Tending the Low Flame

Like most people, Nasiru Wada had never heard of Barth. When Nasiru agreed to be my guide, I sent him a link to a digital edition of Travels and Discoveries. By the time I reached Kano, he was deep into the book and had printed hundreds of pages to bring on the trip. “I think he’s superhuman,” he said. “To do everything he did, to notice it and to write it all down—I am amazed. I want to be him.”

One of the Foreign Office volumes on the Central African Expedition

Over the years, similar responses have kept Barth from falling completely off the world’s radar. His work remained valuable to scholars, his name familiar to aficionados of exploration. Basil Davidson, for instance, a prominent historian of Africa, wrote that Barth was “surely the most intelligent of all the nineteenth century travelers in Africa, and sailed these historical narrows with a mastery and brilliance that none has yet repeated.”

A few other comments about him:

“Perhaps the greatest traveler there has ever been in Africa.”–Francis Rennell Rodd, explorer and author of People of the Veil 

“Of the major African explorers, there is no doubt that Heinrich Barth has been much neglected . . . He deserves greater attention, at least equal to what has been given to other African explorers of the nineteenth century.”–R. Mansell Prothero, British historian and geographer of Africa

“Barth had the temper and training which led him to ask historical questions of a kind no European has asked before. He never described the contemporary situation of the various African communities through which he travelled without attempting to relate it to the past; so that his work, unlike almost all preceding European studies, is a work of exploration in a double sense—in time as well as space.”–Thomas Hodgkin, British historian

“It is one of the fascinating paradoxes of the history of African exploration that the greatest of the explorers is the most neglected.”–Adu Boahen, historian of Africa

“Of Africa’s eminent explorers, none has been so neglected by posterity as Heinrich Barth.”–A. H. M. Kirk-Greene, historian of Africa

The thought that rings through these like a chorus is “neglect.” No one tended Barth’s low flame more faithfully than A. H. M. Kirk-Greene. He became fascinated by Barth while serving as a British district officer in northeastern Nigeria (Adamawa and Bornu) before going on to an eminent academic career at Oxford. Between the late 1950s and early 1970s he wrote half a dozen enlightening essays about the explorer. He also persuaded Oxford to publish Barth’s Travels in Nigeria, a book of edited extracts from the Nigerian section of Barth’s account, to which Kirk-Greene added a 70-page biographical introduction, by far the longest such essay about Barth in English.

Kirk-Greene was following in the footsteps of another British district officer named P. A. Benton, who also had come under Barth’s spell while serving in northern Nigeria. Benton turned into a productive part-time scholar about the Central African expedition. For instance, he knew that in 1852 Barth had sent a letter from Kukawa, capital of the Bornu empire, that included the vocabularies of twenty-four dialects collected during the expedition’s first stage. But the vocabularies had been missing for nearly 60 years.

In 1910 Benton found the vocabularies in a Foreign Office file. He culled many treasures about the expedition from those huge repositories, and sometimes added clarifying commentary. His findings and writings were collected in The Languages and Peoples of Bornu (Frank Cass, 1968), with a helpful introduction by his worthy successor—A. H. M. Kirk-Greene.

Comparative vocabulary from Barth's notebooks

One thought on “Tending the Low Flame

  1. Pingback: Abbega and Dorugu | In the Labyrinth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s