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.
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, 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.”
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.
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.
Many explorers in Africa traveled with squads of servants. Lack of funds limited Barth to two, sometimes three. The cast changed often, especially in the first year or so when servants often quit or were fired. But one African stayed with Barth for almost the entire expedition. His name was Muhammed al-Gatruni—that is, Muhammed from Gatrun (also spelled Gatrone, Katrun, and Qatrun), a Saharan village in southern Fezzan, in present-day Libya. Barth called him el Gatroni.
This remarkable man spent years assisting Europeans in the exploration of Africa. He served not only Barth but several subsequent travelers who hired him because of Barth’s strong recommendation.
El Gatroni was a Teda, a division of the Tebu people. When Barth hired him in Murzuk in mid-1850, he was 17 or 18, “a thin youth of most unattractive appearance,” wrote the explorer, “but who nevertheless was the most useful attendant I ever had; and, though young, he had roamed about a great deal over the whole eastern half of the desert and shared in many adventures of the most serious kind. He possessed, too, a strong sense of honor, and was perfectly to be relied upon.” Whenever Barth mentions el Gatroni in Travels and Discoveries, it’s always with similar appreciation: “our best and most steady servant,” “upon whose discretion and fidelity I could entirely rely.”
El Gatroni stayed with Barth to the end of the expedition in 1855, except for a hiatus when the explorer entrusted him to take Richardson’s effects and precious journals to Murzuk. When Barth decided to try for Timbuktu, an extremely dangerous journey, el Gatroni agreed to accompany him as chief servant. His salary: one horse, four Spanish dollars a month, and a bonus of fifty Spanish dollars if the expedition succeeded (that is, if Barth lived). His assistance was so valuable that at the end of the journey Barth regretted being unable to double el Gatroni’s bonus.
Some years later, when Barth was writing Travels and Discoveries in London, he met a French teenager named Henri Duveyrier who dreamed of exploring the Sahara. Barth advised him to learn Arabic and, if he ever went to Central Africa, to hire el Gatroni. Duveyrier took this advice. El Gatroni accompanied the Frenchman on some of the travels that made him famous.
In Germany, Barth’s example inspired Karl Moritz von Beurmann to undertake an expedition into Bornu in the early 1860s. Barth again recommended el Gatroni, who guided von Beurmann to Kukawa. The explorer proceeded to Wadai, where he was murdered. Barth also inspired his countryman Friedrich Gerhard Rohlfs, who followed Barth and von Beurmann to Bornu in the mid-1860s. Rohlfs’s guide, on Barth’s suggestion, was el Gatroni.
A few years later Rohlfs arranged for el Gatroni to lead Gustav Nachtigal on part of that explorer’s remarkable five-year odyssey through Central Africa. Nachtigal, who called Barth “my constant example,” knew all about el Gatroni and described his first meeting with him in 1869 as the famous guide stuffed pack saddles for their upcoming trip:
“I looked with respectful awe upon his round, black face, with its innumerable wrinkles, his small snub nose with wide nostrils, his toothless mouth, the sparse black and white hairs of his beard, his large ears and his faithful eyes.
“As I had frequent occasion to observe in the years which followed, old Muhammad was not a man of many words. A quiet friendly old man, he was by no means indifferent to the joys of life; he seldom, however, allowed the equanimity which was the result of his temperament and his rich experiences to be disturbed.”
Though Nachtigal often called el Gatroni old, the guide was only a year or so senior to the 35-year-old Nachtigal, but his face was carved with a life of rough travels.
When Nachtigal wanted to explore Tibesti, in what is now northern Chad, el Gatroni strongly advised against such a dangerous trip and didn’t want to go. Nachtigal asked him to recommend someone else as a guide. “The worthy man, however, rejected this proposal with some indignation,” wrote Nachtigal. “‘I have promised your friends in Tripoli,’ he added, ‘to bring you safe and sound to Bornu, just as I also guided thither your brothers, ‘Abd el-Kerim (Barth) and Mustafa Bey (Rohlfs). With God’s help we shall achieve this purpose together. Until then I shall not leave you, and should misfortune befall you among the treacherous [Tebu], I want to share it with you.’”
