Shades of Black

As I noted in an earlier post, Africans often considered European explorers ugly, strange, or pitiable because of their white skin. But African attitudes about skin color were not simply black or white. Things were much more complicated than that, and still are.

Perceptions about skin color among Africans go back at least 2,500 years, when lighter-skinned Egyptians reviled darker-skinned Nubians as uncultured savages. Gradations of skin color became part of cultural and racial identity, and remain so. Northern Africans such as Arabs, Berbers, and Tuaregs often have dark skin but call themselves white to contrast themselves with southern Africans. They sometimes assume that their relative lightness makes them racially superior to black Africans, just as Europeans assumed that whiter meant better.

Northern Africans, past and present, also feel a sense of superiority because they are Muslims. Northern peoples became the first African converts to Islam as the religion swept across the region, but for centuries the regions below the Sahel remained unconverted. The Qur’an forbade the enslavement of Muslims, but the black Africans who lived to the south were pagans and hence legitimate targets of Muslim slave-raids. This relationship reinforced racial attitudes.

Yet some black Africans from the Sahel made their own racial distinctions and didn’t consider themselves truly black, and still don’t, perhaps a holdover from their longer tradition of Islam compared to tribes farther south. My guide in northern Nigeria, for instance, was a Fulani who remarked that the Kanuris of eastern Nigeria, in contrast to Fulanis and Hausas, were truly black. My other guide in Nigeria, also a Fulani, shaved this distinction even finer. Describing a subgroup of nomadic Fulanis called the Bororos (or Wodaabes) from Gambia and Senegal, he told me, as he rubbed his skin, “They’re really black. We are whiter.”

Yet in the 1820s explorer Dixon Denham noted that in Bornu, home of the Kanuris, the copper-colored Shuwa women were looked down upon as too white: “black, and black only,” wrote Denham, “being considered by them as desirable.” Such are the absurdities of cultural attitudes based on skin color.

One stark contemporary example of how African attitudes about race still operate is found in the Janjaweed, the murderous raiders in southern Sudan. They have black skin but are descended from Islamic Arab tribes, so their war cry as they attack black tribes (now Christian rather than pagan) is “Kill the slaves!” The Janjaweed’s tactics resemble those used by the Kanuris of Bornu during slave raids, and described by Barth —kill, rape, terrorize, and leave nothing behind for survivors except smoking rubble.

Tim Jeal, Horror, and Rose-Tinted Spectacles

Tim Jeal is the current dean of writers about African exploration, so I was pleased to see his name atop a recent review of A Labyrinth of Kingdoms in the Wall Street Journal. But halfway through it, pleasure turned to dismay. Jeal so badly misrepresents the book, so consistently, that I didn’t recognize it from his descriptions. Maybe Jeal is right and I don’t understand what I’ve written as well as he does. You decide:

“Whenever the adult Barth is sympathetic toward Africans, Mr. Kemper approves,” writes Jeal, “but he greets any momentary lapse with horror.” Until the rest of the review made Jeal’s agenda clear, this baffled me. Since Barth constantly complains in the book about Africans who threaten, cheat, rob, and detain him, I must have written a good deal of it in a state of horror, which came as a surprise to me.

Next Jeal says that I depict Europeans “as less moral than Africans.” This empathy for Africans, he adds, “can lead Mr. Kemper to view the African pre-colonial scene through rose-tinted spectacles.” To clinch the charge that I am a naïve liberal, Jeal adds that I emphasize the cultural benefits of Islam and downplay the violence of Islamic jihads.

These accusations also surprised me. In the book I remember writing,  Islamic violence and jihad are pervasive. Barth ran into these brutalities everywhere, and constantly lamented and condemned them. I thought I had included all this in the story, but my constant horror, viewed through rose-tinted spectacles, may be clouding my memory.

After complaining that I downplay Muslim violence, Jeal goes on to note that I describe “the butchery of unresisting pagans by African Muslims.” Unfortunately, he continues, “Mr. Kemper often reduces the impact by pointing out, for instance, that European history is littered with massacres and savage punishments.”

This is doubly confusing. If I tend to ignore Muslim violence, how did that butchery sneak in? Second, how does mentioning European atrocities in any way diminish African ones? I hadn’t realized it was a contest. Nor do I understand how holding the mirror up to European assumptions about African barbarity is an apologia for African violence. Barth makes clear, as does my book, that he saw terrible crimes against humanity in Africa, most of it committed by Muslims. Why would Jeal pretend otherwise? Watch closely:

“Yet despite recording such facts, Mr. Kemper expresses simple nostalgia for the lost ‘labyrinth of kingdoms,’ lamenting that Barth ‘was among the last Europeans to witness them before the onslaught of colonialism.’ . . . Mr. Kemper’s regret for their passing seems to owe more to political correctness than to analysis.”

