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The Mountains of Kong

Mountains of Kong

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The History

Rennell Africa The Mountains of Kong were a significant geographic feature on 19th century European maps of West Africa, usually originating in the highlands of Guinea and stretching straight across the Sahara into Central Africa. The Mountains of Kong first appeared on maps in 1798, following the West African expeditions of Scottish explorer Mungo Park. Park explored a good deal of Central West Africa, and was the first European to traverse the middle part of the Niger River. After his first expedition, he recounted his travels to English cartographer James Rennel, who published a map showing Park's discoveries in 1798. Rennel's map showed a large range of Mountains running east to west between the Niger River and the African coast to the south.

Why Rennel's map shows these mountains is a bit of a mystery. Park's journey did not take him into the area where these mountains were depicted, nor did he provide an explanation why they are called the Mountains of Kong. There are no mountains in the area that Rennel depicted, but there are a series of low hills and plateaus in some areas that separate the inner plains of West Africa from the coast. It is possible that Park was told about this chain of hills by his native guides and he then relayed the information to Rennel.

Whatever the source of the information, these hills, which do not reach 700 feet above the level of the surrounding country, were exaggerated into a towering and impassable range of mountains. This error might have been corrected had Park not died on the Niger in 1806. With Park's death, the Niger and its surrounding area were not thoroughly explored by Europeans for several decades.

However, the lack of new exploration did not deter significant changes to these mountains on European maps. In 1805 British mapmaker John Cary showed a much longer "Mountains of the Kong" connecting to the equally fictitious Mountains of the Moon, creating a giant mountain range that crossed the continent from east to west. This incarnation of the Mountains of Kong would be popular on European and American maps for several decades, remaining in place until at least the 1840s.

Numerous explorers who ventured into this area continued to include the mountains on their maps. Explorers like René Caillié, Hugh Clapperton, and John and Richard Lander showed the Mountains of Kong on their maps, and occasionally increased their size. The reasons for this are unclear, but most likely these men glimpsed hills or plateaus in the distance and took them to be the foothills of the supposedly mighty Mountains of the Kong. As the main object of their explorations was the Niger River and not the Mountains, it is not unthinkable that these explorers did not spend much time trying to find the Mountains of Kong. Equally likely is the idea that these explorers simply added their discoveries to existing maps of the area, and did not remove any features for which they had no proof.

The mountains were finally disproven in the late 1880s by French explorer Louis-Gustave Binger. During his expeditions along the Niger in 1887 and 1888, Binger surveyed the area in much greater detail than previous explorers and firmly attested that no such mountains existed. Despite Binger proving the Mountains of the Kong were a fiction, they did not immediately vanish from maps or atlases. The Mountains of Kong occasionally appeared in maps and atlases well into the 20th Century, long after their existence had been disproven. In fact, the Mountains of Kong mistakenly reappeared in the index of Goode's World Atlas in 1995!

A Selection of Maps

Frank A. Gray. "Gray's New Map of Africa." Philadelphia: O.W. Gray & Son, 1881. 15 x 12. Lithograph, engraved on stone by J.M. Atwood & W.H. Helms. Original hand color. Chip in top right corner; else very good condition. Backed with map of Asia.

The last part of the nineteenth century was a period of intense European exploration of Africa and this map reflects the latest information available on the "dark continent." For instance, information from Stanley's 1874-77 explorations to Lake Victoria and the Congo are included, as is much other interior detail that is impressively updated from earlier maps. The political situation of the continent is also up-to-date, with the Orange River Free State and Natal shown, and other nations/colonies along the coasts. Insets are included of St. Helena and the delta of the Nile. A wonderfully detailed and current snap-shot of Africa at an exciting period of its history. $150


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