"I have the satisfaction to feel that I have opened to the view of the scientific public of Europe a most extensive tract of the secluded African world" - Heinrich Barth



16 February 1821, the German explorer, scholar and Africanist Heinrich Barth was born in Hamburg. 


“No doubt, even in the track which I myself pursued I have left a good deal for my successors in this career to improve upon; but I have the satisfaction to feel that I have opened to the view of the scientific public of Europe a most extensive tract of the secluded African world, but rendered the opening of a regular intercourse between Europeans and those regions possible.” (Heinrich Barth, “Travels in Africa”)



Martin Bernatz’s illustration of Barth’s arrival in Timbuktu from Barth’s “Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa: being a Journal of an Expedition undertaken under the Auspices of H.B.M.’s Government, in the Years 1849–1855“


It might have been disappointed love, certainly the most picturesque of reasons, sheer curiosity or the “once in a lifetime” opportunity of an up-and-coming academic without proper connections, having a tough time with structural rigidities, that made young Heinrich join a British expedition into Northern and Western Africa. In the end, it was probably his lecture theatres that remained empty during the Revolution of 1848 when only a selected few were at leisure to show any interest in the ancient history of trade in the Mediterranean region or similar subjects. Few academics were better qualified to join up with James Richardson in service of the Foreign Office though. Barth was fluent in seven languages, Arabic and Turkish among them, and had already travelled through Tunisia and Libya two years before. Now, the mission was more serious: going right into the French sphere of interest, getting the lay of the land and winning over influential local tribes like the Tuareg to abolish Trans-Saharan slave trade. Six years later, Heinrich Barth had gone over 10,000 miles from Tripoli through the Great Desert to Sudan, Lake Chad, northern Nigeria and back to Tripoli in 1855, was expedition leader, one of the most renowned Africanists of his age and spoke several languages more, Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg, Hausa, Fula and what not among them.




Heinrich Barth in 1862





Barth’s 3,500 pages report of the expedition, published between 1857 and 1859, is a mammoth among 19th travel literature and not easily accessible since it primarily addresses a scientific audience. And since David Livingstone’s fame was one the rise in the 1850s, a foreign explorer, in British service or not, was somehow rather unsuitable for hero worship. An episode of having been forced to accompany a local Saharan warlord’s campaign that ended up in a full scale slave hunt did it for his reputation anyway. Barth’s detailed report that actually could have become one of the most horrifying files of anti-slavery documentations was narrowed down to the author having participated in it by malicious gossip afterwards and that was, conveniently, that. He died at the age of 44, already half-forgotten, in Berlin. Despised by his fellow Germans for having travelled in British service while Britain’s role of remaining splendidly isolated during the Revolution of 1848 was still rather frowned upon, to put it mildly, Barth was ignored as potential Prussian ambassador in Constantinople, did not get a professorship and his mammoth of a book didn’t sell anyway.


Timbuktu, as seen from the window of Barth's accommodation, drawn by Martin Bernatz after a sketch from Barth (1858) 



His 
lasting claim to fame is, in a broader sense, being the first modern European to have reached the fabled desert metropolis Timbuktu and return to tell tale. That he was able to discuss theology and the Koran in Arabic and local languages with resident scholars in the centre of African learning and did, contrary to most 19th century explorers and academics, accept Africans and Africa culturally and historically as valid as any European nation, was rather not received very well back in the day. But then, Barth’s interest was more or less purely academic and had no further desigsn on promoting any colonial power to new and better trade routes or exploiting the riches of the continent. And even if his writings became something of the fundament of modern African studies in Europe and the US, not even his academic activities were fully appraised until the 1960s when basic colonial policy did no longer play a dominant role.

Below is an account of Heinrich Barth and his arrival in Timbuktu in 1853, read by yours truly.



And more about Heinrich Barth on:


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heinrich_Barth 

including a link to a digitized version of his “Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa: being a Journal of an Expedition undertaken under the Auspices of H.B.M.’s Government, in the Years 1849–1855”