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.”

Into the Desert

To gather sensory information about Barth’s travels, I wanted to spend a day on a camel in the desert. Shindouk arranged it. One morning a Tuareg wearing blue robes and a long sword showed up at the hotel’s gate. Somber and unsmiling, he was riding a white mehari and leading another. His name was Agali ag-Mohamed, Ali for short. Shindouk told me was a Kel Ulli, a tribe in the Imrad class of Tuaregs.

Ali on his mehara

All this fascinated me. Mehara, for instance, are the fast slender breed long favored by desert raiders such as the Tuaregs. The Imrad are the vassal class of Tuaregs (all Tuaregs belong to one of three classes: nobles (Ihaggaren), vassals, or slaves). I knew of the Kel Ulli because they had helped Barth in Timbuktu. He described them as ferocious warriors, infamous for “totally annihilating” two other powerful Tuareg tribes.

I climbed onto the prone mehara. At a signal from Ali, it sharply lifted its hind legs,  almost pitching me headfirst into the sand. Lesson number one. Lesson number two came later, in reverse, when Ali gave the signal to lie down and my camel suddenly tilted onto its front knees, nearly launching me again.

Tuaregs use a U-shaped wooden saddle, covered with sewn goatskin, that sits in front of the hump. They ride with both bare feet resting on the left side of the camel’s neck. I mimicked Ali. At the edge of town we stopped so he could buy a new SIM card for his cell phone, which he tucked beneath his blue robes.

Acacia thorn

I enjoyed the rocking gait of the camel. The desert was greener than I expected, with grasses, bushes, and stunted trees, such as the lovely but vicious acacia, with its red bark, frilly green leaves, and long silver thorns. About an hour into the journey I became acquainted with another desert plant. I dismounted (voluntarily, shortly after learning lesson number two) to walk to a place for a photo. Within 10 yards my shoeless feet felt as if they getting stung by a mob of ground hornets.

“Kram-kram,” said Ali without interest. Kram-kram is a patchy, innocent-looking groundcover that inserts dozens of fine needles into whatever it touches. The sand was full of it, as I’m sure Ali, son of the desert, was well aware. Lessons three and four. I spent the next 15 minutes pulling spines from my feet. Barth called the burr karengia and noted that every native carried tweezers to remove the spines.

It was February, “the month of wind.” The harmattan had started and was blowing hard, kicking up sand and turning the air cloudy. I kept my hat low and my kerchief over my mouth.

After several hours we reached Ali’s village, though that was too grand a name for it, since its inhabitants were so widely scattered that most of his neighbors weren’t visible. Ali’s camp consisted of an open-sided shelter (his house), a small cooking shed made of matting, and a mud-brick room about the size of a one-car garage. Except for the brick building, the camp looked almost exactly the same as depicted in old books and photographs.

Ali’s camp. From left to right: cooking shed, windscreen, domed shelter, mud-brick building

We settled into the mud-brick room. It had a sand floor and a roof of matting laid across a frame of sticks. Ali had built the room in hopes of attracting a teacher, but now it was used mostly by women for sleeping when the winds were bad. He didn’t like being indoors and preferred his shelter. Evidently he assumed that my preferences ran closer to the women’s. He said we would rest here during the day’s hottest hours.

Roof of mud-brick room, contemplated for hours during heat of day

While three of his children watched from the doorway, Ali began the ritual of making tea. He built a small fire on the sand floor. Loose tea went into a battered metal pot that held enough water to fill three or four of the little tea glasses used by Tuaregs. He dumped in a staggering amount of sugar and put the pot on the fire. Periodically he poured tea in a long arc from pot to tiny glass, then returned the tea to the pot for more steeping. Just as I began wondering if we were ever going to drink what he poured, he handed me one of the glasses. The liquefied sugar carried a nice hint of tea.

When the first pot was empty, which didn’t take long, he refilled it with water and sugar, and restarted the process using the same leaves. We drank three pots, which passed the time and jacked up my blood sugar.

