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.
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.
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I’ve enjoyed your book on Barth a great deal, and I admit that I was as puzzled as you were by Mr. Jeal’s review. To be honest, I picked up your book not by accident, but as a hoped-for pleasant diversion from my day job, as a professor of African politics and history, and as a researcher on the politics of northern Nigeria–in particular on the region of the old Sokoto Caliphate , where I have spent a good deal of time. Much of what is available for non-specialists on this unique area is either woefully inaccurate or full of the worst sort of orientalism, and I was pleased by your sympathetic, even moving account of the African communities Barth lived in during his odyssey (no doubt due as much to your own skill as to Barth’s particular vision). Unlike Mr. Jeal, I found your accounts of Bornu, Sokoto, and Timbuktu to be fair, honest depictions, both of what Barth saw and recounted and of the very real contradictions inherent in a violent world build upon a belief in strict religious principles.
The academic research on Bornu and Sokoto (as your bibliography suggests you already know) does not take a clear position on whether or not these were societies “in decay” at the time of Barth’s arrival, or even at the time of British/French conquest. Rather, as one would expect, scholars like Murray Last and Louis Brenner argue that while Sokoto and Bornu rarely lived up to the high-minded, reformist ideals of their greatest leaders (ideals that themselves were sometimes problematic), these were societies with their own senses of agency, with important actors making difficult choices in hard, uncertain worlds. That such societies would have corruption and experience political violence is hardly surprising. To point this out does not excuse it, but it is far more useful and honest to see these faults in the context in which they occurred, rather than to attach some permanent moral judgement to these societies for all time.
Above all else, I appreciated that you chose (intentionally, I can only assume) not to draw the easy parallels one so often sees in books about this era in Africa, between the social and political ills of the past and of the present. While there are certainly important continuities between the Sokoto of the Shehu and Bello and the Sokoto of today (or, perhaps even more aptly, between the Timbuktu of the 1850s and of the 2010s), these societies have undergone enormous processes of transformation, and the violence of an earlier era hardly explains that of today, at least not on its own. I appreciated that you did not do what so many writers on Stanley and on the DRC have often done so easily–to blithely link the past with the present, as though to simply note the violence of the past is to explain the political and social catastrophe of today.
Thank you for an excellent read.
I especially value your comment because you know the area and its complexities, past and present. It dismays me that so many people seem to lack intellectual color-cones, and can see only in black and white. Nothing is unmixed, in history or in current events. Thanks very much for taking the time to send such a thoughtful note.