AFRICA, the name of a continent representing the largest of the three great southward projections from the main mass of the earth's surface. It includes within its remarkably regular outline an area, according to the most recent computations, of 11,262,000 sq. m., excluding the islands.1 Separated from Europe by the Mediterranean Sea, it is joined to Asia at its N.E. extremity by the Isthmus of Suez, 80 m. wide. From the most northerly point, Ras ben Sakka, a little west of Cape Blanc, in 37 deg. 21' N., to the most southerly point, Cape Agulhas, 34 deg. 51' 15'' S., is a distance approximately of 5000 m.; from Cape Verde, 17 deg. 33' 22'' W., the westernmost point, to Ras Hafun, 51 deg. 27' 52'' E., the most easterly projection, is a distance (also approximately) of 4600 m. The length of coast-line is 16,100 m. and the absence of deep indentations of the shore is shown by the fact that Europe, which covers only 3,760,000 sq. m., has a coast-line of 19,800 m.


The main structural lines of the continent show both the east-to-west direction characteristic, at least in the eastern hemisphere, of the more northern parts of the world, and the north-to-south direction seen in the southern peninsulas. Africa is thus composed of two segments at right angles, the northern running from east to west, the southern from north to south, the subordinate lines corresponding in the main to these two directions.

Main Geographical Features.—The mean elevation of the continent approximates closely to 2000 ft., which is roughly the elevation of both North and South America, but is considerably less than that of Asia (3117 ft.). In contrast with the other continents it is marked by the comparatively small area both of very high and of very low ground, lands under 600 ft. occupying an unusually small part of the surface; while not only are the highest elevations inferior to those of Asia and South America, but the area of land over 10,000 ft. is also quite insignificant, being represented almost entirely by individual peaks and mountain ranges. Moderately elevated tablelands are thus the characteristic feature of the continent, though the surface of these is broken by higher peaks and ridges. (So prevalent are these isolated peaks and ridges that a special term [Inselberg-landschaft] has been adopted in Germany to describe this kind of country, which is thought to be in great part the result of wind action.) As a general rule, the higher tablelands lie to the east and south, while a progressive diminution in altitude towards the west and north is observable. Apart from the lowlands and the Atlas range, the continent may be divided into two regions of higher and lower plateaus, the dividing line (somewhat concave to the north-west) running from the middle of the Red Sea to about 6 deg. S. on the west coast. We thus obtain the following four main divisions of the continent:—-(1) The coast plains—-often fringed seawards by mangrove swamps—never stretching far from the coast, except on the lower courses of streams. Recent alluvial flats are found chiefly in the delta of the more important rivers. Elsewhere the coast lowlands merely form the lowest steps of the system of terraces which constitutes the ascent to the inner plateaus. (2) The Atlas range, which, orographically, is distinct from the rest of the continent, being unconnected with any other area of high ground, and separated from the rest of the continent on the south by a depressed and desert area (the Sahara), in places below sea-level. (3) The high southern and eastern plateaus, rarely falling below 2000 ft., and having a mean elevation of about 3500 ft. (4) The north and west African plains, bordered and traversed by bands of higher ground, but generally below 2000 ft. This division includes the great desert of the Sahara.

