The Boston Globe has named A Labyrinth of Kingdoms one of 2012’s eleven best books of nonfiction, putting it in some distinguished company. I’m honored.
It’s been almost a year since I started this blog about Heinrich Barth and his travels. My book about his great expedition is now three months old. I think it’s time for the caravan to move on. I’ll continue to post if something relevant occurs to me, but will no longer maintain a regular schedule. Thank you for reading the blog. If you read the book, please let me (and Amazon!) know what you think about it.
Meanwhile I’m deep into the research for a book about another adventurer, an American this time. New journeys just ahead.
Many of today’s headlines about Islamic north-central Africa would look familiar to the explorer and scientist Heinrich Barth, who traveled 10,000 miles there for the British from 1850 to 1855. The caravan routes ridden by Barth are now roads, but the arid territories they cross are still a nexus of distinctive cultures that have mixed and chafed for centuries. Old frictions still flare up between Muslims and non-Muslims, black and brown, fundamentalists and moderates, central governments and local chiefs.
As in Barth’s day, bandits and fanatics keep the region in turmoil. The group Boko Haram (“Western education is forbidden”) has killed hundreds of people in places Barth visited in northeastern Nigeria, bombing government offices, schools, and Christian churches. The group’s violent quest to “purify” Islam is just the most recent of similar jihads reported by Barth. Other groups, now as then, use religion as a veneer to justify thuggery. The terrorists of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), for instance, seem motivated more by money than by Mohammed, kidnapping Western travelers whom they murder or ransom — behavior that Barth witnessed and survived.
For Barth, Boko Haram and AQIM would be familiar manifestations with historical precedents. So would the distress of today’s moderate Muslims who want to reclaim their religion’s traditions of tolerance and learning from gangsters and extremists.
Some current events are almost historical reenactments. In March of this year, after the Malian military staged a coup, several rebel groups took advantage of the political chaos to occupy Mali’s northern half, including the ancient desert towns of Timbuktu and Gao. The group that now controls Timbuktu is associated with AQIM and calls itself Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”). Like Boko Haram, the Ansar Dine are fundamentalists intent on imposing their version of a purer Islam. If history is a guide, they would have better luck pushing a camel through the eye of a needle.
Since the time of Ibn Battuta (1352), visitors to Timbuktu have been impressed by the town’s scholars and amiable inhabitants, known for their love of singing, dancing, and smoking. The Ansar Dine have stopped the singing and the music, and are requiring women to veil their faces, atypical in Timbuktu. Tobacco and alcohol have been banned, places that sold them have been shuttered or destroyed, and possession of a cigarette brings a beating. Women have been whipped for immodest behavior such as walking alone or riding in a car with men. In a town near Timbuktu, an unmarried couple was stoned to death.
Ignorance, that frequent collaborator with fanaticism, has led the Ansar Dine to destroy at least half a dozen of Timbuktu’s historic tombs and monuments, including part of the fourteenth-century Djingereber mosque, on grounds of idolatry. Scholars fear that Timbuktu’s invaluable manuscript libraries might be looted, perhaps for the purpose of selling these volumes of old Islamic erudition to fund new Islamic intolerance.
Timbuktu has weathered it all before. Similar restrictions were in place when Barth spent seven months there under house arrest in 1853-54. Muslim jihadists from the newly-declared kingdom of Hamdallahi (“Praise to God”) had conquered Timbuktu in 1826. They attempted to impose harsh reforms: no tobacco, mandatory attendance at mosque, segregation of men and women. The sociable smoking dancers of Timbuktu considered these dictates preposterous. By the time of Barth’s visit, the fundamentalists had despaired of separating Timbuktu’s men and women, but Barth recounts how they raided homes to seize tobacco and levied fines for insufficient piety.
Today’s residents of Timbuktu, Gao, and nearby desert towns have begun staging protests and forming militias to resist Ansar Dine’s severe version of Islam. It seems likely that long after Ansar Dine has vanished into history like Hamdallahi, Timbuktu and its people will still be singing and smoking.
Barth blamed much of the region’s misery on its greedy, corrupt leaders, who devastated the region with constant warfare and slave raids. “Even the best of these mighty men,” he wrote, “cares more for the silver ornaments of his numerous wives than for the welfare of his people.” Today’s Nigerians ask why their government can’t protect them from Boko Haram, and why a country with some of the world’s richest oil deposits must import most of its gas and can’t light its largest cities. Greed and corruption, wrote Barth, inspired violent purifying jihads that imposed their own repressions. These criticisms still sound fresh.
