Making Blank Spaces

by zunguzungu

In 1899, Joseph Conrad’s Marlow remembered when Africa was still a blank space:

Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, `When I grow up I will go there.’ The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off. Other places were scattered about the hemispheres. I have been in some of them, and . . . well, we won’t talk about that. But there was one yet–the biggest, the most blank, so to speak– that I had a hankering after.

True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery– a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness…

In Abel Chapman‘s 1908 safari book, however, we are reassured that East Africa is still, despite the excesses of those horrid Boers in South Africa, a blank space :

South Africa when the world was young—that is, when we were young—represented to those who had inherited an adventurous spirit, and in whose breast a love of the wild was innate, something that approached the acme of terrestrial joys. Thereaway, our earlier lessons had taught that, co-existent with the humdrum monotony of a work-a-day world, there yet survived a vast continent still absolutely unknown and unsubdued by man, and across whose vacant space there sprawled, inscribed in burning letters on the map, that vocal word, ” Unexplored.” To no subsequent generation, as this world is geologically constituted, can a similar condition ever recur…after a quarter of a century, when there came at length opportunity to visit the far-away veld of South Africa, already its long-dreamt charm had faded. During the second half of the nineteenth century the erewhiles wondrous fauna of the sub-continent had steadily, incredibly melted away before Boer breechloaders.

These gloomy forebodings have fortunately proved baseless—have been scattered to the four winds by events that followed. South Africa as a virgin hunting-field exists no longer; yet such spectacles of wild-life as fifty years ago adorned its veld and karoo, with all the glory of a pristine fauna every whit as rich, may yet be enjoyed elsewhere in that vast continent. It is no longer to the regions beyond the Zambesi that the hunter must turn attention—those regions where Mr. Selous in my own time (since we were at Rugby together in the ‘sixties) has earned pre-eminence among naturalisthunters of all ages. No, the centre of attraction has shifted northwards, far northward—to the British territories that lie around the equator. There some of Nature’s wildest scenes, practically unchanged since the days of creation, may yet be enjoyed. More than that. These new regions are accessible as South Africa never was at its zenith; for these new hunting-grounds are reached by steam all the way, on land and sea—a simple three-weeks’ journey by ocean liner and corridor train.