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Why saying Tarzan is set in "Africa" isn't good enough.

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

I am incredibly passionate about two things - history and geography. This is why I tend to get very annoyed when someone is ignorant about either of these topics.

In Australia if you say someone is from "Sydney" you will often be met with a bombardment of follow up questions to pin point exactly where in Sydney that person is from. When it comes to Africa though many people are content to say that someone hails from "Africa". This disregards the fact that Africa is an incredibly large continent with a very diverse cultural make-up.

Last year I was watching a Tarzan film and as I wondered where it was set I found there was no definitive answer other than "Africa". Yes it is a work of fiction but I thought the author, American Edgar Rice Burroughs would offer a location for the story (novel cover pictured here).

Tarzan made his first appearance in print in 1912 and it is interesting to note that in Rice's creation Tarzan is the son of a British Lord and his actual name is John Clayton II, Viscount Greystoke (interesting reference to the name Clayton in the Disney film however in the Disney version Clayton is the bad guy). In Rice's story the family were marooned on Africa's Atlantic coast and while Tarzan's Mother died of natural causes his Father was killed by Kerchak, the leader of the ape family.

After falling down another rabbit hole I managed to narrow down the location to the "Equatorial Coast" but that region alone is home to five different modern-day nations. Back when Tarzan was published in 1912 the map of Africa looked very different to how it does today. This region was dominated by the French Congo (today Gabon and the Republic of the Congo), the Belgian Congo (of which only a small portion was along the coast, similar today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo), German Kamerun (Cameroon) and a small Spanish influence in Equatorial Guinea.

Map Pictured Here: Africa in 1912 looked different to how it does today. (University of Texas at Austin. Historical Atlas by William Shepherd).

So with that in mind where was Tarzan and his family shipwrecked?

As there is no official answer that I can find I'm going to surmise that it was in what we know today as Gabon. Why am I guessing this? Well in 1912 this was the French Congolese coast and it is also located in Equatorial Africa. Loango National Park, located on the coast of Gabon is also home to gorilla's so there is evidence that they at least can be found near the coast.

Loango National Park, Gabon (Google Maps)

At the end of the day though does it matter where Tarzan is set? Burroughs created a far-off, uncharted world, and in 1912, there were still plenty of places that were not yet on a map. Today we tend to want to put everything onto a map so maybe we just need to accept that Tarzan is a mythical construct, living in a mythical world?

Have I just contradicted myself and the point of this blog? Possibly, but the main point I want to make is that Africa is a vast continent and to say someone is simply "African" is to be ignorant of the different countries and people that comprise Africa.

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