"Africa", Phebe Varney, 1830, [Society of Friends], manuscript

"Africa", Phebe Varney, 1830. Dover, Duchess County (New York) [Society of Friends], manuscript
Phebe Varney, Author
manuscript, pen and ink with hand water color
Unrestored original condition
as found, complete manuscript map, hand drawn with ink, hand colored ink and pigment on paper, backed on original linen, paper likely toned, some age related chipping in paper, small areas of paper lifted from backing, otherwise good condition
18.75 × 23.12 inches
Sale Status: 
For Sale

This hand drawn map is signed "Phebe Varney, 1830. Dover Duchess County" on the front. The title of the map is "Africa". The map is hand drawn on thick paper with colored inks and possibly a fine brush. The thickness and opacity of the paper would not have permitted easy tracing and therefore it is most likely the author of the map drew it freehand, perhaps using a grid system  (or longitude and latitude lines) to scale up or down a published map or set of maps of Africa. The map appears to be unique.

Phebe Varney and her family belonged to the Society of Friends in New York. She was born June 16, 1810 in Nine Partners, Duchess County, New York to Jedediah and Mary (Hoag) Varney according to Nine Partners Records. Tragically her mother died in childbirth two years later. The family removed to Oblong, New York in 1824 when Phebe was 14 years old and of school age.  By 1830, the date of this map, Phebe would have been 20 years old.  To supplement my research of records of the Society of Friends, I engaged a genealogist, Mr. J.E. Hazard, a specialist who comes recommended by Swarthmore College for searching Swarthmore's archive of Quaker records on site. His report provided no additional biographical information about Phebe Varney beyond her birth date and removal date, and no mention of her in school records.

My initial surmise was that Phebe Varney was either an older student or a teacher in the vicinity of Nine Partners or Oblong, New York when she drew this map. One possible school is the Nine Partners Boarding School, founded by the Quakers in 1796 as the first day and boarding school in Nine Partners (Village of Millbrook), New York that admitted students until 1863. Phebe Varney lived in this area and was of school age at this time. Nine Partners Boarding School was succeeded by the Friends' Oakwood School of Poughkeepsie, New York, and this school is in operation today. I was advised by staff of the Oakwood School that it has no records of Phebe Varney. School records identify a teacher named Mary Hoag in 1840. Ann Varney is listed in school records as well according to the school archivist. I was advised by the Oakwood School that one manuscript map does exist in the school archives, not of Africa and not signed by Phebe Varney.

Phebe Varney's hand drawn map, rather large for a "school girl map", is dense with detail and may be a compilation of published maps, including those in Nine Partners Boarding School head teacher and former student James Willetts' Compendius System of Geography and his accompanying atlas that were in a 2nd edition by 1822, published by Willetts in Poughkeepsie ("Africa" map not available for inspection). 1/ Other published map sources for Phebe Varney could include Scottish and American maps and missionary reports from travels in Africa. Her map graphically resembles an engraved map titled "Africa" in John Thomson's A New General Atlas published in Edinburgh from 1817 to c. 1821. Phebe Varney's map bears some resemblance to Carey's 1805"A New Map of Africa".  Neither published map is an exact match.  The Varney map notes the "Meridian of London" while the Thomson maps reference the "Meridian of Greenwich". Henry Tanner's 1833 map "Africa" is also similar but not identical to Phebe's map as to place names. Mathew Carey's 1820 map "Africa", published in Philadelphia is also a possible model for elements of Phebe Varney's hand drawn map. John Melish's 1820 map "Africa", published in Philadelphia bears a strong graphic resemblance to Phebe Varney's map with water shown as wavy lines, and substantively in terms of the choice and spelling of place names.

Why a map of Africa? The American Quakers were among America's first anti-slavery advocates. Quakers sailed to Africa, and certain Nantucket Whalers established a community in Cape Town, South Africa. 2/ British Quakers were already in South Africa in the 1830's.3/  Phebe Varney's large, detailed map may have been for a geography lesson, or related to anti-slavery advocacy and education or for a reason we cannot know.

Phebe Varney's map presents geography and topographical features such as streams, ponds, rivers, deserts, mountains and mountain ranges of Africa, as well as political subdivisions and settled areas. The "Mountains of the Moon" are shown in great pictorial detail. Political borders are shown with color, dots and hatch marks. The "Supposed Course of the Niger" river is represented. Another area of the map is labeled "Vast Unexplored Regions." Her map shows two Christian cross symbols in the region of the Colony of the Cape in South Africa, at the Christian missions of Bethesda and Bethelsdorp.  Graphic citations on a map in 1830 of these missions are infrequent. In Arabia, the southern coast is labeled Ab. Happy, a possible reference to Yemen as described by Ptolemy and later others as "Happy Arabia", first named thus by the Romans as a fertile area. These unusual map features of religious history and 19th century missionary work in Africa (the Bethelsdorp mission was known for protecting Africans from local slavery) support the thesis that Phebe Varney brought her Quaker values to this task. The notation "no fresh water" on Africa's west coast just above the Tropic of Capricorn may suggest commentary from missionary journals.

All of these pictorial and written elements make Phebe Varney's map unique substantively, and not just as a function of it being a manuscript map. Her map expresses an understanding of how Africa was described by writers historically as well as of how her contemporary cartographers and early travelers portrayed the continent. The map speaks to us as a work of art, of history and perhaps also of quiet religious conviction that the people of this continent deserved to be known and understood as equals.




1822 A Compendius System of Geography; being A Description of the Earth, ...To which is added, plain directions for constructing maps illustrated by plates. With an atlas. By Jacob Willetts. Second Edition Revised. Poughkeepsie: Printed and Published by P. Potter, for himself, and for S. Potter & Co. No. 87, Chestnut-St. Philadelphia. 1822. The atlas mentioned is shown below; and this 324-page textbook has no other maps. A couple pages on map drawing at the back have a few simple illustrations. The Pennsylvania description is on the following pages: 53 , 54-55 , 56. Printed in letterpress relief. Size: 7 x 4 inches.

(1820) This untitled plain gray cover school atlas was published by P. Potter, Poughkeepsie 1820, and was made to accompany Willetts geographies. There are seven maps in all: "World" (folded 8.5 x 14.5 inches), "North America", "United States" (folded 11 x 13.25, shown at left), "South America", "Europe", "Africa", "Asia". The five unfolded maps are double page, 10 x 8.5. Most of the maps are dated 1820 and five are hand colored. All are blank verso. On the United States map, Illinois (1818) is shown as a state but Alabama (1819) is not; indicating the map was prepared circa 1818.The country is shown to the Mississippi with Florida cut off. Paraclete Potter may have engraved these maps, but that seems unlikely. He is stated as the publisher on five of them, but who actually made them is not known.Size: 8.5 x 5 inches.

2/ see, The Quakers in South Africa: A Social Witness, Betty K. Tonsing, Mellen Press, 2002.

3/"James Backhouse: A Yorkshire Quaker in South Africa (1838-1840)", Cecil Northcott, Quaker History, Vol. 67, No. 3 (Autumn 1978) pp105=11. Friends Historical Association at Haverford College.

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