PHILIP D. CURTIN. The Image of Africa: British Ideas and Action, 1780-1850, Vol. I. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.[1]


The primary reading for this week is The Image of Africa. It is a classic study by the historian Philip D. Curtin about British ideas and action related to West Africa from 1780 to 1850. This is also the first in a series of two weeks that will focus on British perceptions of Africa in the early-modern era. Published in 1964, The Image of Africa belongs to a generation of works that emerged during the professionalization of African History in the 1950s and early 1960s. As David William Cohen, Stephan Miescher, and Luise White explain in the introduction to their 2001 edited volume, African Words, African Voices, the field of African History had its precedents, however, it emerged as an academic discipline “after the Second World War, when Europeans and Africans were awakening to nationalist rhetoric from many arenas across the continent and the world.”[2] It was in this era of African decolonization, when a host of new researchers were starting to study contemporary African cultures, that Curtin turned his attention to the years before 1850. What he discovered was a relative Golden Age of interest in African societies on par with his present generation. “Relative to their knowledge of the world in general,” Curtin explains, “eighteenth-century Europeans knew more and cared more about Africa than they did at any later period up to the 1950s.”[3] Building off of this initial observation, The Image of Africa seeks not only to explain Britain’s remarkable interest in Africa before 1800, but also to trace its hardening and decline by the 1850s.

Before I discuss some of the ways that The Image of Africa contributes to eighteenth-century African History, it would be helpful to outline both the scope and the thesis of the book. Curtin breaks The Image of Africa into three distinctive parts that correspond to major developments in Britain’s ideas about the continent. The first part focuses on British views of Africa and Africans in the eighteenth century, and it is entitled “The ‘New World’ of Eighteenth Century Africa.”[4] The second part is entitled “The Age of Exploration and Disappointment,” and it covers the years between 1795 and 1830.[5] Finally, the third part is entitled “The Age of Humanitarianism.” It stretches from about 1830 to 1850.[6] Afterward, in a two-page postscript, Curtin shares his conclusions about “the most striking aspect of the British image of Africa in the early nineteenth century.”[7] He argues that detachment from “African reality, as we now understand it” is the common denominator that underlies all British ideas about Africa during the period of this study. Whether approaching Africa through a discourse of “medicine, race, history, or political and economic development,” European authors manufactured the image of Africa from within a European worldview and largely “to suit European needs.” By the 1850s, this image had hardened into a series of racial and cultural stereotypes. This stagnation was the defining feature of Britain’s attitude toward Africa during the age of imperialism and the colonial era, until it began to change once again in the 1950s.[8]

Chapter Overview of “Part I: The ‘New World’ of Eighteenth Century Africa”

Since I research the eighteenth century, I am mostly interested in the first part of The Image of Africa. This part is broken into four separate chapters. The first, “West Africa: The Known and the Unknown,” briefly surveys knowledge about Africa in Western Europe from early Arabic writings prior to the sixteenth century up to the 1780s, a formative decade when an entirely new view of Africa began to emerge.[9] In this chapter, Curtin explores evidence for Britain’s relatively strong interest in Africa during the eighteenth century. Two of the many works he emphasizes are Thomas Astley’s New General Collection of Voyages and Travels, published between 1745 and 1747, and the 16-volume Universal Modern History, published between 1736 and 1765. The first work featured 600 double-columned pages on Africa, and the second devoted two of its installments to the continent. This, Curtin observes, amounts to a “generosity toward other peoples’ history that would be hard to find in similar publications of the twentieth century.”[10] By the 1780s, Curtin concludes that writers from Western Europe knew much about the African “coast in ways that were intimate, detailed, and highly specialized;” however, they knew almost nothing about the interior.[11] Moreover, by “highly specialized,” Curtin means that the majority of this knowledge was structured by the historical circumstances of the slave trade. Since most British writers engaged with the continent via commerce, the knowledge they recorded was limited to a few specific themes.[12]

