Africa is home to some of the most amazing scenery and natural beauty on the planet. It is the continent where modern humans originated, and has been home to some of history’s great empires. However, despite all Africa has to offer, for centuries it has carried a reputation as a poor, backward, dangerous place, and perhaps nothing exemplifies this more than its outdated nickname, the “Dark Continent.”
Back in 2008, veteran newscaster Jean Cochran for NPR found herself in hot water after using the term in reference to a Presidential trip to Africa. Many expressed offense to hearing the phrase, especially without any sort of historical context. Cochran, who had been with NPR since 1981, admitted that the term was antiquated, but had no idea that people would find it racist and offensive. “I understood the term to refer to the African jungle,” she later said. “It’s a canopy blocking out the light. A geographical term.” However, only about 20% of Africa is forested, so this idea that Africa is “dark” because of its jungles, is pretty inaccurate. Cochran eventually offered an apology and vowed to never use the phrase again.
So, did Cochran need to apologize? Why is Africa called the Dark Continent, and why is the phrase so offensive today? Let’s take a look at the history of the term.
Exploration of Africa
While there is no direct origin of the name, many attribute its widespread usage to British Explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who wrote two books that both include references to Africa as “dark”: Through the Dark Continent (1878) and In Darkest Africa (1890). Common explanations for the term cite that in the 19th century, Africa was unexplored and unknown to Europeans. In this context, “dark” is simply used to mean mysterious. However, this is a bit of a misinterpretation.
At that time, Africa actually wasn’t all that unexplored. Kingdoms in Africa had been trading with countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia for thousands of years. Africa was really only unknown to those who didn’t live there.
However, the idea of Africa as “dark” would nonetheless help justify the wave of exploration that would come to the continent in the 19th century. When the Atlantic slave trade was abolished, Europe began taking greater interest in Africa, especially the continent’s interior. Financial and political support for African exploration grew out of the desire for wealth and national power.
The exploration of Africa became a bit of an international race. In written accounts of their travels, explorers like Stanley would commonly present themselves as daring adventurers taming unknown lands. In reality, however, these European explorers often followed existing routes, led by African guides and leaders. But this notion of Africa as a “Dark Continent” would persist, aided by the embellished tales of European explorers.
Bringing Out the Darkness
As Europe began to carve up Africa into various territories and colonies, missionaries began to travel to the continent to convert people they saw as “inferior” and “savage.” When these missionaries encountered resistance, they blamed their failures on the inherent “darkness” of Africans. These missionaries believed that Africans were closed off from the saving light of Christianity.
When explorers, traders, adventurers, and missionaries began to abuse their power in Africa, Europeans blamed the “Dark Continent,” rather than themselves. To them, Africa brought out the “darkness” or savagery in men. So in this sense, the “darkness” does not refer to the mystery of Africa, nor is it a geographic term, but rather, it is rooted in some rather bigoted views of Africa and the various people living on the continent. It was these views that colonists would use to help justify the Scramble for Africa, and the atrocities that came with it.
Why is Africa Called the Dark Continent?
Henry Morton Stanley used the term “Dark Continent” to build a mysterious allure around his travels in an effort to sell more books. However, the phrase entered European vernacular as a way to paint Africa as a wild, savage, untamed land. By dehumanizing the continent this way, colonizers and missionaries alike could justify their sometimes brutal actions. With this in mind, the idea of “darkness” is less a reference to uncharted lands, and more a descriptor for people that were considered wicked and unenlightened.
Given this historical background, it is understandable why some would object to the use of this term, especially when spoken in colloquial language. While the phrase isn’t meant to refer to skin color, it does have its origins in racist ideologies, and refers to the savagery Europeans thought was endemic to Africa.
You can, however, find modern uses of the term used in proper context. Africa is lacking electricity on much of the continent. When looking at satellite images from space, Africa literally looks like a dark continent, as mentioned in this article from The Economist.
Sometimes, it’s not necessarily the words we use, but how we use them that matter.