The third and fourth divisions may be again subdivided. Thus the high plateaus include:—(a) The South African plateau as far as about 12 deg. S., bounded east, west and south by bands of high ground which fall steeply to the coasts. On this account South Africa has a general resemblance to an inverted saucer. Due south the plateau rim is formed by three parallel steps with level ground between them. The largest of these level areas, the Great Karroo, is a dry, barren region, and a large tract of the plateau proper is of a still more arid character and is known as the Kalahari Desert. The South African plateau is connected towards the north-east with (b) the East African plateau, with probably a slightly greater average elevation, and marked by some distinct features. It is formed by a widening out of the eastern axis of high ground, which becomes subdivided into a number of zones running north and south and consisting in turn of ranges, tablelands and depressions. The most striking feature is the existence of two great lines of depression, due largely to the subsidence of whole segments of the earth's crust, the lowest parts of which are occupied by vast lakes. Towards the south the two lines converge and give place to one great valley (occupied by Lake Nyasa), the southern part of which is less distinctly due to rifting and subsidence than the rest of the system. Farther north the western depression, sometimes known as the Central African trough or Albertine rift-valley, is occupied for more than half its length by water, forming the four lakes of Tanganyika, Kivu, Albert Edward and Albert, the first-named over 400 m. long and the longest freshwater lake in the world. Associated with these great valleys are a number of volcanic peaks, the greatest of which occur on a meridional line east of the eastern trough. The eastern depression, known as the East African trough or rift-valley, contains much smaller lakes, many of them brackish and without outlet, the only one comparable to those of the western trough being Lake Rudolf or Basso Norok. At no great distance east of this rift-valley are Kilimanjaro—with its two peaks Kibo and Mawenzi, the former 19,321 ft., and the culminating point of the whole continent—and Kenya (17,007 ft.). Hardly less important is the Ruwenzori range (over 16,600 ft.), which lies east of the western trough. Other volcanic peaks rise from the floor of the valleys, some of the Kirunga (Mfumbiro) group, north of Lake Kivu, being still partially active. (c) The third division of the higher region of Africa is formed by the Abyssinian highlands, a rugged mass of mountains forming the largest continuous area of its altitude in the whole continent, little of its surface falling below 5000 ft., while the summits reach heights of 15,000 to 16,000 ft. This block of country lies just west of the line of the great East African trough, the northern continuation of which passes along its eastern escarpment as it runs up to join the Red Sea. There is, however, in the centre a circular basin occupied by Lake Tsana.

Both in the east and west of the continent the bordering highlands are continued as strips of plateau parallel to the coast, the Abyssinian mountains being continued northwards along the Red Sea coast by a series of ridges reaching in places a height of 7000 ft. In the west the zone of high land is broader but somewhat lower. The most mountainous districts lie inland from the head of the Gulf of Guinea (Adamawa, &c.), where heights of 6000 to 8000 ft. are reached. Exactly at the head of the gulf the great peak of the Cameroon, on a line of Volcanic action continued by the islands to the south-west, has a height of 13,370 ft., while Clarence Peak, in Fernando Po, the first of the line of islands, rises to over 9000. Towards the extreme west the Futa Jallon highlands form an important diverging point of rivers, but beyond this, as far as the Atlas chain, the elevated rim of the continent is almost wanting.

The area between the east and west coast highlands, which north of 17 deg. N. is mainly desert, is divided into separate basins by other bands of high ground, one of which runs nearly centrally through North Africa in a line corresponding roughly with the curved axis of the continent as a whole. The best marked of the basins so formed (the Congo basin) occupies a circular area bisected by the equator, once probably the site of an inland sea. The arid region, the Sahara—the largest desert in the world, covering 3,500,000 sq. m.—extends from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. Though generally of slight elevation it contains mountain ranges with peaks rising to 8000 ft. Bordered N.W. by the Atlas range, to the N.E. a rocky plateau separates it from the Mediterranean; this plateau gives place at the extreme east to the delta of the Nile. That river (see below) pierces the desert without modifying its character. The Atlas range, the north-westerly part of the continent, between its seaward and landward heights encloses elevated steppes in places 100 m. broad. From the inner slopes of the plateau numerous wadis take a direction towards the Sahara. The greater part of that now desert region is, indeed, furrowed by old water-channels.

The following table gives the approximate altitudes of the chief mountains and lakes of the continent:—

Mountains. Ft. Lakes. Ft.

Rungwe (Nyasa) . 10,400 Chad . . . . 8502

Drakensberg . . 10,7002 Leopold II . . 1100

Lereko or Sattima . 13,2143 Rudolf . . . 1250

(Aberdare Range) Nyasa . . . 16453

Cameroon . . 13,370 Albert Nyanza . 20282

Elgon . . . 14,1523 Tanganyika . . 26243

Karissimbi . . Ngami . . . . 2950

(Mfumbiro) . 14,6833 Mweru . . . . 3000

Meru . . . 14,9553 Albert Edward . 30043

Taggharat (Atlas) . 15,0002 Bangweulu. . . 3700

Simen Mountains, . 15,1602 Victoria Nyanza. 37203

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