Untethered From the Facts

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt

Barth had a scientist’s horror of inaccuracy, and during his explorations he rigorously corrected the mistakes of his predecessors. He criticized Johann Ludwig Burckhardt’s information about the eastern part of Lake Chad as “marred with mistakes.” He complained that Dixon Denham reported the wrong name for the Logone River, “although he has only very insufficiently described it, and entirely failed in fixing its right position.” And so on. Barth believed that progress in science was made by building upon past discoveries and correcting past mistakes. Few things upset him as much as imprecision.

I, on the other hand, was often amused during my research by the errors and exaggerations made by earlier writers. Popular accounts sometimes get untethered from the facts. Because the literature about Barth is so sparse, some writers felt compelled to embellish.

A favorite example occurs in René Lecler’s chapter on Barth in World Without Mercy (1954). Lecler, once a popular author of books about the Sahara, puts his whimsy to work when describing the unexpected meeting in the wilderness between Barth and Eduard Vogel, a German astronomer and botanist who had been sent to join the expedition in 1853.

First, Lecler equates this meeting with Stanley’s discovery of Livingstone. To make this inflationary comparison seem credible, he proceeds to pump the facts full of helium. Upon seeing Vogel, writes Lecler, Barth sat on the ground and wept–a touching image that contradicts both the explorer’s personality and the circumstances, since Barth was deeply irritated at Vogel for assuming that he was dead and leaving him stranded without supplies.

After Barth dried his eyes, continues Lecler as he works up a head of steam, Vogel treated Barth to “the best dinner he had eaten in years.” In fact the two men merely shared a little of Barth’s precious coffee. After feasting, says Lecler, his fancy now in overdrive, the explorers “sang old German lieder together”—a scene pleasant to imagine but also preposterous and unsupported by evidence. For his big finish Lecler declares that Barth and Vogel spent a week enjoying each other’s company in a Chadian village. In truth, they parted after two hours and were nowhere near Chad.

Lecler’s exaggerations may stem from too much admiration: “In terms of exploration,” he writes, “no single man ever equaled Henry Barth’s magnificent journey.”

Another example of imagination triumphing over the facts occurs in The Great Age of Discovery, by Paul Herrmann (translated from German, 1958). Herrmann is often interesting on the methods and motives of explorers but is prone to overstatement. He writes that Barth was “enticed back to Africa time after time,” which is true only if that phrase means “twice.” (A few years before his great journey into North-Central Africa, Barth traversed the edges of the Mediterranean along the coasts of Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.)

James Richarson

To increase drama, Herrmann says that James Richardson, the leader of Barth’s expedition, died “some days earlier” than Adolf  Overweg—yes, some 570 days. Herrmann describes an ambassador that Barth arranged to send to the British consulate in Tripoli from Bornu as a “naked black minister,” which is both inaccurate and condescending, and he puts this man in Tripoli in 1849, before Barth even arrived there. But then Herrmann also has the expedition leaving Tripoli on March 24, 1848, two years early.

Herrmann also asserts that Barth was probably the first white man to reach Kano, though Hugh Clapperton left a famously detailed account of his visit to that city. And he writes that Dorugu and Abbega, the teenaged servants of Overweg and Barth, “settled down in the small Thuringian capital of Gotha,” an exaggeration that verges on fabrication—Barth briefly hosted the youths in Germany before returning with them to Britain.

Abbega and Dorugu

In my own work I value accuracy almost as much as Barth did, but even he occasionally slipped. So I mention the mistakes made by my predecessors with rueful near-certainty that an error or two has snuck into my own book, for which I ask the reader’s, and Barth’s, pardon.

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