Barth Slept Here (Uneasily)

Barth entered Timbuktu in September 1853. He didn’t expect to stay long. When explorers make plans, the gods snicker. He got stuck in Timbuktu and environs for eight months. For much of that time he was under a death threat. He would have been expelled and probably killed if not for his protector, Ahmed al-Bakkay, Sheikh of Timbuktu, who risked his own life to defend Barth’s.

Barth’s residence in Timbuku

The house where al-Bakkay lodged the explorer is now a private residence on the Rue Heinrich Barth. A plaque commemorates it. A small front room in the house has been designated as a museum open to the public, admission about $2. The room features several small pictures of Barth, some placards in English, French, and German about the explorer’s accomplishments and significance, and a poster-map of the route, with small portraits of the expedition’s four Europeans. A five-volume German edition of Travels and Discoveries sits behind glass on a shelf. The room is probably mildly interesting to people who have never heard of Barth, but to me it was all familiar and hence disappointing.

Doorway of Barth’s house

Luckily, the house’s owner, Alassane Alpha Sane Haidara, was at home, and when he heard that I was writing a book about Barth, he graciously let me look around the rest of the two-story residence. The house had been in Haidara’s family since his forebears bought it from Sheikh al-Bakkay after Barth’s departure.

Alassane Alpha Sane Haidara in his house’s inner courtyard

The floor plan had changed over the decades, but some of it remained just as Barth described. It was stirring to imagine him here, where he spent so much time and weathered so many threats. For much of his stay in Timbuktu he was essentially under house arrest, for his own safety.

Stairway to rooftop

His favorite spot in the house was the rooftop terrace, where he could exercise and look out over the town. From there he could see rounded huts made of matting, squarish mud-brick houses, and a small market. To the north, towering over its neighborhood, was the earthen Sankore mosque, built in the 14th century by Mansa Musa. It had been the heart of Timbuktu during the town’s golden age of scholarship, drawing learned men from all over north Africa and the Middle East. Beyond the buildings, in every direction, was the Sahara.

Barth’s rooftop view, with Sankore in background. From Travels and Discoveries

Much of what Barth saw remains unchanged, with the additions of cinder blocks, electrical wires, and satellite dishes.

View from rooftop today

View from rooftop with Sankore mosque in left-central background

Sheikh al-Bakkay lived 25 paces from Barth’s house, cater-corner across a small square. It’s a modest place. The two men often crossed the square to discuss religion or history or the latest machinations of Barth’s enemies.

Sheikh al-Bakkay’s house

View of Barth’s house from Sheikh al-Bakkay’s

The explorer made many friends during his journey, but the Sheikh was the greatest of them, partly because they spent so much time together but mostly because al-Bakkay’s open-minded curiosity and intelligence matched Barth’s. Their friendship survived many challenges both in Timtuktu and after Barth returned to Britain, where the government rebuffed his efforts on behalf of the man who had saved his life.

In one of history’s pleasing parallels, after Tuareg plunderers and cutthroats left Alexander Gordon Laing for dead, the explorer found refuge and care in the desert encampment of al-Bakkay’s father. This kindness allowed Laing to resume his journey to Timbuktu. Al-Bakkay met him there, the only Christian the Sheikh had ever seen before Barth arrived. (Al-Bakkay was unaware, until Barth told him, of the visit by René Caillié, who had come and gone in disguise.)

Barth doesn’t mention the houses in Timbuktu where his European predecessors stayed, but plaques now mark these places, a nod at the bravery of the first Europeans who dared to visit–a Scot, a Frenchman, a German. Coming across these places while wandering the town is a reminder that Timbuktu once signified the far edge of the world.

House where Laing stayed

House where Caillié stayed

Golden City: the Allure of Timbuktu

When my grandfather wanted to signify something far out of reach or unimaginably far away, the thing or person would be “way out in Timbuktu” or “gone to Timbuktu.” As a child I loved the word’s percussive sound and exotic aura. (For similar purposes he used a musical word that I heard as “Pulchapeck,” which I assumed was another of his fanciful coinages. Decades later while studying an atlas–a favorite pastime–I was shocked to come across Chapultepec. It turned out to be the site of a once-famous battle between U.S. and Mexican troops in 1847, probably the origin of my grandfather’s usage.)

