Pity You Aren’t British

As I’ve mentioned, Heinrich Barth remains unknown to the general public despite being one of Africa’s greatest explorers. The reasons are complicated, but among them is his nationality. He was a German working for the British—a sentence loaded with historical thorns. In my book, the antagonism between Britain and Germany plays out on both the personal and national levels.

King George I

British suspicion and resentment of Germany goes back to at least 1714 when George I, the first Hanoverian king of England, arrived in London from Germany. Georges II through V all married German princesses. Queen Victoria’s mother was a German princess. Victoria married a German prince, Albert. These marital alliances brought the countries closer together but also produced an undercurrent of suspicion that Germans were gatecrashers with too much influence on British affairs. (The attitude evidently survives: Princess Diana reportedly referred to her in-laws as “the Germans.”)

Adolf Overweg

Similarly, certain people in London resented that one of Britain’s greatest African expeditions had succeeded almost solely because of several Germans—primarily Barth but also his fellow explorers Adolf Overweg and Eduard Vogel, the cartographer August Petermann, and Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter, who had recommended Barth for the job. Though some factions of British society at first showered Barth with praise and gratitude, others accused him of mismanagement, overspending, slurring the honor of a British soldier, promoting Germany’s commercial interests over Britain’s, slave-dealing, and denying scientific information to Britain’s scholars in favor of Germany’s.

Every one of these charges was false, even absurd, and deeply offended Barth. He suspected—sometimes backed by clear evidence, sometimes inflamed by his touchy sense of honor—that the charges stemmed from his nationality.

René Caillié

He no doubt remembered the British response to René Caillié, which made clear that the British preferred their heroes homegrown. In 1824 the French Société de Géographie offered 10,000 francs to anyone who reached Timbuktu and returned alive. The British craved this laurel and in 1825 sent two men after it, each of whom wanted it for himself. Major Alexander Gordon Laing left from Tripoli, Commander Hugh Clapperton from the Guinea Coast. Clapperton got stalled in Sokoto and died of dysentery. Laing reached Timbuktu in 1826 but was expelled and murdered in the desert. Caillié, a Frenchman, made it to Timbuktu in 1828 and, crucially, got home alive. For this feat he collected the 10,000-franc prize, the Legion of Honor, and a government pension. His book was a bestseller.

But then public opinion about Caillié began to change, driven partly by British sniping and outright calumny. To lose the prize to the French was bad enough, but to a nobody like Caillié? Especially since one of their own dashing officers had gotten to Timbuktu first. The British Consul in Tripoli, Hanmer Warrington, whose daughter had married Laing, accused Caillié of somehow acquiring Laing’s missing papers and then colluding with the French consul and the pasha of Tripoli to defraud the public. The Royal Geographical Society sniffed that even if Caillié had reached Timbuktu, he had returned with no useful scientific information (which was true). These accusations and disparagements created doubts about Caillié’s feat. In 1833 the French government cut off his pension.

Barth was the next European to reach Timbuktu and survive. He probably nettled some people in England by corroborating most of Caillié’s account and by praising him as “that very meritorious French traveler.”

Henry Morton Stanley

Henry Morton Stanley offers another example of the British tendency to downplay the accomplishments of non-British explorers. In 1871 Stanley tracked down the beloved British explorer David Livingstone. Livingstone was the mid-19th century equivalent of a rock star, attracting hundreds to his lectures about African exploration and selling thousands of books. He had been missing for years in the heart of Africa when Stanley found him, ill and tattered, in a remote village on Lake Tanganyika. Yet the British treated Stanley coolly because he was a mere American working for an American newspaper. Sir Henry Rawlinson, president of the Royal Geographical Society, scoffed that it was “not true that Stanley had discovered Livingstone, as it was Livingstone who had discovered Stanley.” The kicker: Stanley was British but had changed his name and nationality after moving to the United States.

Traces of this snobbery and resentment show up throughout the history of British exploration. A small final example that perhaps sums it up: after Romolo Gessi, a remarkable Italian who was the right-hand man of General Charles George Gordon in Africa, became the first European to circumnavigate Lake Albert, Gordon remarked to him, “What a pity you are not an Englishman.”

Eating Local: Locusts and Elephants

All African explorers endured afflictions: sickness, biting insects, vile water, dangerous animals, extreme temperatures, miserable accommodations, hostile people. Throughout it all, they needed to eat. Sometimes food eased their miseries, sometimes worsened them. And of course they often went hungry.

