In the Heat of the Book
With the overheated dog days of summer roaring across the nation most of us, I suspect, are doing as little as possible in the prime hours of the weekend day. Such inactivity lends itself perfectly to reading, whether that be in a hammock or chair under a tree in our yard, on a sofa in an air-conditioned living room, or lazing on the beach, or next to lake or mountain.
I love (nonfiction) adventure stories, particularly when set in jeopardous circumstances and A Labyrinth of Kingdoms fits the bill very nicely. It involves a goodly amount of misery, red tape even in nineteenth-century Central Africa, unpleasant and dangerous companions, thefts, murder, genocide, lots of heat, sand, biting flies, mosquitoes, and in a particularly grisly description, the guinea worm. Misery at its finest.
Yet while the wretchedness is very much a part of this book the larger part is a brilliant historical study of the nearly forgotten traveler and scientist whose writings are still relevant to modern scholars of Africa 150 years later. It was that part that kept me chained to the book through to the end.
In 1850, German scientist Heinrich Barth joined a historically and scientifically significant British expedition to explore the previously unexplored regions of Islamic North and Central Africa. Five-and-half-years and 10,000 miles later, Barth completed a journey that rivaled if not surpassed those of more famous explorers. Yet his name disappeared from the list and his monumental five-volume Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa is rarely found even in libraries. What happened is the story that fuels this fascinating book.
By the middle of the nineteenth century Germany was the leading edge of scientific investigations in university studies, far ahead of England. Barth was an unusual prodigy: he picked up languages swiftly; he burned with intellectual curiosity. In his own words, he had “a great drive, an absolutely selfless drive, to find the great, the true, and the beautiful. To be useful to humanity, to encourage them towards common enlightenment, to feel their spirits and give them strength.” And while this belief proved to be very useful in his travels it also provided the impetus for “bitter experiences.”
When both his attempt for an academic position in Germany and a book about his journeys around the Mediterranean failed, he floundered until he received an invitation to join an expedition put together by James Richardson to explore the Sudan. Richardson was an evangelical minister whose two great drives were to spread Christianity and abolish slavery; the latter could be achieved, he believed, by encouraging and developing commerce to replace the profits of slavery and, not surprisingly, help British trade interests. He also promised that he would collect scientific information.
Though it took years, the British government was at last persuaded to fund the expedition. Barth was invited along with another German scholar, a geologist and astronomer named Adolf Overweg. They were attached to the expedition as independent scientists and not as agents of the British government. The three men met for the first time on November 30, 1849 in London, and signed a contract that the main mission was commercial.
But trouble began almost immediately. Barth and Overweg, overjoyed at the opportunity to travel in the name of science, took off for Tripoli, the main gateway, leaving Richardson behind, dallying. Even in the city, he waited so it wasn’t until April 2, nearly two and a half months that the three explorers met up and set off—unfortunately late in the season for they would reach the Sahara at the height of summer.
Despite the challenging travel, Barth was ecstatic. He used every opportunity to explore on his own, leaving the caravan in the mornings and re-joining it in the evenings. His scientific nature led him to record details about “every geographic feature, every ruin (Roman, Arabic, Turkish), every form of vegetation and crop (corn, figs, dates, olives, almonds, pomegranates) as well as “every village and its people, often accompanied by pertinent scholarly references.” This obsessive attention to detail continued throughout his journey, and sometimes it saved his sanity when he was trapped by rulers’ disinclination to let him leave when he wanted to leave.
The tension that had first surfaced between Richardson and Barth didn’t take long to grow. Richardson wasn’t experienced in Arab ways, and his drivers’ demands often took precedence over good decisions. Barth was impatient; he had previously always traveled alone at his own pace, and he was unaccustomed to the necessarily shower pace of a large caravan.
As they moved south into previously unexplored territories, they began to encounter the various tribes and politics that ruled the area. Tribal warfare, slavery, thefts, murder, religious fanatics, and highwaymen were all part of interactions, but so were a surprising number of cultured villages. Barth found himself entranced with each one, learning and recording the languages, the gender relationships, entertainment, daily life. Though he was often frustrated by the needs of the caravan that overrode his desire to move quickly and see more he never squandered an opportunity to learn. And appreciate. Unlike Richardson, whose goal was to satisfy the British government’s mission as efficiently as possible—though his methods were quite the opposite—Barth was in his element.
Barth was always willing to engage Africans about anything, including the volatile subject of religion. His learning and familiarity with the Qur’an earned him respect and friends throughout his journey and probably saved his life more than once. He also had studied African historians. He knew the names of famous African places, kings, and kingdoms. Unlike most African explorers, who couldn’t speak to the people they met and hence learned little about the cultures they were passing through, Barth was a gifted linguist who got his information firsthand. He spoke seven African language and compiled vocabularies for twenty-four, which allowed him to talk to everyone from kings and viziers to merchants, imams, thieves, and slaves.
