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.

Africa and History


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.