Edward Guimont

Squaring the Spheroid

June 26, 2019

The first class I taught as an adjunct professor—my first class as an instructor of record, able to build it from the ground up rather than merely serve as teaching assistant—was a History of Modern Africa.

Map of Alkebu-lan 1260 AH, by Nikolaj Cyon. See:  https://decolonialatlas.wordpress.com/2014/11/15/alkebu-lan-1260-ah/

 

The first day, I showed my students a map of something called Alkebu-Lan; a mysterious land with no recognisable European place names or borders, with the Arab orientation of south at the top and the Islamic calendar date of 1260 AH (=1844 CE). No student was able to identify it though, to be fair, it belonged to an alternate-history scenario where the Black Death killed almost all Europeans, resulting in an Africa bereft of their colonial presence (and a world in which Islam and Buddhism are the dominant religions). [1] Such a progressive purview is rare for the alternate-history genre, steeped as it is in what-ifs (“what if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War?”) that feel increasingly less counterfactual. [2]

In our real history, Africa was the site of some major revisions to the world’s maps across cultures. It was where the experiments carried out by Eratosthenes of Cyrene, Aristarchus of Samos, and eventually Claudius Ptolemaeus at the Library of Alexandria first proved the Earth’s spherical shape, its diameter and distance to the sun, and its orbit around it. That Greek scientists worked in Egypt is a legacy of Alexandria’s imperial namesake, an effort sustained by the Library’s predatory acquisition policies. Though the Classical acceptance of the Earth’s shape came under scrutiny by later Christians, the notion that Medieval Europeans believed the Earth was flat is false, if extremely pervasive. One of the best modern examples of this is Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat, a paean to free-market globalisation. Friedman’s idea for the title came from the fact that (in his perception of history) Columbus went from Europe to India but found the Americas instead, and used it to confirm the Earth is round, though still referring to Americans as Indians. Friedman also went to India from America, but found everyone there imitating American culture, and so became convinced globalisation was a reverse of Columbus’ symbolic start of European imperialism. [3]

Friedman’s book was published in 2005, the year that saw the launch of what would become a major driver of globalised culture: YouTube, which proved to be a perfect medium for the spread of conspiracy theories that started to proliferate online after the September 11, 2001 attacks–among them, a resurgence in belief the Earth was flat. [4] A cursory perusal of the site is quite revealing. One video combines its author’s born-again Christian beliefs with a claim that the Sahara Desert does not actually exist, based on his amateur reading of a series of historical maps. Unaware that the term ‘Ethiopia’ was commonly applied to all of Africa by Europeans until rather recently, he takes that to mean the Ethiopian Empire spread throughout northern Africa. In true opposition to Friedman’s notion of a flat world, he misinterprets the late Victorian concept of ‘Imperial Federation’ as a one-world government rather than as the political integration of the British Empire. [5] Another uses an atlas of historical errors and hoaxes to argue that the Kingdom of Kongo (which he confuses with the Belgian Congo) was actually the Realm of Prester John from Medieval myth, which he thinks of as a lost white civilisation in Central Africa. [6]

Rambling YouTube videographers were not the only proponents of Flat Earth thought, however. Beginning in 2016, a number of prominent African-American musicians and athletes–B.o.B, Kyrie Irving, Draymond Green, Wilson Chandler, and a possibly-jocose Shaquille O’Neal–endorsed Flat Earth views. To the consternation of Neil deGrasse Tyson, such skepticism of science and authority is particularly resonant for African-Americans, who have all too often been the real victims of conspiracies by those in power. [7] Indeed, African-American Flat Earth thought can be traced back to at least the mid-nineteenth century, when the slave minister John Jasper preached his sermon “The Sun Do Move and the Earth Am Square” 253 times, including to the state legislature and chief justice of Virginia. [8] By the time of Jasper’s sermons in the south, northern Americans were already familiar with a popular example of African-related ‘alternate astronomy’ (to use a modern phrase): the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, when for weeks the New York Sun reported that British astronomer Sir John Herschel had detected a civilisation of humanoid bats on the moon from his Cape Town observatory. [9]

The year following the Great Moon Hoax was a more momentous one for South Africa, which saw the Great Trek of Dutch settlers departing from the colony of Cape Town that had been seized by the British. These new ‘Afrikaners’ established white supremacist republics in the African interior, free from British entanglement not just in Afrikaner politics, but religion; as the Afrikaners were radical Calvinists who rejected the modernity of the British overlords. This religious fervour predisposed them to identify the Biblical lands of Ophir and Punt in the geography of their new African homeland, and its natives as the Lost Tribes of Israel. It equally implied a willingness to geocentric and Flat Earth beliefs. Among the Afrikaners, these tenets were best embodied by Paul Kruger, their political leader from 1883 until their final defeat and occupation by the British in 1902.

