Dapper was born in a working-class district of Amsterdam, in around 1635. He was baptised at the Lutheran church in January 1636. In May 1658, he enrolled at Utrecht University and two years later was signing himself “doctor medicinæ”, although there is no evidence that he ever received any medical training. Unlike his contemporaries, he never had his portrait reproduced in his books.
It would appear that this humanist never left his native Holland, where he died on December 29th 1689. In 1663, he published a historical description of Amsterdam, followed by a Dutch translation of the works of Herodotus in 1665. Other works soon flowed from his pen.
Following a growing publishing trend in Amsterdam, Dapper was just over thirty when he embarked on the geographical research that was to occupy him for the rest of his life. He threw himself into a vast undertaking, tackling first Africa (1668), then China (1670), Persia and Georgia (1672) and Arabia (1680).
Today, Description of Africa is his best-known work. Two very rare copies of the Dutch edition have survived, published by the engraver Jacob Van Meurs in 1668 and 1676. Two years after the initial publication, the Englishman John Ogilby produced what proved to be a rather unreliable translation. A German-language version appeared the following year, while the French translation was published in 1686.
Dapper spent three years researching his book on Africa, perusing a huge number of history and geography books, as well as numerous travellers' accounts. Not content with simply compiling facts, he produced an interesting synthesis of the documents he had consulted, and although some of the information it contains should be viewed with caution, his Description of Africa* remains a key text for Africanists.
Far from making value judgements about the societies he described, Dapper avoided all ethnocentric connotations and became the first person to adopt an interdisciplinary approach, weaving together the separate threads of geography, economics, politics, medicine, social life and customs. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Dapper produced a genuine work for posterity, not just a compendium of exotic curiosities.
*The abridged text is published in Objets interdits, Éditions Dapper, 1989, with introductory texts on the life and works of Olfert Dapper. The unabridged text can be consulted on the Gallica site of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Map taken from the 1686 French translation of Description of Africa by Olfert Dapper
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