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.

Pity You Aren’t British

As I’ve mentioned, Heinrich Barth remains unknown to the general public despite being one of Africa’s greatest explorers. The reasons are complicated, but among them is his nationality. He was a German working for the British—a sentence loaded with historical thorns. In my book, the antagonism between Britain and Germany plays out on both the personal and national levels.

King George I

British suspicion and resentment of Germany goes back to at least 1714 when George I, the first Hanoverian king of England, arrived in London from Germany. Georges II through V all married German princesses. Queen Victoria’s mother was a German princess. Victoria married a German prince, Albert. These marital alliances brought the countries closer together but also produced an undercurrent of suspicion that Germans were gatecrashers with too much influence on British affairs. (The attitude evidently survives: Princess Diana reportedly referred to her in-laws as “the Germans.”)

Adolf Overweg

Similarly, certain people in London resented that one of Britain’s greatest African expeditions had succeeded almost solely because of several Germans—primarily Barth but also his fellow explorers Adolf Overweg and Eduard Vogel, the cartographer August Petermann, and Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter, who had recommended Barth for the job. Though some factions of British society at first showered Barth with praise and gratitude, others accused him of mismanagement, overspending, slurring the honor of a British soldier, promoting Germany’s commercial interests over Britain’s, slave-dealing, and denying scientific information to Britain’s scholars in favor of Germany’s.

Every one of these charges was false, even absurd, and deeply offended Barth. He suspected—sometimes backed by clear evidence, sometimes inflamed by his touchy sense of honor—that the charges stemmed from his nationality.

René Caillié

He no doubt remembered the British response to René Caillié, which made clear that the British preferred their heroes homegrown. In 1824 the French Société de Géographie offered 10,000 francs to anyone who reached Timbuktu and returned alive. The British craved this laurel and in 1825 sent two men after it, each of whom wanted it for himself. Major Alexander Gordon Laing left from Tripoli, Commander Hugh Clapperton from the Guinea Coast. Clapperton got stalled in Sokoto and died of dysentery. Laing reached Timbuktu in 1826 but was expelled and murdered in the desert. Caillié, a Frenchman, made it to Timbuktu in 1828 and, crucially, got home alive. For this feat he collected the 10,000-franc prize, the Legion of Honor, and a government pension. His book was a bestseller.

But then public opinion about Caillié began to change, driven partly by British sniping and outright calumny. To lose the prize to the French was bad enough, but to a nobody like Caillié? Especially since one of their own dashing officers had gotten to Timbuktu first. The British Consul in Tripoli, Hanmer Warrington, whose daughter had married Laing, accused Caillié of somehow acquiring Laing’s missing papers and then colluding with the French consul and the pasha of Tripoli to defraud the public. The Royal Geographical Society sniffed that even if Caillié had reached Timbuktu, he had returned with no useful scientific information (which was true). These accusations and disparagements created doubts about Caillié’s feat. In 1833 the French government cut off his pension.

Barth was the next European to reach Timbuktu and survive. He probably nettled some people in England by corroborating most of Caillié’s account and by praising him as “that very meritorious French traveler.”

Henry Morton Stanley

Henry Morton Stanley offers another example of the British tendency to downplay the accomplishments of non-British explorers. In 1871 Stanley tracked down the beloved British explorer David Livingstone. Livingstone was the mid-19th century equivalent of a rock star, attracting hundreds to his lectures about African exploration and selling thousands of books. He had been missing for years in the heart of Africa when Stanley found him, ill and tattered, in a remote village on Lake Tanganyika. Yet the British treated Stanley coolly because he was a mere American working for an American newspaper. Sir Henry Rawlinson, president of the Royal Geographical Society, scoffed that it was “not true that Stanley had discovered Livingstone, as it was Livingstone who had discovered Stanley.” The kicker: Stanley was British but had changed his name and nationality after moving to the United States.

Traces of this snobbery and resentment show up throughout the history of British exploration. A small final example that perhaps sums it up: after Romolo Gessi, a remarkable Italian who was the right-hand man of General Charles George Gordon in Africa, became the first European to circumnavigate Lake Albert, Gordon remarked to him, “What a pity you are not an Englishman.”