Fanatics, Infidels, and Guides

Barth’s journey had three key locales, which formed a rough triangle. The triangle’s northern point was Aïr, a Saharan mountain range in present-day Niger, where Barth’s party was pillaged by Tuareg raiders and barely escaped execution. The triangle’s eastern point was Lake Chad, Barth’s base for a year and a half. The western point was Timbuktu in present-day Mali, where he was detained under threat of death for seven months.

Aïr, from Travels and Discoveries

I wanted to see the cultures and landscapes that Barth had seen, to smell some of the same odors, touch some of the same textures, eat some of the same foods. Politics and tight restrictions on travel eliminated Libya from my itinerary. Political unrest eliminated Niger; Aïr, still a stronghold of rebellious Tuaregs, was off-limits to travelers.

That left the stretch between Lake Chad and Timbuktu. I eventually decided to travel east from Kano in northern Nigeria to Lake Chad, about 350 miles as the crow flies. In Barth’s day Kano had been the largest and most important city in north-central Africa, a position it retains, with a population of more than five million. (Some estimates say nine million. Until I read Barth, I had never heard of Kano, despite its size. In some ways Africa is still unknown.) From Lake Chad I would make my way by air to Timbuktu.

In Barth’s era, travel in remote areas of Islamic Africa could be fatal for a white Christian. Christians were evil infidels, odious unbelievers, fit only for slavery or death. Barth heard that a lot. Yet he also found tolerance and hospitality.

North-central Africa still breeds Islamic fanatics. As in Barth’s day, their religious zeal is sometimes a veneer to justify thuggery and greed—for example, the small terrorist group that calls itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) plants bombs and occasionally kidnaps Western travelers, whom they ransom or murder. Other factions, such as Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria, are more old-school in their ways and religious fervor, simply condemning everything Christian and Western in their sometimes violent quest to force a return to what they consider a purer form of Islam. AQIM and Boko Haram both would be familiar types to Barth.

Like him, I wanted a savvy guide to help me negotiate the complexities of northern Nigeria. The internet made it easy to throw out many lines asking for help. Most were ignored, but a professor named Abdalla Uba Adamu at Bayero University in Kano wrote that he knew the perfect man: Nasiru Wada Khalil, head of IT for the Sharia court of Kano, who had a scholarly bent. In our email exchanges before the trip, Nasiru wisely persuaded me to hire Nasiru Datti Ahmed, a teacher at an Islamic secondary school for girls in Kano, as our driver. These two learned, curious men provided invaluable guidance of many kinds, as well as amiable company and friendship. All this, too, would have been familiar to Barth.

At Lake Chad: infidel flanked by Nasiru Datti (left) and Nasiru Wada (right). Abdul in back.

Africa and History


In the 1830s the German philosopher G. H. F. Hegel remarked that Africa “is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit.”

Poof! An entire continent’s history dismissed with a philosophical snap. Even if Hegel “loses a lot in the original,” as one wit put it, this is breath-taking arrogance bred of ignorance. In Barth’s era it was also typical. The common wisdom, to misuse the word, was that Africa had no history worth considering. The continent was deemed illiterate, uncivilized, ungoverned, unshaped, a place of dark chaos. Egypt? An exception that proved the rule, sniffed Hegel, since it had been settled by lighter-skinned Semites.

Africans had a different point of view, easily discovered by anyone willing to look. Though information about the continent was extremely sketchy and often wrong, Roman and Muslim historians and travelers such as Pliny the Elder, Ibn Battuta, Leo Africanus, Al-Bakri, and Al-Idrisi had told bits of Africa’s story for centuries. More recent explorers such as Mungo Park, Friedrich Hornemann, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, Hugh Clapperton, and Dixon Denham had sprinkled their narratives with anecdotes about learned Africans and African history. But the public tended to overlook these reports, preferring the ones that were exotic, lurid, and violent—the ones that confirmed their assumptions.

Barth had been trained by professors influenced by Hegel and wasn’t immune to the age’s racial preconceptions. But he also had steeped himself in the old and new accounts about Africa, and he had already seen part of Africa firsthand during a three-year, three-continent journey along the shores of the Mediterranean. He had glimpsed an African reality that differed from European assumptions about it.

Kanembu Chief, from Travels and Discoveries

He was also a scientist who tried to keep an open mind and follow the evidence before him. Part of what Barth discovered on his journey—what he was willing to let himself discover—was that Africa had a long rich history, some of it written, that was unsuspected or ignored in Europe. He recorded barbarity and fanaticism, but also scholarship, governance, culture, tradition. His work should have demolished the canard that Africa had none of these virtues. But Barth’s news wasn’t heard on the eve of imperialism in Africa, nor in the following decades.

More than a century after his journey, the idea that Africa had no history was still alive and writhing in respectable circles. “Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach,” said the Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1963. “But at the present there is none; there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness, and darkness is not the subject of history.”

Ignorance is a recurring virus. Barth believed it could be cured by science and knowledge, but it’s a wily pestilence with no fool-proof antidote.


I didn’t want to write a biography of Barth. That would take many years, deep funding,  and fluency in German, all unobtainable. Besides, what really interested me was his great journey and the British response to it. I wanted to tell an exciting story with a compelling main character. Specifically, I wanted to take readers on an expedition into Islamic Africa with a perceptive traveler—Barth—through decaying empires and young nations, on grim desert marches and slave raids, into cultures sometimes surprising for their savagery, sometimes for their sophistication. It would be an historical adventure.

Return of the Sultan of Massenya, from Travels and Discoveries

Historical journalism was new for me, but my guiding principles wouldn’t change. No straying from the known facts. No fabricated scenes or dialogue. No unsubstantiated speculation about the invisible crevices of Barth’s mind. Obvious principles, perhaps, but often flouted these days by “imaginative re-creations” of someone’s life and by histories “based on a true story,” a euphemism for “fiction.”

