Pity You Aren’t British

As I’ve mentioned, Heinrich Barth remains unknown to the general public despite being one of Africa’s greatest explorers. The reasons are complicated, but among them is his nationality. He was a German working for the British—a sentence loaded with historical thorns. In my book, the antagonism between Britain and Germany plays out on both the personal and national levels.

King George I

British suspicion and resentment of Germany goes back to at least 1714 when George I, the first Hanoverian king of England, arrived in London from Germany. Georges II through V all married German princesses. Queen Victoria’s mother was a German princess. Victoria married a German prince, Albert. These marital alliances brought the countries closer together but also produced an undercurrent of suspicion that Germans were gatecrashers with too much influence on British affairs. (The attitude evidently survives: Princess Diana reportedly referred to her in-laws as “the Germans.”)

Adolf Overweg

Similarly, certain people in London resented that one of Britain’s greatest African expeditions had succeeded almost solely because of several Germans—primarily Barth but also his fellow explorers Adolf Overweg and Eduard Vogel, the cartographer August Petermann, and Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter, who had recommended Barth for the job. Though some factions of British society at first showered Barth with praise and gratitude, others accused him of mismanagement, overspending, slurring the honor of a British soldier, promoting Germany’s commercial interests over Britain’s, slave-dealing, and denying scientific information to Britain’s scholars in favor of Germany’s.

Every one of these charges was false, even absurd, and deeply offended Barth. He suspected—sometimes backed by clear evidence, sometimes inflamed by his touchy sense of honor—that the charges stemmed from his nationality.

René Caillié

He no doubt remembered the British response to René Caillié, which made clear that the British preferred their heroes homegrown. In 1824 the French Société de Géographie offered 10,000 francs to anyone who reached Timbuktu and returned alive. The British craved this laurel and in 1825 sent two men after it, each of whom wanted it for himself. Major Alexander Gordon Laing left from Tripoli, Commander Hugh Clapperton from the Guinea Coast. Clapperton got stalled in Sokoto and died of dysentery. Laing reached Timbuktu in 1826 but was expelled and murdered in the desert. Caillié, a Frenchman, made it to Timbuktu in 1828 and, crucially, got home alive. For this feat he collected the 10,000-franc prize, the Legion of Honor, and a government pension. His book was a bestseller.

But then public opinion about Caillié began to change, driven partly by British sniping and outright calumny. To lose the prize to the French was bad enough, but to a nobody like Caillié? Especially since one of their own dashing officers had gotten to Timbuktu first. The British Consul in Tripoli, Hanmer Warrington, whose daughter had married Laing, accused Caillié of somehow acquiring Laing’s missing papers and then colluding with the French consul and the pasha of Tripoli to defraud the public. The Royal Geographical Society sniffed that even if Caillié had reached Timbuktu, he had returned with no useful scientific information (which was true). These accusations and disparagements created doubts about Caillié’s feat. In 1833 the French government cut off his pension.

Barth was the next European to reach Timbuktu and survive. He probably nettled some people in England by corroborating most of Caillié’s account and by praising him as “that very meritorious French traveler.”

Henry Morton Stanley

Henry Morton Stanley offers another example of the British tendency to downplay the accomplishments of non-British explorers. In 1871 Stanley tracked down the beloved British explorer David Livingstone. Livingstone was the mid-19th century equivalent of a rock star, attracting hundreds to his lectures about African exploration and selling thousands of books. He had been missing for years in the heart of Africa when Stanley found him, ill and tattered, in a remote village on Lake Tanganyika. Yet the British treated Stanley coolly because he was a mere American working for an American newspaper. Sir Henry Rawlinson, president of the Royal Geographical Society, scoffed that it was “not true that Stanley had discovered Livingstone, as it was Livingstone who had discovered Stanley.” The kicker: Stanley was British but had changed his name and nationality after moving to the United States.

Traces of this snobbery and resentment show up throughout the history of British exploration. A small final example that perhaps sums it up: after Romolo Gessi, a remarkable Italian who was the right-hand man of General Charles George Gordon in Africa, became the first European to circumnavigate Lake Albert, Gordon remarked to him, “What a pity you are not an Englishman.”

Barth Slept Here (Uneasily)

Barth entered Timbuktu in September 1853. He didn’t expect to stay long. When explorers make plans, the gods snicker. He got stuck in Timbuktu and environs for eight months. For much of that time he was under a death threat. He would have been expelled and probably killed if not for his protector, Ahmed al-Bakkay, Sheikh of Timbuktu, who risked his own life to defend Barth’s.

Barth’s residence in Timbuku

The house where al-Bakkay lodged the explorer is now a private residence on the Rue Heinrich Barth. A plaque commemorates it. A small front room in the house has been designated as a museum open to the public, admission about $2. The room features several small pictures of Barth, some placards in English, French, and German about the explorer’s accomplishments and significance, and a poster-map of the route, with small portraits of the expedition’s four Europeans. A five-volume German edition of Travels and Discoveries sits behind glass on a shelf. The room is probably mildly interesting to people who have never heard of Barth, but to me it was all familiar and hence disappointing.

Doorway of Barth’s house

Luckily, the house’s owner, Alassane Alpha Sane Haidara, was at home, and when he heard that I was writing a book about Barth, he graciously let me look around the rest of the two-story residence. The house had been in Haidara’s family since his forebears bought it from Sheikh al-Bakkay after Barth’s departure.

