Notes on the AAAH


The AAAH displays information in several ways: color-coding of territories reflects political changes; symbols show conflicts as isolated events; bar graphs give demographic and economic data, and labels show country names. Users may click on the diamonds in the bottom center to reveal or hide these features. Timeline controls on the bottom-right advance or reverse the chronology. The polygonal keys expand when the mouse is placed over them and can be dragged to any location on the map to match colors with those on the key. For the period after 1960, the labels also contain bar graphs showing changes in population and per capita GDP over time.

Simplification, Generalization, and Classification

The AAAH simplifies the diverse phenomena in the African past by grouping them in a limited number of categories. Simplification is useful because it imposes order and makes processes and trends legible, but generalizations and classifications erase other realities. The categories must, therefore, be transparent and open to discussion. Below we explain some of the principles of our analysis.

Africa Before European Colonization

The map begins with a selective representation of African states and societies in 1879. Several factors—the variety of political systems in precolonial Africa, the huge number of sovereign units, and the problem of establishing boundaries—limited us to a basic presentation of this subject. The map of precolonial Africa uses only one color—green—and makes only a rudimentary distinction between types of governments: units that are considered “states” are shown with circular shapes estimating the extent of their territories and the names of “stateless” societies are written across the map but their territories are not shown with circles.

This background map is not static; some polities grow and decline during the period of European colonization. The one historic African state that became internationally recognized during the “Scramble for Africa” was Ethiopia. The AAAH shows this by coding its political system as a “Monarchy” after the defeat of the Italians in 1896.

States with Foreign Origins, but Local Authority

When the AAAH opens with 1879, it uses pink shades to designate states with recent foreign origins but ruled under local authority. In designing the AAAH, we felt it important to differentiate these polities from the colonies administered directly from Europe. The territories are: the Boer Republics in South Africa, the Liberian Republic in West Africa, and the Ottoman Provinces in North Africa, each designated with a different shade of pink. After 1910 the appearance of further shade of pink designates white minority rule in the former British colonies of southern Africa.

Colonial Expansion and Borders

Meghan Gill (Brown ’06) did specialized research on borders during the summer of 2005 and this section is written with her assistance.

As a result of the “Scramble for Africa” all of Africa's previously sovereign states and societies—with the exception of Ethiopia (itself an empire) and Liberia (itself founded by settlers freed from slavery in America)—were ruled from the capitals of Europe, or by white settlers who had origins in Europe. The AAAH demonstrates the speed of this encroachment and how competition among Europeans resulted in a haphazard division that became the basis for modern nation states in Africa.

The challenge of reconstructing the history of colonial expansion was that Europeans established their colonies through different processes and ruled them with different levels of control. Some territories were conquered mile by mile. In other areas, colonial administrations were imposed over large areas with little struggle and a minimal European presence. Compounding the problem of reconstruction, European control over some territories remained irregular for decades and the levels of colonial impact varied greatly. In the process of designing the AAAH, we recognized the problem of grouping such different processes of annexation into one category. Ideally, the AAAH would show the different methods of conquest and the relative extent of European impact on African daily experiences in different years and regions. Unfortunately, because of the tremendous local diversity and the huge amount of research that would be needed to represent the impact of European encroachment consistently throughout the continent, this ideal proved unworkable. It was not possible to make reliable and consistent generalizations from the viewpoint of the colonized.

The criteria used to depict an African territory as a European possession were: military conquest, the establishment of a minimal European settlement or administration, or an internationally recognized boundary agreement. Once one of the three factors becomes present in any African region, the AAAH marks that region in a shade of blue or red, representing the European power making the claim. (Declarations of a “sphere of influence” or an initial treaty between a European country and an African leader were not taken as sufficient evidence of colonial control.)

The AAAH distinguishes two different types of borders: established and undefined. Broken lines represent undefined borders. An undefined boundary that borders on sovereign African territory indicates we have estimated the extent of European control according to the criteria listed above. The AAAH does not portray gradual movement between known points by shifting the boundary incrementally over intervening years; it changes its estimate of undefined borders only when we found specific evidence indicating an expansion of European control. An undefined boundary separating the possessions of different European powers indicates that the border has not yet been defined by treaty. Solid lines represent established borders. These are borders agreed upon by international treaty, usually between European powers or white settler states, but also involving Liberia and Ethiopia. The establishment of defined borders indicates the conclusion of the European “Scramble” for African territory. Although African borders have changed only minimally since WWI, the AAAH follows these changes in the decades that follow.

