Mythic Cartography – The Mountains of Kong

27 Feb

Africa is a continent of diverse and spectacular geography and the range of mountains known as the Mountains of Kong is one of its most stunning features.

The Mountains of Kong begin near the coast of modern day Guinea and stretch far to the east. Eventually they link up with the equally fantastic Mountains of the Moon, where the headwaters of the White Nile are located, and together they bisect the entire continent, ending near the Red Sea.

The mountain range gets its name from the Kong Empire, which controlled much of the Ivory Coast region and lasted form 1710 until 1898, eventually falling to French colonialism. The first European to discover the Mountains of Kong was the Scottish explorer Mungo Park in 1798 and they were included on maps drawn by cartographer James Rennell. Later explorers included the mountains in maps made from their own excursions and the legend of the range grew.

The existence of a large and impressive mountain range that covers such a vast area would be one of the marvels of the natural world, except for one minor detail.

The Mountains of Kong don’t exist.

Nothing exists that is even close to the range based on Mungo Park’s exploration and expanded on by the accounts of later explorers. There are certainly no ranges bisecting the entire continent, or linking up with the equally mythical Mountains of the Moon. Despite this the Mountains of Kong continued to appear on maps until the late 19th century, and erroneous references to them still turned up in poorly edited atlases until the 1990’s.

How the legend of the Kong Mountains came about is a mystery. It’s unclear if it was the result of misunderstandings or overactive imaginations on the part of cartographers, excessive creativity from explorers, or a mix of both. What we do know is that once the tales had taken root they only expanded in scope, with each new story causing the mountains to grow. It was only when sufficient numbers of European colonists penetrated into Africa that the mountains were finally proved to be an illusion.

From a sociological standpoint the persistence of these legends for nearly two centuries is fascinating. The 18th and 19th centuries are marked as eras of European expansion and discovery as well as the birth of the modern age and industrialization. Yet the existence of a mythic mountain range thousands of kilometers long was accepted fact despite all the explorers, all the missionaries, and all the traders moving into the region. Not to mention the African people, who would have known that such a feature didn’t exist in their own back yards.

I wonder if anyone bothered to ask them.

What was it like for explorers traveling through Africa, expecting to find these mountains and instead finding nothing? Did they think they were lost? Did they feel compelled to perpetuate the legend to protect their own reputations? Did they simply believe that the mountains existed further away from where they were exploring? I suspect that the last was the most common. Cartography on that scale was not an exact science at the time, so it would be reasonable to believe the mountains that everyone else had talked about were simply a few hundred kilometers away. Certainly that seems more reasonable than thinking everyone else was wrong.

Again, assuming you aren’t asking or listening to the locals.

History is filled with mythical geography. Atlantis, Mu, and High Brasil come to mind. But these are products of the ancient world or describe places that the legends say no longer exist. What I find fascinating about the Mountains of Kong and the Mountains of the Moon are that they are from a more contemporary time period and describe places that should be there. It is easy to dismiss the story of Atlantis as allegorical; Plato was a philosopher given to using fiction to convey lessons about the world. Matters are different when you discover that something in a book based on so many accounts turns out to be made from whole cloth.

The history of the Mountains of Kong is a fascinating story about human nature, our perception of the world, and about the age of exploration and expansion.

I’ll be back in part two with some gaming ideas inspired by the Mountains of Kong.

Check out Infinite Machine, a Tumblr page for science fiction and fantasy pictures. Their posting of the above map is how I first learned of the Mountains of Kong.

1 Comment

Posted by on February 27, 2014 in Cool Stuff, Maps


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One response to “Mythic Cartography – The Mountains of Kong

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