Alassane Alpha Sane Haidara in his house’s inner courtyard

The floor plan had changed over the decades, but some of it remained just as Barth described. It was stirring to imagine him here, where he spent so much time and weathered so many threats. For much of his stay in Timbuktu he was essentially under house arrest, for his own safety.

Stairway to rooftop

His favorite spot in the house was the rooftop terrace, where he could exercise and look out over the town. From there he could see rounded huts made of matting, squarish mud-brick houses, and a small market. To the north, towering over its neighborhood, was the earthen Sankore mosque, built in the 14th century by Mansa Musa. It had been the heart of Timbuktu during the town’s golden age of scholarship, drawing learned men from all over north Africa and the Middle East. Beyond the buildings, in every direction, was the Sahara.

Barth’s rooftop view, with Sankore in background. From Travels and Discoveries

Much of what Barth saw remains unchanged, with the additions of cinder blocks, electrical wires, and satellite dishes.

View from rooftop today

View from rooftop with Sankore mosque in left-central background

Sheikh al-Bakkay lived 25 paces from Barth’s house, cater-corner across a small square. It’s a modest place. The two men often crossed the square to discuss religion or history or the latest machinations of Barth’s enemies.

Sheikh al-Bakkay’s house

View of Barth’s house from Sheikh al-Bakkay’s

The explorer made many friends during his journey, but the Sheikh was the greatest of them, partly because they spent so much time together but mostly because al-Bakkay’s open-minded curiosity and intelligence matched Barth’s. Their friendship survived many challenges both in Timtuktu and after Barth returned to Britain, where the government rebuffed his efforts on behalf of the man who had saved his life.

In one of history’s pleasing parallels, after Tuareg plunderers and cutthroats left Alexander Gordon Laing for dead, the explorer found refuge and care in the desert encampment of al-Bakkay’s father. This kindness allowed Laing to resume his journey to Timbuktu. Al-Bakkay met him there, the only Christian the Sheikh had ever seen before Barth arrived. (Al-Bakkay was unaware, until Barth told him, of the visit by René Caillié, who had come and gone in disguise.)

Barth doesn’t mention the houses in Timbuktu where his European predecessors stayed, but plaques now mark these places, a nod at the bravery of the first Europeans who dared to visit–a Scot, a Frenchman, a German. Coming across these places while wandering the town is a reminder that Timbuktu once signified the far edge of the world.

House where Laing stayed

House where Caillié stayed

Golden City: the Allure of Timbuktu

When my grandfather wanted to signify something far out of reach or unimaginably far away, the thing or person would be “way out in Timbuktu” or “gone to Timbuktu.” As a child I loved the word’s percussive sound and exotic aura. (For similar purposes he used a musical word that I heard as “Pulchapeck,” which I assumed was another of his fanciful coinages. Decades later while studying an atlas–a favorite pastime–I was shocked to come across Chapultepec. It turned out to be the site of a once-famous battle between U.S. and Mexican troops in 1847, probably the origin of my grandfather’s usage.)

Mansa Musa holding a nugget of gold, from a 1375 Catalan Atlas of the known world

It was years before I learned that Timbuktu existed outside his imagination. I also learned that for centuries of Western history, the imagination had been Timbuktu’s main location. The cause was probably Mansa Musa, emperor of Mali, who once ruled the city. In 1324 he made a haj across Africa through Cairo to Mecca. He traveled with an enormous caravan, including 80 camels that carried 300 pounds of gold each. Along the way he freely lightened these camels, especially in Cairo. Soon Europe was abuzz with rumors about golden cities in the heart of the Sahara. This chimera refused to die for more than five centuries, and many Europeans would die pursuing it.

Title page of Leo Africanus’s book about Africa

Meanwhile African travelers, traders, and scholars streamed through Timbuktu. A few left tantalizing reports. The restless Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta visited around 1352 and wrote a short account that mentioned gold and many naked women. Leo Africanus, a Spanish Moor, reached the city around 1510 and was impressed by the number of scholars and gold plates. Then in 1591 the king of Morocco sent an army that conquered and looted Timbuktu, and marched its scholars to Morocco in chains. To Europe, the place seemed to go dark.

After a few quiet centuries, Europe’s interest in Timbuktu reawakened, and the race to reach it was on. In 1824 the French Société de Géographie offered 10,000 francs to anyone who made it to the city and returned alive. The British were determined to beat the French. Most of the contestants didn’t survive the race.

Alexander Gordon Laing

In the first half of the 19th century, only two Europeans reached Timbuktu. The first was Major Alexander Gordon Laing, who led a British expedition from Tripoli. After being viciously attacked by Tuaregs and left for dead in the middle of the desert, he somehow lashed himself on to Timbuktu, arriving in 1826. The Muslim fundamentalists who controlled the place were incensed that an infidel was polluting their holy city. After five weeks, Laing was expelled. Not far into the desert, his guides murdered him and burned his journals.

René Caillié

A year and a half later, in 1828, another European sneaked into Timbuktu disguised as a poor Muslim traveler. His name was René Caillié, a French dreamer inspired by Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Everything about Caillié’s story defies belief: the years of sacrifice in preparation for the journey to Timbuktu, the horrible afflictions suffered en route and on the way home, the adulation and bestsellerdom followed by humiliation and poverty. He stayed in Timbuktu undetected for two weeks—after hearing about Laing, he decided not to dawdle—but he did return to Europe and collect the prize money, to the dismay of the British.

Twenty-five years passed before another European, also in disguise, dared to enter Timbuktu: Heinrich Barth.