Mansa Musa holding a nugget of gold, from a 1375 Catalan Atlas of the known world

It was years before I learned that Timbuktu existed outside his imagination. I also learned that for centuries of Western history, the imagination had been Timbuktu’s main location. The cause was probably Mansa Musa, emperor of Mali, who once ruled the city. In 1324 he made a haj across Africa through Cairo to Mecca. He traveled with an enormous caravan, including 80 camels that carried 300 pounds of gold each. Along the way he freely lightened these camels, especially in Cairo. Soon Europe was abuzz with rumors about golden cities in the heart of the Sahara. This chimera refused to die for more than five centuries, and many Europeans would die pursuing it.

Title page of Leo Africanus’s book about Africa

Meanwhile African travelers, traders, and scholars streamed through Timbuktu. A few left tantalizing reports. The restless Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta visited around 1352 and wrote a short account that mentioned gold and many naked women. Leo Africanus, a Spanish Moor, reached the city around 1510 and was impressed by the number of scholars and gold plates. Then in 1591 the king of Morocco sent an army that conquered and looted Timbuktu, and marched its scholars to Morocco in chains. To Europe, the place seemed to go dark.

After a few quiet centuries, Europe’s interest in Timbuktu reawakened, and the race to reach it was on. In 1824 the French Société de Géographie offered 10,000 francs to anyone who made it to the city and returned alive. The British were determined to beat the French. Most of the contestants didn’t survive the race.

Alexander Gordon Laing

In the first half of the 19th century, only two Europeans reached Timbuktu. The first was Major Alexander Gordon Laing, who led a British expedition from Tripoli. After being viciously attacked by Tuaregs and left for dead in the middle of the desert, he somehow lashed himself on to Timbuktu, arriving in 1826. The Muslim fundamentalists who controlled the place were incensed that an infidel was polluting their holy city. After five weeks, Laing was expelled. Not far into the desert, his guides murdered him and burned his journals.

René Caillié

A year and a half later, in 1828, another European sneaked into Timbuktu disguised as a poor Muslim traveler. His name was René Caillié, a French dreamer inspired by Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Everything about Caillié’s story defies belief: the years of sacrifice in preparation for the journey to Timbuktu, the horrible afflictions suffered en route and on the way home, the adulation and bestsellerdom followed by humiliation and poverty. He stayed in Timbuktu undetected for two weeks—after hearing about Laing, he decided not to dawdle—but he did return to Europe and collect the prize money, to the dismay of the British.

Twenty-five years passed before another European, also in disguise, dared to enter Timbuktu: Heinrich Barth.

Eating Local: Locusts and Elephants

All African explorers endured afflictions: sickness, biting insects, vile water, dangerous animals, extreme temperatures, miserable accommodations, hostile people. Throughout it all, they needed to eat. Sometimes food eased their miseries, sometimes worsened them. And of course they often went hungry.

Barth’s and Overweg’s contracts with the British government required them to provide their own food. They ate well during the first part of the journey, supplementing rice and grains with the meat of hares or gazelles chased down by greyhounds or bought from hunters. In Murzuk, 500 miles into the Sahara, the pasha served them coffee and sherbet, and the British vice-consul feted them on roasted lamb and dried sardines, accompanied by rum, wine, and bottled stout.

Ostrich egg among smaller yolks, by Rainer Zenz

The menu soon changed. Deeper into the desert, their stores ran short. The few people they came across who didn’t want to rob or kill them didn’t have any spare food to sell. When they found an ostrich egg, wrote Barth, it “caused us more delight, perhaps, than scientific travelers are strictly justified in deriving from such causes.”

After the austerities of the Sahara, Kano was a culinary high point. The market there offered everything a hungry man craved. Barth relished the street food: “Diminutive morsels of meat, attached to a small stick, were roasting, or rather stewing, in such a way that the fat, trickling down from the richer pieces attached to the top of  the stick, basted the lower ones. These dainty bits were sold for a single shell or ‘uri’ each.”

He also enjoyed the market’s roasted locusts, still a valued source of protein in sub-Saharan Africa. Barth called the taste “agreeable.” Many African explorers reviewed the dish. Friedrich Hornemann said roasted locusts had a taste “similar to that of red herrings, but more delicious.” David Livingstone pronounced them “strongly vegetable in taste, the flavor varying with the plants on which they feed. . . . Some are roasted and pounded into meal, which, eaten with a little salt, is palatable. It will keep thus for months. Boiled, they are disagreeable; but when they are roasted I should much prefer locusts to shrimps, though I would avoid both if possible.” Gustav Nachtigal also preferred them roasted. Of the dozen kinds eaten by natives, he was partial to the light-brown ones, though the speckled green-and-whites were also fine.