Neia, Ali’s wife, and children

Ali wasn’t much for conversation. His wife, Neia, who did sometimes smile, brought in lunch, an aluminum bowl of tasty rice with bits of gristly meat. She handed me a carved wooden spoon. Ali relied on his right hand, scooping up a wad of rice, squishing it into his palm to form a solid oblong, then popping it into his mouth.

Two men and two women came in. Everyone began chatting in Tamasheq. Ali started a batch of fresh tea. One of the men wore a vivid turquoise robe and a flamboyant bright green neck garment with fringe. The long fingernails on his dirty hands were painted red. I naively asked Ali if this place had become a hang-out for his neighbors, but when all six began pulling little knotted bundles of jewelry from beneath their robes, I realized they were here because of me, the ensnared customer. Hucksters and retailers.

After a polite interval I escaped and took a walk. Ali’s shelter was domed, with log supports and a roof of thick matting to blunt the desert sun. On the north side the matting came to the ground. The south side was partly open, with a low roof to cut wind and sand. Inside, things hung from rafters. It felt spacious and pleasant.

South side of Ali’s shelter


A few hundred yards beyond Ali’s camp I took a photo of a fence made of acacia thorn that enclosed some goats.

A boy, maybe 10 years old, rushed over from somewhere and said, “500 francs for the photo.” I laughed. He insisted. I laughed again. He spotted the pen peeking out of my pocket.

“Give me your pen [le Bic].”

“Sorry, no, I need it.”

“500 francs for the photo.”

I told him he was amusing. He shrugged and walked off. A huckster’s gotta try.

Back in the mud-brick room, Ali was asleep. A burly dung scarab crawled across the sand floor, leaving a delicate trail. Ali’s bright-eyed daughter Fatima, maybe six or seven years old, stared at me. The sides of her head were shaved, with a spikey mohawk running down the center of her scalp. Barth had seen the same style among Tuareg boys. It gave her the look of a wild child. She pointed at my face, then herself. I didn’t understand until she leaned over and pulled at my glasses. When I jerked backward, she flashed her wild-child grin and ran off.

Ali and his son Mohamed

Tuareg saddle

In late afternoon it was finally time to go. Ali’s son Mohamed saddled the camels—first a blanket folded four times, then a thick leather pad, then the saddle itself. He put a rope under the camel’s belly and over the hump, and pulled the saddle tightly backward to stabilize it. We mounted—by that point I knew how to shift my weight—and we rode into the dunes toward Timbuktu.

Advance Reviews

Some brief horn-tooting: a few advance reviews of the book:

Kemper brings to life the near-forgotten explorer and scientist, who accompanied an English expedition into northern Africa in 1849. Kemper weaves information from Barth’s own publication about the journey as well as the notes of his fellow companions to paint an in-depth and vividly descriptive account of this remarkable expedition.  —Booklist

Journalist Kemper tells the engrossing story of a German scholar’s five-and-a-half year, 10,000-mile journey across North and Central Africa in an age when that continent was as remote and exotic to Europeans as the North Pole.  —Publishers Weekly

Barth’s story comes alive in Kemper’s capable hands; A Labyrinth of Kingdoms is erudite but never stuffy—at its core, the book is an excellent adventure story. –Biblioklept

 . . . Steve Kemper’s extremely well-researched and smoothly written study. . . . The Victorian-era reading public was enamored with the swashbuckling yarns of “intrepid” white explorers, such as Richard Burton, among people they depicted as savages, and they by and large ignored Barth’s “meticulous scholarship.” Yet today, Barth is decidedly more relevant for our post-colonial global world. . . . Heinrich Barth truly was a fascinating individual who provided valuable and insightful knowledge for 21st-century readers.  –History Book Club

A spirited reconstruction of the arduous five-year trek into Central Africa by Heinrich Barth (1821–1865), a German scientist exploring for England.  —Kirkus

Lastly, an interview about the book on Biblioklept: http://biblioklept.org/2012/06/13/steve-kemper-talks-to-biblioklept-about-a-labyrinth-of-kingdoms-his-new-book-about-explorer-heinrich-barth/

Blue Men and Sovereign Women

When invading Arabic armies spread Islam across northern Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries, one group ferociously resisted conquest and conversion, leading the Arabs to call them Tuaregs—“the Abandoned of God.” They called themselves Imoshag or Imajughen, meaning either “the free people” or “the noble people,” or Kel Tagelmoust, “people of the veil,” or Kel Tamasheq, “speakers of Tamasheq.” Eventually, like the rest of northern Africa, the Tuaregs adopted Islam, but with typically noncomformist twists.

