Border crossings in the African travel narratives of Ibn Battuta, Richard Burton and Paul Theroux

08 May 2013

This article compares the representation of African borders in the 14th-century travelogue of Ibn Battuta, the 19th-century travel narrative of Richard Burton and the 21st-century travel writing of Paul Theroux. It examines the mutually constitutive relationship between conceptions of literal territorial boundaries and the figurative boundaries of the subject that ventures across borders in Africa. The border is seen as a liminal zone which paradoxically separates and joins spaces. Accounts of border crossings in travel writing from different periods suggest the historicity and cultural specificity of conceptions of geographical borders, and the way they index the “boundaries” of the subjects who cross them. Tracing the transformations in these conceptions of literal and metaphorical borders allows one to chart the emergence of the dominant contemporary idea of “Africa” as the inscrutable, savage continent.