Shades of Black

As I noted in an earlier post, Africans often considered European explorers ugly, strange, or pitiable because of their white skin. But African attitudes about skin color were not simply black or white. Things were much more complicated than that, and still are.

Perceptions about skin color among Africans go back at least 2,500 years, when lighter-skinned Egyptians reviled darker-skinned Nubians as uncultured savages. Gradations of skin color became part of cultural and racial identity, and remain so. Northern Africans such as Arabs, Berbers, and Tuaregs often have dark skin but call themselves white to contrast themselves with southern Africans. They sometimes assume that their relative lightness makes them racially superior to black Africans, just as Europeans assumed that whiter meant better.

Northern Africans, past and present, also feel a sense of superiority because they are Muslims. Northern peoples became the first African converts to Islam as the religion swept across the region, but for centuries the regions below the Sahel remained unconverted. The Qur’an forbade the enslavement of Muslims, but the black Africans who lived to the south were pagans and hence legitimate targets of Muslim slave-raids. This relationship reinforced racial attitudes.

Yet some black Africans from the Sahel made their own racial distinctions and didn’t consider themselves truly black, and still don’t, perhaps a holdover from their longer tradition of Islam compared to tribes farther south. My guide in northern Nigeria, for instance, was a Fulani who remarked that the Kanuris of eastern Nigeria, in contrast to Fulanis and Hausas, were truly black. My other guide in Nigeria, also a Fulani, shaved this distinction even finer. Describing a subgroup of nomadic Fulanis called the Bororos (or Wodaabes) from Gambia and Senegal, he told me, as he rubbed his skin, “They’re really black. We are whiter.”

Yet in the 1820s explorer Dixon Denham noted that in Bornu, home of the Kanuris, the copper-colored Shuwa women were looked down upon as too white: “black, and black only,” wrote Denham, “being considered by them as desirable.” Such are the absurdities of cultural attitudes based on skin color.

One stark contemporary example of how African attitudes about race still operate is found in the Janjaweed, the murderous raiders in southern Sudan. They have black skin but are descended from Islamic Arab tribes, so their war cry as they attack black tribes (now Christian rather than pagan) is “Kill the slaves!” The Janjaweed’s tactics resemble those used by the Kanuris of Bornu during slave raids, and described by Barth —kill, rape, terrorize, and leave nothing behind for survivors except smoking rubble.

Weird White Men

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

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.”

Sheikh al-Kanemi

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.

James Richardson

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.

Explorer in Training: Part 1

The first Europeans to reach the kingdom of Bornu on Lake Chad were the British explorers Walter Oudney, Hugh Clapperton, and Dixon Denham. They left England in 1821, the same year Heinrich Barth was born in Hamburg, Germany. In one of history’s coincidences, Barth would be the next European to see Bornu, 30 years later.

At the palace of the Sheikh of Bornu, from a sketch by Dixon Denham

Barth’s father, Johann, was the son of German peasants who died when Johann was a boy. A relative in Hamburg took in the orphan. Though uneducated, Johann had the energy and ambition to work his way into the city’s middle class while building a thriving business as a trader in the cities along Germany’s northern coast. His success allowed him to marry well: Barth’s mother, Charlotte, came from a respected Hamburg family. The couple were strict Lutherans who raised their four children—Heinrich was the third—according to strict standards.

Richard Francis Burton

Some explorers, such as Richard Francis Burton and Samuel Baker, spent large parts of their boyhoods hunting, roaming the woods, and having open-air adventures that, in retrospect, were preludes to future exploits.

By contrast, the young Barth gave no sign that he would someday be a great explorer. Well, one sign: like Burton, Baker, and most other explorers, he was a misfit. Dweebish and physically weak, he devoted himself to art, languages, and book-collecting. His fellow students found him amusingly peculiar. He had few friends.

A childhood classmate later recalled that Barth “studied subjects that were not even part of the curriculum. People said that he was teaching himself Arabic, which to us brainless schoolboys certainly seemed the pinnacle of insanity.” Barth taught himself not only Arabic but English, which he could read and speak fluently by age thirteen, a handy skill in years to come. His other extracurricular missions included reading the histories, geographies, and scientific works of the classical Greeks and Romans, in the original languages.

In his mid-teens he undertook physical renovations. During recess, while the other boys played, he did gymnastics and arm exercises. To toughen himself he took cold baths, even in winter. By the time he entered the University of Berlin in 1839, he was a robust young man well over six feet tall.

There’s no evidence that Barth thought of these mental and physical regimens as preparations for life as an explorer. He was probably modeling himself after his beloved Greeks and their ideal of physical and intellectual excellence. He went to college expecting to earn an advanced degree and settle into a comfortable, sedentary career as a university professor.

Wanderlust and circumstances demolished those plans. During his second semester at the university, restlessness overcame him. He told his father he wanted to drop out and make an academic excursion to Italy, funded by Dad. Most parents, presented with this plan by a 19-year-old, would smell a boondoggle. Johann, however, knew his somber son had no interest in la dolce vita. He funded the trip.

Barth prepared with his usual diligence, first by learning Italian. He spent nearly a year traveling alone to classical sites throughout Italy, taking copious notes on everything he saw. “I am working terribly hard,” he wrote home from Rome in November 1840. “I go everywhere on foot. It has become no problem for me to walk around for nine hours without eating anything apart from a few chestnuts or some grapes.” The trip sparked a lifelong urge to see new places.

In June 1844 he received a Ph.D. for his dissertation on trade relations in ancient Corinth, a busy port like Hamburg. He moved back into the family home there and spent six months studying ten hours per day, in hopes of earning a university appointment. Nothing came of it.

Disappointed and itchy to escape his desk, he asked his father to fund another research trip, far more ambitious (and expensive) than the one to Italy. He wanted to circumambulate the Mediterranean Sea, visiting the three continents it touched and the cultures it influenced. Writing a scholarly book about his trip, he told Johann, would help him secure a university position. Johann again opened his wallet. The trip altered the course of Barth’s life.

Africa and History

Hegel

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.

Kanembu Chief, from Travels and Discoveries

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.