Perhaps someone can help me follow Jeal’s logic: though I record atrocities committed by these Muslim kingdoms, which Jeal earlier accused me of downplaying, I am actually nostalgic for them because of—political correctness? The twisting ingenuity of the argument gives me a headache. I thought my point was historic, not nostalgic. Barth recorded places, cultures, social systems, etc. that would soon disappear. That is what gives his work such value.

This brings me to a passage that is almost admirable of its kind:

“The kingdoms had been great centers of Muslim learning and sophisticated trading centers over the centuries, but Barth saw them in terminal decline, bringing misery to many thousands. In Barth’s time, Bornu was, Mr. Kemper concedes, ‘a kingdom in decay, rotted by sloth, waste, avarice and devotion to pleasure.’ In a revealing buried note, he lets slip that the murderous ‘Janjaweed’s tactics [in modern Darfur] resembled the vizier’s of Bornu during a razzia—shoot, kill, rape, loot, and then burn everything to debilitate survivors.’”

Most of the book’s action occurs in kingdoms declining because of sloth, greed, and corruption. That’s one of Barth’s themes and is a strong theme in my book. If this is something that I “concede,” then I spend 300 pages conceding it, evidently while downplaying it in a state of horror despite my rose-tinted spectacles. I also must bow in amazement at the telltale revelation Jeal disinters from that “buried note.” Jeal’s fracking of my subconscious has freed me from the delusion that I put the Janjaweed into the endnotes simply because the contemporary reference didn’t fit into the historical narrative.

In keeping with his determination to paint me as a soft-headed American leftist, Jeal goes on to suggest that I minimize British praise for Barth while promoting a conspiracy theory about anti-British feeling against him. “There was no British anti-Barth plot,” states the Briton Jeal.

Again, this surprised me. I could have sworn that I described how some factions of British society showered Barth with praise, gratitude, and medals. But I also remember describing other Britons who accused him of mismanagement, overspending, slave-dealing, promoting Germany’s commercial interests over Britain’s, denying scientific information to Britain’s scholars in favor of Germany’s, and slurring the honor of a British soldier who accompanied him across the Sahara. All of these charges and insinuations are in the archival record, all are included in the book, all are airily dismissed by Jeal. I don’t remember calling this cluster a plot, but do remember thinking that, taken together, these reactions do indicate some anti-Barth and anti-German bias.

Tim Jeal

I could go on but it would just be more of the same. Jeal does make one accurate statement—that Barth “is neglected because he made no startling geographical discoveries and because discovery rather than scholarship (unless on the Darwinian scale) is what confers lasting status upon travelers.” I make the same point but go on to suggest that Barth deserves to be better known because he returned from Africa with a tremendous treasure of knowledge that has had more enduring value than the headline discoveries of famous explorers. On this point I do concede, as Jeal would say, that my view may come from spectacles tinted rose.

Weird White Men

European explorers went to Africa certain that they carried the banner of civilization and were superior to the natives, whose skin, after all, was dark, and whose fashions and physiognomies often didn’t conform to European models. To some explorers, and to many Europeans who came later, white was right and dark was ugly, barbaric, pitiable.

Africans had a different point of view. The early European explorers often found the tables turned—they were the ones pitied as ugly and barbaric. They were infidels with white skin–unenlightened, unsightly, pathetic. Africans stared at them as if they were circus freaks, sometimes with fright, sometimes with derisive laughter. At first this inversion shocked and sometimes offended the explorers, but most of them soon found it amusing.

Mungo Park

Mungo Park, for instance, was required to display his pale skin several times during his travels through the Gambia, usually for inquisitive women. One group of them asked for visual proof of his circumcision.

Dixon Denham and Hugh Clapperton, who preceded Barth to Bornu in the 1820s, also attracted many inquisitive women, who investigated these white oddities by rubbing their unappealing pasty skin and touching their weirdly-textured hair. “Again,” wrote Denham, “my excessive whiteness became a cause of both pity and astonishment, if not disgust; a crowd followed me through the market, others fled at my approach; some of the women oversetting their merchandize, by their over anxiety to get out  of my way. . . . One little girl was in such agonies of tears and fright, at the sight of me, that nothing could console her, not even a string of beads which I offered her—nor would she put out her hand to take them.”

One evening as Denham passed three women in the street, they stopped to question him about why he was there. They also asked, “Is it true that you have no khadems, female slaves? No one to shampoo you after a south wind?” Yes, said Denham, explaining that he was far from home and alone. No, retorted one of the women, you are an infidel and a hyena who eats blacks. His only hope of becoming civilized, continued the women, was to marry a wife or two who would teach him to pray and wash “and never let him return amongst his own filthy race.”