A British newspaper cartoon mocking Paul Kruger’s Flat Earth views, taken from Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World (1956). 

 

Kruger helped establish a breakaway sect known as the Dopper Church, with ‘dopper’ coming from the Dutch word ‘domper,’ or ‘extinguisher’–as in, to extinguish the Enlightenment. The Doppers would become the state religion of the Transvaal Republic Kruger would eventually preside. Though it should come as no surprise to learn that Kruger held Flat Earth beliefs from a young age, it is more alarming to know that he clung to them in the face of evidence when, in 1877, he was one of three commissioners sent to London to negotiate with the British over the independence of the Afrikaner republics. His two fellow commissioners were from the Netherlands, and shocked at their companion’s demands that they stop noting how the stars changed overhead as the ship journeyed into the northern hemisphere, for he was at risk of losing his faith.

But Kruger’s faith remained as resolute as his negotiating skills, as he was able to secure the continued survival of the Afrikaner states—at least for the time being. The rise of Cecil Rhodes and his De Beers diamond mining empire brought this détente to an end; with the same Calvinism that caused a rejection of Enlightenment science leading to rejection of such concepts as capitalism and more tangible developments like railways. Rhodes’ growing influence forced the Afrikaners to attempt an alliance with the native Ndebele people of modern Zimbabwe, but Rhodes’ agents outmaneuvered both President Kruger and King Lobengula. The settler state of Rhodesia was established in 1890, assimilating the Ndebele kingdom and surrounding the Afrikaner republics. Rhodes was now in a position to bring the Anglo-Afrikaner rivalry to its end and, incidentally, to ensure his company had access to the valuable diamond fields in Afrikaner territory. He just needed some help, which would visit him in an unlikely form.

A map of the “square and stationary” Earth drawn by the Biblical fundamentalist Orlando Ferguson in the American Midwest during the 1890s (and carried on by the religious Flat Earth movement ever since).

 

Joshua Slocum left Boston in 1895 to become the first person to sail around the world solo. At the end of his journey in 1898, he arrived in the British Cape Colony in south Africa. There, he was accosted by Afrikaner clergymen who demanded to see his charts to prove that he had actually been sailing across a flat surface and attempted to assault him when he maintained he had sailed across a globe. Slocum later met with Kruger, who similarly insisted that his journey ‘around’ the world was impossible. Kruger’s remarks were widely circulated in the English press of the Cape–where Rhodes was Prime Minister–as part of the wave of propaganda shoring up British anti-Afrikaner tensions, which resulted in a declaration of war the following year. (They still prominently feature in biographies of him into the twenty-first century.[10])

Of course, it is not only the Bible that offers passages supporting the Flat Earth; the Quran does, too. And if the Transvaal Republic vanished at the onset of the twentieth century, it would also give birth to a new state that would shelter the ideology: Saudi Arabia. The kingdom was not always the bastion of religious conservatism that we know it for today; in its first few decades, it was the site of an internal struggle between US-allied modernisers and conservatives. It was in this context that, in 1966, Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz–Vice President of the Islamic University of Medina–used the Quran to promote geocentrism and the Flat Earth. Three years later, he used these arguments to claim that the Apollo moon landings were a hoax. Ibn Baz allegedly changed his mind after the Saudi prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud flew on the space shuttle in 1985. Curiously, this conversion happened at the same time a hoax spread across the Muslim world that Neil Armstrong had converted to Islam as a result of having heard the call to prayer on a radio broadcast—whilst walking on the moon.[11]

