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.
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.
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.
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/