One odd footnote to the above passage (noted later in the book) is that Barth’s passion for detail did not extend to women. Though he admired the women of the various tribes and described their looks and to some extent their lives, he never once named one whereas the men he encountered, dealt with, and lived with are named, their professions noted, and often their interactions with each other as well as himself are noted in detail.
In January 1851, nearly a year later, the three men parted. Though they planned to meet up again in three months, it was the last time they would meet. Both Richardson and Overweg would die in Africa, the former disenchanted with his realization that ending slavery would require not commerce but “only foreign conquest.”
Barth took advantage of his freedom to enjoy Tessaoua, a town of 15,000 and a respite from what would prove to be continuing troubles including the required gifts for the various rulers he encountered. This drained his money and he wrote several times to the Foreign Office asking for more money and gifts to share as safe travel—at least as safe as it could be for a Christian—depended upon them.
For the next several years, he moved from village to village to town, meeting the peoples, enduring the climate, learning the cultures and languages, experiencing the political trials that more than once threatened his life, suffering food shortages and occasionally ill health, delicately maneuvering among the various factions, enjoying conversations, working on his notes. Toward the latter part of his journey he was finally able to head for the fabled (and as yet unvisited) city of Timbuktu that so enthralled the European imagination. He began that part of the trip on June 24, 1853, pummeled first by a terrific sandstorm then later by violent rain. It was a miserable journey; everything got wet and stayed wet. Biting flies and mosquitoes were endless and they drove both humans and animals nearly mad. But on September 7 they were about to enter the city.
Timbuktu proved to be not the city of gold as Europeans had imagined. It had begun as a Tuareg seasonal campsite around 1100 AD, but grown to be a flourishing trade hub by the twelfth century and later a center of Islamic learning—a gift to the ever-curious Barth—as well as a “pawn in desert politics” though it was “swept by savagery, scholarship, tolerance, and fundamentalism.” Though he felt triumphant and momentarily safe, his protector, Sidi Alawarte, he received the first of many death threats the next morning when his true identity as a “Christian infidel” was revealed. Still, his house, close to the traveling sheikh, gave him the opportunity to exercise, sketch, and see part of the city. Though he gathered invaluable information about the city during his imprisonment, Barth was by this time sick of traveling and desirous of nothing more than getting home. When the sheikh returned a few days later Barth’s hopes of being able to leave for home soon blew up. A power struggle between the sheikh and the emir with Barth as hostage ensued for more than seven months.
Finally, on April 19, 1854, Barth was able to leave Timbuktu. “But,” he wrote, “I had no idea of the unfavorable circumstances which were gathering to frustrate my hopes.” Those circumstances delayed his return to Tripoli for another sixteen months. From there, he sailed to Europe, arriving first in London where he found his return a non-existent fact to the public. It was his first taste of what would become a deafening silence and a turned ear to his work. Why? Perhaps this part of the epilog says it best:
. . . he didn’t fit the image of the explorer created by books and art, later amplified by movies. He made his great journey as the age of exploration and discovery was giving way to the age of imperialism. His heroics differed from those of the new model. The imperial heroes weren’t self-effacing scientists but self-promoting media personalities like Stanley. Barth emphasized his accuracy and comprehensiveness more so than his courageous adventures, and when he bragged, it was about his scientific discoveries. He didn’t fight a lion, or qauell rebellious porters with a whip, or shoot his way out of a ring of hostile natives. He didn’t act as if Africa and Africans were brutes to be tamed. Though tough and well armed, he never shot or beat a native, unlike nearly every other African explorer. His goal was information, not submission. He method was sociability, not intimidation. “I have never proceeded without leaving a sincere friend behind me,” he wrote, hardly the creed of a steely-eyed conqueror.
The book is not without challenges. I wouldn’t call them flaws for the author takes such sufficient care in names and places and dates that I think Barth would be pleased. However, for an interested reader but not a scholar it can get confusing at times. Yet once I was able to let go of trying to memorize any tribes or their politics, or the villages and, especially, the names of the people Barth met or traveled with that made the reading easier. I am sure I missed some details but what I was left with was a strong sense of the passion of this now-forgotten man and the unusual attitude that he brought to his work. Very few of us will likely ever read what he wrote, but A Labyrinth of Kingdoms provides much more than misery at its finest. It shares the story of a complex man, a enigmatic time, a transcendent journey, and a rich story in one splendrous adventure.
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Until next week, read well, read often and read on!