langhans’ plan to record every German-speaking settlement worldwide in his atlas as a German colony was a monumental attempt to visually integrate the contemporary developments of globalization with the construction of a German nation, based on a shared cultural and ethnic background (Meyer 2021: 74-90). He had political and cartographic engagements with organizations such as the “Alldeutscher Verband” (Pan-German League) and the “Deutschbund”, which resulted in Langhans’ enduring reputation as a nationalistic and völkisch cartographer.

With the production of Langhans’ maps, the Justus Perthes publishing house opted for an increasingly German nationalist perspective in the fight for market share since the 1890s, in contrast to the previous Africa cartography of August Petermann (1822–1878) or Bruno Hassenstein (1839–1902). It certainly is true that these prior maps of European expeditions in Africa also formed the basis of colonial “spatial domination” (Schelhaas/Wardenga 2011: 107). They too regarded German participation in the exploration of “unknown territories” as a national matter, but more in the sense of gaining scientific prestige than for the purpose of economic and political appropriation and exploitation, something that changed under Langhans. Despite maintaining a stimulating and critical attitude towards geographical research, this represented a substantial shift compared to the Petermann era.

Count von Pfeil’s “Voyage through the German-British borderlands of South West Africa” (1892)

Map of von Pfeils Voyage to German South West Africa in 1892, published by Paul Langhans in 1894
Gotha Research Library, Perthes Collection, SPA 4° 00100 (040), Bl. 5 (CC BY-SA 4.0).

In 1892, Count von Pfeil traveled through parts of the British Cape Colony and German South West Africa, today’s Namibia. It became the first of the so-called “protectorates” (Schutzgebiete) that formed the German colonial empire from 1884 onward. The expedition had two goals, which demonstrate the close connection between science and colonialism at that time: on the one hand, von Pfeil was supposed to expand the geographical knowledge of the region; on the other hand, he was supposed to explore suitable land for the settlement of colonists on behalf of the “Syndikat für die Siedlung in Deutsch-Südwestafrika” (Syndicate for the Settlement in German South West Africa) (Erbar 2001).

In 1894, von Pfeil published the results of the expedition in Petermann’s Geographische Mitteilungen, the best-known forum for geographic discoveries and research from the Perthes publishing house. This text, published under the title “Sketch of Southwest Africa”, had been suggested and edited by Langhans. The map shown here was drafted by Langhans himself, the autography was made by Carl Barich (1859–1931). It includes an overview map of German South West Africa at 1:5,000,000, which also served as an index to the three maps of von Pfeil’s route at 1:500,000 (two of which were not oriented toward the north). It also incorporates a series of eight elevation profiles along the itinerary and a cross-section of the Orange River’s bed.

Mapping and the Epistemic Practice of Drawing Lines

The traveler’s report and map formed the basic components of an exploitative as well as colonialist research practice, the relations of which will be outlined in the following. In his book “The Life of Lines,” the British social anthropologist Tim Ingold has presented an anthropological approach for a history of culture whose leitmotif is the human activity of making and drawing lines. Ingold describes a development culminating in the production of the straight line, which he describes as “a symbol of modernity, a sign of the triumph of rational, purposeful planning over the impermanence of the natural world” (Ingold 2021: 191).

In his book, Ingold conceptualizes two fundamentally different practices of world-building and knowledge generation: map sketching, the permanent convergence of observations and experiences along a continuous but winding path interwoven with the environment; and geographic mapping, based on a knowledge composed of the exact addition of data from surveyed points, from which straight lines and areas are finally abstracted, but in which the path between the points plays no role (Ingold 2021: 95-115). This inspiring, but somewhat ideal-typical dichotomy must be differentiated for colonial cartography, or more precisely for the type of route surveys exemplified by the map analyzed here, even if the purpose of this map served the same goal that Ingold describes as follows: “Throughout history, however, imperial powers have from time to time sought to occupy already inhabited worlds, casting a network of connected dots over what in their eyes was not a web of paths but an open space. […] Such a type of line does not emerge like a path through the movement of wandering; it is planned and constructed before traffic reaches it” (Ingold 2021: 107).

In the case of route surveys, however, colonial cartography consisted of two linked operations. Since the areas to be mapped were far too large and the means too limited, no elaborate topographic survey based on triangulation could be carried out at that time. Instead, explorers had to make their way on the ground, measuring the direction of their path with a compass, observing the surroundings carefully, noting the distance to relevant objects and talking to inhabitants they met along the way or in settlements to collect information. For this reason, much of the information and knowledge were in fact local knowledge, as well as the place names on the map. The bearings of von Pfeil are indicated in the map in the form of fine broken lines. Here, too, there was an “increase in knowledge along a travel route” and not only based on abstract points. Von Pfeil observed the area he traveled through with regards to pasture possibilities and potential opportunities for irrigation from underground water reservoirs, contained in limestone layers. This perspective is also reflected in the map: meticulously marked along the route are good pastures, dammed water, limestone, “sand dunes with abundant forage grass,” etc.

