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.

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.

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.

Cast of Characters: in Africa

Here are a few of the people most important to Barth during his five-year journey, and hence prominent characters in A Labyrinth of Kingdoms:

James Richardson

The expedition’s first leader. A British evangelical abolitionist, Richardson had traveled to Ghat in the Sahara several years earlier to gather facts about the slave trade for Britain’s Anti-Slavery Society. Soon after returning, he began urging the British Foreign Office to fund a more ambitious expedition that would bring back strategic information about caravan routes and the prospects for commercial profit in the little-known immensity called the Sudan. When he finally got the go-ahead in August 1849, he recruited Barth and another young German, Adolf Overweg to handle the science.

Almost from the start, Richardson and Barth chafed each other—too bad for them, fortunate for readers. Barth found Richardson slow, indecisive, and imperceptive in dangerous situations. Richardson considered Barth rash and overeager, and often on the edge of insubordination.

This was partly a matter of age—Richardson was 11 years older—and partly incompatible temperaments and values. For Richardson, science was a secondary issue; for Barth, it was the highest human endeavor. Clashes were inevitable.

Adolf Overweg

German geologist and astronomer. Overweg was born just a year after Barth but seemed much younger because of his boyish enthusiasm and lack of travel experience. Both Barth and Richardson acknowledged that Africans liked Overweg the best among the three Europeans, because of his sunny disposition and his willingness to spend hours trying to repair an African’s broken watch or distributing specks of medicine (he wasn’t a doctor and his prescriptions were random).

Barth regarded Overweg as an amiable, talented younger brother who was sometimes exasperatingly naive and messy. As an explorer and scientist, Overweg was as keen and tireless as Barth, but was less careful in every way, both personally and as a record-keeper.

El Haj Beshir ben Ahmed Tirab, the Vizier of Kukawa

In Kukawa, Barth spent a lot of time with the shrewd, worldly vizier, second-in-command to the Sheikh of Bornu. Barth admired Haj Beshir’s erudition and openness to new ideas, but thought his faults undercut his virtues. His “luxurious disposition” made him “extremely fond of the fair sex”–he had lost exact count of his harem, which numbered between 300 and 400 concubines. He could wax eloquently about Ptolemy, yet his greed and laziness were hastening the decay of Bornu. Barth accompanied Haj Beshir and his army on a horrifying razzia, or slave raid, the most disturbing section of Barth’s book.

Weled Ammer Walati

Scoundrel extraordinaire. Barth met the Walati, as he called him, while en route to Timbuktu. The rogue spoke six languages and knew the country, so Barth hired him as a fixer to ease his passage through unknown territories. “He was one of the cleverest men whom I met on my journey,” wrote Barth, “in spite of the trouble he caused me and the tricks he played me.”

The Walati did occasionally do his job. At one point, for instance, Barth was surrounded by 150 men with spears, “brandished over their heads with warlike gesticulations. The affair seemed rather serious.” The Walati saved the day by shouting that Barth was a friend of the Sheikh of Timbuktu and was bringing him books. “They dropped their spears and thronged around me, requesting me to give them my blessing.”

More typically the Walati saved his own skin while skinning the explorer.

Sidi Ahmed al-Bakkay, Sheikh of Timbuktu

Kunta tribesman, late 1800s

Barth almost surely would have been murdered in Timbuktu if not for the protection of Sheikh al-Bakkay, a member of the Kunta tribe, renowned desert scholars and religious leaders. Timbuktu had been conquered in 1826 by Muslim fanatics and was nominally under the rule of the Emir of Hamdallahi. When Barth arrived, the Emir ordered al-Bakkay to drive the unbeliever out of town. (The same order had been given in 1826 about the presence of Major Alexander Gordon Laing, who was expelled and murdered.) But al-Bakkay, at tremendous risk from both the Emir and his own political enemies, including a couple of his brothers, defied the emir and took Barth under his wing.

Al-Bakkay alternately charmed and exasperated Barth. The two men intrigued each other and had many intense conversations about history, theology, slavery, polygamy. No African meant more to Barth than al-Bakkay.

These were some of Barth’s companions as he traveled through the Sudan, and they became mine as well, as I traveled through Barth.

Explorer in Training: Part 2

Barth spent most of his tour around the Mediterranean in North Africa and the Middle East. He first touched Africa at Tangiers, then proceeded east towards the Nile and on to the Levant. “I spent nearly my whole time with the Arabs,” he wrote, “and familiarized myself with that state of human society where the camel is man’s daily companion, and the culture of the date-tree his chief occupation.”

Date palm tree, by Balaram Mahalder

The trip was invaluable training for the great journey to come. He tested himself by traveling through dozens of cultures, many of them Islamic. He learned how to cope with fever, illness, and gunshot wounds–in Egypt he survived an attack by Bedouin thieves who shot him in both legs and left him unconscious. He became skilled at traveling leanly and alone for long periods. He perfected his Arabic and picked up several other languages, including Turkish, which would one day come in handy at a crucial moment as he attempted to enter Timbuktu disguised as a Syrian sherif. He trained himself to recognize links between a region’s history, geography, languages, and cultures, links he would later find in central Africa. The trip exhilarated him. He was gone for nearly three years.

Spending so much time alone in the desert reinforced his misfit tendencies. “He had become the very model of the imperious, the closed-off, and the ascetic,” remembered Gustav von Schubert, Barth’s brother-in-law, intimate friend, and biographer. Shortly before Barth returned, von Schubert had started courting the explorer’s beloved younger sister, Mathilde. “Later we became close friends,” wrote von Schubert, “but it took a long time before I was able to thaw the ice around his heart and experience the depths of his character. In his first letter to me, he wrote, ‘If you make my sister unhappy, I will shoot you dead,’ which was clear enough.”

Barth wasted no time pursuing his three main goals: to write a scholarly multi-volume account of his journey, to secure an academic position, and to get married. Things looked promising, at first. He found a publisher. He got a part-time job in the archeology department at the University of Berlin. He beseiged a prospective bride.

Nothing worked out. The first volume of his book, Wanderings Along the Shores of the Mediterranean, was praised for its meticulous scholarship but slammed for its boring style and presentation. The public declined to buy it, so the publisher cancelled the second volume. Nevertheless, the book established Barth among Berlin’s influential academics and scientists as a formidable scholar who was also fearless and tireless.

At the university, he lectured on soil composition. His droning recitation of data stupefied his students, who stopped coming. The class was dropped. Barth must have been equally scintillating as a suitor—his prospective bride dropped him too.

By autumn of 1849, Barth felt pummeled by failure. Yet the trip around the Mediterranean had confirmed his passions: deep scholarship and rigorous travel. If only there was some way to combine them into a living. He began daydreaming about a long journey into Asia. He was twenty-eight.

James Richardson

While Barth was licking his wounds, an English abolitionist named James Richardson finally persuaded the British Foreign Office to fund a journey into the unknown lands of central Africa called the Sudan, south of the Sahara. The mission’s main purpose would be to sign treaties with the region’s chiefs and to scout potential markets for British commerce, but the Foreign Office required Richardson to take along a scientist to gather infomation about these mysterious peoples and places.

At the time, Germany was producing the best-trained scientists in the world, so that’s where Richardson turned for help. Two of Germany’s most eminent scientists, Carl Ritter and Alexander von Humboldt, conferred and immediately agreed on a candidate: their former student Heinrich Barth, recently returned from his three-year journey through North Africa and the Middle East.

Carl Ritter

So in early October 1849, Ritter called Barth to his office and asked him a question that changed everything: would he be interested in departing almost immediately with a British expedition into the Sudan?

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.