Many explorers in Africa traveled with squads of servants. Lack of funds limited Barth to two, sometimes three. The cast changed often, especially in the first year or so when servants often quit or were fired. But one African stayed with Barth for almost the entire expedition. His name was Muhammed al-Gatruni—that is, Muhammed from Gatrun (also spelled Gatrone, Katrun, and Qatrun), a Saharan village in southern Fezzan, in present-day Libya. Barth called him el Gatroni.
This remarkable man spent years assisting Europeans in the exploration of Africa. He served not only Barth but several subsequent travelers who hired him because of Barth’s strong recommendation.
El Gatroni was a Teda, a division of the Tebu people. When Barth hired him in Murzuk in mid-1850, he was 17 or 18, “a thin youth of most unattractive appearance,” wrote the explorer, “but who nevertheless was the most useful attendant I ever had; and, though young, he had roamed about a great deal over the whole eastern half of the desert and shared in many adventures of the most serious kind. He possessed, too, a strong sense of honor, and was perfectly to be relied upon.” Whenever Barth mentions el Gatroni in Travels and Discoveries, it’s always with similar appreciation: “our best and most steady servant,” “upon whose discretion and fidelity I could entirely rely.”
El Gatroni stayed with Barth to the end of the expedition in 1855, except for a hiatus when the explorer entrusted him to take Richardson’s effects and precious journals to Murzuk. When Barth decided to try for Timbuktu, an extremely dangerous journey, el Gatroni agreed to accompany him as chief servant. His salary: one horse, four Spanish dollars a month, and a bonus of fifty Spanish dollars if the expedition succeeded (that is, if Barth lived). His assistance was so valuable that at the end of the journey Barth regretted being unable to double el Gatroni’s bonus.
Some years later, when Barth was writing Travels and Discoveries in London, he met a French teenager named Henri Duveyrier who dreamed of exploring the Sahara. Barth advised him to learn Arabic and, if he ever went to Central Africa, to hire el Gatroni. Duveyrier took this advice. El Gatroni accompanied the Frenchman on some of the travels that made him famous.
In Germany, Barth’s example inspired Karl Moritz von Beurmann to undertake an expedition into Bornu in the early 1860s. Barth again recommended el Gatroni, who guided von Beurmann to Kukawa. The explorer proceeded to Wadai, where he was murdered. Barth also inspired his countryman Friedrich Gerhard Rohlfs, who followed Barth and von Beurmann to Bornu in the mid-1860s. Rohlfs’s guide, on Barth’s suggestion, was el Gatroni.
A few years later Rohlfs arranged for el Gatroni to lead Gustav Nachtigal on part of that explorer’s remarkable five-year odyssey through Central Africa. Nachtigal, who called Barth “my constant example,” knew all about el Gatroni and described his first meeting with him in 1869 as the famous guide stuffed pack saddles for their upcoming trip:
“I looked with respectful awe upon his round, black face, with its innumerable wrinkles, his small snub nose with wide nostrils, his toothless mouth, the sparse black and white hairs of his beard, his large ears and his faithful eyes.
“As I had frequent occasion to observe in the years which followed, old Muhammad was not a man of many words. A quiet friendly old man, he was by no means indifferent to the joys of life; he seldom, however, allowed the equanimity which was the result of his temperament and his rich experiences to be disturbed.”
Though Nachtigal often called el Gatroni old, the guide was only a year or so senior to the 35-year-old Nachtigal, but his face was carved with a life of rough travels.
When Nachtigal wanted to explore Tibesti, in what is now northern Chad, el Gatroni strongly advised against such a dangerous trip and didn’t want to go. Nachtigal asked him to recommend someone else as a guide. “The worthy man, however, rejected this proposal with some indignation,” wrote Nachtigal. “‘I have promised your friends in Tripoli,’ he added, ‘to bring you safe and sound to Bornu, just as I also guided thither your brothers, ‘Abd el-Kerim (Barth) and Mustafa Bey (Rohlfs). With God’s help we shall achieve this purpose together. Until then I shall not leave you, and should misfortune befall you among the treacherous [Tebu], I want to share it with you.’”
The expertise and steadfastness of men such as el Gatroni helped make possible the exploration of Africa by Europeans.