The expertise and steadfastness of men such as el Gatroni helped make possible the exploration of Africa by Europeans.
The first signs of Kano seen by an overland traveler are the city’s two hills, Dala and Goron Dutse, rising from the plain. The 1,700-foot hike up Dala’s hard red earth is short but steep. Its flat top offers a 360-degree view of Kano, irresistible to visitors.
One of the first Europeans to see Kano, the British explorer Hugh Clapperton, climbed Dala in the 1820s. His guide pointed out the hoof print of the camel “on which the Prophet rode to heaven.” Clapperton asked why the other three prints had disappeared. “God has done it,” said the guide, which Clapperton noted was the all-purpose explanation for any mystery in Islamic Africa.
Barth climbed Dala and sketched the “glorious panorama” (see previous post). I followed him 159 years later. The view remained superb. Solitary date trees still rose like chlorophyll fireworks above the dust-colored patchwork of buildings. Kano was still a busy commercial city and a magnet for people seeking opportunity. My guide, Nasiru Datti, pointed to the north, where the sky above the settlements was hazy with Saharan sand, and then to the east. That’s where Kano’s newest immigrants live, he said, coming from Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Senegal. Kano has always welcomed new people. But old Kano, added Nasiru, was reserved for natives of the city. Houses there were obtained by inheritance and were never sold to outsiders.
Both Clapperton and Barth were astonished by Kano’s market, the largest in central Africa. The Kurmi market, 600 years old, is still a labyrinth of skinny alleys lined with stalls crammed with every imaginable object and enterprise. Many of the goods mentioned by Barth are still on display. Men chip rocks to make kohl, fashion baskets from reeds, sell spices and chickens and books. Vendors also hawk modern items: steel pipes, auto parts, cell phones, wrecked motherboards, and other digital debris. Herbalists now use a bullhorn to sell remedies for stomach troubles and private rashes. As in Barth’s time, stinking sludge still chokes the Jakara, the filthy elongated pond that borders the market, with the contemporary additions of engine oil and plastic bottles.
The city was, and still is, famous for its fine cotton cloth and beautiful indigo dyes. Kano cloth and garments were coveted throughout central Africa. As soon as he could afford it, Barth splurged on a Kano “guinea-fowl” shirt with a speckled pattern of small blue and white squares.
He mentions Kano’s dye-pits, in use since the end of the 15th century, and the tandem cloth-beaters. Both still operate. The dyers ferment dried indigo, potassium, and papaya ash in the 20-foot pits for four weeks. Then they dip cloth in and out: an hour-and-half for light blue, three hours for deep blue, six hours for blue-black. Patterns are made with the method called “tie-and-dye.”
Today’s residents of Kano still take their cotton robes to the tandem beaters, the way Westerners take shirts to the cleaners. The beaters pound the cloth with huge wooden mallets. Central Africans believe that thumping the cloth in this way preserves the cotton fibers and gives the material a silken glitter, in contrast to ironing, which injures and dulls the fibers. I certainly felt drab next to Nasiru in his resplendent, soundly-beaten robes.
In the 1830s the German philosopher G. H. F. Hegel remarked that Africa “is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit.”
Poof! An entire continent’s history dismissed with a philosophical snap. Even if Hegel “loses a lot in the original,” as one wit put it, this is breath-taking arrogance bred of ignorance. In Barth’s era it was also typical. The common wisdom, to misuse the word, was that Africa had no history worth considering. The continent was deemed illiterate, uncivilized, ungoverned, unshaped, a place of dark chaos. Egypt? An exception that proved the rule, sniffed Hegel, since it had been settled by lighter-skinned Semites.