Timbuktu was founded as a Tuareg encampment, and the town has always been populated by these legendary “blue men” of the desert, famous for their flowing robes and turban-veils, dyed a deep indigo that rubbed off on their skin. Tuaregs were haughty and belligerent, indifferent to hardship, merciless to enemies. 

Map of Tuareg areas, by Mark Dingemanse

For centuries they were the scourge of a vast area across north-central Africa. They moved at will across the desert with their herds of camels and goats, plundering caravans and each other. But in the 20th century, colonization, aggressive central governments, and droughts curbed much of their mobility and killed most of their animals. Their nomadic life began sputtering out. In Timbuktu many Tuaregs now live in permanent houses and sell hand-made jewelry, not camels and goats.

During the years of Barth’s journey, 1849-1855, Tuaregs still ruled the desert. Barth spent a lot of time among them, some of it life-threatening, yet he admired their toughness, elegance, and fiercely independent way of life.

Tuareg camp

Tuareg men, then as now, were distinctive because of their tagelmoust or turban-veil. They wrapped this ten-foot cloth around their head, leaving a slit for their eyes. Once a Tuareg male reached maturity and donned the tagelmoust, he never took it off in public and wore it even when eating and drinking.

Every Westerner noticed that Tuareg culture upended certain practices of Islam. The most striking was the position of women. Most Islamic women in north Africa were highly restricted and preferably invisible, kept indoors and covered from head to toe.

Not Tuareg women. They didn’t wear veils—only the men did. They didn’t hide their sexuality–in fact they emphasized it with henna and kohl. Nor were they confined to the indoors or to certain areas of the dwelling. They usually ate with the men and guests, not separately.

Unlike their fellow Muslims, Tuaregs didn’t fetishize female purity. Young Tuaregs of both sexes mixed at social events filled with music, dancing, and flirting. Couples wandered off into the desert night. This time of courtship and experimentation was called asri, “to gallop with free reins.” After marriage, a woman wasn’t put into seclusion but could visit her friends at will. Westerners universally commented on the easy respect between Tuareg men and women, and on their tenderness for their children. Though Islam allowed a man four wives, monogamy was typical among Tuaregs.

In fact the culture was matrilineal. At marriage, a Tuareg groom left his village and joined his wife’s. She could accumulate property of her own, and if the couple divorced—a matter of simply declaring it—she took her wealth with her. She also kept the children. As Barth noted, “the women appear to have the superiority over the male sex in the country of [Aïr], at least to a certain extent.”

All of this, plus their mystique as wandering blue warriors, made them fascinating to Westerners, including Barth. His experiences among them, from the desert mountains of Aïr to the dunes of Timbuktu, are among the highlights of Travels and Discoveries.

Days and Nights in Timbuktu

Mornings in a Muslim town begin before dawn with the muezzins’ first call to prayer. As rousters of slugabeds, muezzins put roosters in the shade, or rather leave them in the dark. To a sleeping Westerner, the amplified chanting seems to start in the middle of the night. If there are several mosques in the vicinity, the chanting overlaps, sometimes in counterpoint, sometimes in dissonance. In Timbuktu my hotel, Sahara Passion, was close to a small mosque but near enough to others that their prayers floated through the darkness into my waking mind.

Small mosque near Sahara Passion

The muezzins eventually wake up the roosters, who, with loud indignation, do their best to reassert dibs on dawn. The muezzins and roosters motivate the goats and donkeys, who add bawling and braying to the morning orchestra.