At the start of the twenty-first century, another Sunni government would blend their fundamentalist beliefs and anti-colonial rhetoric to endorse the Flat Earth and geocentrism as an aspect of their struggle against the legacy of the British colonial order and its exacerbation of the division between indigenous societies–Boko Haram in Nigeria. [12] Nor do such views in Africa solely come from the courts of self-proclaimed caliphs. In 2017, a female student submitted a doctoral dissertation at the University of Sfax in Tunisia–the epicenter of the Arab Spring– intended to prove the Flat Earth. Although the dissertation was rejected, it led to much pearl-clutching within both Arabic and Western scientific media over the extent to which academia was now under the sway of YouTube conspiracy culture. [13]

In a way, the Sfax controversy proved Friedman’s globalised Flat Earth right: Western conspiracists were providing inspiration to North African academics via an unregulated international media service. At the same time, though, it also underscores a difference. Casual viewers of said YouTube videos, or the 2017 Netflix documentary Behind the Curve, could be forgiven for presuming Flat Earthers are almost entirely white, rural Americans united by an anti-intellectual, anti-government worldview. But this would obscure how Flat Earth theories have not just been embraced by the true victims of the Global North’s imperial authority–the African-American internal colony, Calvinist Afrikaners, Muslim Africans–but used to articulate their opposition to it. If the sun did end up setting on the British Empire, perhaps it was because—in the Flat Earth’s cosmology—the star has simply passed beneath us, and is on its subterranean journey to a new dawn to the east.


[1] Jacobs, Frank. “Africa, uncolonized: a detailed look at an alternate continent.” Big Think. November 11, 2014. Accessed May 26, 2019, https://bigthink.com/strange-maps/africa-uncolonized; Stanley Robinson, Kim. The Years of Rice and Salt. New York: Bantam Books, 2002. [2] Gallagher, Catherine. Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. [3] Friedman, Thomas L. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, 3-5. [4] Merlan, Anna. Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2019, 12-13, 114-17. [5] Flat Earth Nation-Dei Aurea Praeterita. “Hidden AFRICA History with FLAT EARTH MAPS.” YouTube, September 7, 2018. Accessed April 19, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81E7ynQgtvY [6] Liedtke, Martin. “FLAT EARTH BRITISH. Holy Cow! ‘The Congo’ Africa. A Tar’nished Peoples From Riches To Rags.” YouTube, January 14, 2019. Accessed April 20, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=522K5DXfw7s; Brooke-Hitching, Edward. The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2018, 102-05, 142-49, 194-97. [7] Merlan, 35-56. [8] James, Isaac. “The Sun Do Move:” The Story of the Life of John Jasper. Richmond: Hunter’s Letter Shop, 1954, 24, 40. [9] Wilson, Tracy V. and Holly Frey. “The Great Moon Hoax of 1835, Part 1.” Stuff You Missed in History Class. March 30, 2015. Accessed June 13, 2019, https://www.missedinhistory.com/podcasts/the-great-moon-hoax-of-1835-part-1.htm [10] Slocum, Joshua. Sailing Alone Around the World. New York: Dover Publications, 1956, 237-39, 243-45; Meintjes, Johannes. President Paul Kruger: A Biography. London: Cassell, 1974, 22-23, 85-87; Meredith, Martin. Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa. New York: PublicAffairs, 2007, 9, 76-78. [11] Determann, Jörg Matthias. Space Science and the Arab World: Astronauts, Observatories and Nationalism in the Middle East. London: I. B. Tauris, 2018, 116-17. [12] Yusuf, Muhammed. “Translation of Selections from Muhammed Yusuf: Hādhihi ‘Aqīdatunā WaMinhāj Da’watinā (This is our Creed and Method of Proclamation).” In Abdulbasit Kassim and Michael Nwankpa, eds., The Boko Haram Reader: From Nigerian Preachers to the Islamic State. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, 31. [13] Guessoum, Nidhal. “PhD Thesis: The Earth is Flat.” Gulf News Opinion. April 10, 2017. Accessed March 12, 2019, https://gulfnews.com/opinion/op-eds/phd-thesis-the-earth-is-flat-1.2009202

Edward Guimont is a doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut Department of History. His dissertation is on the use of mythic histories of Great Zimbabwe to justify settler colonialism in southern Africa. He has also published scholarship on cryptozoology and the author H. P. Lovecraft.