Imagining Colonial Landscapes

Von Pfeil’s gaze on the lands he traveled through was interventionist and already characterized by the imagination of a future colonial settlement based on extensive livestock farming. In his ‘Kolonial-Atlas’, Langhans adopted these dreams. Writing about his maps of South West Africa, he claimed that “excellent connoisseurs” agreed upon the fact that the land could be transformed into “excellent pasture land” by artificial irrigation. These areas were marked on his maps by a special colouring, thus giving “a more pleasing picture of the protectorate than the previous maps with their sandy and stony deserts” (Langhans 1897: unpag.). Von Pfeil summarized the further prospects in his report: If one saw progress in the introduction of “European culture and administration” in these areas, then one would “logically” have to welcome the “decline of the economic independence of these peoples,” because then “the moment of European domination would occur by itself.” The labor power of the inhabitants would then fall to the Europeans, for their benefit and for the “overall welfare of the country.”The inhabitants would be placed on a culturally “different stage of development” by becoming a “better class of servants” for the Europeans (von Pfeil 1894:11).

These rather unpleasant perspectives were only envisioned by von Pfeil with regard to the so-called “bastards,” the ethnically mixed inhabitants of the Anglo-German border area. He was silent about the future of the Nama, whose characterization by von Pfeil defies description. The gaze on the inhabitants was thus by no means guided by an interest in the Other, but was profoundly racist and served only to legitimize the exploitation and, ultimately, the dispossession of the indigenous peoples. Not only were they on a lower cultural level in Joachim von Pfeil’s eyes, but even the landscape appeared “incoherent” to him and the hilltops standing in “chaotic wildness” in the riverbed of the Orange River (von Pfeil 1894: 1).

But it was Langhans’ map that translated this chronologically narrated text, structured in a linear manner along the itinerary, into a visual space that could serve as a blueprint for colonial imaginations and ambitions. Langhans compiled heterogeneous material in Gotha – the map title stated “According to the traveler’s surveys as well as with the use of all other sources” – and carefully checked sources against one another. He rendered the 13 sheets of von Pfeil’s “raw construction” of the map into a grid and thus constructed a map that made it possible to access the locations found in the narrative. Only then did von Pfeil’s material become a “geographic map” in Ingold’s sense. Areas that had been traveled through became territory.

At the same time, Langhans’ map secured the verifiability of von Pfeil’s data and legitimized his geographical observations and ethnic descriptions as a contribution to science. However, objections came from an unexpected side. Due to differing place names, the chief editor of Petermann’s Mitteilungen, the geographer Alexander Supan (1847–1920), intervened in the map commentary and criticized this perceived “inconsistency.” Since the map had not been submitted to him for correction, he decided to “disclaim any responsibility for it” and, as it were, cast doubt on the map after its publication (Langhans 1894: 12). The scrutiny for which the journal was famous could thus also hit its own cartographers.


The collaboration of Langhans and von Pfeil exemplifies the personal cooperation of armchair cartographers and geographic explorers in colonial cartography. Already during the writing of the travelogue, a close exchange of letters and an editing process had taken place in which Langhans repeatedly intervened. Medially, the map and the travelogue also maintained close relationships and referred to each other. The report provided the linear narrative, the entertaining element, and historical, geographical, and ethnological contexts. The map transformed the report into a spatial visualization that, because of its mathematical basis, functioned as a primary scientific outcome of the expedition, which also gave the report and its imaginations of settlement colonialism the status of objective truth. In this respect, the practice of the explorer (observational wandering through the area) and cartographic practice were closely related to each other and did not form opposites, at least with regard to their common goal, as Tim Ingold suggests. Both cartographer and researcher were united in their colonialist perspective. This consisted of a racist view of the indigenous people that judged them collectively and fostered their dispossession as well as the deprivation of their rights.

Cite this article as: Philipp Meyer, "Drawing Colonial Lines: Between Armchair Cartography and On-Site Observation," in Mapping Africa and Asia, 29/03/2022, https://karafas.hypotheses.org/1241.


Erbar, Ralph, Pfeil, Joachim Graf von. In: Neue Deutsche Biographie, Vol. 20 (2001), pp. 327-328, URL: https://www.deutsche-biographie.de/pnd11585732X.html#ndbcontent [10.2. 2021].

Ingold, Tim, Eine kurze Geschichte der Linien, Konstanz 2021.

Langhans, Paul, Deutscher Kolonial-Atlas. 30 Karten mit 300 Nebenkarten, Gotha 1897.

Meyer, Philipp, Kartographie und Weltanschauung. Visuelle Wissensproduktion im Verlag Justus Perthes (1890-1945), Göttingen 2021.

Pfeil, Joachim Graf von, Skizze von Südwestafrika. In: Mitteilungen aus Justus Perthes’ Geographischer Anstalt, Vol. 40 (1894), pp. 1–11, 42–44.

Schelhaas, Bruno/ Wardenga, Ute, Inzwischen spricht die Karte für sich selbst. Transformationen von Wissen im Prozess der Kartenproduktion. In: Siegel, Steffen/ Weigel, Petra (eds.), Die Werkstatt des Kartographen. Materialien und Praktiken visueller Welterzeugung, Paderborn 2011, pp. 89–108.

Letter from Paul Langhans to Joachim Graf von Pfeil, May 16, 1893. BArch Berlin, N 2225/143, pag. 1.

Source citations were translated by the author.

Philipp Meyer

Philipp Meyer is a historian who studied history, comparative literature and journalism in Leipzig and Avignon. In 2021, he published his dissertation on visual map styles and their colonial and nationalist implications since the late 19th century at the publishing house Justus Perthes. Since 2020, he has been a research associate at the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography in Leipzig, working in a project on Russian and German school atlases with regard to their transnational conception and production contexts.

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