In the second chapter, “The Africans’ ‘Place in Nature,’” Curtin offers a survey of racialized views about “the Africans” as a group of people.[13] He shows how these views emerge from out of “four distinct traditions of thought.”[14] These traditions are reportage from Africa, biological treatises, works of literature like novels and poetry, and the discourse of Christian humanitarianism. All of these genres emerge in a direct relationship with the history of Atlantic slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Curtin summarizes the different ways that British writers produced their secular and religious representations of race, generally by projecting their own fantasies and ambitions onto the African continent and its peoples. He touches on everything from the “Great Chain of Being,” to monogenesis, polygenesis, and the trope of the Noble Savage. He concludes that very few writers from any of these traditions “saw much value in African culture as it was.”[15] Whether talking about biological essentialism as it manifests in an academic work like Edward Long’s The History of Jamaica, or patronizing sentimentalism in an artistic work like William Roscoe’s The Wrongs of Africa, a Poem, the underlying commonality here (as with The Image of Africa generally) is the way that European authors force African peoples into their worldview.[16]

In the third chapter, “The Promise and Terror of a Tropical Environment,” Curtin explores British ideas of Africa through discourses about the environment and health.[17] He argues that British authors interpreted Africa according to a “myth of tropical exuberance.”[18] This was a conflicting concept. It was informed equally by a fear of the high morbidity and mortality rates that afflicted Britons who traveled to Africa (in relation to natives of the continent) and by that the notion that tropical environments were associated with paradise and possibilities of wealth. Curtin demonstrates how writers of different genres, such as travelers’ accounts and medical treatises, articulated these conflicting ideas about the tropics. For example, the colonizationist Henry Smeathman lived for three years on the Banana Islands off the coast of present-day Sierra Leone. When he returned home, he wrote boosteristic materials about the “Pleasant scenes of vernal beauty, a tropical luxuriance, where fruits and flowers lavish their fragrance together in the same bough!”[19] Simultaneously, the surgeon James Lind, who had served upon the West Coast of Africa, argued exactly the opposite. Africa was so hazardous to white peoples’ health, Lind argued in Diseases in Hot Countries, that not only should no European people immigrate there, but all slaving factories should be emptied, relocated offshore, and run as much as possible by local Africans.[20] Seen as a whole, this myth of “tropical exuberance” was defined by equal parts optimism and pessimism.

In the fourth and final chapter of The Image of Africa’s first part, “New Jerusalems,” Curtin explores Africa through the lens of Britain’s early colonization schemes.[21] He calls this period “the first scramble for Africa,” drawing an explicit comparison to the partitioning of the continent that would accompany the beginning of Africa’s colonial era in the late nineteenth century.[22] Specifically, Curtin surveys a handful of schemes from the idea to implant a British convict settlement on Lemain Island in the Gambia River to the actual creation of a free African-descent colony off Cape Shilling in Sierra Leone. None of these schemes is successful except for the last one, whose success is based solely off of the fact that it survived. As with all ideas about Africa in The Image of Africa, the defining characteristic of all these colonization schemes is their complete “lack of contact with reality, as least with African reality.”[23] Colonizationsists like Carl Bernhard Wadström, Granville Sharp, and Henry Hew Dalrymple viewed Africa through the frame of what Curtin calls “utopianism.”[24] They saw Africa as a tabula rasa upon which they could paint portraits of “proper” society.[25] They engineered these societies on paper with plenty of political theory, carefully outlining economic and administrative structures, but they made no attempt to account for the worldview of local peoples. This failure is encapsulated by the fate of the “Province of Freedom” in Sierra Leone. After years of poverty and hunger, the colony was pillaged by a local Temne chief.[26]

Analysis of “Part I: The ‘New World’ of Eighteenth Century Africa”

