‘Mastering the River Niger: James MacQueen’s Map of Africa and the Struggle over Atlantic Slavery’ (Review of David Lambert’s presentation on the 13th February 2013)

This post is a review of the seminar given by David Lambert on James MacQueen’s Map of Africa (University of Leeds, 13 February 2013).

David Lambert presented a fascinating analysis of the influences upon James MacQueen’s geographical imagination of the River Niger during the classic age of exploration.

There were three main sections to Lambert’s presentation.  First, he provided an overview of MacQueen’s life yet this aspect of his paper should only be addressed briefly.   The salient details were that he was a Glaswegian bookkeeper who attempted to map the River Niger during his time as an overseer on the Westerhall estate, Grenada, from 1799 due to the potential economic rewards of control trade along the tributaries.  His motive and methodology are further explored through the analysis of his professional life in section two.

James MacQueen's map of Africa

James MacQueen’s map of Africa

Analysis of his professional life centres on his experience as a bookkeeper and a merchant in Glasgow.  MacQueen strongly supported a protectionist policy, which was undoubtedly rooted in his bookkeeping practice of balancing the accounts.  His protectionist philosophy was the foundation to his West African venture yet his bookkeeping skills facilitated it.  Lambert explains that in bookkeeping three books were kept.  First was the waste book, which managed the day to day transactions.  Second was the journal, which converted, abbreviated and shortened the waste book into a weekly book.  Third was the ledger, which was the final product.  This process relied heavily upon a set of rules, which, if they were adhered to correctly, would result in an accurate and precise method.  This was, Lambert argues, directly applied by MacQueen to imagining space in West Africa.  Whilst he was working as an overseer on the Westerhall estate he collected a multiplicity of sources from Arabic explorers to sailors and merchants.  He converted this array of sources into an imagination of space in Africa through the three stages explained above.  The waste book was the variety of accounts of the River Niger, the journal was the synthesis and reorganisation of these accounts, and the ledger was the map.  Lambert emphasised that these set of rules resulted in an accurate and precise imagination of the composition of the River Niger.  MacQueen’s process was a mode to channel a geographer’s imagination and reduce the prominence of its fantastical aspect, to produce an accurate and precise picture of geographical space.  This practice of the detached geographer is perfectly valid in early modern geography as a statistical process of mapping only emerged in the mid-20th century.[1]

One of the most remarkable sources used by MacQueen was the geographical accounts of West African slaves on the plantation where he worked, the third part to Lambert’s presentation.  This final section is also the most interesting as the understanding of the imagination of geographical space by trans-Atlantic slaves is a relatively untouched field.  Lambert admits that the evidence of how MacQueen gained information from enslaved people is extremely limited and hypothesised that they were from the Westerhall estate.  This highlights an interesting aspect to MacQueen’s work.  How did subjugated African peoples represent the geography of West Africa?  Lambert argues that this was influenced by a two main factors, both of which are trans-Atlantic in their nature.  First, the experiences of the enslaved Africans through commodification, transportation and labour on Westerhall estate would have had a considerable effect on their representation of Africa’s geography.  Second, the method of extracting their knowledge used by MacQueen, and his role as overseer, is equally as important.  His predecessor, Mandingo Parks, travelled to Africa and learnt the Mande language.  When he returned he transferred this knowledge to MacQueen.  It was the language of an overseer, however, citing questions such as ‘point out your brother’ or ‘do your work’.  Both of these factors had a considerable effect on the geographical depiction of West Africa by MacQueen due to the large share these sources occupied in his three-stage process.

Lambert’s study of the history of geographical knowledge intersects two disciplines: slavery and abolition of empire, and scientific research and knowledge.  Within the history of geographical knowledge, Lambert synthesised two main areas of research to produce his paper. The first is revisionists and post-colonial academics who seek to recover the agency and the resistance of the colonies’ ‘others’ in these histories.[2]  The second is Dubois’ work, which focuses on the interaction of Enlightenment and slavery through an Atlantic approach.[3]  Lambert used the biography of James MacQueen to enable this synthesis and facilitate his analysis.  He recognised that MacQueen was referenced in a range of literature concerning Europe, The West Indies and Africa during the late 18th and early 19th century.  This influential figure, however, had not been studied in his own right.  Therefore, Lambert carried out extensive archival research, which focused on MacQueen’s two books and a variety of other documents.  This allowed Lambert to use the experiences of the Glaswegian bookkeeper, not previously analysed by academics, as a catalyst to explore the agency of the trans-Atlantic slave on the imagination of geographical space in Africa during the late 18th and early 19th century.[4]  In a previous paper MacQueen suggested that his research differs from Dubois’ by making an empirical entry into, rather, than setting an agenda for, a broader field.[5]  This claim was validated in his presentation.

There are a series of problems with Lambert’s paper, however.  His presentation was taken from the beginning of his upcoming book and thus focused upon the early stages of James Macqueen’s life.  Therefore, given that Lambert did not explain the impact of MacQueen’s work or whether he was paradigmatic of late 18th and early 19th century Glasgow, it was difficult to gauge the importance of studying this individual within the discipline of the history of geographical knowledge.  The omission of ‘impact’ also damaged his analysis of trans-Atlantic slave memory of geographical space in Africa as Lambert only acknowledged the significance of the distortions in the slaves’ imagination and did not explore the direct impact they would have had on MacQueen’s representation of space.  A further criticism of Lambert’s paper is that he did not explain the characteristics of the geographer or geographical knowledge in a broader sense.  This could have been provided by Susan Schulten’s analysis of geographical imagination in America, Morag Bell and Robin Butlin’s examination of geography and imperialism or Driver’s article on the fallacies of studying the history of geographical knowledge.[6]

Ultimately, the most interesting aspect of Lambert’s paper was the imagination of geographical space in West Africa by trans-Atlantic slaves, explored through the lens of James MacQueen’s experiences.  One can only hope that the second half of his book thoroughly addresses the shortcomings highlighted in this paper.

Brendan Lawson


[1] R.J. Mayhew, ‘The Effacement of Early Modern Geography (c. 1600-1850): a historiographical essay’, Progress in Human Geography, 25 (2001), 383-401

[2] C. McEwan, ‘Cutting power lines within the palace? Countering paternity and eurocentrism in the ‘geographical tradition’’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 23 (1998) 371–384; C. Barnett, ‘Impure and worldly geography: the Africanist discourse of the Royal Geographical Society’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 23 (1998), 239–251.

[3] L. Dubois, ‘An enslaved enlightenment: rethinking the intellectual history of the French Atlantic’, Social History, 31(2006) 1–14 (p. 2)

[4] McEwan, ‘Cutting power lines’, p. 378

[5] D. Lambert, ‘Taken captive by the mystery of the Great River’: towards an historical geography of British geography and Atlantic slavery’, Journal of Historical Geography, 35 (2009), 44-65 (p. 46)

[6] S. Schulten, The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880-1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); M. Bell, Geography and Imperialism, 1820-1940 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995); R. Butlin, Historical Geography: through the Gates of Time and Space (London: Routledge, 1993); R. Butlin, Geographies of Empire: European Empire and Colonies, c. 1880-1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); F. Driver, ‘Geography’s Empire: Histories of Geographical Knowledge’, Environment and Planning Space, 10 (1992), 23-40


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Research and news about Africa
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