When you think of the great 19th-century explorers of Africa, what names spring to mind? Livingston, Stanley, and Burton, sure. Speke, Denham, and Baker, if you’ve done your reading. But Heinrich Barth? Who’s he? In A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, Steve Kemper tells Barth’s story: a man who was simultaneously a scholar and an adventurer, a scientist and a linguist, open-minded and terribly prickly. His travels through African kingdoms, many of which no longer exist, are indispensable to modern scholars of Africa, but the general public has never heard of him. Time for that to change, I think.
In many ways, Barth’s story was very like that of other African explorers. Kemper tells of the terrible difficulties Barth had in getting his expedition funded (at first, he was the subordinate of an incompetent British leader) and the frustration and danger he experienced at the hands of thieves, cheats, and natural obstacles such as heat, disease, insects, and dying camels. Many expeditions like Barth’s had never returned, with the vast majority of the Europeans dying along the way — of malaria, fever, guinea worm, heat stroke, drowning, dysentery, or simple murder. It is a tribute both to Barth’s resourcefulness and to his impatience that he often pressed on his way alone, with no caravan or accompaniment, and still returned to England alive.
What sets Barth apart is not the difficulties he endured. Those can be found in any exploration story (and in fact, that’s partly why I love reading travel and exploration narratives, from my nice comfortable living room.) Barth, perhaps alone among his fellow explorers, truly saw Africans as human beings. He studied the Qur’an and knew its teachings by heart, which served him well among the primarily Islamic areas of Africa through which he traveled. He was always willing to debate religion with others, and to acknowledge their learning and scholarship. He learned languages wherever he went, speaking as much as he could with everyone he met — men and women — so that he could write down the culture and customs of the people in their own words. Alone among explorers, he never beat or shot a native. He left not only signed treaties behind him, but sincere friends.
This approach was becoming unpopular. While Britain had abolished the slave trade in its own empire by 1850, it was not averse to benefiting from it through commerce with countries in which it had not yet been stamped out. The way to do this was to bring commerce and Christianity — “civilizing influences” — to Africa. Seeing Africans as human beings with a real scholarship, a real culture, and a real history of their own would impede the flow of profits. Barth’s views were not terribly welcome, and for this reason — along with his thorny personality — he fell through the cracks of history.
Barth is worth rediscovering. Kemper’s book makes for wonderfully interesting reading. It could be a little better organized — he wobbles back and forth in time a fair bit, between Barth’s experiences and what was happening in Britain, and it becomes a string of experiences rather than a molded narrative. The book would also have hugely benefited from a few good maps, since most of the places Barth visits don’t exist on modern maps, and I was lost among the references to Bagirmi, Wadai, Kukawa, and Hamdallahi. (Timbuktu I got.) With these minor caveats, however, this comes recommended, not only as a biography of an explorer I’d never heard of, but as a history of parts of Africa I’d never known about. Great reading, particularly as the cold weather begins to settle in.