Barth ate meat whenever he could get it, domesticated or wild. Sometimes when he stopped in a village, the chief would send him a sheep or a bullock. During his first months in Timbuktu he ate pigeons every day. In some areas guinea fowls were common. On rare occasions he ate antelope and aoudad (Barbary sheep). Barth and Overweg agreed about the tastiest meat in Africa: giraffe. They also liked elephant, though its richness tended to cause havoc in the bowels. When possible, they added vegetables such as squash or beans from legume trees to their diet, and fruit such as papayas and tamarinds. In the desert they enjoyed a refreshing drink called rejire made from dried cheese and dates.

Tamarind tree at right

Guinea corn and millet

But most of the time they lived on grains, especially guinea corn, wheat, sorghum, and millet, prepared in dozens of ways—stewed, mashed, baked, roasted, rolled, fried, pancaked—sometimes mixed with milk or vegetables or bits of meat or cheese. En route to Timbuktu Barth’s typical dinner consisted of millet with vegetable paste made from tree-beans; for breakfast he mixed the cold paste with sour milk. He was fond of fura, bean cakes, and various dishes made from white guinea corn. On the other hand, in Musgu he was unable to choke down a paste made from red sorghum. During one long stretch he lived on boiled mashed groundnuts, which he grew to hate.

Guinea corn

His deepest appreciation went to one simple food: “Milk, during the whole of my journey, formed my greatest luxury; but I would advise any African traveler to be particularly careful with this article, which is capable of destroying a weak stomach entirely; and he would do better to make it a rule always to mix it with a little water, or to have it boiled.”

The milk in Kukawa, however, disgusted him, because the Kanuris added cow’s urine to it, imparting a tang that he found repellent. Kanuris (and some Fulanis) still clean their milk bowls with cow urine, believing that it keeps the milk from going sour for several days. This practice nudged Barth towards camel’s milk, which he came to prefer.

I’ve eaten some things considered weird by American tastes–cow’s stomach, pigs’ ears and testicles, fried grasshoppers and fresh-roasted termites, rattlesnake and blue jay, guinea pig and crocodile–all mainstream fare for Barth and other explorers, who always ate the local food.

I thought of Barth in Lagos as I tried nkwobi, a dish the menu described as “soft cow leg pieces in a secretly spiced sauce, with ugba and topped with fresh utazi leaves.” So many unknowns, so irresistible. But the secret sauce covered a mass so repulsively gristly and gelatinous that I couldn’t eject it from my mouth fast enough. “Cow leg pieces” turned out to mean “hooves.” Even Barth might have hesitated.

How Do You Spell That?

Western spellings of African names and places are notoriously various. Until all the versions of certain words became familiar to me, the discrepancies sometimes made my eyes spin (and my spell-checker run red).

The causes of confusion seem clear. Imagine a panel of 17th-century Europeans—a Spaniard, a Portuguese, a Frenchman, an Englishman, and a German—listening to a Wampanoag Indian say the word that we have come to know as “Massachusetts.” Now imagine how each panelist would spell that new word after filtering its sounds through the phonics, diphthongs, diacritics, and other idiosyncrasies peculiar to his native language. It’s safe to predict that the resulting phonetic guesses would not be uniform.

Similar “sounds-like” spellings occurred when explorers asked Africans the name of some river or mountain. The confusion was further complicated because different peoples in Africa spoke unrelated languages, and naturally had different names for the same places, tribes, landmarks, plants, and animals. Travelers brought all the different words home and put them onto maps and into accounts and letters.

Sometimes the variations are easy to decipher. For instance, in the journals of Barth and James Richardson, and in dispatches by Foreign Office personnel, Richardson’s interpreter is variously referred to as Yusuf, Yusef, Yousef, and Youseff, with a last name of Moknee, Mukni, Muckeni, and Mokumee. The founder of Islam is likewise recognizable whether spelled Mohammed, Muhammad, or Muhammed.

Murzuk, from Travels and Discoveries

Things can get a bit more confusing with geographic names. In different accounts, the desert town of Murzuk, for example, is called Murzuq, Mourzuk, Morzouk, and Murzuch. There’s Timbuktu, Timbuctoo, and Tombouctou. Lake Chad also appears as Tschad and Tchad.

