A Labyrinth of Kingdoms

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.

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11 Responses to A Labyrinth of Kingdoms

  1. 4lovequotes says:

    i think that’s great book…

  2. I am overdo for some exploring myself. Burton, maybe, or some mountaineering. What is Speke like? And who is Denham? I’ll bet i could look that up for myself – ah, one of the Sahara-crossing madmen.

    • Jenny says:

      Mountaineering, that’s a good idea. I’ve been meaning to do some Nile exploration, but maybe mountaineering is a better idea. Any specific recommendations?

    • Maybe Whymper’s Scrambles among the Alps. Or something American – I haven’t read Isabella Bird’s Lady’s Life in the Rockies. I don’t know. Speke and the Nile sound tempting for some reason.

      • Lisa says:

        A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains is marvelous, though there isn’t a lot of mountaineering – not as much as she would have liked, anyway!

  3. Lisa says:

    I know very little about the explorations of Africa, and I was just thinking today that while I can find great articles on African nations today, I also know very little about their history – et voila.

    I don’t suppose there were any references to a Venetian company trading in Timbuktu?

  4. A Venetian company! That would be interesting. I wonder how that would have worked.

    When Mungo Park tried to walk to Timbuktu in 1795 it was cut off from the outside world – the only way in or out was through the Moroccans who controlled the trade. Eventually other explorers were able to visit, the Moroccans weakened for unrelated reasons, and eventually at the end of the century the French took over. Who knows what traders might have snuck in at some point.

    By the way, Jenny, if you have not read it, Mungo Park’s book is quite good.

    I have actually been to TImbuktu, for what that is worth. I shudder and weep to think about what it is like now.

    • Jenny says:

      Ah, Tom, I’m jealous of your globe-trotting; my husband’s not much of a traveller, so I tend to stay closer to home. Lisa was making reference to Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series (late 15th-century Europe), in which a Venetian trader makes his way to that part of the world, reasonably plausibly. And no, I haven’t read Mungo Park, but on the list it goes; it sounds terrific.

      • Steve Kemper says:

        Jenny–I’ve read these responses to your thoughtful review and was surprised to see that someone asked about Venetians in Timbuktu. I don’t know the series of novels you mentioned, but the premise isn’t entirely fantastical—there is some reported evidence of Venetian and Portuguese merchants reaching Timbuktu long before the famous 18th and 19th century European attempts. I’m on the road at the moment and my notes aren’t handy, but from what I remember, some historians think the early merchants did get there, and some think they only claimed to. I’m sure some tried, lured by the stories about the fabulous wealth of Mansa Musa. TImbuktu has always been a irresistible to dreamers, treasure-hunters, and hoaxers.

  5. Alex says:

    It’s interesting how recent books are debunking the myth of these early explorers and show them for what they really were (Stanley in King Leopold’s Ghost comes to mind). I’d never heard of Barth, but find it fascinating that he had a real interest in the people he met in Africa.

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