I also decided to avoid the intrusion of contemporary voices. No quotations from modern scholars, no commentary by present-day Europeans and Africans, no first-person distractions (“Look at me in Barth’s footsteps”). I didn’t want to slow down the story or break the reader’s immersion in nineteenth-century African travel. (After I finished the book, I found a wonderful example of what I hoped to do: Candace Millard’s The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.)

Some of this would have made Barth nod. His brother-in-law and biographer, Gustav von Schubert, described Barth’s devotion to truth and knowledge as priest-like. A scientist to his very soul, Barth deplored sloppiness and inaccuracy. He was sure he could measure everything precisely, from the water temperature in a desert well to a man’s integrity. It never entered his mind to fudge his data or his opinions—an impolitic trait that would cost him. Unlike many of his fellow explorers, he avoided self-display, and after his return he was puzzled when the public preferred travel accounts that were more entertaining than scientific, such as David Livingstone’s. (The two men knew and admired each other.)

In his personal life Barth could be as touchy as an anemone—nothing riled him more than assaults on his integrity—but as a scientist he was completely trustworthy. His few errors don’t stem from laziness or malice.

As a journalist, I was astonished by his skills as an observer, interviewer, and investigator, even under conditions that were physically or psychologically debilitating. Whether reeling with sickness or threatened with death, he still sought out informants and took detailed notes about everything around him. A typical example: near Timbuktu, 200 armed men crowded into his room and eyed his luggage, piled behind him. While waiting for their next move, Barth took out his notebook and wrote a thorough description of their clothing and weapons. Cool Hand Heinrich.

Now What?

I had a fascinating subject and, equally important, a book contract. Perfect.

Now what?

I’ve always written about people who are breathing. Barth was not. Neither was anyone who had known him. As a journalist I depend not only on what people say, but how they say it—tones, hesitations, verbal tics, facial expressions, gestures. I also depend on watching them interact with other people, and on what those people tell me about my subject. With Barth, none of this was available.

Courtesy of the Heinrich-Barth-Institut

Visual evidence was thin, too. I found a few photos of him and a couple of line drawings. In the photos, taken after his great journey, he looks intense and haughty, verging on arrogant. I pinned my favorite one (above) over my desk. For the next couple of years we stared at each other, often in exasperation. I always blinked first. I might as well mention here that Barth was indomitable, a flattering word for mulish.

So my main route into Barth and his world would have to be written words, his and others’. He left behind a lot of them, in many languages. In addition to German and English, he spoke and read French, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Latin, Greek (ancient and modern), and Arabic. He had taught himself English and Arabic as a schoolboy in Hamburg, pursuits that his classmates mocked as absurd.

His linguistic prowess served him well in Africa. As he traveled through its many kingdoms, he learned the local languages so he could talk to everybody, from sultans and imams to camel-drivers and slaves. He became fluent in half a dozen African languages and collected vocabularies in forty. Scores of individual Africans appear in his work, distinguishing him from most nineteenth-century explorers, who passed through the continent deaf to its peoples and hence largely blind to its cultures. The voices collected by Barth enriched his work and could populate mine.

Eventually I found many other voices. The voluminous files about the expedition in the British National Archives offered glimpses of feuds, alarms, heroic measures, misunderstandings, false charges, and bureaucratic pettiness, as well as strong opinions about Barth. The journal of James Richardson, who led the mission into Central Africa, gave me an alternate perspective on the expedition’s first year and also a close-up (and often disapproving) view of Barth. An obscure biography in German by Barth’s intimate friend and brother-in-law, Gustav von Schubert, opened the door to Barth’s youth, and preserved his private responses to important events.

All of these helped me begin to see Barth, and to catch his cadences and personality. He never blinked, but he began to breathe.

The Journey Begins

In 1849 the British Foreign Office sent three explorers into the mysterious lands south of the Sahara. Their goal: to scout caravan trade routes and commercial prospects in the vast, little-known territory called the Sudan. The word, shortened from the Arabic Beled e’ sudan, meant “land of the blacks,” or Negroland.

It encompassed far more than the present-day country called Sudan, taking in everything south of the Sahara and ten degrees or so north of the Equator, from the Atlantic coast to the mountains of Ethiopia. This area included most of today’s Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, and Sudan as well as northern Nigeria and northern Cameroon.

The expedition’s leader was a British evangelical abolitionist named James Richardson. Barth had been recommended to the British by two of the era’s eminent scientists, both Germans: Alexander von Humboldt, the great botanist who spent five years exploring South America, and Carl Ritter, who with von Humboldt had transformed the study of geography. Richardson invited Barth along to collect scientific and cultural data. Later in the planning, another young German scientist named Adolf Overweg joined the mission.

Things didn’t go as planned. Richardson expected the expedition to spend a year in Africa, perhaps two, but his assumptions soon proved dangerously flawed. By the time Barth returned to Europe, he had been away for five and a half years and had traveled more than 10,000 miles. No one was more surprised than Barth himself that he was gone so long or covered so much ground.

In the annals of exploration, few journeys match Barth’s for distance and duration. In terms of knowledge collected and ongoing relevance, none of the famous 19th-century explorers of Africa–Mungo Park, John Hanning Speke, David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, James Baker, even Richard Burton–are comparable to Barth, whose discoveries and written work are still considered indispensable by modern historians, geographers, linguists, and ethnographers.

Yet the general public has never heard of him. Why? That question, which seems so simple, always opens the door to an enticing labyrinth–one of Barth’s favorite words. Who can resist walking into it? Here we go.