Tribal names often undergo phonetic mutations. The Tebu people of Niger and Chad may be called Toubou, Tibbu, Tibu, Tubu, Tebou, or Tibboo. The great ethnic group who dominate the Central Sudan may be referred to as Fula, Fulani, Fellani, or Fulbe. Barth rode for a while with a tribe of mercenary Arabs, “certainly the most lawless robbers in the world,” whom he called the Welad Sliman–but other writers spell their initial name Walid, Ouled, Oulad, or Uelad, sometimes followed by Soliman, Suliman, or Suleiman. A researcher needs to recognize the many possible combinations.

Tuareg” comes in multiple alternate spellings: Tawarek (Barth), Tuarick (Richardson), Touareg (French), and Twareg, among others. The same is true for the Tuaregs’ name for themselves: Imoshagh, Imohag, Imohagh, Imashaghen, Imuhagh, Imajaghan, Imajughen, and Imazaghan are a few of the variations. The Tuaregs’ language is usually, but not always, spelled Tamasheq, Tamashek, or Tamajaq, which uses an alphabet called Tifinagh.

Carving in Tifinagh script ©Tim Brookes 2011

To a researcher combing through books and encountering these peoples under all their different names, it’s as if they carry multiple passports and wear disguises, a mustache in one place, an eyepatch in another.

Sometimes the disguises are confounding. Old travel accounts and histories may refer to the Niger River as the Isa, Quorra, Kworra, or Kwara. The Niger’s major tributary, the Benue, might appear under the names Shary, Shari, Tchadda, or Chadda. Such wild discrepancies also underline the unsettled state of geographic knowledge about these river systems in the 18th and 19th centuries.

To make sense of old accounts and historical documents, a researcher must learn to recognize the variants. Otherwise, references will be missed or misunderstood. Someone inexperienced who searched Barth’s index for “Tuareg,” for instance, could get the misimpression that the explorer had nothing to say about that extraordinary desert tribe, when in fact he spent a good portion of his journey among them.

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.

Fanatics, Infidels, and Guides

Barth’s journey had three key locales, which formed a rough triangle. The triangle’s northern point was Aïr, a Saharan mountain range in present-day Niger, where Barth’s party was pillaged by Tuareg raiders and barely escaped execution. The triangle’s eastern point was Lake Chad, Barth’s base for a year and a half. The western point was Timbuktu in present-day Mali, where he was detained under threat of death for seven months.

Aïr, from Travels and Discoveries

I wanted to see the cultures and landscapes that Barth had seen, to smell some of the same odors, touch some of the same textures, eat some of the same foods. Politics and tight restrictions on travel eliminated Libya from my itinerary. Political unrest eliminated Niger; Aïr, still a stronghold of rebellious Tuaregs, was off-limits to travelers.

That left the stretch between Lake Chad and Timbuktu. I eventually decided to travel east from Kano in northern Nigeria to Lake Chad, about 350 miles as the crow flies. In Barth’s day Kano had been the largest and most important city in north-central Africa, a position it retains, with a population of more than five million. (Some estimates say nine million. Until I read Barth, I had never heard of Kano, despite its size. In some ways Africa is still unknown.) From Lake Chad I would make my way by air to Timbuktu.

In Barth’s era, travel in remote areas of Islamic Africa could be fatal for a white Christian. Christians were evil infidels, odious unbelievers, fit only for slavery or death. Barth heard that a lot. Yet he also found tolerance and hospitality.

North-central Africa still breeds Islamic fanatics. As in Barth’s day, their religious zeal is sometimes a veneer to justify thuggery and greed—for example, the small terrorist group that calls itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) plants bombs and occasionally kidnaps Western travelers, whom they ransom or murder. Other factions, such as Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria, are more old-school in their ways and religious fervor, simply condemning everything Christian and Western in their sometimes violent quest to force a return to what they consider a purer form of Islam. AQIM and Boko Haram both would be familiar types to Barth.

Like him, I wanted a savvy guide to help me negotiate the complexities of northern Nigeria. The internet made it easy to throw out many lines asking for help. Most were ignored, but a professor named Abdalla Uba Adamu at Bayero University in Kano wrote that he knew the perfect man: Nasiru Wada Khalil, head of IT for the Sharia court of Kano, who had a scholarly bent. In our email exchanges before the trip, Nasiru wisely persuaded me to hire Nasiru Datti Ahmed, a teacher at an Islamic secondary school for girls in Kano, as our driver. These two learned, curious men provided invaluable guidance of many kinds, as well as amiable company and friendship. All this, too, would have been familiar to Barth.

At Lake Chad: infidel flanked by Nasiru Datti (left) and Nasiru Wada (right). Abdul in back.