Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Labyrinth of Kingdoms


Richard Francis Burton, Mungo Park, Henry Morton Stanley: these famous names readily conjure up an exotic world of adventure and daring during the Age of Exploration by the British in Africa during the 19th century. But have you ever heard of Heinrich Barth? Probably not. A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, by Steve Kemper, is a fascinating new account of a much-overlooked explorer and his incredible journey.

In 1850, Barth joined a now almost-forgotten expedition to explore the Sahara, Sudan, and central and west Africa. Its main purpose was to establish legitimate trade relations with the various kingdoms in an attempt to eradicate the slave trade in those areas. The British Foreign Office chose a tactless and grating proselytizer, James Richardson, to lead the expedition. But the Foreign office also wanted a scientific team on board to report on the region’s natural history, geography, and social conditions of the local population. Greater names like Alfred Russell Wallace were already engaged in other expeditions, so the Foreign Office scrambled until they found a prickly, anti-social, German academic named Heinrich Barth. Until that time Barth wandered around Europe and the Middle East unsuccessfully applying for academic positions.

The usually reticent Barth blossomed as the expedition got underway. He had a gift for languages and was soon conversant in most of the dialects of the southern Sahara. But even more astonishing for a 19th century European explorer, Barth was genuinely curious and genuinely interested in the people and things he saw around him. In letters sent back to the Foreign Office, expedition leader Richardson frequently complained that Barth was holding up the team with his incessant exploration and note-taking.

Within a few months, Richardson and another scientist on the team were dead, leaving Barth alone on Lake Chad. Richardson’s incompetent management of the expedition had also left Barth without funds or trading goods. The plucky German explorer not only re-supplied the expedition, but also decided to travel to the city of Timbuktu. He became only the third European to see the fabled city and the first to return to tell the tale.

Along his six-year, ten thousand mile trek, Barth took daily copious notes of everything he saw and everyone he met. He discussed religion with Islamic scholars, mapped a reliable chart of the Niger River, and created a comparative dictionary of local dialects. Upon his return to Europe, Barth published a multi-volume account of his adventure, Travels and Discoveries in Northern and Central Africa, which is still used by scholars today for its encyclopedic collection of data about the area.

Unfortunately, Barth’s acerbic nature and the anti-German sentiments in England at the time, relegated his accomplishments to obscurity in favor of home-grown heroes like Stanley, Park and Burton. In November, 1865, Barth died of an intestinal infection he acquired while on his travels. He was forty-four years old.

A Labyrinth of Kingdoms is a fascinating tale of adventure and individual resilience. I hope the name of Heinrich Barth will be better known because of this great book. And you can reserve it here.

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