Now that we have summarized the first part of The Image of Africa, we can say something about its contributions and limitations. First, I believe that Curtin is right to interpret the decade of the 1780s as a crucial turning point in the history of British attitudes towards Africa. As he argues, two events contributed to this turning point. The first was the American Revolution. In losing the majority of their mainland North American territories, British imperialists felt compelled to reconsider the structure of their overseas holdings. This led them to the idea of colonizing areas of West Africa that they had previously seen only as trading outposts. The second was the rise of abolitionism to the status of a national movement. Anti-slavery activists and their many allies were increasingly attacking both the Transatlantic Slave Trade and chattel slavery. Since these were the foundations of West Indian commerce—what Curtin calls the “South Atlantic System” throughout The Image of Africa—both slavery’s critics and allies were motivated to find alternatives to the political economy of plantation slavery.[27] This also led British imperialists to look on West Africa with new eyes, imaging how they might offset the losses that they anticipated would accompany abolition. In this way, we cannot understand the visions that British peoples had of Africa without first understanding the radical changes that were shaping the British Empire in the 1780s.

That being said, perhaps the main contribution that Curtin makes to African History in The Image of Africa relates to the book’s central thesis about consensus. Curtin surveys a very extensive range of European or Western ideas about Africa that existed in the eighteenth-century, from romantic legends about a Christian Prince living in the heart of Africa named Prester John to scientific theories about hot and decaying air, known as “phlogiston,” which killed people who lived in dense and uncultivated tropical landscapes.[28] Nonetheless, Curtin is able to see the similarity in all of these ideas. He is able to show how writers who vehemently disagreed with each other about how Africa should be understood nonetheless agreed with each other on the basis of their approach. In the 1980s, the philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe put this argument at the center of his masterful work The Invention of Africa: Gnogsis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge. Mudimbe demonstrates, to mention a particularly compelling example, how writers like Carl Sagan and Erich Anton Paul von Däniken opposed one another in their interpretations of Dogon astrology in Mali. Sagan refuted Däniken’s theory that extraterrestrials introduced astrological concepts to the Dogon people by arguing instead that these concepts came from the sojourns of early European travelers. As Mudimbe shows, these authors were much closer to one another than they imagined because both of them operated from the same epistemological framework. Both of them saw it as fundamentally inconceivable that African peoples could have acquired this knowledge themselves.[29]

Nonetheless, The Image of Africa has a few weaknesses. In stressing the ignorance of British writers towards “African reality,” Curtin misses or overlooks all of the moments when this is not the case. In a sense, he takes the characteristic ignorance of British writers as a given fact and, as such, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The end result is that The Image of Africa often perpetuates the very ignorance that it critiques so well. I will provide a few examples of what I am talking about. While Curtin discusses the racial views of Edward Long, he says nothing about the fact that Long also had ideas about African “ethnicity.” In the same work that Curtin describes, Long wrote a 32-page essay on the diasporic traditions of Gold Coast peoples in Jamaica, known as Coromantees. Likewise, Curtin observes that Robert Norris described “the African” as an “inhuman savage” in his history of the Kingdom of Dahomey; however, he writes nothing about the fact that Norris’ views were shaped by specific experiences with Dahomean people rather than by Africans generally.[30] Curtin also references Philip Quaque, an official of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, but he does not reveal that Quaque had strong feelings about costal Fante communities that he expressed in his letters.[31] As a final example, Curtin cites the writings of British colonizationists like Lieutenant John Matthews, but he says nothing about the fact that some of these authors went far beyond general discussions of “the African.” One needs only to flip through Matthews’ A Voyage to Sierra Leone to encounter his ideas about Mandingoes, Suzeés, and other peoples.

