August Petermann, Cartographer of Exploration

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.

August Petermann

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.

Barth’s entry into Timbuktu

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.

Untethered From the Facts

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt

Barth had a scientist’s horror of inaccuracy, and during his explorations he rigorously corrected the mistakes of his predecessors. He criticized Johann Ludwig Burckhardt’s information about the eastern part of Lake Chad as “marred with mistakes.” He complained that Dixon Denham reported the wrong name for the Logone River, “although he has only very insufficiently described it, and entirely failed in fixing its right position.” And so on. Barth believed that progress in science was made by building upon past discoveries and correcting past mistakes. Few things upset him as much as imprecision.

I, on the other hand, was often amused during my research by the errors and exaggerations made by earlier writers. Popular accounts sometimes get untethered from the facts. Because the literature about Barth is so sparse, some writers felt compelled to embellish.

A favorite example occurs in René Lecler’s chapter on Barth in World Without Mercy (1954). Lecler, once a popular author of books about the Sahara, puts his whimsy to work when describing the unexpected meeting in the wilderness between Barth and Eduard Vogel, a German astronomer and botanist who had been sent to join the expedition in 1853.

First, Lecler equates this meeting with Stanley’s discovery of Livingstone. To make this inflationary comparison seem credible, he proceeds to pump the facts full of helium. Upon seeing Vogel, writes Lecler, Barth sat on the ground and wept–a touching image that contradicts both the explorer’s personality and the circumstances, since Barth was deeply irritated at Vogel for assuming that he was dead and leaving him stranded without supplies.

After Barth dried his eyes, continues Lecler as he works up a head of steam, Vogel treated Barth to “the best dinner he had eaten in years.” In fact the two men merely shared a little of Barth’s precious coffee. After feasting, says Lecler, his fancy now in overdrive, the explorers “sang old German lieder together”—a scene pleasant to imagine but also preposterous and unsupported by evidence. For his big finish Lecler declares that Barth and Vogel spent a week enjoying each other’s company in a Chadian village. In truth, they parted after two hours and were nowhere near Chad.

Lecler’s exaggerations may stem from too much admiration: “In terms of exploration,” he writes, “no single man ever equaled Henry Barth’s magnificent journey.”

Another example of imagination triumphing over the facts occurs in The Great Age of Discovery, by Paul Herrmann (translated from German, 1958). Herrmann is often interesting on the methods and motives of explorers but is prone to overstatement. He writes that Barth was “enticed back to Africa time after time,” which is true only if that phrase means “twice.” (A few years before his great journey into North-Central Africa, Barth traversed the edges of the Mediterranean along the coasts of Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.)

James Richarson

To increase drama, Herrmann says that James Richardson, the leader of Barth’s expedition, died “some days earlier” than Adolf  Overweg—yes, some 570 days. Herrmann describes an ambassador that Barth arranged to send to the British consulate in Tripoli from Bornu as a “naked black minister,” which is both inaccurate and condescending, and he puts this man in Tripoli in 1849, before Barth even arrived there. But then Herrmann also has the expedition leaving Tripoli on March 24, 1848, two years early.

Herrmann also asserts that Barth was probably the first white man to reach Kano, though Hugh Clapperton left a famously detailed account of his visit to that city. And he writes that Dorugu and Abbega, the teenaged servants of Overweg and Barth, “settled down in the small Thuringian capital of Gotha,” an exaggeration that verges on fabrication—Barth briefly hosted the youths in Germany before returning with them to Britain.

Abbega and Dorugu

In my own work I value accuracy almost as much as Barth did, but even he occasionally slipped. So I mention the mistakes made by my predecessors with rueful near-certainty that an error or two has snuck into my own book, for which I ask the reader’s, and Barth’s, pardon.