The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Cameras, Collections, and Colored Maps





Luke calibrating his camera obscura

The first of these activities was creating a camera obscura. Latin for “dark chamber,” the camera obscura was a new (often termed “curious”) technology to late 17th and 18th century Europeans. Explorers, scientists, and natural historians often employed these rudimentary cameras on scientific expeditions in order to project images onto tracing paper, making a more faithful representation of their subject. Utilizing a camera obscura to create our own illustrations helped us better understand how, despite the advances in image technology, there remained many practical challenges to creating detailed and realistic drawings in the field. 








Matt mounting collected specimens 

For our second activity we created a class herbarium. Botanical observation was equally exciting for Europeans involved in scientific expeditions, as well as those who chose to collect specimens in their backyards. Assembling herbaria, a collection of personally gathered dried botanical specimens (also called a “hortus siccus”or “dried gardens”), was a common practice in the 18th century. Bruce’s Travels reveals his extensive collection of botanicals, many of which he gifted to the royal botanical gardens in Paris and London when he return to Europe. For this activity, our class collected specimens from around W&L’s campus. In this instance, our lack of botanical knowledge worked to our advantage, forcing us to use the same (admittedly imprecise) process of description and approximation that Bruce used during his journey.




Washing Maps

"...the practice of the hand doth speedily instruct the mind, and strongly confirm the memory beyond anything else.”
 Henry Peacham, The Art of Drawing, 1606
Washing Maps.JPG

Class washing (coloring) 18th century maps

Our final activity was to recreate a popular educational pastime called “washing” (coloring) maps. This activity aimed to contextualize Bruce’s travel narrative in the larger landscape of popular geography during the early modern period.Just like many intellectual pursuits of the early modern period, geography was closely linked to conceptual and empirical encounters; with mapping, understanding foreign “others,” collecting and organizing knowledge about the world, and describing these encounters in order to pose new questions about the nature of humanity.Many early modern manuals (ranging from art handbooks to “how-to” guidebooks) offered remarkably specific instructions on how purchasers could gain a deeper observational knowledge of world geography by coloring maps at home. 17th century author Henry Peacham noted the usefulness of coloring printed maps in the Art of Drawing (1606), imploring young men and women “to exercise…their Pencils in washing and coloring small Tables of Countries and places…for the practice of the hand doth speedily instruct the mind, and strongly confirm the memory beyond anything else.” Through this experience we learned how map makers actively produced cartographic prints which would help facilitate the process investigation (what one author called “sedentary travel”) through print. In addition to outlining geographic and political boarders, accompanying cartouches, perimeter designs, and frontispieces provided short, illustrated narratives about different regions of the world (Europe, America, Asia, and Africa). These included regional specific iconography, variations in flora and fauna, differences in custom and dress, and even newly emerging racial characterizations.

Cameras, Collections, and Colored Maps