As in Barth’s day, most Westerners know little about Islam or Africa, and distort them into simple monoliths. Barth carried some of his era’s assumptions, but he was willing to go where the evidence took him. He found ignorance and savagery in Africa — the prevailing European view of the continent — but also scholars and sophisticated systems of commerce and government.
He likewise challenged the dominant European view of Islam as an evil dangerous opponent of Christian civilization, which still sounds familiar. Consider the recent Republican presidential primary, in which nearly every candidate expressed alarm about the nonexistent threat of Sharia law in the United States. Members of Congress are on record about “terrorist babies” and “stealth jihadis.” American towns have voted to ban mosques, and corporations tremble when fringe groups accuse them of being pro-Muslim.
Barth called Islam a great religion — not a popular view, then as now — but added that in some places it had been hijacked by brigands or fanatics who used it as an excuse to pillage or to subjugate. He pointed out that Islam wasn’t much different in these ways from Christianity, another great religion sometimes hijacked by the greedy or the self-righteous. All of this remains in the headlines.
Unlike most pundits about the continent, then as now, Barth formed his views from close observation of African reality. His news and perspective remain pertinent. As a scientist he believed that knowledge can dissolve ignorance and misunderstanding. Perhaps it still can, given the chance.
A few of the dozens of pages devoted to merchandise taken by the expedition. First, arms and ammunition:
Letter of transit in Arabic, carried by Barth, given to him by the Sultan of Bagirmi, who held him prisoner for months:
Barth’s English translation of the letter of transit, written on opposite side:
Barth’s letter to the British Foreign Office announcing his safe arrival in Timbuktu:
Barth’s IOU to some Ghadamsi merchants, entailed on his way home:
Heinrich Barth’s invitation to join the British expedition can be traced back to a German cartographer named August Petermann. Petermann was working at the London Observatory when he heard about James Richardson’s proposed African expedition and its need for a scientist. Petermann told Chevalier Bunsen, the Prussian ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, who approached Richardson and offered to find him the best available German scientist. Richardson was delighted, since Germany’s scientists were considered the finest in Europe. Carl Ritter and Alexander von Humboldt, eminences at the University of Berlin, recommended Barth.
From the start, Petermann took a keen, almost proprietary, interest in the expedition. He became an important long-distance affiliate and cheerleader. He lobbied the British Foreign Office to send more funds and helped to arrange for another German scientist, Eduard Vogel, to join the expedition. When Barth sent rough maps and measurements of the mission’s routes back to Britain, the Foreign Office hired Petermann to turn them into works of cartography.
All this was fine, but in his over-enthusiasm Petermann also sent his maps to German publications, along with information from Barth’s dispatches. This did not sit well with some people at the FO and the Royal Geographical Society, and fed the resentment against Germany in some British quarters that I described in an earlier post.
“Of course it is Mr. Petermann’s object,” wrote the FO under-secretary, “to make himself, for his own profit, and also for his own glory, the historiographer of all the discoveries of Barth and Overweg: but that is not our object, or intention . . . Drs. Barth and Overweg were members of Richardson’s expedition, paid by us, and traveling at our expense,” he continued, and any public announcements about the expedition should come from the Royal Geographical Society, “which properly speaking is our natural medium of partial geographical communications.”
Petermann and Chevalier Bunsen, he added, seemed to consider the British “the mere paymasters of the expedition, while the fruits belong to Germany. This is a mistake.”
The secretary of the RGS expressed his irritation more crudely, writing about the expedition in the society’s journal, “In connection with Lake Chad and other African names, it may be observed that the Germans are adopting various ways of spelling them, because they find it difficult to say ‘cheese.’”
This was too much for Petermann. He responded with a nine-page open letter that called the RGS report “scurrilous and offensive.”
When Barth returned to England, he stepped into this stew. Under questioning from the RGS and the FO, he agreed that Petermann sometimes published information about the mission too hastily, but added that he was motivated by his scientific eagerness to share information, not by German nationalism.
Barth admired Petermann’s passion for exploration and his exquisite skills as a cartographer. (Petermann’s numerous maps are one of the glories of Barth’s book. See examples here, here, and here.) Petermann was also indirectly responsible for the book’s wonderful illustrations. He recommended that Barth hire the German artist J. M. Bernatz, who turned Barth’s sketches into the book’s many finished drawings.