Africans had a different point of view, easily discovered by anyone willing to look. Though information about the continent was extremely sketchy and often wrong, Roman and Muslim historians and travelers such as Pliny the Elder, Ibn Battuta, Leo Africanus, Al-Bakri, and Al-Idrisi had told bits of Africa’s story for centuries. More recent explorers such as Mungo Park, Friedrich Hornemann, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, Hugh Clapperton, and Dixon Denham had sprinkled their narratives with anecdotes about learned Africans and African history. But the public tended to overlook these reports, preferring the ones that were exotic, lurid, and violent—the ones that confirmed their assumptions.
Barth had been trained by professors influenced by Hegel and wasn’t immune to the age’s racial preconceptions. But he also had steeped himself in the old and new accounts about Africa, and he had already seen part of Africa firsthand during a three-year, three-continent journey along the shores of the Mediterranean. He had glimpsed an African reality that differed from European assumptions about it.
He was also a scientist who tried to keep an open mind and follow the evidence before him. Part of what Barth discovered on his journey—what he was willing to let himself discover—was that Africa had a long rich history, some of it written, that was unsuspected or ignored in Europe. He recorded barbarity and fanaticism, but also scholarship, governance, culture, tradition. His work should have demolished the canard that Africa had none of these virtues. But Barth’s news wasn’t heard on the eve of imperialism in Africa, nor in the following decades.
More than a century after his journey, the idea that Africa had no history was still alive and writhing in respectable circles. “Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach,” said the Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1963. “But at the present there is none; there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness, and darkness is not the subject of history.”
Ignorance is a recurring virus. Barth believed it could be cured by science and knowledge, but it’s a wily pestilence with no fool-proof antidote.
I first came across Heinrich Barth in The Shadow of the Sun, a book of dispatches about Africa by the Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuścińksi. In Timbuktu, Kapuścińksi notices a plaque on a house where Barth spent nearly eight months in 1853-1854. A hard traveler himself, Kapuścińksi devotes several admiring sentences to Barth, calling him “one of the greatest travelers in the world” for his five years exploring the Sahara.
“Several times, sick and pursued by bandits, he bade his life farewell,” continues Kapuścińksi. “Dying of thirst, he would cut his veins and drink his own blood to survive. Eventually he returned to Europe, where no one appreciated the unique feat he had accomplished. Bitter, worn out by the hardships of his voyage, he died in 1865 at the age of forty-four, not understanding that the human imagination is incapable of traveling to the frontier he had crossed in the Sahara.”
The passage electrified me. I love reading about explorers but had never heard of this remarkable man or his painful life-story. One of the world’s greatest travelers? Escaped death many times? Drank his own blood? Died bitter and unsung? It sounded like the bones of a great story. It also sounded far-fetched. Kapuścińksi, a wonderful writer, did sometimes stretch the limits of nonfiction to improve bothersome facts. So I explained away the electricity, finished the book, and put it aside.
But Barth wasn’t finished with me. Though I was researching another book, Kapuścińksi’s summary of the explorer’s life kept popping back to mind. When an idea refuses to go away, I always indulge my instincts and take the detour. Usually to a dead end, but the trip is always interesting.
That’s what I expected when I took the lazy first step of googling Barth. Wikipedia’s short page on him further provoked my curiosity. More googling turned up lots of brief references, mere teases, as were the indexes of my books on African exploration.
Barth began pulling me away from other work. I finally let my curiosity off the leash and tracked down a scarce and expensive edition of his account of his epic journey, Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa. To tell this story, Barth had filled five volumes and 3,500 pages. (In June 2011, Cambridge University Press reissued all five volumes in paperback.)
The deeper I sank into his adventure and its aftermath, the more admirable and intriguing he became. His feats and fate beggared belief. He had made his journey for the British government and had written his account in his employers’ language, yet there were no books about him in English. Here was a forgotten story that would never bore me or readers, and that deserved to be told.
So I told it. My book about Barth, A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa, will be published by W. W. Norton in June 2012.
I intend to post here at least once a week about Barth, exploration, Africa, travel, history, and writing. Expect detours.