The AAAH does not demarcate individual cities that were administered separately from surrounding territories such as Massawa, Lagos, Tangiers. It does, however, show the larger enclaves of Cabinda, Ifni, and Walvis Bay.

Any criteria for colonial annexation or estimating borders can be problematic. Many borders in the AAAH had to be determined by our best judgment, and we thus invite any comments on our assessment of colonial borders. We also urge users to bear in mind that the AAAH should be read as a continent-wide estimate, not a precise indication of local conditions in any area.

Sources on the Demarcation of Boundaries

Wars, 1946 – 2002 (Red X’s)

Data on conflicts after 1945 are taken from a database compiled by the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo The database provides precise geographical locations and years for the conflicts. It also differentiates between three levels of intensity, represented on the AAAH by X’s of different sizes.

Wars, 1879 – 1945 (Orange X’s)

Dzigbodi Agbenyadzie (Brown ’08) did specialized research on pre-1945 conflict during the summer of 2005 and this section is written with her assistance.

We found no summary of wars before 1945 that approached the International Peace Research Institute post-1946 database in comprehensiveness. Thus, we produced the data on violence in this period through our own research. The challenges of mapping the incidents of war were in many ways similar to the challenges of determining boundaries. Violence occurred on many different scales, in engagements of differing intensity and duration. If anything, violence is less well documented than border changes and is certainly more difficult to represent on a map. Yet, we decided that the potential value of a continent-wide survey of the wars and rebellions during colonial annexation and under colonial rule outweighed the drawbacks of the simplifications and generalizations necessary in the attempt.

Our criterion for which occurrences of violence to include on the AAAH was the weight put on the conflict by professional historians. Thus, this section of the AAAH was based upon extensive research in textbooks and more specialized secondary literature. We used our own judgment to reconcile the relative significance of the emphasis and detail given in our different sources.

Lacking data on area, numbers of combatants, and casualties, we did not attempt to differentiate the intensity of the conflicts, as the researchers of the post-1945 database had done. Users should be aware, therefore, that the orange X’s represent conflicts with different durations and levels of causalities.

Once we had decided upon a fair representation of the relative incidence of conflicts over a region, we estimated the locations and assigned latitude and longitude points for the symbols. Symbols were placed on what we considered to be epicenters of the conflict and do not correspond in size to areas affected.

Any criteria for what constitutes a conflict or war can be problematic. The incidents of violence on the AAAH before 1946 had to be determined by our best judgment, and we thus invite any comments on our assessment of significant wars. We also urge users to bear in mind that the AAAH should be read as a continent-wide estimate, not a precise indication of local conditions in any area.

Sources on Conflicts, 1879-1945

Post-Colonial Political Systems

The political systems of post-colonial Africa are not easily reduced to a manageable number of categories. In reality, scientific socialist governments were often also military governments; states which were officially multi-party (such as Mauritania after 1991) or no-party (such as Uganda after 1985) essentially operate under a one-party system. In many cases, classification involved making informed decisions about which possible categories were most appropriate. In the process, some complexity has been smoothed away. It is important to stress that the AAAH is not designed to provide authoritative information on individual cases. Please consult other sources for a more accurate understanding of the history of specific countries.

To promote recognition of wider trends over a longer period, the AAAH classifies general political systems, not the quality of governance or extent of freedom in individual countries. One-party systems, such as Tanzania under TANU or military governments such as Ghana under Rawlings can be relatively benign. Likewise, harassment of opposition parties (as in Zimbabwe in the 1990s) and horrific violence against civilians (as in Liberia in the late 1990s) provides warning against glossing multiparty systems as “democratic.” Please consult other sources for a more specific and accurate understanding of levels of freedoms and the quality of governance in specific countries.

Sources Post-Colonial Political Systems

How to Cite the AAAH

The URL is: That said, we consider this a general reference tool and strongly encourage users with specific interests to conduct their own research in more authoritative and specific sources. The appropriate use of the AAAH is as a continental or regional overview, and we hope that users will cite it only for these purposes.

Creative Commons License © 2004-2008 Nancy Jacobs and Rolando Peñate.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.