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.

Now What?

I had a fascinating subject and, equally important, a book contract. Perfect.

Now what?

I’ve always written about people who are breathing. Barth was not. Neither was anyone who had known him. As a journalist I depend not only on what people say, but how they say it—tones, hesitations, verbal tics, facial expressions, gestures. I also depend on watching them interact with other people, and on what those people tell me about my subject. With Barth, none of this was available.

Courtesy of the Heinrich-Barth-Institut

Visual evidence was thin, too. I found a few photos of him and a couple of line drawings. In the photos, taken after his great journey, he looks intense and haughty, verging on arrogant. I pinned my favorite one (above) over my desk. For the next couple of years we stared at each other, often in exasperation. I always blinked first. I might as well mention here that Barth was indomitable, a flattering word for mulish.

So my main route into Barth and his world would have to be written words, his and others’. He left behind a lot of them, in many languages. In addition to German and English, he spoke and read French, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Latin, Greek (ancient and modern), and Arabic. He had taught himself English and Arabic as a schoolboy in Hamburg, pursuits that his classmates mocked as absurd.

His linguistic prowess served him well in Africa. As he traveled through its many kingdoms, he learned the local languages so he could talk to everybody, from sultans and imams to camel-drivers and slaves. He became fluent in half a dozen African languages and collected vocabularies in forty. Scores of individual Africans appear in his work, distinguishing him from most nineteenth-century explorers, who passed through the continent deaf to its peoples and hence largely blind to its cultures. The voices collected by Barth enriched his work and could populate mine.

Eventually I found many other voices. The voluminous files about the expedition in the British National Archives offered glimpses of feuds, alarms, heroic measures, misunderstandings, false charges, and bureaucratic pettiness, as well as strong opinions about Barth. The journal of James Richardson, who led the mission into Central Africa, gave me an alternate perspective on the expedition’s first year and also a close-up (and often disapproving) view of Barth. An obscure biography in German by Barth’s intimate friend and brother-in-law, Gustav von Schubert, opened the door to Barth’s youth, and preserved his private responses to important events.

All of these helped me begin to see Barth, and to catch his cadences and personality. He never blinked, but he began to breathe.