Changing Map of Africa | Africa: 1917 and Now

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When the first World Book was published in 1917, there were only two independent countries in Africa: Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and Liberia. Together, they made up less than 5 percent of the land area of the continent. The rest of Africa was divided into colonies controlled by the European nations of Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

Organized groups in some African colonies began demanding self-government early in the 1900’s. But a mass independence movement did not take shape until after World War II (1939-1945).

Some countries gained their independence relatively peacefully. In 1951, Libya, which was an Italian colony in 1917, became the first country in Africa to gain independence. In 1956, France granted Morocco and Tunisia independence. That same year, the United Kingdom granted Sudan independence as well. Other countries saw much bloodshed before their independence was granted. In Algeria, a bloody revolt raged against the French from 1954 until the country won independence in 1962. In Kenya, members of a movement called Mau Mau revolted against British control in the 1950’s. The revolt failed, but it contributed to Kenya’s eventual decolonization in 1963.

Today, Africa is divided into 54 independent countries. Several European countries still control a few small islands: the Madeira Islands (controlled by Portugal), Mayotte and Réunion (France), and Saint Helena (United Kingdom).

The 1917 article presents the story of Africa as one of contrasts. Like today’s World Book article, it provides a broad overview of the physical and cultural geography of Africa. The article rightly calls Africa the home of the world’s foremost civilization, Egypt. The article also describes how Africa “sank into barbarism” after the great ancient civilizations declined. Africa is described as exotic and largely untamed. Today, World Book recognizes the continent’s complex, yet unparalleled history, confronted with many challenges inherited from colonialism and brought by independence, but also with all the promise, fascination, and enormous beauty and potential that the people and land of Africa hold.


Throughout the nearly 100 years of publication of The World Book Encyclopedia many things have changed, but World Book’s dedication to providing timely, reliable, and readable educational and reference materials has not wavered.
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