Africa was the source for the millions of slaves shipped across the Atlantic Ocean between the 15th and the 19th centuries. It was also the source for slaves who were shipped north and east to the Arab world from the 7th century. Europeans rarely went further into Africa than the coastal areas. They were afraid of tropical diseases and of the unknown, which lay inland. Because of this, Europeans knew very little about Africa or Africans, and believed many rumours about strange people and customs. The reality rarely matched the rumours.

Before the Europeans even knew of Africa, it was a rich and varied continent with many different cultures and civilisations. At this time, the Europeans thought that they were the only truly civilised people. Due to ignorance and fear, they never came to acknowledge the sophistication of African cultures and civilisations.

Pictured here is the title section from a 1794 English map of Africa. It shows all its ‘states, kingdoms, republics, regions and islands’. The illustration shows Africans as cannibals (people who eat human meat). Cannibals were found in many parts of the world, including some areas of Africa. It was usually something that occurred in times of war, or as part of a ceremony. This picture seems to suggest that all Africans are cannibals. It shows that Europeans did not know very much about African cultures and civilisations. Perhaps it was this lack of understanding about African people which made it easier for the Europeans to enslave them.