Barth’s and Overweg’s contracts with the British government required them to provide their own food. They ate well during the first part of the journey, supplementing rice and grains with the meat of hares or gazelles chased down by greyhounds or bought from hunters. In Murzuk, 500 miles into the Sahara, the pasha served them coffee and sherbet, and the British vice-consul feted them on roasted lamb and dried sardines, accompanied by rum, wine, and bottled stout.

Ostrich egg among smaller yolks, by Rainer Zenz

The menu soon changed. Deeper into the desert, their stores ran short. The few people they came across who didn’t want to rob or kill them didn’t have any spare food to sell. When they found an ostrich egg, wrote Barth, it “caused us more delight, perhaps, than scientific travelers are strictly justified in deriving from such causes.”

After the austerities of the Sahara, Kano was a culinary high point. The market there offered everything a hungry man craved. Barth relished the street food: “Diminutive morsels of meat, attached to a small stick, were roasting, or rather stewing, in such a way that the fat, trickling down from the richer pieces attached to the top of  the stick, basted the lower ones. These dainty bits were sold for a single shell or ‘uri’ each.”

He also enjoyed the market’s roasted locusts, still a valued source of protein in sub-Saharan Africa. Barth called the taste “agreeable.” Many African explorers reviewed the dish. Friedrich Hornemann said roasted locusts had a taste “similar to that of red herrings, but more delicious.” David Livingstone pronounced them “strongly vegetable in taste, the flavor varying with the plants on which they feed. . . . Some are roasted and pounded into meal, which, eaten with a little salt, is palatable. It will keep thus for months. Boiled, they are disagreeable; but when they are roasted I should much prefer locusts to shrimps, though I would avoid both if possible.” Gustav Nachtigal also preferred them roasted. Of the dozen kinds eaten by natives, he was partial to the light-brown ones, though the speckled green-and-whites were also fine.

Barth ate meat whenever he could get it, domesticated or wild. Sometimes when he stopped in a village, the chief would send him a sheep or a bullock. During his first months in Timbuktu he ate pigeons every day. In some areas guinea fowls were common. On rare occasions he ate antelope and aoudad (Barbary sheep). Barth and Overweg agreed about the tastiest meat in Africa: giraffe. They also liked elephant, though its richness tended to cause havoc in the bowels. When possible, they added vegetables such as squash or beans from legume trees to their diet, and fruit such as papayas and tamarinds. In the desert they enjoyed a refreshing drink called rejire made from dried cheese and dates.

Tamarind tree at right

Guinea corn and millet

But most of the time they lived on grains, especially guinea corn, wheat, sorghum, and millet, prepared in dozens of ways—stewed, mashed, baked, roasted, rolled, fried, pancaked—sometimes mixed with milk or vegetables or bits of meat or cheese. En route to Timbuktu Barth’s typical dinner consisted of millet with vegetable paste made from tree-beans; for breakfast he mixed the cold paste with sour milk. He was fond of fura, bean cakes, and various dishes made from white guinea corn. On the other hand, in Musgu he was unable to choke down a paste made from red sorghum. During one long stretch he lived on boiled mashed groundnuts, which he grew to hate.

Guinea corn

His deepest appreciation went to one simple food: “Milk, during the whole of my journey, formed my greatest luxury; but I would advise any African traveler to be particularly careful with this article, which is capable of destroying a weak stomach entirely; and he would do better to make it a rule always to mix it with a little water, or to have it boiled.”

The milk in Kukawa, however, disgusted him, because the Kanuris added cow’s urine to it, imparting a tang that he found repellent. Kanuris (and some Fulanis) still clean their milk bowls with cow urine, believing that it keeps the milk from going sour for several days. This practice nudged Barth towards camel’s milk, which he came to prefer.

I’ve eaten some things considered weird by American tastes–cow’s stomach, pigs’ ears and testicles, fried grasshoppers and fresh-roasted termites, rattlesnake and blue jay, guinea pig and crocodile–all mainstream fare for Barth and other explorers, who always ate the local food.

I thought of Barth in Lagos as I tried nkwobi, a dish the menu described as “soft cow leg pieces in a secretly spiced sauce, with ugba and topped with fresh utazi leaves.” So many unknowns, so irresistible. But the secret sauce covered a mass so repulsively gristly and gelatinous that I couldn’t eject it from my mouth fast enough. “Cow leg pieces” turned out to mean “hooves.” Even Barth might have hesitated.