But the cartographer sometimes exasperated the explorer. Barth once wrote, “I believe Petermann has really convinced himself that the African expedition was his work, not mine, and that Providence only brought me safely through all those unspeakable dangers thanks to his ideas and his leadership abilities. . . . Despite his great and justifiably rewarded abilities, Petermann is a real loudmouth.”
Petermann returned to Germany in the mid-1850s and continued to publish extraordinary maps based on discoveries by explorers all over the globe. In appreciation, explorers named geographic features on several continents after him. His devotion to exploration and meticulous cartography is his enduring legacy.
His personal life, however, was evidently unhappy, and he may have been a manic-depressive. In October of 1878, aged 56, he killed himself with a pistol.
In other news, A Labyrinth of Kingdoms was last week’s “Book of the Week” in The Times of London, which gave it an enthusiastic review (restricted access): A Labyrinth of Kingdoms by Steve Kemper.
Some recent reviews and interviews about the book:
Boston Globe review.
Shelf Awareness review.
Expedition News review.
Christian Science Monitor interview.
Pen on Fire audio interview.
New Books Network audio interview.
History in the Margins interview.
Conversation Crossroad audio interview.
One of the most fascinating and perilous segments of Barth’s journey occurred in the district of Aïr in the Sahara, in present-day Niger. About 300 miles long and 200 miles wide, Aïr consists of steep disconnected massifs and volcanic cones, some rising more than 6,000 feet from the desert floor. Barth called it “the Switzerland of the desert.” Until he described it, Europeans were unaware that the Sahara contained such landscapes. Before Barth’s party entered the region, no European had ever set foot there. European visitors would be extremely rare for many decades afterwards.
In Barth’s day, Aïr was an isolated redoubt occupied by gangs of Tuareg brigands who had never been subdued by an outside power. This remained true, off and on, for next 150 years. I had hoped to visit Aïr while researching my book, but the district was off-limits to travelers because Tuareg rebels had a base there.
At the time of Barth’s journey, the capital of Aïr was Tintellust, deep in the region’s heart. Barth’s group reached there soon after being plundered and nearly murdered by Tuaregs in Aïr. The Europeans expected Tintellust to be a city, but it turned out to be a village of 250 dwellings shaded by trees in a pleasant mountain valley. The explorers weren’t too disappointed, because for the first time in weeks they felt safe. Tintellust was the home of Sultan Annur, leader of the Kel Owis, a Tuareg tribe. For a large sum, Annur agreed to protect the expedition.
Annur told the Christians to camp at a spot 800 yards from the village on some sand hills. The location offered sweeping views of the valley and the mountains. Barth predicted that the place would henceforth be called the “English Hill” or the “Hill of the Christians.”
Francis Rennell Rodd, a British explorer, traveled in Aïr in the 1920s and wrote a wonderful book about it called People of the Veil. Rodd found Aïr and its Tuareg inhabitants exactly as Barth had described them 75 years earlier. I especially like Rodd’s description of male Tuaregs: “The men never grow fat: they are hard and fit and dry like the nerve of a bow, or a spring in tension. Of all their characteristics the one I have most vividly in mind is their grace of carriage. The men are born to walk and move as kings, they stride along swiftly and easily, like Princes of the Earth, fearing no man, cringing before none, and consciously superior to other people.” Their belligerence and opportunism, noted Rodd, hadn’t changed either, as expressed in one of their sayings: “Kiss the hand you cannot cut off.”
Rodd wanted to visit Tintellust to look for traces of Barth, whom he called “perhaps the greatest traveler there has ever been in Africa.” Tintellust wasn’t on any map, but Rodd’s guide knew the village and took him there. As they reached the outskirts, the guide pointed out a place called “the House of the Christians.” When Rodd asked why, the guide said that in the olden days three white Christians who weren’t French had come to Tintellust—not as conquerors, like the French, but as friends of Chief Annur—so the thatch huts where they camped had never been inhabited or pulled down. All that remained of the camp, noted Rodd, were “the traces of two straw huts and a shelter, a wooden water trough, and some broken pots.”
In 2005 Julia Winckler, a British photographer and teacher fascinated by Barth, traveled to Tintellust. She too was shown Barth’s old encampment. She documented her visit to Tintellust (and Agadez) with photographs and videos: www.retracingheinrichbarth.co.uk. In Tintellust, according to Winckler, a story persists that Barth buried treasure nearby, and the villagers occasionally still dig for it. Barth would be amused–by the time he and his ragged group reached Tintellust, they had been pillaged several times and had no surplus to bury.