Soon after the prayers stop and the livestock calms down, the smell of cooking fires begins drifting through town, followed by the rhythmic thuds of women pounding millet. Even in Barth’s day, Timbuktu was known for its delicious flatbread, takola, baked every morning in tall clay ovens shaped like beehives. The bread resembles pita in size and shape but is thicker and chewier, and is usually gritty with a bit of windblown sand. Barth typically ate it for breakfast. So did I, coated with local honey.

Bread oven

A walker in Timbuktu moves between past and present. The main streets are paved and busy with the usual traffic of motorcycles and Land Rovers, but donkeys and camels also plod along. The sand streets of the old medina, built for human and animal pedestrians, are too narrow for cars, though motorcycles occasionally slip-slide through. In many of the sandy side streets, rubble sits alongside stacks of new bricks, reflecting the endless cycle of building and rebuilding with sand and mud.


Bricks drying

At night I walked 10 or 15 minutes down a wide sand road to get dinner at Amanar, the only restaurant near Sahara Passion. The northwestern edge of the city lacked electricity and the road was pitch dark. I memorized the silhouettes of a few houses so I could find my way back (but still got briefly lost in the ink). Other walkers stayed invisible until their dark outlines suddenly passed. I could smell cooking fires and hear distant singing, drumming, and occasional laughter.

Road to Amanar in daylight

Eventually the dim glow of Amanar appeared, at the frontier of electricity. Its tables sat on a patio surrounded by a low wall. That first night, only one table was occupied, by a young man who turned out to be the waiter. I ordered a cold beer–a small miracle in a desert Muslim town. He brought it and companionably sat down with me, since it was inconceivable that I might want to be alone.

Within minutes a young Tuareg in traditional blue robes emerged from the dark and sat with us. He wondered if I would like to see some Tuareg jewelry, and put two pairs of silver earrings on the table. When I didn’t immediately say no, he pulled out his inventory of rings, bracelets, and pendants.

It was all distinctive, I was a rookie, I overpaid. After he faded into the dark, two Tuaregs replaced him. I saw the game and stopped playing. They left. My dinner appeared and so did two more Tuaregs, who sat down and displayed their wares. I thought of Barth, constantly beset by what he called “hucksters and retailers.” Tuaregs, he noted, were especially persistent.

For several nights this routine repeated itself with minor variations. One night the waiter was sitting with a friend, so I assumed he wouldn’t join me. But when I got up to look at the posted menu, he moved my beer and notebook to their table. There was still plenty of room for the parade of Tuareg retailers.

Flamme de la Paix

Amanar sat across from the Flamme de la Paix, a monument on the site where Tuareg rebels ceremonially burned 3,000 guns in 1996 to signify the end of the Tuareg uprising of 1990-1995. During my visit, the monument offered a handy dark hangout for Tuareg hucksters passing the time while awaiting prey at Amanar.

I never expected to see such a sleepy place in the news. Last November as four Europeans were eating at Amanar, gunmen swooped in and ordered them into a car. A German who resisted was instantly killed. The other three were abducted—the first kidnappings of Westerners in Timbuktu in recent memory. The gunmen were suspected to be from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which funds itself partly by kidnapping and ransoming Westerners.

Since the coup in Mali earlier this year, circumstances in Timbuktu have worsened considerably. Two rebel groups took advantage of the political chaos to occupy several northern towns, including Timbuktu, with the avowed goal of forming an independent desert state. Timbuktu is now controlled by a group supported by al-Qaeda that calls itself Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith).

Since the time of Ibn Battuta (1352), visitors to Timbuktu have commented on the inhabitants’ sociability and love of dancing, singing, and smoking. But the Ansar Dine are Islamic fundamentalists. They have stopped the singing and the music, and are requiring all women to veil their faces. Tobacco and alcohol have been banned, and places that sold them have been shuttered or destroyed. Amanar is almost certainly among them.

Timbuktu has seen it all before. Many similar restrictions were in place when Barth visited. The town had been captured by Islamic fundamentalists from Hamdallahi, who raided homes to seize tobacco and fined citizens for insufficient piety. The cycles of history.