Choices

I didn’t want to write a biography of Barth. That would take many years, deep funding,  and fluency in German, all unobtainable. Besides, what really interested me was his great journey and the British response to it. I wanted to tell an exciting story with a compelling main character. Specifically, I wanted to take readers on an expedition into Islamic Africa with a perceptive traveler—Barth—through decaying empires and young nations, on grim desert marches and slave raids, into cultures sometimes surprising for their savagery, sometimes for their sophistication. It would be an historical adventure.

Return of the Sultan of Massenya, from Travels and Discoveries

Historical journalism was new for me, but my guiding principles wouldn’t change. No straying from the known facts. No fabricated scenes or dialogue. No unsubstantiated speculation about the invisible crevices of Barth’s mind. Obvious principles, perhaps, but often flouted these days by “imaginative re-creations” of someone’s life and by histories “based on a true story,” a euphemism for “fiction.”

I also decided to avoid the intrusion of contemporary voices. No quotations from modern scholars, no commentary by present-day Europeans and Africans, no first-person distractions (“Look at me in Barth’s footsteps”). I didn’t want to slow down the story or break the reader’s immersion in nineteenth-century African travel. (After I finished the book, I found a wonderful example of what I hoped to do: Candace Millard’s The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.)

Some of this would have made Barth nod. His brother-in-law and biographer, Gustav von Schubert, described Barth’s devotion to truth and knowledge as priest-like. A scientist to his very soul, Barth deplored sloppiness and inaccuracy. He was sure he could measure everything precisely, from the water temperature in a desert well to a man’s integrity. It never entered his mind to fudge his data or his opinions—an impolitic trait that would cost him. Unlike many of his fellow explorers, he avoided self-display, and after his return he was puzzled when the public preferred travel accounts that were more entertaining than scientific, such as David Livingstone’s. (The two men knew and admired each other.)

In his personal life Barth could be as touchy as an anemone—nothing riled him more than assaults on his integrity—but as a scientist he was completely trustworthy. His few errors don’t stem from laziness or malice.

As a journalist, I was astonished by his skills as an observer, interviewer, and investigator, even under conditions that were physically or psychologically debilitating. Whether reeling with sickness or threatened with death, he still sought out informants and took detailed notes about everything around him. A typical example: near Timbuktu, 200 armed men crowded into his room and eyed his luggage, piled behind him. While waiting for their next move, Barth took out his notebook and wrote a thorough description of their clothing and weapons. Cool Hand Heinrich.

The Journey Begins

In 1849 the British Foreign Office sent three explorers into the mysterious lands south of the Sahara. Their goal: to scout caravan trade routes and commercial prospects in the vast, little-known territory called the Sudan. The word, shortened from the Arabic Beled e’ sudan, meant “land of the blacks,” or Negroland.

It encompassed far more than the present-day country called Sudan, taking in everything south of the Sahara and ten degrees or so north of the Equator, from the Atlantic coast to the mountains of Ethiopia. This area included most of today’s Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, and Sudan as well as northern Nigeria and northern Cameroon.

The expedition’s leader was a British evangelical abolitionist named James Richardson. Barth had been recommended to the British by two of the era’s eminent scientists, both Germans: Alexander von Humboldt, the great botanist who spent five years exploring South America, and Carl Ritter, who with von Humboldt had transformed the study of geography. Richardson invited Barth along to collect scientific and cultural data. Later in the planning, another young German scientist named Adolf Overweg joined the mission.

Things didn’t go as planned. Richardson expected the expedition to spend a year in Africa, perhaps two, but his assumptions soon proved dangerously flawed. By the time Barth returned to Europe, he had been away for five and a half years and had traveled more than 10,000 miles. No one was more surprised than Barth himself that he was gone so long or covered so much ground.

In the annals of exploration, few journeys match Barth’s for distance and duration. In terms of knowledge collected and ongoing relevance, none of the famous 19th-century explorers of Africa–Mungo Park, John Hanning Speke, David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, James Baker, even Richard Burton–are comparable to Barth, whose discoveries and written work are still considered indispensable by modern historians, geographers, linguists, and ethnographers.

Yet the general public has never heard of him. Why? That question, which seems so simple, always opens the door to an enticing labyrinth–one of Barth’s favorite words. Who can resist walking into it? Here we go.