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.”

5 thoughts on “Pity You Aren’t British

    • Very often true, Dianabuja, yet the British government did invite the Germans Barth and Overweg to be the expedition’s scientists, and did put Barth in charge and send him money after Richardson’s death. If only he had acted more grateful–ha–which brings us back to your point. As a historian, you know how complicated these matters become.

  1. Steve, I’m loving the book. Could easily be a page turner for me, but I’m savoring it, reading just a few chapters a day. It’s a very satisfying read, all the historical asides are interesting, as are the stories of the other key players involved in Barth’s expedition. I’ve been looking at more detailed maps too, adds to the experience and am finding myself wanting to google a lot of the people, places and events, but I’m mostly holding off, not wanting to get ahead of the story. I see myself going on a little ‘African exploration’ reading jag in the near future. Fascinating stuff! Your book certainly deserves to be a big seller. I’ll definitely give it a big thumbs up on Amazon (where I bought it) when I’m finished. Glad to see you’re keeping up the blog, too.

    • Thanks, Jerry. Yes, I wish the maps were more clear and that Barth’s route wasn’t obscured by the gutter on the inside cover. A bit of red or something to mark the route would have helped as well. Hindsight, always 20/20. And thanks as well for offering to review it on Amazon.

  2. Pingback: August Petermann, Cartographer of Exploration | 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