The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

European Perceptions of Foreign Lands


Map of North Africa from James Cook's Travel Atlas, 1794

The Age of Enlightenment, which took place during the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, saw major shifts in the ways Europeans viewed the themselves and their surroundings.  This page seeks to provide an explanation of how shifting perspectives in Europe during the Enlightenment are relevant James Bruce's travels and to the growth in popularity of travel narratives and popular geography.  

Pre-Enlightenment Europe and the Role of Maps

Prior to the Enlightenment, European perceptions of little-known parts of the world were very often misled or uninformed.  The European public during this time was widely ignorant about much of the world outside of Europe, instead relying on "knowledge" based on outdated information.  Geographical maps from this period clearly display this trend, and can be important tools in analyzing popular perceptions of the world.  Astonishingly, European cartographers, as late as the 17th century, were still relying on the work of classical thinkers like Ptolemy, who died in 168 A.D. (Clapham 295)  Maps, however, are inherently biased to reflect the cartographers worldview, which can be either enlightening or problematic.  While maps could reflect the perceptions of society more broadly, mapmakers often used maps to create a marketable narrative, thus skewing the information that could be gleaned about the time period (Schmidt 364).  The fact that mapmakers could have ulterior motives further inhibited Europeans' ability to gain a clear understanding of foreign lands prior to the Enlightenment.  While the content of maps can tell much about societal views, omissions from maps can be equally as telling.  A 1794 map of Europe and Africa (see above), found in the travel atlas of famous British explorer James Cook, gives a highly detailed depiction of Europe, while most of the lands of Africa's interior are noticeably blank.  This ommission, despite coming as late as 1794, demonstrates a clear desire to emphasize known information in order to cover up shortcomings in other intellectual ares (Clapham 296-298).  Overall, analysis of maps from this period show that they had a major impact on European perceptions of the world, as their content was often misleading, skewed, or flat out wrong.

Social Norms and European Disinterest

Another pre-Enlightenment trend that impacted the way European's perceived foreign lands was a general disinterest in places outside of Europe.  Even Africa, located in such close proximity with Europe, did not draw much interest, as many Europeans thought all Africans were "the same." (Barley 270)  This trend of disinterest coincided with the European desire to maintain an established social hierarchy.  Europeans liked to believe themselves to be the pinnacle of society and culture, and had little interest in interacting with "lower" classes of people from around the world.  For many Europeans, exploration and education about other parts of the world seemed unnecessary, as European society was already at the top of the social ladder.  This haughty attitude also prohibited European understanding of the world by causing them to reject information about other cultures.  As seen in the example of James Bruce, who returned to Europe with stories of Abyssinians dining on raw beef, Europeans refused to accept information that did not match up with their social and cultural norms (Mitsein 3).  Europeans' strongly established sense of social norms further prohibited them from developing a clear and accurate perception of foreign lands.


Map of Prester John's Kingdom, 1564

The Myth of Prester John

European knowledge of the world prior to the Enlightenment was also heavily influenced on myths, hear-say, or deeply entrenched beliefs based on unsubstantiated information. One prominent myth that was widely accepted in Europe was the legend of Prester John, a fantastical Christian ruler who was thought to have a kingdom in East Africa.  While it was correctly assumed that modern-day Ethiopia at the time did have connections to Christianity, the stories about Prester John were entirely false.  Despite this, many Europeans held his existence to be factual, and used stories about him as a basis for their understanding about the region.  Early maps clearly demonstrate the European trend of associating Abyssinia with Prester John.  One of the earliest of these maps, published in Antwerp in 1574, depicted a large kingdom encompassing nearly half of Africa, and was entitled "Description of the Empire of Prester John or the Abyssinians." (Clapham 296)  This practice continued throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, as cartographers, who had likely never even been to Africa, followed the traditions of the predecessors in the absence of actual knowledge (Clapham 297).  Another example of a Prester John map can be seen in this exhibit (see left).



Enlightened Exploration

 The Enlightenment in Europe saw major shifts in the way Europeans perceived the world and foreign lands.  As an intellectual movement, the Enlightenment promoted values such as rationalism, intellectual curiosity, and the desire to obtain as much knowledge about the world as possible.  This led European intellectuals to become more accepting of new information, causing them to break many of their previously sacred beliefs and personal biases in an effort to obtain truth and understanding.  This movement also fueled exploration of many new parts of the world in order to progress fields like geography and natural history.  People like James Cook, James Bruce, and Mark Catesby went on journeys to foreign lands for the purpose of curiosity and intellectual gain, fulling embracing the Enlightenment spirit.  This differed sharply from earlier global explorations, such as those of the Spanish conquistadors, which were usually focused on personal gain (Stern 54-69).  While this new spirit of exploration provided the benefit of an increase in knowledge for Europeans, it also facilitated a reaction in popular culture.  Increased interest in the world during this time directly contributed to the popularization of travel narratives and the rise of popular geography.  From reading travel narratives to creating collections and studying maps, these media allowed Europeans to closely interact with geography and information about he world.  These practices helped Europeans develop a more clear understanding of different places all around the world.  While Europeans began to experience a shift in perceptions of foreign lands, they also developed new understandings of foreign people.  The former disinterest in non-Europeans began to subside, as peoples from around the world became a subject of study and inquiry in the field of natural history (Gissis 93-96).  Explorers like James Cook did not solely focus on exploration, but also documented the people that he encountered during this travels (see below).  The Enlightenment saw the flow of new information driven by the thirst for knowledge and an increased sense of curiosity radically impact Europeans' perceptions of foreign lands by creating a better popular understanding of the natural world.

Works Cited

Barley, Nigel. "Africa: in the shadow of the Enlightenment." In Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Kim Sloan and Andrew Burnett, 270-275. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2003. 

Clapham, Christopher. “The European Mapping of Ethiopia 1460-1856.” Journal of Ethiopian Studies (2007): 293-307.

Gissis, Snait B. "Visualizing 'Race' in the Eighteenth Century." Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, Vol. 41, No. 1 (2011): 41-103. 

Mitsein, Rebekah. What the Abyssinian Liar Can Tell Us about True Stories: Knowledge, Skepticism, and James Bruce's Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, 1-5. 2015.

Schmidt, Benjamin. “Inventing Exoticism: The Project of Dutch Cartography and the Marketing of the World, c. 1700.” In Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe, edited by Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen, 347-369. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Stern, Philip J. "Exploration and Enlightenment." In Reinterpreting Exploration: The West in the World, edited by Dane Kennedy, 54-79. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.


European Perceptions of Foreign Lands