You’ve heard of Burton, Stanley, and Livingstone and their Victorian-era adventures in Africa. But you probably don’t recognize the name of Heinrich Barth. His five-year, 10,000-mile journey through North and Central Africa in 1849 ranks among the greatest in the annals of exploration. Told for the first time in A LABYRINTH OF KINGDOMS: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, the story of Barth’s survival and triumph rivals Burton or Stanley for excitement and surpasses them in scientific achievements. And, author Steve Kemper shares more about it on the Conversation Crossroad radio program.
For decades, Britain’s attempts to explore Africa were haunted by disaster, disease, and death. Gaps on the map were filled in by armchair geographers. To remedy this ignorance and to scout potential markets for British commerce, the Foreign Office commissioned an expedition to the central Sudan, a vast area south of the Sahara that today includes Niger, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, and northern Nigeria and Cameroon.
Barth was just the man for the job. The idiosyncratic German scientist meticulously, obsessively noted everything he encountered, from the number of trees in a palm grove to the types of roasted locusts served in the market. Unlike previous explorers, he did not assume that Africans were barbaric. Though Christian, his ultimate faith was in the power of scientific observation. Barth spoke Arabic and learned seven other African languages, which allowed him to talk to everyone from camel drivers to sultans, imams to slaves. He could discuss Ptolemy with a learned Muslim vizier and then join a band of marauders or a salt caravan for the next leg of the journey.
Barth mastered the complex economy of gifts, protection, and information necessary to pass through the kingdoms of Bornu and Sokoto and through the strongholds of the nomadic Tuareg, the mysterious “blue men” of the Sahara. He made the first accurate maps of the region as well as important geographical discoveries about Lake Chad and the Niger’s main tributary, the Benue. In the storied crossroads cities of Kano, Kukawa, and Timbuktu, he drew new cultural connections between disparate peoples that altered our understanding of Africa. He poured all this knowledge into his monumental, five-volume Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa.
But politics ran ahead of science. The age of European imperialism in Africa was about to begin, and Barth’s findings—and his thorny personality—were unwelcome in Britain. He has been almost forgotten. His discoveries are considered indispensable by scholars, but his great book is rare, even in libraries. Though he made his journey for the British government, there are no books about him in English. Suspenseful and sensitively told, A LABYRINTH OF KINGDOMS tells a forgotten story of survival, adventure, and scientific discovery by a remarkable man.
Steve Kemper is the author of Code Name Ginger. His work has appeared in many national publications, including Smithsonian and National Geographic. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut. Steve has been a freelance journalist for more than 30 years. His new book, A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa, just came out from W. W. Norton in June. His first book, Code Name Ginger: the Story Behind Segway and Dean Kamen’s Quest to Invent a New World (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), was selected by Barnes & Noble for its Discover Great New Writers award. Harper published the paperback under the title Reinventing the Wheel. Steve has written for Smithsonian, National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, National Geographic Traveler, Outside, Wall Street Journal, Yankee, National Wildlife, The Ecologist, Plenty, BBC Wildlife, and many other magazines and newspapers. He grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. After graduating from the University of Detroit, he taught literature and writing at the University of Connecticut while earning a Ph.D. He has received several awards for his work, as well as a grant from the W. Alton Jones Foundation for an environmental investigation in Bolivia. Steve Kemper lives in West Hartford, Connecticut, with his wife Judith Kaufman, a fine-art jeweler.
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