Many of the authors that Curtin discusses in The Image of Africa wrote about African peoples in terms that were far more specific than he acknowledges. Even while Curtin admits that this work is a study of how British people saw Africa, and not a study of Africa itself, British historians are bound to be disappointed. They will learn next to nothing about the African peoples with whom British writers interacted. Additionally, many works that historians of the Atlantic World now see as having a disproportionate effect on the way British people thought about Africa are completely absent. This list includes Willem Bosman’s A New and Accurate Description, William Snelgrave’s A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea, and Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative. Overall, The Image of Africa may stand trial for the very crime that Curtin levels against the eighteenth-century works. Curtin writes that “Specific customs of specific peoples counted for much less than their cultural difference from Europeans.”[32] In The Image of Africa, Curtin gives to his readers no specific peoples or specific customs. The only time that African “ethnic” identities even appear in the first part of the text is when Curtin critiques an example of the Great Chain of Being.[33]

Having acknowledged the main weakness of Curtin’s The Image of Africa, it is only fair to contextualize that weakness by placing it within the era of the book’s creation. When the field of African History was just beginning to form, there were almost no works that discussed the specific “ethnic” identities of African peoples in an Atlantic World or diasporic context. Many authors who graduated from universities within the United States were motivated by racial discourses surrounding the era of the Civil Rights Movement. As such, they focused on breaking down “racial” stereotypes of black people rather than exploring levels of difference among African peoples or peoples of African-descent. When evaluated in this context, the almost-complete absence of “ethnic” identities in The Image of Africa is anything but remarkable. In fact, it is a rather common characteristic of works from the same period, such as Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black, David Brion Davis’ The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, and Anthony Barker’s The African Link. Several more generations had to pass before historians of what is now often called the “Black Atlantic” began looking seriously as how differences among African communities shaped British history.

Of course, Curtin cannot be faulted for the fact that his work reflects the assumptions of its era. In fact, The Image of Africa is especially valuable as a yardstick for measuring how far scholarship about Africa in the Atlantic World has come. In order to appreciate this distance, one needs only to read a paper that the historian James Sidbury gave at a conference of the American Historical Association in 2016. The paper is entitled “‘Just Before God and Man’: Legal Traditions and Constitutional Visions in Early Freetown, Sierra Leone and the United States.” In this piece, Sidbury revisits the founding of the Sierra Leone Colony in the 1790s. Rather than explore how British thinkers conceived of this scheme and then mention the fact that it failed, Sidbury interrogates how the plan interacted directly with local Temne ideas concerning land ownership, political allegiance, and commerce. In bringing British views into conversation with Temne traditions, Sidbury begins to show us a picture of what The Image of Africa would not: specific customs and specific peoples.


[1] The Image of Africa was originally printed in two formats: as one volume of 526 pages or as two separate volumes split on page 286, at “Part III, The Age of Humanitarianism, 1830-1852.” For this review essay, I am only referring to material from the first part of the first volume, entitled “Part I, The ‘New World’ of Eighteenth Century Africa.”

[2] Luis White, Stephen F. Miescher, and David William Cohen (eds.), African Words, African Voices: Critical Practices in Oral History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 6.

[3] Philip D. Curtin, The Image of Africa: British Ideas and Action, 1780-1850 (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1964), 10.

[4] Part I covers pages 3-122.

[5] Part II covers 123-288.

[6] Part III covers 288-478.

[7] Ibid. 479-480.

[8] Ibid. vi.

[9] Ibid. 3-27.

[10] Ibid. 12-13.

[11] Ibid. 9.

[12] Ibid. 23.

[13] Ibid. 28-57, 34, 56.

[14] Ibid. 34, 56.

[15] Ibid. 56.

[16] Ibid. 43-45.

[17] Ibid. 58-87.

[18] Ibid. 60.

[19] Ibid. 59.

[20] Ibid. 86.

[21] Ibid. 88-119.

[22] Ibid. 114.

[23] Ibid. 115.

[24] Ibid. 89.

[25] Ibid. 115.

[26] Ibid. 102.

[27] Ibid. 4.

[28] Ibid. 80.

[29] Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 15.

[30] Ibid. 36.

[31] Ibid. 35.

[32] Ibid. 115.

[33] Ibid. 44.