Clapperton related similar encounters. After three of a governor’s wives examined his skin closely they “remarked, compassionately, it was a thousand pities I was not black, for I had then been tolerably good-looking.” When he asked one of them, “a buxom young girl of fifteen, if she would accept of me for a husband . . . She immediately began to whimper; and on urging her to explain the cause, she frankly avowed she did not know how to dispose of my white legs.”

Sheikh al-Kanemi

Some Africans suspected Denham and Clapperton of being monsters and cannibals—another inversion of common white attitudes about blacks. No wonder that when Sheikh al-Kanemi, the ruler of Bornu, publicly shook hands with Denham and Clapperton, his courtiers gasped at his bravery for touching these mutants. Another inversion.

Barth and his companions ran into the same things. When the young boy Dorugu first saw Overweg, who bought and freed him, Dorugu was appalled that Overweg’s “face and hands were all white like paper,” and he feared that this stranger was going to eat him.

James Richardson

After months of travel Barth turned as dark as an Arab (and eventually passed himself off as a Syrian sherif). But Richardson disliked the sun and was careful to keep his skin pale. Consequently he often attracted laughing crowds and was sometimes advised to let his skin darken so he wouldn’t look so disgustingly white—a telling inversion of the old advertisements once aimed at dark-skinned people to improve their looks by bleaching their skin.

Untethered From the Facts

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt

Barth had a scientist’s horror of inaccuracy, and during his explorations he rigorously corrected the mistakes of his predecessors. He criticized Johann Ludwig Burckhardt’s information about the eastern part of Lake Chad as “marred with mistakes.” He complained that Dixon Denham reported the wrong name for the Logone River, “although he has only very insufficiently described it, and entirely failed in fixing its right position.” And so on. Barth believed that progress in science was made by building upon past discoveries and correcting past mistakes. Few things upset him as much as imprecision.

I, on the other hand, was often amused during my research by the errors and exaggerations made by earlier writers. Popular accounts sometimes get untethered from the facts. Because the literature about Barth is so sparse, some writers felt compelled to embellish.

A favorite example occurs in René Lecler’s chapter on Barth in World Without Mercy (1954). Lecler, once a popular author of books about the Sahara, puts his whimsy to work when describing the unexpected meeting in the wilderness between Barth and Eduard Vogel, a German astronomer and botanist who had been sent to join the expedition in 1853.

First, Lecler equates this meeting with Stanley’s discovery of Livingstone. To make this inflationary comparison seem credible, he proceeds to pump the facts full of helium. Upon seeing Vogel, writes Lecler, Barth sat on the ground and wept–a touching image that contradicts both the explorer’s personality and the circumstances, since Barth was deeply irritated at Vogel for assuming that he was dead and leaving him stranded without supplies.

After Barth dried his eyes, continues Lecler as he works up a head of steam, Vogel treated Barth to “the best dinner he had eaten in years.” In fact the two men merely shared a little of Barth’s precious coffee. After feasting, says Lecler, his fancy now in overdrive, the explorers “sang old German lieder together”—a scene pleasant to imagine but also preposterous and unsupported by evidence. For his big finish Lecler declares that Barth and Vogel spent a week enjoying each other’s company in a Chadian village. In truth, they parted after two hours and were nowhere near Chad.

Lecler’s exaggerations may stem from too much admiration: “In terms of exploration,” he writes, “no single man ever equaled Henry Barth’s magnificent journey.”

Another example of imagination triumphing over the facts occurs in The Great Age of Discovery, by Paul Herrmann (translated from German, 1958). Herrmann is often interesting on the methods and motives of explorers but is prone to overstatement. He writes that Barth was “enticed back to Africa time after time,” which is true only if that phrase means “twice.” (A few years before his great journey into North-Central Africa, Barth traversed the edges of the Mediterranean along the coasts of Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.)

James Richarson

To increase drama, Herrmann says that James Richardson, the leader of Barth’s expedition, died “some days earlier” than Adolf  Overweg—yes, some 570 days. Herrmann describes an ambassador that Barth arranged to send to the British consulate in Tripoli from Bornu as a “naked black minister,” which is both inaccurate and condescending, and he puts this man in Tripoli in 1849, before Barth even arrived there. But then Herrmann also has the expedition leaving Tripoli on March 24, 1848, two years early.

Herrmann also asserts that Barth was probably the first white man to reach Kano, though Hugh Clapperton left a famously detailed account of his visit to that city. And he writes that Dorugu and Abbega, the teenaged servants of Overweg and Barth, “settled down in the small Thuringian capital of Gotha,” an exaggeration that verges on fabrication—Barth briefly hosted the youths in Germany before returning with them to Britain.

Abbega and Dorugu

In my own work I value accuracy almost as much as Barth did, but even he occasionally slipped. So I mention the mistakes made by my predecessors with rueful near-certainty that an error or two has snuck into my own book, for which I ask the reader’s, and Barth’s, pardon.